Finding the right product partner fit

I read a great article recently about product / market fit. Finding this fit is obviously the key for any new product to succeed. But one search I’ve been giving probably even more thought to lately is finding the right partnerships for your product.

Why partners?

I think sometimes the simplest answer is the best. Partners are important because they have or do something we don’t. There’s a symbiosis like a sewing machine and needle manufacturer or the company that makes bitumen/asphalt machines and the contracting crews that get the jobs.

With an established product with an established partner ecosystem I imagine it’s possible to ride the partner train without really dictating the direction or purpose. If your product is new — careful thought should be given to crafting a partner program that is right for your product.

Good questions to ask in setting up a partner strategy

Here are some thought provoking questions if you’re in the startup phase of your product:

  • What partner programs of other products impress you and why?
  • How would you define your partner program objectives (e.g. what the business wants to achieve) and drivers (why you want to achieve these things)?
  • How would you measure the success of your partner program?
  • Who at your business need to be involved in ensuring the partner program is integrated through your promotion, onboarding and support?
  • How would you define the type(s) of partners you’re looking for and why?
  • How would you locate these partners and what would the promotion look like that explain why your lives are better together?
  • Map out the engagement process. How would you assess partners? Would everyone get in?
  • How would you set and track expectations for business as usual?
  • Map out the business processes — how would you pass information and hold data on partner related activities?

As you can see there is a lot to a healthy partner program and these considerations do not just happen organically. Great partner programs have come about via intentional direction.

Different types of partners

I divide partners into four categories:

  1. Distribution partners — e.g. platforms that want your product in their offering (your product in others adding to their value)
  2. Integration partners — e.g. agencies, ETL platforms, system integrators (the go betweens)
  3. Vendor partners — e.g. partners that want to promote their functionality in your product (others in your product adding to your value)
  4. Affiliate partners — e.g. partners that are not directly linked but could refer or have synergy in some way

If you’re launching a fledgling product you have to carefully gate in these types of partners. Here are some further thoughts on each category.

Distribution partners

Distribution partners can help grow your userbase exponentially — especially at a time when your brand is not yet well known. In this scenario, two systems are talking to each other so take into account the extra tooling you’ll have to develop to enable distribution channels. Turning your attention to a distribution model is akin to being a wholesaler. You have to think of your product as serving the needs of the customer but also clearly articulate the value to your partner. You need to be sure that you have an offering that partners will want and that they will have an actual way to embed your offering in theirs that suits them technically.

Integrations partners

Unless its also an automated integration platform (Dell Boomi, Informatica, Mulesoft), this is where human processes and expectations will come up. Engagement with your product/platform may require custom integration on your customer’s part, especially if you’re targeting enterprise where turnkey solutions are not the expectation. This is where a clear process and measurable KPIs from engagement, development and support are critical. These partners are part of your offering. You will reflect equally upon each other. If your product does not perform as advertised the integrator will be discouraged or if the integrator has problems they may need to be pruned from the partner database. Clear documentation for your product, SDKs and training will help managing these types of partners go much more smoothly.

Vendor partners

You might start to get a line up of vendors who want to enable functionality in your platform. Vendor partners can be sub-divided into the following:

  • Exclusive vendors — you’ve intentionally engaged them to serve an important function in your platform and are potentially white labelling / on-selling their functionality.
  • Marketplace vendors — you’ve enabled a category of functionality that is complementary to your core offering and are enabling vendors to bid for your direct and distribution channel users.

For exclusive vendors — these should almost always be found proactively instead of a partner approaching you (unless you didn’t know they existed like Keen.io ;). Exclusive vendors should be evaluated in the same way you’d evaluate the business case for adding a feature to your platform. It has to pay off to have them there — they have to add value. Also think very carefully about whether or not you should make that technology core. For example, if you’re going to have a high-traffic service — you’d want to think carefully about outsourcing your RBAC/ACL (role based access control / access control layer).

For marketplace vendors — understand that opening up a category may mean a whole new set of services for your API. Think very carefully before you commit to this and ensure you’re able to go the distance and maintain this category over the long term. It’s a lot easier to shut down a non-performant feature than it is to close down a whole category of partners who have already invested time and money in being part of your ecosystem.

Having been on both the partner and the product side for significant parts of my career, a healthy partner ecosystem is something I’m quite passionate about. Have you learned anything helpful in terms of partnerships management? Let me know in the comments.