You Don’t Have to Be a Lone Wolf: The 5 Ps of SaaS Partnership Success
This article was guest written by Tyrone Lingley, Head of Partnerships at Ally.io
Partnership people in SaaS are often set up to fail right from the start.
It sounded great in the job description: “build out a strategic SaaS partner program to drive new revenue growth.” Now, you feel siloed, like you’re a lone wolf hunting for partner-driven SQLs while the rest of the pack continues to scale your self-serve model.
I know. I’ve been there. And I get asked almost weekly how to rejoin the pack.
The partnership function in SaaS (particularly SMB focused) has never been more highly profiled, but this makes the risk of racing to the start line ill-prepared even more likely; it’s critical that organizations don’t treat partnerships as an afterthought in their go-to-market strategy.
In my experience, there are five critical elements that all, or in part, get overlooked by leadership teams before a partner lead gets hired. Let’s call them the 5 Ps: (just to one-up the marketing team)
Whether you’re a cofounder wondering if partnerships are a fit for your startup, an executive tackling how to approach partner strategy, or a partnership manager in the middle of the dogfight, this post will guide you through the 5 Ps and make sure you’re set up to succeed, or equip you to have the hard conversations that put you back on track.
Let’s get into it.
What’s the Purpose of Partnerships at Your SaaS company?
Yes, let’s get existential.
Your executive team should have the same answer to this question. But they probably don’t. And this is where the wheels start to fall off.
There are generally four purposes for partnerships in a SaaS company:
To fill a gap in your product feature set by tapping into the complimentary value of a partner’s (ex. an integration)
“Get in” with a bigger fish to gain access to new markets and audiences (ex. new vertical, audience, or country)
Grow revenue through co-marketing or channel distribution (ex. lead sharing, referrals, or resellers)
Expose the brand to more M&A targets (ex. identify product or acquisition accelerants)
A more mature company can be proficient in all four, but each type requires focus and resources to stay the course and succeed. After evaluating the needs of your company and the stage you find yourself in, I strongly advise deciding what purpose you’re pursuing and allocate the partner resource to chase that one purpose.
[Alert: avoid the Jack-of-all-trades pitfall. Unless you’re hiring a senior BD or partnership leader resourced to address all four purposes, it is unlikely that one person can be the swiss army knife that takes care of ’em all working collaboratively with other teams.]
What’s the Place of Partnerships in Your SaaS company?
The org chart dilemma. Where do you place partnerships?
This is a critical piece. Alignment matters. The partner person should be supporting or driving the goals of the department they’re in. Not always the case.
Referencing the purposes above, here’s my take on where each Partner person should sit:
Product partnerships — the partner lead should sit in a product team, likely resembling a product manager working with the team who manages API work. Probably focused on integration adoption numbers and retention rates influenced by each integration.
Co-marketing partnerships — this is an acquisition role and a function within the marketing department. This person needs access to all marketing channels (email, social, paid, blog, etc.) in order to deliver. They will be evaluated on their ability to produce prospects, MQLs, SQLs, and new trial starts.
Channel partnerships — this is a sales function and belongs within a team focused on deals closed and associated MRR. This person is working with partners who own the sales cycle and act as an outsourced sales team. Not to be confused with referral or affiliate partnerships.
M&A partnerships — this is a corporate development function that should report directly into the CEO or CFO. This person is focused on highly strategic partnerships that rely on complex financial models to validate growth opportunities.
Once you understand your purpose, you should be able to find your place.
[As Crossbeam has eloquently discussed, SaaS partnership titles are a mess and they matter in finding your place. Ensure that your title accurately reflects your place in the org.
Ex. Manager, Integration Partnerships]
How Much Power do Partnerships Have to Achieve Your Purpose?
In other words, how much internal alignment and prioritization do they have?
It’s one thing to want partnerships to drive growth, it’s another to align teams to a purpose, place someone to lead that purpose, and resource them accordingly.
Due to the collaborative nature of partnerships (both internally and externally), it’s easy to think you can hire a master partnership politician who is able to navigate through the org and get everyone on the same page. Reality bites. If partnerships don’t make it on your company 1-pager, it’s unlikely that the people you need help from share your goals.
Your leadership team must be “bought-in” to a purpose, understand the risks and upside involved, and be willing to invest resources company-wide over the long haul to help a partnership person succeed.
If a leader from another team kinda gets what you’re trying to do and sorta sees how it aligns with their goals; it’s gonna be a lonely ride.
How Does Your Product Align With Your Partnership Purpose?
All roads lead to your product. Particularly if your partnership success is dependent on it.
If your purpose is to build an integration ecosystem, does your product have an API others want to work with? Are your documentation and specifications easy to digest? Do you provide support from a human? If these things aren’t a priority for the product team in your organization, your job of accessing new markets and audiences will be challenging.
In tackling the distribution side of things, can your product be set up to align with how agencies run their business and want to sell? Are you priced to address the value they want to get out of your product? Can they provision an account and bill the client themselves? All considerations that may become roadblocks for you if left as afterthoughts.
SaaS products are usually built with customer-centricity in mind. If you’re going to add value through product partnerships, you need to be an internal champion of “partner-centricity.” This means thinking deeply about a go-to-market strategy that considers how partners use your product as a driver of acquisition, conversion, and expansion within their business; not just your customers.
What’s the Path for Partnerships in the Growth Trajectory of Your Company?
Put another way, what role do partnerships play in your company’s 3-year strategic plan?
Taking stock of where your partner strategy sits today and where it’ll be in three years, is vital to laying today’s groundwork and what initiatives you prioritize in the future. If partnerships don’t appear on a 3-year plan it might be hard to see where you fit in over the long-term, grow into your role, and scale the partnership function.
Having an organization chart partnerships in their long-term planning is a key sign the other Ps have been addressed and that there is consensus in the value of partnerships as a growth driver.
The partnership position within SaaS is a largely misunderstood function.
And it’s the main reason partner people get siloed and go down a path doomed to fail.
The role of partnerships looks different at every organization. It’s your job to tackle the five Ps and get everyone on the same page. This will lead to more effective conversations, help you make important decisions, and put together the right strategy.
Stay in and lead the pack!