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Accelerating growth from distribution to product partnerships

Part ✌️ of our conversation with Juraj Pal, VP of Product in Slido, previously Head of Partnerships there.

Learn how Slido accelerated growth with partnerships and thrived even when the entire event industry collapsed due to COVID. We also discussed how they “realized early on that we're just not going to be able to make it unless #partnerships and integrations are core to our growth strategy and go-to-market”.

What you mentioned about three key points that your partner is working on right now is super important. And it's not really a small thing, because it changes your focus completely. I think it's a really great point.

Second, you mentioned finding internal advocates while figuring out complexities of all these big companies, how did you do that? How did you find people who would vouch for you and push your case forward?

It’s a good question. I think one part of it is just being honest with your partners and not just chasing partnerships that would really not make sense for the partner or for us and just would be for a fancy logo. It's tempting, because you want to work with all the cool companies, especially in B2B SaaS. But we have to first understand what our users want. Does anyone even want this integration if we're talking about a product partnership?

I think that having that deep user understanding also gives you the confidence in those partnerships conversations. Suddenly, it's not just you who has to convince someone like a big company that it's going to be so beneficial for both of us if we do something together. It’s more like “we have these 10 big customers that really want this and that to do with two of our products. Now, can we make this work?” That changes the narrative a lot,

I think that having that deep user understanding also gives you the confidence in those partnerships conversations. Suddenly, it's not just you who has to convince someone like a big company that it's going to be so beneficial for both of us if we do something together. It’s more like “we have these 10 big customers that really want this and that to do with two of our products. Now, can we make this work?” That changes the narrative a lot, and that was a big part of what the team did. Maybe this is unique to Slido and the size that we were at, but this understanding and listening to customers became a huge, huge thing for the whole company. And we pushed everyone to talk to customers, we didn't want to create a culture where we have just salespeople or a team that will be talking to customers and I have to go through them, it will be just anyone. So the PMs of course talk to customers regularly. We then created a user research team. We embedded this thinking to everyone and partnerships was a huge part of that. The team and I will be talking to customers and meeting customers almost every day. Now I'm hearing from other companies that it's not always the case. And it makes me realize how important that was for us at that stage.

It's a really good point. It is unusual what you are doing in terms of talking to customers, but what is also interesting is what you mentioned is that in the end of the day partnerships revolve around customers. They don't revolve around strategies of different companies, they revolve around “do customers want these together”? Do they want this product delivered through this channel together with another product?” That is why partnerships are quite strategically important.

Quick question regarding integrations and big partners. You chose to have a handful of integrations rather than having hundreds of them. It might show strategic thinking, but how do you really think about it?

Honestly, a huge part of that is limited developer resources and we just couldn't go and dedicate people to build a ton of integration. So we really have to choose. That kind of helped, but it was also frustrating. The second part, again, I mentioned this just now, but talking to customers was key, because that gave us the understanding which integration is important, which one maybe isn't, but sounds cool and fancy. Don't get me wrong, we made this mistake many times, like we built an integration, even the one with Slack that we built we later on had to stop. Because we realized that the way we build it isn't really solving the job-to-be-done for the customer. It wasn't really solving the use case that people care about, although some customers asked for it. We made mistakes, and then we pivoted or changed or even let that feature or integration go. So those two things are important.

And then especially in the later years, there was a lot of thinking and strategy going into partnerships and integrations. Especially on the product side, once we realized that this is going to be core to our growth. There's also that we’re really unique, but I was reporting straight to the CEO. So the partnership function had this lucky seat in the company and I was part of the executive team. We were always embedded into the highest level of any strategy and any talk. And even when I would be hearing something about a product strategy from a product leader or customer success, I would be raising my hand and screaming “Well, we haven't talked about partnerships, and like, where biz dev is coming to this and we can do more with this and that partner!” I was very lucky that we got to have this seat together with the team that we're working on. We didn't have to convince anyone or convince the founder that partnerships are important. And thanks to that there's a lot of thinking going into what kind of partners we need for this next level of growth.

It's pretty obvious, but one big area was really just presentation software. Think about Slido, and you think about Slido entering the internal meetings world. It also meant that we're entering a smaller size of meetings. Even team meetings of five people are going to be using Slido now. Those people don't have the technical setup that Web Summit had, so how the hell are they going to use Slido? You know, I'm not going to be able to sit there next to them and click on their Slido, and click on their slides. They're going to really push us into figuring out how we are going to integrate with PowerPoint and Google Slides and all these products. We started with Google Slides, because we use Google internally. I think that partnership with Google and building this integration with GSlides was the biggest point in terms of really showing us what this next chapter of growth for Slido looks like. Because it opened this market of smaller meetings, new use cases. It was always part of the strategy when we talked about Slido from early years as well “yes, we're starting in conferences, but then we want to grow eventually into smaller meetings so that everyone can use Slido for the presentation”. But this was a huge blocker that we couldn't move on that strategy before Slido was seamlessly integrated with all these tools. So that's an example of how we stayed focused. That was a lot of strategy and thinking and planning on like this and there that we want to say YES to. But also here's 20 others that we want to say NO to. Then I think as a team we were confident to say those NOs to people and to partners.

Definitely, I was actually teasing you. Essentially building a gazillion of integrations is easy, but figuring out what is a handful that are the most important is pretty difficult, actually. Before we jump into your next stage of growth, two questions regarding your team. How did your team evolve over this journey that you just mentioned, until COVID acceleration let's say. Also you were reporting directly to the CEO, which is amazing I think, but why was this the case?

Why? I don't know. I wish I had the answer. I think maybe it is a nature of the product and us realizing pretty early on that we're just not going to be able to make it unless partnerships and integrations are core to our growth strategy and go-to-market. As I said, with these examples with the presentation software. there's just no way that we … Well, maybe we could have built our own presentation software, but that would be probably quite difficult. I think that's why.

maybe it is a nature of the product and us realizing pretty early on that we're just not going to be able to make it unless partnerships and integrations are core to our growth strategy and go-to-market.

And there is more of a general Slido culture, but especially in the partnerships team, there was loads of flexibility and ownership to everyone on the team. And you said this before, it was almost like this extended founder or CEO, people on that team would be meeting all those most important customers, executives from other companies in terms of partnering up. Our founder and CEO wasn't blocking any of that, which was great. So the team got a lot of ownership. It was a lucky sort of coincidence or setup, that the team and I had the opportunity to work closely with the CEO and founder. Be part of the exec team discussions and just be close to like every major decision that was going on. And then of course, it changed over time, we started with marketing, then over time we were splitting, marketing and product, then it became very heavy on the product side, and we actually took out that marketing portion and actually put it under a different team. As things do, as you're scaling your company, these evolve as well, and the structure of the team as well. But it was never a huge team. As I said, at the very beginning I didn't even know that these titles or roles exist in tech, but here we are, I guess.

Amazing. You eventually became VP of product, right?

Yeah. So this is a very different role. Our CEO was actually wearing multiple hats at that point, and one was head of Product. But as COVID came and a lot of things happen with us transitioning from events as they were before to no events, and then hybrid events. He asked me if I could step in and help with the product management side org, especially because we wanted to also hire more PMs and scale that organization. And it was a very, very different world to the partnerships role that I was in before. I think a lot more imposter syndrome, because I was never a product leader or that person before. There was a great opportunity to learn something new and even bring in more of that partnerships or biz dev thinking into our product teams. Because by that time we were already working closer with the product. But you could see that not every PM would think about product integrations and partnerships, like this channel that needs to be also thought about. Bringing that thinking was quite a fun challenge. But I also just focused a lot on operations at that point, setting up the PM function so that we could double it essentially now.

I've seen an interesting tweet recently about that. PMs sometimes have tension with partnership folks, in terms of do we want to integrate? It's not our priority right now, let’s do that later?

Was it transferable? Your skill set that you built in partnerships and working together with multiple companies and talking to these customers, was it really helpful? Because I see right now that more and more partnership managers or people from partnership backgrounds actually move closer to work on products. Maybe not leading products, but actually moving closer towards product roles?

I think it depends on the organization. One thing that I definitely felt that I don't have a lot of confidence in is just the general PM skills. Because I was never a formal PM and especially not a technical PM, although I would do a lot of PM work as part of my partnership role. When we're thinking through some of the integrations early on, we didn't have dedicated PMs for those partnerships and those integrations. So there'll be me and our team to figure out what this specification looks like, what is user flow. We would kind of own it all up to an extent where the product would get mad at us and we're just doing our own stuff. But it was a different product lens that I came into the product role. It probably would have looked differently if someone who scaled through a different company as a PM and then led the PM organization came and led a product in Slido. And I said that from the beginning, I don't think I'm the best head of product for this company. Maybe for this stage, yes, I'm happy to take the challenge, but I think for the next chapter and to help the PMs really grow, we get someone who's done this before and not me.

I'm sure you’re doing a great job. You mentioned before that you was growing with integrations. I saw your graph of the integration with Google, even before COVID came everything was going up to the right? How have the events over the last year and a half influenced your trajectory, your partnerships and everything else?

We were definitely very privileged at Slido that we got to ride this COVID wave on the positive side of things. There are just so many companies that struggled, and those are businesses, not even talking about industries. But it did actually help us in many ways, I think. I mean, thinking back to March 2020, I think 2020 feels ages ago. But I remember those months we weren't sure what's happening with COVID, what's happening with the industry. It was the week where I had a bunch of flights planned to SXSW, to other conferences. And from one day to another, I remember just getting the emails that everything is canceled. Just everything died in March in terms of events industry, we didn't really know what to do. It didn't take too long until customers started reaching out and especially enterprise customers as well, who were trying to quickly navigate this shift from “Okay, all these meetings are now being virtual. And all these company events are now non existent or virtual or hybrid, maybe in some cases”. And they came to us for advice. I remember our sales team sharing that customers even come to us and ask, “ how do I set up Zoom?”. Our sales team explained we have nothing to do with Zoom, we'd love to help you, but it's not really our competency. It was definitely a unique time. I think everyone was trying to get their sh*t together and figure out how to make this work.

I'm sure it was a really, you know, interesting time for you. Because essentially, you were powering events and all of a sudden the entire event industry collapsed.

Yeah, it wasn't there, like none of those happens. But we're lucky that, shortly after we saw our signups rise and signups were at the highest throughout the whole company's life at that moment. It was interesting, because I think engagement on a broader level, like audience interaction, became ever more important. Now everyone was stuck behind a camera and behind the Zoom screen. That was interesting. It also meant that we had to readjust all that meeting design thought leadership, because we couldn’t now advise on how things work in the real world. But we would learn a lot of tips and tricks on how to make a virtual webinar or virtual event more engaging with Slido. That was a big part. It also pushed us and focused on new areas in terms of partnerships. And that was again not a surprise, but that was all the video conferencing tools. As before, when we had this chapter of presentation software (PowerPoints, Google Slides). I'm glad we had that, because now people were able to use Slido with all these tools in the sort of COVID setup. But now it was about how Slido works with Zoom, how Slido works with Microsoft Teams, how Slido works with WebEx. So a lot of the wave that all these video conferencing tools were riding, we heard about the Zoom stories and their growth. Like we got to ride a bit of that wave as well, which was fun. Again, it was like this brutal prioritization for the team as well. We can't do everything, now we have to help our customers navigate this shift. And we have to make sure that Slido will work with all these tools that they're now using and relying on. You know, if videoconferencing wasn't there, life would probably stop and business.

Definitely that is the case, we're doing this right now through Zoom. So you learned a lot in partnerships across your journey, which have been fantastic and you progressed into product role. What is one or two pieces of your advice to partnership folks who are listening to this right now? What is your top of mind thought that you’d leave with?

The number one I would say is speak with your customers. No matter what your current org setup is or what your responsibilities are, figure out a way how you can speak with customers. And don't get blocked by your account management team or someone who is going to be guarding your customers. If you're in partnerships, you should be talking to customers. That's my opinion. Second, I would say if you don't have this product sense, try and figure out ways how you can develop that, especially if you're in a role where you're doing product partnerships and integrations perhaps. You don't have to be a great PM, you don't have to know how to write a great spec. But having a product sense, it goes very well hand in hand with talking to customers. Those two things will enable you to really know which flow or integration is bullsh*t and we're doing because of logos or which ones actually will add value to customers. And lastly, I would say just being honest in all those partnership conversations. As I said, don't be afraid to ask partners what their priorities are and see if you’re aligned. If you don't, then maybe that's why it's not going anywhere. Just being transparent and open. I think everyone is trying to make something that people like and use, and if there's a way we can help each other, that's fun.

I think it’s really great advice. Partnerships could and should be strategic, open and very important function, and you’ve proven that in Slido. Thank you for sharing your journey. I look forward to following your success as you’ve joined Cisco.


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