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All About Alliances: How to Build a World-Class Partner Program

Introduction

Last month we started our partner marketing theme which will wrap up this month. And I have to say, I’m so excited about this short series of guest posts from Madison Logic’s VP of Partnerships and also my absolute favorite partner relationship manager, Fabian Eckstrom-French. While we worked together closely during his time building LeadMD’s partnership with Bizible to six-figures, I never really asked him how he created the partner program at Bizible. As a seasoned Strategic Alliances executive, now with ABM powerhouse Madison Logic, Fabian has seen various flavors of partner programs from the starting gate through major strategic investment at an organization like Marketo.

The full video will be available soon. In the meantime, I asked Fabian to expand on some of his main points in regards to the People needed to build a world-class partner or alliances program. Having worked at SaaS companies Bizible, Marketo and Madison Logic, his purview is primarily in technology, but he certainly has tidbits that professionals in other industries will find useful as well. Here’s what he said…

Enjoy, Andrea

Who Are Partnership People?

We structured the conversation around building a partnership or alliances team in the traditional People-Process-Technology framework. Here’s the ~7 minutes of us talking people, which I expand on below:

 

Executive Leadership is Key

In business, there are no shortage of ways to make money. Leadership teams at companies around the globe constantly make choices about where to invest time, money and human capital to make more money with less spend. Strategic alliances provide one avenue by which to accomplish that feat. Whether the alliance or partnership or channel is a sell-through model or co-sell model or anywhere in between, the value of the time and energy to build partnerships has to be well understood at the very top leadership positions in an organization. Without executive buy-in, a partnership program will never win.

At Madison Logic, I am currently the only person in alliances. Who did the job before my role as a dedicated alliances person? Our COO. That’s how highly valued and important building these relationships is to the organization. It’s a similar situation in other companies I’ve worked for.

Practical Advice

If you’re going to be the first partnership hire in an organization, be sure to ask the hard questions about what the leadership team is expecting for results and what they’re willing to invest (ideas on “good” goals below). Building partnerships is a long-term strategy with the ability to see some short-term successes, but it’s not for leadership teams that switch focus constantly or are fundamentally uncomfortable with investments projected to return over the course of years. In the breakneck speed of attention spans and opportunities, partnerships are a classic strategy that requires patience and persistence.

Your First Partnership Program Hire

If you were the first person hired to run a partnership program, or if you’re a C-level executive looking to hire your first person, this section is for you! Here are the key qualities I believe your first partnership program lead should possess:

  • Strategic Minded: Again, partnerships are primarily a long-term strategy. You need someone who can recognize low-hanging fruit in the short-term, while building long-term connections. Much of my success in partner management has come from an ability to recognize opportunity when it arises. To some extent, you need someone who is always looking for an out-of-the-box way to win. You need someone who can go to a tradeshow floor and within a day identify good, meh, bad and ugly potential in companies, their employees and their customers. {Andrea Side Note: Be sure to focus on partner qualification. Tips on that here}
  • Industry Knowledge: Sometimes there’s just no alternative for experience. Especially in a niche like marketing technology, we all know each other and we all sell to essentially the same kinds of customers. My previous work at Bizible fast-tracks my ability to create lucrative partner programs for future MarTech vendors. If you can find someone with the connections, it’ll certainly help expedite the success of your program.
  • Likable: Your partner lead should be able to build quick rapport, but also be someone who makes promises that they can deliver. Partnerships, like all relationships, are built on trust. If your partner lead is an ex-sales person and 100% focused on “what can you do for me?” – your program will fail. I’ve seen so many partner leads like this that think partnerships boil down to a referral game. That mentality leaves so much opportunity on the cutting room floor! Hire someone who “gets” how to build relationships in mutually beneficial terms.

Your Second Partnership Program Hire

Once you have a little bit of traction, maybe you’re seeing your first partnerships generate six figures each, or six figures total, it’s time to invest in efficiency. I’m honest about my deficits and operational scale is one of them. My first hire at Bizible was a woman who made all my sad spreadsheets sing with formulas and efficiency I couldn’t believe. Her support helped me focus on what I’m best at, building more relationships and strategically planning what partners to target and nurture.

With the extra help, your partner lead can take a step back to assess what’s working really well and what the team needs to do more of.

Funding the Hire

Partner leads make the mistake early in their career to spin up too many partnerships too quickly. As people talk about in demand generation, quantity does not validate the existence of a partner program, like a slew of “leads” does not validate marketing’s existence. Back to the first quality of a great partner lead, your leader needs to split partners into long-term, medium and short-term priorities. Once these lines are drawn, you can align the appropriate partner to short-term goals. These partners are likely smaller in size, which means they move more quickly. Of course everyone wants technology partnerships with Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft, but if you’re just starting out, getting an audience with them will take time. Those are long-term priorities. In the short-term, finding scrappy start-ups that are flexible, but will make the introductions you want or the noise you’re after offer a great start.

Once you have these short-term wins, it provides the proof you need for headcount. Much of the job of leadership is convincing your boss to fund more. Use these priorities as stepping stones to acquire more budget and more head count.

Big Boy Alliances

Growing from two people to twenty will take more of the same types of strategies I’m advising above. You’ll continue to identify areas of weakness or lack of time in your current setup and develop it from there. Perhaps your first hire is really good with technology partners, but struggles with services partners. Once the program is well funded (into the seven-figure range) you’ll start to create divides for function in two ways:

  1. Area of the Business
    1. Service Partners: These are agencies (like LeadMD) that perform services for your customers, like implementations of your product
    2. Technology: You likely can’t afford to build everything your customers want from your product. Or it isn’t feasible to spin it up quickly. If you want people to be able to login using their LinkedIn credentials, there’s no way around partnering with LinkedIn.
    3. Strategic: Well before Bizible was acquired by Marketo, the two companies had a close partnership. We were strategically going to market with a revenue marketing message.
  2. Support Functions
    1. Selling: Depending on your partner sales strategy, most large partnerships soon require a person dedicated to helping partners sell
    2. Marketing: Co-marketing is what this whole theme originally started as! Pooling marketing funds and strategies is a great way to maximize a partnership and a marketing budget
    3. Operations
    4. Leadership

Conclusion

I can’t stress how important the right people are to the success of an alliances program. I won’t name names, but when the wrong person or the wrong motivations or the lack of executive buy-in exist, the program does not succeed. Don’t let it happen to you! Start with great people and build from there with process and technology. More on that next week!

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