The technology investment community has long recognized the multiplier effect an effective partner ecosystem can have on the revenue growth and overall valuation of emerging-growth companies. Effective partner ecosystems can mean greater sales coverage, increased market validation and can complete your solution for all or parts of your market. But not getting your partner initiative right the first time means missed opportunities, wasted resources and, most importantly, wasted time. You can increase your opportunity to succeed by starting with an understanding of the partner learning curve and how to accelerate it.
The partner learning curve
Learning curves are often used to describe the dynamics of specific functions like manufacturing, supply chain logistics or sales. The partner learning curve is different in that it reflects the relationship between three different but inter-related elements. Establishing an effective partner strategy and building the supporting ecosystem requires an understanding of how you can fit the following three elements together.
1. Your company.
An objective assessment of the maturity of your sales model, your target markets and customers and your product’s completeness all factor into the partner learning curve. Some degree of a repeatable sales process is critical if you hope to efficiently enable your partner ecosystem to sell your solution. Your value proposition and pricing promotional strategies need to support the markets you expect your partners to sell to.
Finally, does your product have all the features and functions your partners and their customers need?
2. State of the market
The state of your target market is usually an under-appreciated factor in understanding the partner learning curve. As an example, selling solutions into an early-adopter market requires a different approach than selling disruptive technology into a well-established market. Different pricing models, the use of proof of concept, identifying different types of customer champions and support expectations are just a few of the variables associated with different types of markets. Emerging-growth companies incorporate these differences into their own go-to-market programs but often don’t consider them from the channels’ point of view.
Your partner’s true level of interest in helping bring your solution to their customers will be greatly influenced by their view of the market, how consistent it is to yours and how well your support lines up with their sales process.
3. Partner priorities
Partners are understandably the trailing piece of the overall learning curve evaluation, taking a shorter-term view of markets and technologies. Put another way, the channels care about what their customers want and how to maintain or increase their margins. They view your solution through this very specific filter. Until they get a sign from their customers regarding overall demand, they may work with you on a single deal but won’t create markets or make significant investments in marketing or missionary selling.
Roadmap for accelerating the partner learning curve
The first step to building a sustainable and profitable partner ecosystem is understanding how the dynamics of your company, the market and your potential partners all line up. This insures you time your approach to the channel correctly and have the right enablement programs in place.
Part of this first step is an emphasis on determining the best sales model for your position on the partner learning curve. Partners can sell for you, you can sell with them, or you can sell through them. Each model requires different approaches and programs, and early-stage companies often don’t take full account of the varying requirements.
A roadmap also allows you to target potential partners correctly. As an example, smaller, regional firms are typically more open to taking a chance on new markets or disruptive technology and may have more flexible sales models. Once you’ve built this foundation you can accelerate the learning curve by adopting the following principles.
- Turn your passion into passion for the channel’s customers. Leaders of early-stage companies are passionate about their technology and the problems being solved and can presume everyone else feels the same way. Directing that passion towards your partner’s business goals and their customers’ problems will get their attention.
- Bring a deal. Nothing gets a prospective partner’s attention like bringing them a new piece of business. Regardless of your channel sales model, priming the pump with a potential or new partner that meets all your criteria is a great way to accelerate the adoption of your solution by their sales team.
- Make a commitment. Commit to “We will make your first customer successful” and communicate the plan to back up your statement. Mitigating your partner’s risk and getting that initial success will grow the business with your first partner, and the proof points make it easier to build out the ecosystem.
- Establish a predictive dashboard. Revenue, either influenced or secured, remains the single most important measure of success of your partner ecosystem, and the early success of your initial partners impacts the rate at which you can build out the ecosystem. Relying on revenue as your only metric can result in recognizing problems too late in the process. Identifying, measuring and influencing the key drivers of that revenue (i.e., demos given, outstanding proposals, etc.) help you take proactive action to stay on track.
- Don’t rely on your partner’s sales team. Creating new opportunities with disruptive technologies is never the path of least resistance for your partner’s sales team. They’ll sell what they already know and what their customers ask them for. Find the technical leader in your partner’s organization and provide them with all the support and access needed to champion your solution.
The individual pieces of the partner learning curve – your company, market and channel ecosystems – are all well known by experienced emerging-growth company leaders. The challenge is putting all three pieces together and determining your starting position on the partner learning curve. Once you’ve established this, you can build the plan to start recruiting the members of your ecosystem and adopt a few basic operational tactics to accelerate the adoption rate and profitable revenue growth.
Rich Aroian is the managing director and founder of KP Channel Growth Associates, a business development consulting firm based in Boston. KP Channel Growth Associates helps emerging growth companies grow their business faster and more profitably through all types of channels. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.