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How to lead high-performing partner programs

Second part of our interview with Ben Johnson, Partnerships Manager - Business Platform at Xero.com.



You mentioned strategic partners and then smaller partners, which are super customer-centric, "maybe longer term benefit". How do you prioritize them?

It's super important. We have over 800 certified apps in our marketplace for example. And we have hundreds, if not thousands through that application process that quite a small team is looking after. We've been through a process of effectively implementing a partner program, where, at the early stages of that program, it's fairly self-served in term of the model. Once you're on board, most of the tools and most of the resources are on www.xero.com and partner dashboards and things like that. And then as you move up, it's primarily driven by what we call connections on mutual customers. So we've got a partner that is working with tens of thousands of Xero customers. Then they're rightfully have more questions, more queries, more time to engage with us. If it's an app partner that's early in the journey, then obviously we can't be sitting down with 800 plus our partners every week and helping grow their business. So we have a program, we're always trying to add value at every stage. But it becomes a little more hands-on the later in the program you are.


Talking about scale, you have a really amazing event, Xerocon. Tell us a few words about it and if you also run small events as well?

We do both. Xerocon is our flagship event that we run annually in three of our core markets. The UK, Australia and the US. And they're a lot a fun. We run a two-day event, it's for our accounting and bookkeeping community. We had over 3,000 attendees in our London event in November. A big part of the event are our app partners, that come along and they exhibit. So we had 75, I think this year, that sort of a setup on the exhibitor floor. It's a two day paid-for event and the accountants are seeing a mix of keynotes from Xero, where they're learning about product and innovation in the industry, hearing from wonderful industry speakers. And then engaging with that app's ecosystem as well and sharing their details to start using those tools. And actually that's where a lot of the value that we spoke about earlier is created. By connecting our technology and our app partners with our accounting partners and helping cultivate growth there. So that's the big event which takes a big chunk of the year for many people at Xero to put together. Then we do things like roadshows and ad hoc events as well. It's a big part of what we get up to as well.


What is the most rewarding, and on the flip side, the most challenging part of your job?

There's lots of rewarding things about working in partnerships at Xero. I would say one of them is just meeting all these incredibly smart people that are building really interesting businesses. And meeting them really early in the journey. I get to deal with a lot of people that are smarter than me, that are building great things and I get to learn a lot. That's a lot of fun to support them through their desire to partner with us. And then the other thing I really love is those handful of partnerships that just click and work and really, really scale. We talked about iwoca earlier. We've got some in the payment space, partners like GoCardless and Stripe and recently TransferWise, where we built deeply integrated products. I get to work with our great product team, our great engineers, legal, etc. And actually then, at events like Xerocon, present these brand new products that are actually built with partners, that our customers love to use and help to make their lives easier. That's probably the most rewarding thing, is that long journey you go on and then getting to show things at events like Xerocon.

I guess you asked about challenging stuff as well. You know, there's obviously a handful of things around that. I think one of the big challenges that we have is that there are businesses I would love spend more time with. And we don't have the bandwidth to do that or it's not right for us to be spending a certain amount of time with those businesses. So I think that's one of the challenges is having someone that's really eager to engage, but for a number of different reasons we can only give them so much. I think that's always a real challenge. And then I think ultimately that a big challenge for us is how do we get to the absolute vanguard of partnership and ecosystem lead business. And we've done really well to get to where we are, but there's lots of technical challenges and lots of growth challenges we have along the way, to get to where we really want to get to, with the likes of the “Apples of the world”. So there's some of the challenges that we face day in and out.


You have an incredible experience in partnerships. Now, that a lot of new people are coming into partnership roles, what are your insights that you've learned over the last couple of years?

We spoke earlier about it. It's a growing job, I guess or a growing career opportunity. Which I must admit when I was doing my degree, you know, 15 years ago, I didn't think about partnerships as a thing. I didn't know that was a role in technology businesses and over the four or five years I've loved doing it at Xero. If I had advice for myself when I started this job, I think it would be a couple of things. One is really get to understand and know your business inside and out. And the important people and decision makers within your own business. What I mean by that is the really successful partnerships we have at Xero need the buy-in and support of our product leaders, if we're going to build something; the legal team and understanding what's important to them and the boundaries they have. Really get to know your go-to-market folks, your sales leaders, your marketing leaders, because they're ultimately going to help you take what you're building with partners and get it into the hands of your customers in the channel. And you really can't do that unless you understand what they're trying to achieve and the nuance of your business objectives. So that would be a one piece of advice I would certainly have. I think the second is, make sure you enjoy and have an interest in it. Otherwise, there are plenty of other, easier jobs, to go and do that pay the wage. But if you have a true passion in working with other businesses and building things than partnership should be something you should explore further.


In order to generate buy-in inside your business, and then do the same on the partner side, you need to generate some excitement and engagement on both sides. How do you do that?

I think it certainly starts with what are the objectives for me. It's what are objectives of Xero. And one of our big objectives if you read our annual report, is we have been adding new small business subscriptions and revenue at a really fast rate year on year. But our shareholders are really looking to things like partnerships and ecosystem and financial services. And they see a big opportunity for us to bring our services to their customers. And for us to do that we need to be effective in what we do in partnerships. That's wonderful for me, because we've got the direction from our leadership team and our board. And so taking that overarching company objective, and then bringing that into the areas of the business where you're trying to build buy-in. And then trying to marry that up with what their personal objectives are. If I can go to our sales leaders and say, "Look, I've got "these partnership opportunities that "are really going to help you sell more Xero subscriptions "and this is how we're going to do it." They're obviously going to get fired up about and excited about that. Or if I can go to our marketing leaders and say, "Look, I've got these incredibly interesting opportunities "and these stories to tell through these partnerships." They're obviously going to be interested in telling their stories. It's a bit of a mix of those things. But I think ultimately, if you can find a way to bring partnerships into the objectives and drivers of those business leaders and make their lives easier, because everyone wants their job to be a bit easier. That's been quite effective for us in the past.


What makes you excited about building these partnerships and what is the next frontier for you in 2020?

think we're really at the tip of the iceberg at Xero, particularity around some of the financial services that our customers need to use. Payments was a really big category for us in 2019. We announced building a bill payment product here in the UK so you could pay your bills from within Xero. And we're doing that with TransferWise and really expanding some of our invoice payment products. So the ability to get paid via Stripe and GoCardless on our invoice product. What I'm really excited about in 2020 is launching that first product in market to our customers. And doing much more product work on the others, and just seeing the impact that's having on our customers' cashflow. You know, helping them get paid faster, helping the UK small business economy grow. And with over half a million small businesses on our platform, we're having a very real impact on the broader economy and productivity. I'm super excited to see just the natural growth and organic growth of that. That's what's getting me out of bed in the morning at the moment.


Fantastic, we are looking forward to following up on this interview and seeing you grow and Xero grow on the UK market and globally. Thank you so much for being with us.

Thanks for having me Roman, really appreciate it.