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In late 2016, after the seven-year-old-bootstrapped company raised its first round of investment ($20M growth capital), Optimove’s founder and CEO, Pini Yakuel, felt the time was right to invest in a completely new growth engine, one suitable for mature companies – strategic partnerships.
Confident, yet not without a healthy dose of question marks in mind, I embarked on this mission, stepping into an entirely uncharted territory. Carving out the best strategy, creating the right business model, understanding what sort of partnerships we’re after, where should we look for those or how to best navigate and manage the new eco-system soon to be formed – were all open ends. Though as in any brand new journey, that’s usually the best way to start.
While facing these urgent matters and the ambiguity of a new beginning, I knew one thing – what I was looking to achieve:
Three years in, the Partnerships team is proud to manage a diverse portfolio of hundreds of partners from different categories, verticals, and industries. From marketing agencies and consultancies to complementary technology pioneers, MarTech experts, and industry thought leaders.
The Tel Aviv-spawned operation quickly expanded across our global foothold in New York and London, allowing us to best nurture and empower local partners across our target markets – becoming a meaningful growth channel for Optimove, significantly contributing to its bottom line revenue.
Along the way, we were able to learn a thing or two about this whole Partnerships thing. Here are my two cents, in the form of five key building blocks, essential for establishing a lucrative partnership channel in the SaaS space.
As fruitful as some are, partnerships aren’t meant to replace the company’s core product and offering but rather act as an enhancement layer on top of an existing business operation.
In other words, this is a warning you should read carefully: don’t come to the table before you have established your core product or a primary line of business.
Note that we are not talking about the opportunistic endeavor. A full-fledged, scalable partnership org is founded upon significant collaborations. Therefore both parties must reach a certain business maturity level before they can truly commit and succeed in adding another line of activity to their core ones.
The conventional wisdom reminds us that it’s people who are conducting business, not robots (yet). And in partnerships, establishing goodwill is the heart and soul of it all – way before looking into commercials or legal.
Unlike the vendor/customer relationship, where roles are quite standard and easily pre-defined, partnerships come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The need to build and nurture trust, vision, and belief in the union, from scratch, every time around, is crucial to creating new win-win relationships. No two partnerships are the same.
Furthermore, everybody must commit and re-commit to it long before seeing results. If anyone on either side isn’t continuously making the exploration and discovery process of the potential a priority, it will end at the back of everyone’s queue.
To some, it may all sound like a “business luxury.” True, it is not for every company and does require that maturity mentioned above. But when done right, it becomes a necessity for growing your offering at scale and staying ahead of the game.
Goodwill alone will not guarantee that every partnership becomes a success story to write about on your company’s blog. But it can’t work without it.
To build on top of that, let’s make this one clear: relationships are as essential to partnerships as water is for life.
Sure, being attentive, respectful, trustworthy, and even an all-time schmoozer, are all excellent traits to have in your run-of-the-mill salesperson too. They can help sell to and retain clients. But some vendor/customer ties can live without them for a long while.
Not the case with partnerships.
So here’s the pro-tip: turn relationships into more than a philosophy and a modus operandi. Make them a profession, a measurable KPI. I know, it may sound a bit like sucking the romantic, or humane aspect out of it. But the truth is, even the best marriages require “work” and work could mean keeping tabs too. At least in my book.
Regularly set up casual meetings over coffee or happy hours, pay informal office visits, make sure always to inform the partner of events, be proactive around ways to assist and support them even outside the defined realm of the partnership. Then, split partners into tiers, allocate resources accordingly and measure activity and results. Some partners will get a bigger slice of your time than others. That’s life. Just never let anyone feel they are 2nd best.
And now to my favorite person in every partnership – ‘the informal champion.’ This person will benefit from being put on a pedestal by you, and the business collaboration will benefit from having someone pushing it internally and making things happen.
Marketing agencies and consulting firms are fending off countless requests for collaborations. The ‘informal champion’ is a fantastic tool to ensure the partner focuses on you and keeps your case a priority. It’s business, but more than that, it’s personal.
Everybody needs at least one person who believes in them. Go and get yours. Map out and identify the informal champion candidates and cultivate the relationship with them as if they’re your only concern. The value that your champion can add to the partnership is priceless.
Cliché alert: it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Seriously, though. Partnerships are a long-term play. No different than any other massive project in this regard, and building a partnership org is one. It requires perseverance and an optimistic spirit to keep nurturing and putting the time into exploring different strategies, even when things seem bleak. Hire people that fit this mold.
These collaborations are often very complex and have lots of moving parts that has to fall into place for a partnership to work. But here also lies the opportunity. Because it opens up many cracks, chances to put your foot in the door. Keep your eyes on the ball, notice when circumstances have changed, and you could always look to turn a No into Yes.
There is a flip side to it, sure. And even after recruiting, onboarding and managing more than 200 partnerships, we can’t always tell what’s next, and can’t predict what a collaboration will yield. We’re often surprised and overwhelmed by deals that over-delivered or dumbfounded after “sure wins” disappoint.
Eventually, it all goes back to patience, patience, and then some more patience. It’s not always easy or natural to keep it, but I have found it to have muscle-like qualities; Patience is a mindset that can be developed and trained. Make sure to instill it to your team, as well. They will thank you. And your partners will too.