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How to grow SaaS partner ecosystem

GoCardless is very successful in building integration #partnerships at scale. We asked Rachel Astall, Head of Global Partnerships – SMB platforms, about their best practices of growing partner ecosystem.

The interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

GoCardless is a very interesting company which processes £13 billion of payments per year across 30 countries, and you have great experience driving its partnerships. Can you explain what your company is doing and how partnerships contribute to it?

GoCardless is a recurring payments specialist company. We're founded with the belief that we could take the pain out of getting paid for customers of all sizes around the world. And the current payment methods available to businesses taking recurring payments, in particular, aren't good enough. And we actually believe that the existing systems are really broken for the future of the economy, which is subscription and recurring billing payments.

What GoCardless does is provide bank debit payments for businesses who take recurring payments. Bank debit isn't a term that everyone will be familiar with. In brief, it's a term for bank-to-bank payments, which means moving money between people without using a credit or debit card network. Most people in the UK, for example, will be familiar with direct debit as a form of bank debit, but there are lots of similar schemes around the world. But traditionally, they haven't really spoken to each other. So you could be taking payments by a bank debit method in one country, but you could also be operating in another country and you wouldn't be able to have those systems talk to each other. And that puts a lot of barriers in the way of businesses. They've also been traditionally quite hard to access for smaller companies. So, GoCardless is basically here to provide access to those systems, but importantly, to also improve them so that both small and large businesses can take recurring payments in a much more suitable way.

Partner ecosystem in GoCardless

You have 150 companies that you integrate with, and you probably have many more partners on the distribution side. Can you explain how it works, and how do you think about your partners?

We're really lucky to have a really fantastic and fast growing ecosystem of partners. The vast majority are SaaS businesses who integrate GoCardless so that their users can collect payments.

Our partners are typically integration partners

Our primary verticals, at the moment at least, are invoicing and accounting. So platforms like Xero, like QuickBooks, like Invoiced and Sage.

Membership platforms like TeamUp and Glofox, who provide services for membership, particularly health and fitness businesses.

Billing platforms like Zuora, Recurly, and also CRM's, the likes of Salesforce.

But we also have a huge range of really vertical specific or use case specific partners, who've built platforms and systems for their users who might have really specific needs.

For example, a personal favorite who's been with us for a little while now is Online Scout Manager. Online Scout Manager built a platform for scout groups to manage all the admin around having a scout group, including collecting payments. And they've integrated us so that their customers can use us. I think what all of our partners really have in common is that they've got a user base who want to collect payments in a seamless way, and an integration with GoCardless enables them to offer that service.

Four stages of partnership lifecycle

Can you walk us through the details of how you find partners, how you integrate with them and so on?

1. Defining potential set of partners

In terms of the life cycle of a partner with GoCardless, we start by working out whether there's a shared value in us working together. When we're going out and asking partners if they'd like to come and work with us, we're doing that in a relatively targeted way.

We're looking for platforms who are interested in solving the same problems that we're interested in solving. Typically that would be things like cashflow. So improving cashflow for their users, or reducing overheads for larger businesses, particularly operating costs.

We're looking for platforms who are interested in solving the same problems that we're interested in solving.

2. Outreach

We would reach out to those kinds of companies and say, "Look, we have a shared vision, and we have a shared goal that we're trying to achieve for our users. We'd like to work together."

We're also really lucky to benefit from a lot of people who see what we're up to and come to us. And they typically come to us because their customers are asking for an integration with GoCardless. So we'll have a conversation at that stage around what we're both trying to achieve.

3. Scoping integration

And if there's a mutual fit and we're both trying to solve the same problems, then we'll scope an integration. And here we're basically scoping the technical aspects of the partnership, and working out where exactly the nuts and bolts will fit together so that we can offer a really seamless service for our shared users.

4. Launch and joint go to market

And then we get into launch and go to market with the partners that really want to be shouting about the integration that we've built together.


In terms of like a partner that sums up that in a nutshell, my favorite partner and the one we talk about a lot internally, is Xero. Xero is a leading accounting platform. I know you've spoken to some of their partnerships' team. And that partnership is centered on improving cashflow for small business users.

We've partnered with them for a number of years, but in the last two, we've really deepened and expanded the relationship. We've essentially relaunched it to be honest, to our shared customers and also to the broader market. And there we've gone through exactly the same process but on a foundation of existing users and some success. And it's been absolutely fantastic to hear from those customers on the benefits of the integration, but also the value that we're bringing to Xero and to GoCardless. And how that really compounds over time has been a fantastic example of that life cycle.

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How to make partnerships successful

When you launch your integration with partners, how do you go about making sure that this partnership is actually successful, is growing and expanding? What is your partner success practice?

We've got an internal toolkit for our partner team, which acts as an ever-evolving guide for partnership managers to utilize across their partnership lifecycle. That goes from developing that new relationship, to building a great integration, and then continued growth. And the idea is that we're not reinventing the wheel with every partner, but we're also feeding back in the learnings that we have from every new partner that we work with to improve the way we do things.

But I think there's basically two threads that run through all of that, and underpin what makes a really successful partnership.

1. Align on what good looks like.

The first is around aligning on what good looks like.

  • What is your shared view of both your KPI's,

  • and what you in hard numbers want to achieve,

  • but also your vision

  • and what you're trying to solve for your customers.

We do this at different levels with different partners. So partners where both sides are really really invested might have a lot of conversation and spend a lot of time investing in getting that foundation right.

Whereas some people it might be slightly more transactional, but there needs to be some kind of shared alignment of goals.

2. Plan how you're going to get there

Once you've agreed where you want to go, you need to plan for how you're going to get there. And that's really the second thread, which is around how do you make sure that you've got a plan that aligns to those goals, and that it's really really clear who is going to be doing what within the relationship.

make sure that you've got a plan that aligns to those goals, and that it's really really clear who is going to be doing what within the relationship.

And I think that's one of the things that we spend a lot of time on getting right, both:

  • at the principle level and like how we're going to divvy up the major functional areas, or the major aspects of essentially a customer's life cycle with us;

  • but also at the nitty gritty level, who exactly is going to pull which lever to make things work.

And I think if you get those two threads right throughout the whole partner lifecycle, you generally see some pretty good things.

Three key benefits of partnerships for growth

Partnership and business development are functions that sometimes go hand-in-hand. Sometimes they're competing. What do you think about partnership versus business development?

It's a really good question. We actually try not to separate the two too much. When you think about what the key benefits are of partnerships, certainly in the GoCardless context, I think we're thinking about three big things.

1. Additional customer value

So the first, and probably the most important, is customer value. Partnering up should mean that we bring more value to our users than we could alone in both parties.

In our case adding payments to existing software opens up additional opportunities to add value because we can do things like automatically reconcile payments into your accounting software, for example. That additional value enables you to sell, so it helps with business development, and it will help us generate revenue. But it also has a strategic value to the company because we're adding, essentially, product functionality without having to go out and do that work ourselves and become an accounting platform.

additional customer value enables you to sell, so it helps with business development and it will help us generate revenue. But it also has a strategic value to the company because we're adding, essentially, product functionality without having to go out and do that work ourselves

2. Growth driver to the new market segments

Secondly, our partners help us drive growth really efficiently. It's obvious that if we work with someone like Xero who has hundreds of thousands of users worldwide we can piggyback onto those networks, likewise they can access some of our customer base. So by working with those people we get access to their markets, but we also really supercharge how quickly we can understand the space and iterate what we do to support those customers. So that again is Business Development, it helps us win revenue quicker, but it also has a lot of benefits beyond the business development because it helps us get into new markets for example.

3. Efficient way to expand into new geographies

And I think that really leads to the third thing which is about partnerships being a way to get at the forefront of new developments and I think international expansion is a really tangible example of that. We've used our partners to go into new markets.

We're working really closely with Zuora in the US, with Xero and Australia, with local partners in mainland Europe, and those partners have expertise and customers in those countries. And if you think about the benefits that you're getting there, it is on the one hand just access to those customers and business development, but on the other hand it's actually really helping the company to grow. So I think we try not to think about them in two different lights, I think the one place where you do see a big difference is that the value of partnerships tends to come in over a longer period of time and therefore can be slightly harder to measure.

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