What Fifth Business taught me about the secret sauce behind a successful partner program

I read the classic novel Fifth Business in 2006. Just last month, I found myself thinking about it while on vacation on a Brazilian beach, so I ordered Fifth Business on Kindle and dove back in. I needed to determine if the connections I was making to it today were real, or if I’m just a sucker for nostalgia. Does Fifth Business hold up?

I’m delighted to confirm that the strength of the message in Fifth Business is very real. And, strangely enough, it offers strong symbolic representation for the secret sauce of the Shopify Partner Program and the reason why I’m so proud to be a part of it.

“Those roles which, being neither those of hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were none the less essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement were called the Fifth Business.” — Robertson Davies, 1970

Canadian author Robertson Davies wrote Fifth Business in 1970. The main character is Dunstable Ramsay, who has life-changing encounters with a group of four others from his small town. In each circumstance, Dunstable becomes a major catalyst for their personal growth. All four go on to live remarkable lives — the kind of lives that books are written about. But this book is about Dunstable himself, and how he played a “vital though never glorious role of fifth business” in each.

This quote brought to mind our partner ecosystem. Shopify Partners are remarkable. They’ve created airtight businesses, grown to over 100 employees in some cases, and built some of the most revolutionary ecommerce sites on the internet. I believe, selfishly perhaps, that by acting in accordance with fifth business, the Shopify Partner Program was vital in fostering the overall success of the ecosystem — in turn creating a dynamic and sought-after partner program. Let’s look at how.

The Program

Shopify now boasts over 100,000 partners living in a diverse and thriving ecosystem across social media, private Slack channels, forum posts, coworking spaces, in-person events, on their couch wearing pyjamas, and behind computer screens all the way from Bangalore to Boston.

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Now take Startup Example A. Short on resources and looking for a growth hack, they announce via their company blog that it’s coming — what you’ve all been waiting for: their partner program. Maybe it takes off, maybe it doesn’t (it probably doesn’t).

Partner programs are supposed to be easy, straightforward, and time-saving. They are business partnerships done en masse… it just doesn’t always end up that way. So where did Shopify go right where others have gone wrong?

Whether it be love, life, or business, strong relationships are essential to successful partnerships. I believe that Shopify created a system that allowed for the free flow of communication by sorting partners based on commitment, dedication, and work quality; establishing personal connections; providing dedicated support; and giving exclusive access to the company’s product and roadmap. Consistently acting as the fifth business, Shopify prioritizes partner relationships and has created a program to be proud of.

Creating partner tiers

If you’ve got an unmanageable amount of people signing up to be part of your program (good problem to have, I know), it’s imperative to sort them so you can provide appropriate support to each. This starts by creating a tiered system with different levels of significance assigned to each partner.

Partners sign up under many categories on Shopify’s program — from app developers to photographers. For clarity, I’ll draw examples from the the largest area of the program : web consultancy.

When someone signs up for our Partner Program (maybe as a web design freelancer, or a full-service agency owner), they are given the designation of a Shopify Partner. Anyone can sign up and get this designation. Even you, Mom.

Once they reach a certain level of mastery, they are eligible to apply to become a Shopify Expertreceiving public recognition, recommendation, and additional support from Shopify. And, once they’ve found success selling and implementing the enterprise version of Shopify, they can transition into becoming a Shopify Plus Expert or a Shopify Plus Partner.

Each one of these monikers denotes a varying level of commitment to the Shopify platform. For example, Experts refer more business to Shopify than Partners do — which is significant to note, given that there are under 1,000 total Experts but 80,000+ Partners.

The same compounded importance applies to the Plus (or enterprise) level. Less than 100 total Plus Experts and Plus Partners together refer and work with the lion’s share of Shopify Plus merchants, despite their modest numbers.

Hot and cool communication

We’ve separated the partners in our program into four categories. Doing this allows us to approach each relationship differently.

Partners mostly communicate with their Partner Manager through email. When a partner signs up for the program, they receive an introductory email from their Shopify Partner Manager, which is assigned based on geographical region. When I was a Partner Manager, my region was all of Canada. That meant literally thousands of Partners relied on me as their primary point of contact at Shopify.

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The last card features the introduction to your Partner Manager

Email wasn’t around when Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan was living, but if it was, he would have termed it a cool medium of communication. This means that while informative, inclusive, and accessible for a large audience , it’s not high definition. The person on the receiving end of the communication isn’t gaining a great deal of insight into the communicator.

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Marshall McLuhan coined the famous saying, “The medium is the message.”

Email is important in order to maintain a relationship with many freelancers, designers, developers, and agencies all at once. But when a particular partner begins to shine, it’s time to use a warmer medium of communication. The next coolest medium of communication is instant messaging, then a good ol’ fashioned phone call, followed by a video chat, and ultimately — yes, you guessed it — meeting in person. Hot like :fire:.

I now help manage Plus Experts in the higher tier of our partner ecosystem. Matching their dedication to Shopify, I like to have a phone call or video chat with them every two weeks just to check in. I’m available via DM most hours of the day through a private Slack channel we’ve created with our Plus-level partners, and we’re in regular touch between calls. Sometimes we don’t have much business to talk about on our bi-weekly phone call, and so we just shoot the shit for 30 minutes instead. Love that.

The secret sauce

The agency partners I work with are playing the lead role in their business, while I am a behind-the-scenes benefit; providing insight and support that can help them achieve success working with Shopify. That insight includes providing feedback on best practices, preferred business models, what I’ve seen work for others — or what doesn’t tend to work. Company growth is not always organic. Sometimes it takes an extra nudge; a community to be a part of; a sounding board that has seen others succeed in the same area.

I visit my Plus Expert partners in person whenever I can. If they want to plan an event , I’m all hands on deck. I invite all my partners to come visit us at Shopify HQ as much as possible. Often I help by connecting the dots and introducing partners to each other so they can collaborate. And once a year, we all get together at Unite, Shopify’s partner conference.

Shopify is in the business of helping others run a business. Whether it be for someone who just quit their job at a coffee shop to start selling body scrubs online (true story), or a couple of recent grads from a web design program that want to start an agency (also true).

Not only can Shopify help, it’s how we get our kicks. It’s the reason we all work here. The adoption of this way of thinking as the fifth business, combined with the infrastructure of the Shopify Partner Program, is the special sauce.

We found success building rich relationships by sorting our Partners into four groups, using the optimal communication technique for their stage of dedication, and acting as the fifth business to their inevitable success. And if your Partners are finding success, so are you.

Managing Director @ Half Helix. We’re building, growing and guiding the next generation of ecommerce companies. Past: Shopify Plus Partnerships.

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