Using Brand as a Partnerships North Star

Three decisions that reframed how we think about partnerships.

Skillshare Team at Skillshare HQ

The 6-person partnerships team at Skillshare executes an exceptionally high volume of partnerships (100+ per year), with the majority of these partnerships driving their intended impact (90%+ success rate). We’re often asked how other startups might replicate the success we’ve found and it’s a tough question for us to answer since we actually have no standalone partnerships strategy. We have an exceptionally deep brand strategy — a set of beliefs and values, a clear company vision and an understanding of the few things we do to achieve it — in which partnerships play a prominent role.

With a clear brand strategy as our north star, the decisions we make when considering everything from who we partner with to how we partner with them, down to the details of who we hire look drastically different than they would if our partnerships team was charged with more generic standalone goals of driving growth or revenue at all costs. Here are a few of the decisions we’ve made that’ve contributed to the success we’ve seen to date.

Choose partners based on values rather than reach to optimize for impact.

When considering who to partner with many teams focus on “the biggest brand that is willing to work with us”. Top-line growth is certainly an impact we intend to drive, but anchored by our brand strategy, our focus is “partners who share our values”. This answer opens up a universe of potential collaborators we would have otherwise overlooked — brands, fellow startups, community organizations, and influencers alike. We make no distinction. The result is coveted access to targeted communities where Skillshare will resonate strongly, with reach as a secondary consideration.

Make structuring a partnership dead simple — work with partners on only one thing.

Our atomic unit — “the most fundamental object of all in your service” (vintage ’12 Fred Wilson) — is a class. Per the brand strategy, it’s the one vehicle we use to make progress towards our vision of unlocking the world’s creativity. Following suit, a class is the atomic unit of all our partnerships. In other words, we don’t sell a “partnership offering”, we invite partners to collaborate with us on the one thing we’re already doing: building the world’s best catalog of online classes. The simplicity here keeps us moving lightning fast since anyone on the team can decide if a partnership idea is one we should pursue. It also ensures no resources are diverted away from company-wide goals.

Hire people who will represent your brand authentically, everything else is teachable.

We only hire people who understand our brand strategy, considering previous work experience secondary. These are not people covered in Skillshare stickers talking about the product nonstop, however expertly. These are people who get the creative community our brand speaks to. They’re able to articulate Skillshare’s vision with conviction (not a teachable skill) while being open to learning sales and account management processes (teachable skills). Of the 6-person team building and executing our partnerships, I’m the only one with previous partnership experience. My team — who I’d proudly argue is way better at this than I — is made up of a best-selling author, a graphic designer, a pianist, a DJ and the world’s only accredited sneakerhead.

p.s. Want to work with us? Our partnerships team is hiring.

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