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Building a partnership driven company

We get together with Joel Tobias, Director of Global Partnerships at Perkbox, employee experience platform to discuss how partnerships fit in the overall business strategy. Read on to learn where to start in building your partnership function, how to select right partners for your business and more.

Hi, Joel, delighted to have you. Can you please share a little bit about Perkbox and your partnership strategy?

Perkbox is the leading employee experience platform, and we bring employee benefits, well-being, feedback, and recognition together under one roof, to enrich the lives of employees inside and outside of work. We work with about 7,500 leading organizations, employers, that provide our platform to their workforce. And we are a team of nearly 300 people across the UK, France, and Australia. Within the business, Perkbox works with over 300 partners. And I'm fortunate enough to be leading the partnership function.

Can you help us understand how you think about partnerships and how you think about partnership strategy. How you originated it in Perkbox, and how you’re growing it?

- It's a big question. I've been with Perkbox for just over three and a half years now. And I've been very fortunate to have been able to help shape the partnerships function within the organization and work with such brilliant people, and colleagues around me, that have contributed to the success of the partnership's team. The first step is always to understand the core purpose of a partnership's function. And what I mean by that is where the partners fit within the ecosystem of your organization? What are the desired partner types that exist? You know, is it channel partners? Is it strategic partners? Is it brand partners? You know, affiliate partners? There are many different types of partners that exist within a partnership function. And I think you've always got to have a very clear understanding of what it is that you're trying to achieve with a particular partner type. And, once you've understood that, and where those partners fit within your particular ecosystem, you can then start to unravel a strategy for sourcing those partners, managing those partners, developing those partners. And not just from a selfish perspective, because partnerships, believe it or not, is a two-way thing. It's not always perceived that way. I think there's a perception of partnerships being very kind of sales-orientated, or is partnerships just code a word for selling? Well, actually, no. Certainly not within our world, anyway. We really mean partnerships when we say partnerships. And so, you've got to find like-minded organizations that can contribute to your ultimate goals within the business.

- Partnerships provoke a lot of interest, and at the same time a lot of scepticism. Some people argue that partnership is a bit like a secretive organization. At the same time, others say, "Partnership is like a small startup within your company". You have something like 300 partners in Perkbox, how do you feed this into your sales strategy and also client-serving strategy? How do you think about it?

- You've got to have different tiers of partnerships. And actually, tiering doesn't mean importance. Tiering doesn't necessarily have to mean, are you a more important partner than another partner. Well, ultimately, different partners will have a different purpose. We have a bunch of partners that we value, we love, we care about them, that are very self-managed, in the nicest possible way. They just kind of take care of themselves and they require very little effort. And we require little effort from them in return. So, it's a very nice self-efficient partnership. On the flip side, you've got certain partners that are far more strategic and far more involved. Maybe there are investments, maybe there are resources, investments on either side to make that partnership tick. And so naturally you're going to need to have way more of a hands-on approach to nurturing and growing and developing. So if you can imagine it sort of like a pyramid of least effort to highest effort, that you've almost got to look at it like that, otherwise, you've just got this big mess, which you have no structure with. So we've worked really hard to figure out how we manage partnerships, have a wonderful Partner Success lead on the team who has taken a lot of time and effort to really think deeply about how we manage our partners, to put that process in place to ensure that not only we getting the best out of our partners, but they're getting the best out of those and that's the most important thing.

- How do you find the right partners and engage them? I'm sure that you are in a constant process of finding new companies. Also, when you were starting this process, how did you start?

- We work with so many different types of partners across a whole spectrum of verticals. And really what we care about is the impact that those partners will have on the end users of our programme. And we actually had an offsite as a team last year to really think quite intensely about these criteria. What should a criteria look like for a partner within our organization? And so we got to a point where we now have quite a nice simple checklist. It's not as simple as I'm making it sound, it's a big matrix of, you know, does the partnership achieve X Y Z does it do A B C. You know, there are things that we want to answer YES to. And if we can't answer YES to those questions, then you have to question why you're getting into the partnership.

- Can you share one or two questions, which are on the top of your checklist?

- Without revealing all of our secrets (laughs)? You know, simple things like, will these brands resonate with our demographic? Right? Is this brand a brand that we've been asked to work with? Do we have requests for this particular brand? Or is it in a vertical that's popular and successful already? Is the partner able to provide an exclusive benefit to our users? Yes, simple things. The list goes on and on and on, but you start with the simple things and then you get to a point where you make a judgment call.

- How frequently are you actually assessing your partners from the standpoint of your customers? How do your partners actually benefit and fit into your overall strategy?

- We operate an ongoing review cycle really within Perkbox. Certainly I would recommend that to any partnership function. You can't, you shouldn't, in my opinion, sign a partnership, agree a partnership, launch a partnership and just sit back, because the work is never done. It's not that simple. It's not as transactional as that. You've got to make sure that both sides are getting value from the partnership. And if they're not, then it's not a very good partnership. And you have to question why you want to keep it, that partnership.

- You’ve mentioned tiers, strategic and non-strategic. What are the ways you structure partnerships?

- Our partnership ecosystem, if you'll call it that, is made up of all sorts of different partner types. Yes, we have channel partners and affiliates. We have brand partners. We have suppliers. We have aggregators of content, we have technology partners that make our lives easier or provide us with software that can enhance our product and service altogether. So is really quite a broad set of partner types that we look after and it's core to the operation. But of course within that list of partners, it just never ends because you can always be adding value to your partner set. And actually, you may find that halfway through a partnership someone approaches you that's got a similar or improved offering to replace that partnership and you may want to take a look at that. So, the work is never done.

- Sometime partnerships feel like a standalone organization, I think. What do you think, and from your experience, what is the way to achieve an executive buy-in and the close alignments between overall strategy and partnerships strategy?

- Executive buy-in, is an interesting question. Because from my perspective anyway, I think partnerships teams tend to be relatively small within any business. I know a lot of different partnership folk that I talked to and we share tips with, and I don't know of any partnership team that's huge. Yeah, it's usually a very concentrated set of like-minded individuals that for some reason ended up working in partnerships. And so with that, I think comes a level of trust, that they will understand the needs of the business. They'll understand the ultimate objective of what it is that they're trying to achieve. And they'll have strong leadership in place and, you know get the job done. I don't believe partnerships need to be over complicated. I've never felt that it has to be over complicated. I think the complex partnership types, where executive buy-in, is absolutely critical is where there is a commercial stake from either party. Then that's a very different dynamic.

- But at the same time, why do you think there's so much interest in partnerships these days? Why is this happening?

- Maybe because we're a mysterious bunch of people but it seems you have a lot of fun. I don't know. I think, if you look at most partnership people across varying industries. They all probably have the same traits, you know, they love working with people, they love networking, they love hustling, they love getting things done, finding their way, making things happen. And that, you know, that is what encompasses a partnership team it's making things happen and getting things done that enhance the business.

- Talking about KPIs and measuring success. How do you measure the success of partnerships? Do you see prevalence of measuring success via some type of monetary metrics, such as additional revenue or lower churn rate? What's your view on this?

- We have a variety of success metrics depending on the partner types. So if we look at certain partner types, we look at very much about the impact of those partnerships have on our engagement, our product engagement and our usage. So looking at whether a Perk, for example, is interesting to our audience. We can determine that quite quickly by looking at whether or not people are engaged, do they redeem that point, do they use those benefits, do those redemptions translate to transactions. You know, there are very clear and simple ways that we can determine the success of a particular consumer-facing partnership. Certain partnerships are a lot more complicated to figure out whether they're successful or not. If you have a technology partner for example, that's providing a particular solution that maybe is an enhancement to your offering or is intended to streamline your operational process. Maybe the answer is, does it work? Does it break? And is anyone complaining about it? And if you can answer those sensibly then you know, everyone's happy.

- Quick question about the recent events caused by COVID and everyone is more remote and distributed these days. How do you think this will reflect on the partnership function? Do you think it will become more prominent or less prominent, what do you think?

- I think it depends on which organization you are talking to. I think everybody, irrespective of where they work and what business they are in, it's going to be affected by recent events. That is not really up for discussion. Speaking personally, thinking with my Perkbox hat on. Yes, there have been certain perks and benefits that we've historically promoted with partners that perhaps have been less relevant during these testing times. And that's been a real shame for us and our partners know that they have our support always and we'll continue to have our support throughout this period. Equally, we've managed to add on some new partnerships, during this time, with folks who have been able to provide services and propositions to our end users that perhaps may not have been so relevant prior to this time. So depending on which lens you look at it, you know. There have been certain areas, where we've tried to do some good, sensible, honest partnerships that can make a difference to people. And there have been other partnerships that unfortunately have to take a back seat through no fault of our own and, you know, there're swings and roundabouts really. And I hope that at some point soon all of our partners will be working very well with us again.

- I've noticed your partnership with a mental health company, this is great. And probably you've done many more like that, which is helping employees to stay connected and also healthy.

An argument could be made that partnership is the way to scale organization without significant cost attached. It's like a remote sales team or remote marketing team, which could be more relevant during this time, post COVID. Would you agree or would you disagree?

- I'm on the fence with that one. I think if you view channel partnerships exclusively which is where I think, you're going with this. Channel partnerships function can absolutely contribute the same if not greater revenue than a traditional sales function. But in order for that to be reality, the channel partnerships and proposition requires investment. And it requires deep strategic thought in terms of, delivering, execution and management. You cannot just kind of switch on a channel partners scheme and hope that all of a sudden, you're going to start matching your sales team's revenue through a network of external businesses. I'm a big believer that no business can be represented as well by an external third parties as it can be by its internal people. So in that respect, you have to make sure that if you are building our channel partnership function that you've got the correct material and structure with which to educate, train and effectively manage those outside parties. So yes, you're absolutely right, but it's not a walk in the park.

- So what you're saying is, it typically takes a long time to build this partnership organization, create a list of prospects, nurture them and stuff like that. From your experience, have you seen any practices that help to speed up this process?

- You just got to be hungry and focused, you know. When the chips are down, you just gotta make things happen and I think that's the true test of a good partnership team. Can you make things happen quickly, on time and with as little resources as needed?

- Talking about partnership teams, how do you structure your partnership team? What do you think key roles or functions that partnership teams should actually be able to do?

- Here at Perkbox we think of partnerships as quite a simple break up. Like we have Partnership Development, which is unearthing new partnerships. And within Partnership Development, you can spin that off as many times as you need and to varying degrees of partnership type. And then we have Partnership Success, so making sure that the partnerships that we develop, succeed through launch and beyond. Because I know for a fact that signing a partnership is the easiest bit. That's the easy That's the fun bit. The flirting and the courting and the doing of the deal is, you know, easy enough. But beyond that, once you've executed and launch the partnership, it needs to be continually developed, nurtured and managed very well otherwise, it will fizzle out.

- Talking about managing partnerships, do you have in your mind a list of DOs and DON'Ts? Imagine you would advise the CEO of another company, and you will say, you definitely should do this, definitely don't do that.

- There's probably more of DO's than DON'Ts. I think on the DO's, you got to trust your team, you gotta trust the people around you. You're going to take every opportunity to network, build that network and tap into it for advice and for help and support, when you need it. You've got always remain passionate and focused on the things that you are trying to execute on. Don't get beaten up, if things don't go to plan. I think partnerships people have a tendency, I certainly do anyway, to always think that, you know, why is this person not wanting to partner with us? This is an amazing opportunity, why would they not want to speak to us? But you've got to remember that as a partnership person, you are one of many people trying to get airtime with an individual. And so not to take it too personally when things don't quite happen as quickly as you might like them to. You got to always be willing to pivot as well, change direction when necessary.

- But then, this imaginary CEO would ask you, how long do you think it would take for me to build a partnership organization within my company? What would you be your ballpark answer?

- It depends who you've got building it. If you've got very experienced, very good people that can come in and just kind of lay out a blueprint you can scale up partnerships function very very rapidly. Very very rapidly.

- Such as half a year, a year?

- Yeah, six months.

- Makes sense. And then, there's another group of people, who wants to actually become partnership managers. And they may be doing MBA or studying somewhere. What will be your advice for them?

- It's interesting. There's no blueprint for a career in partnerships. I don't think anybody ever sets up on the career journey, says "I really want to be in partnerships". It just kind of finds you. And I think it's because partnership people have partnerships in their DNA. And you, you just kind of crave it, and you love to hustle, you love the building, you love the constant dialogue with many different people from different walks of life trying just get things done and create mutual value. You've got to really live and breathe that. And I think, people fall into the role because it's right for them, not because they kept chasing a role in partnerships.

Thank you for the interview, Joel!


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