Today Box (BOX) is ~ $1Bn ARR, where ~ 40% of New ARR 🏆 comes in-directly via partners. But let’s look at how they started #partnerships, their key drivers and the evolution of their playbook from the early days.
Today it has 100K+ customers with 1420 of them paying $100K+.
🤝 Box partners to:
Differentiate its solutions - 1500+ tech/integration partners, ISVs that built on Box platform or embedded Box as a content layer into their applications
Reach new customers, as partners deliver a significant portion of their ARR.
In the process of scaling partnerships they learned that 🎯 “technology was probably 1/10 of what you had to do, to get right” (Aaron Levie, Box CEO),
and you need a great BD leader, a strong partnership team and much more to make them successful.
💡 But it all started with their first BD hire
Box’s first Head of BD, Karen Page, joined them in 2007 as employee #8. She was the first experienced exec and had a remit to extend Box’s reach in the B2C market and find new growth vectors.
Box famously started in B2C, but their first partnership was one of the triggers of a successful pivot to B2B. Box partnered with RCA, now extinct digital cameras, that wanted to automatically back up into the cloud.
A few months later, the company pivoted to B2B and Karen, Head of BD was fundraising together with the CEO right amidst the pivot. Fortunately Mamoon Hamid from KPCB invested and this is when they started to create a partnership strategy in B2B market
📈 Goals of their partnership #strategy were:
1. Market penetration - how do we accelerate growth
2. Technology differentiation - how do we make our product better
3. Creating credibility/awareness that will later lead to revenue. Here path to revenue was essential, even though sometimes they did deals just for the credibility or awareness
The team was intentional about who they wanted to partner with. I.e. who are the 10 premier companies that they needed and the channel partners that they wanted to work with.
Apparently they executed very well on that too.
It's not cheap to build an #ecosystem, so Box made sure that they had intentional and visible metrics to measure success and that these metrics are aligned between engineering, product teams and go-to-market teams.
For tech partners they measured IWAU - integration weekly active users to see if integration is used.
For distribution partners they measured ARR in addition to:
Average seat price (net of margin) for a channel partner vs direct
Net new logos (vs upsells or cross-sell) from channel vs direct
Partnerships was crucial from the get go of their B2B pivot
Because Box was a neutral player in the enterprise space that works across all tech products in the enterprise environment (vs full-stack solution from Microsoft for example), partnerships were by definition part of their strategy.
“There was no doing Box without a core partner ecosystem or application ecosystem.So that meant that we actually had to do very deep partnerships in a broad way if we were going to be successful”.
Even at 1.5K partners scale, most of our energy is going to 20-30 apps (~2% of partners) that most of their users are using daily. They deal with the long tail partners via partner program and they built an API platform They build everything with a platform-first mentality, ie API first for even for own services
Early integration partnership example: Netsuite
“The technology was probably 1/10 of of what you had to do to get right” Box CEO
When Box was 100-200 employees (today it’s 2K+ employees) it partnered with Netsuite. Part of the NetSuite product was storing data, but they weren't going to update or invest in it. With integration partnership Box solved problems of two businesses at the same time.
This also gave Box access to a new channel partner, while for NetSuite, Box became a great next generation partner to showcase.
“You have a massive amount of operationalization to be able make this work and and SPIFFs is one 1/100 of the things” Aaron Levie, Box CEO
How did they get most of these deep partnerships, like the one with NetSuite?
Instead of making a common mistake - building integration and waiting for others to use it, Box invested heavily into the people component of partnerships.
They recognized that the role of a strong BD/Partnerships team is critical to make these partnerships successful, because each of orgs has a large amount of change management and inertia they need to overcome within their field and sales organizations.
And unless you dedicate the time and people resources and energy to making these partnerships successful and you don't invest in the people component, then there's “no way you're going to see a successful outcome”
1. They created a partnership operational checklist to make sure that:
Both companies’ sales people get together
They attend each other's Sales Kickoff
Join each other's conferences and events
Do thought leadership events together
“Make sure that everybody knows exactly what to say, how to say it and what to do when an interest was sparked”
2. They made sure that they are connected with partners at the execution level and at the decision-making level:
CEOs were connected
their Head of BD built great relationships with the senior executives that we're running things
they had multiple senior relationships with these partner orgs
they made sure that all the salespeople knew each other.
Ideally you need to have both, a program/partner manager, so things are going to get done. And you need somebody who is strategic and senior enough to make sure that things will come together without challenges.
3. They also divided their partnership team into two, based on the skills required:
Farmers - who were nurturing those relationships and making sure that everything is working from the content to product
4. They standardized partner program:
They assumed that they would be successful in growing their business and partner program and set standard channel incentives globally early on
They divided partners into tiers and had a standard operational checklist for each partner tier
5. To increase a probability of closing more partnership deals, as soon as contract was signed, they move to the launch phase of the deal, which included
Agreeing on $ KPIs and what you’re trying to achieve
Formalizing their business plan
(Weekly) pipeline calls and quarterly business reviews to check if you're on/off track
From the early days they built everything with a platform-first mentality, ie API-first even for their own services.
Additionally from the beginning they had consistent terms for all channel partners globally.
Partnerships with carriers, like AT&T or Deutsche Telekom, turned out to be one of Box's strongest partnerships. Carriers owned a large array of SMB customers and these partnerships gave Box access to them.
At the same time if you were AT&T selling mobility solutions to enterprises, you needed killer apps that go along with your mobility solution. Box was one of those killer apps for moving information onto mobile devices. Box was very valuable for sellers in AT&T to show more value to their customers.
Box learned that when you're engaging an army of sellers, you need to make sure that those sellers understand the benefits of your product Otherwise the engagement isn't going to occur and you're just going to churn. You need to think from the perspective of creating adoption that sticks.
You have to think through not only from the perspective of engaging or creating a suite of services, but also how you create adoption that sticks.
Not all great deals were originated by large partners
Sometimes tiny partners dragged Box into great deals. An example is a huge hospital system that decided to use a certain security software and the only reason Box was brought into the deal was because Box already had a deal and integration with this small security vendor.
Best partnerships are ultimately is about customer
“It always comes down to the customer - nobody is going to sell your software if it doesn't make the customer have a better experience or make their sales process easier”. Aaron Levie, Box CEO
They discovered that the partnerships that worked were the ones where the seller on the other side had a better experience being able to work with their customers.
They were able to have a more seamless process selling their solution and the customer was getting more value, because of that partnership. If that didn't happen, there is no amount of artificial incentives and ways of forcing it through the system that at least would work on a sustainable basis.
“You might be able to get a small pop but if the customer value proposition is not stronger
because of your two solutions or multiple solutions working together, customer doesn't care, which means that no spiff in the world is going to solve the problem.
When we look back at the impactful partnerships are the ones where our partner was able to deliver more value for their customer and it wasn't just a distribution channel, it wasn't
just being able to get more feet on the ground trying to sell our solutions, it was actually delivering a better experience to customers.”
The challenge is you can't always know in advance going into the partnership which ones are actually gonna click and which ones aren't. That’s especially true for big companies, because they are constantly reorganizing, but you stick with it, because the opportunity is so profound if you can get it right.
Box is an open platform and this means that they partner with companies that by definition compete with each other.
Their advice on partnering with competitors is to be transparent and upfront with partners.
"We would love to do as much Co marketing Co selling with you as possible that's not going to prevent us from partnering with other companies that might be in your space because fundamentally we can't go to customers and say we have preferential treatment from a technology standpoint of one vendor or another or else our entire strategy gets blown up"
You need a great partnership leader
"What makes the job so unique, is the kind of person you need. The persistence and the
relentlessness that you need.
It's hard enough to change your own organization, but now imagine trying to change other organizations. You have to be fighting that every single day and be willing to basically get rejected 80% of the time. The sheer persistence that you need to be able to have, to be able to be fine every single time one of these changes happens is unbelievable.
That's why the the role of business development and partnership is I think such a unique
idiosyncratic role within the startup. It's like sales but magnified, because there's product components, there's technology components, you're dealing with a whole bunch of other constituents and you just have to be able to deal with all of the ups and downs of that."
Who are the best partners?
Box’s CEO advice is that you have to deeply understand what's the strategy of the company you're partnering with, what is the wedge, the area that partner has to uniquely need your solution for.
"If that doesn't exist or if it's overlapping too much or it's just going to create complication for the customer, then there's no partnership to be had
By finding the complementary areas where two solutions truly does begin to impact the customer in a very different way - that's what they found found to work."
Evolution of their partnership strategy
As the company matured, they started to work with partners in a more targeted way. They started to put Box with other companies which solutions also would benefit players in a particular industry, e.g retail, healthcare or financial services.
Then they would take these bundles to market via Box sales organization, which required the proper communication and alignment of their own sale teams. Then they would also take them through their channel partners, including SIs, carriers, IBM and other large businesses.
Sources: Exec interviews, SaaStr, IR