In this workshop Louis explained how to create Ideal partner profile (IPP) 💎 and shared his wealth of experience in evaluating partner fit with strategic, channel and referral partners.
This is one of the most important questions that can make or break your #partnerships. That’s why this one is a must watch.
📍 In this workshop:
2:00 – Why Ideal Partner Profile is essential, especially on competitive markets
7:30 – Where, What, Who, and Why of partnerships
10:00 – Using IPP to target RIGHT partners
13:30 – Defining fit criteria
17:30 – Red flags to avoid
19:30 – Best practices to fit
22:00 – Upgrading low fit to high fit partners
25:00 – Q&A
Hi, Louis, I'm really excited to learn from you, because you have a great experience in partnership, in the strategic side of partnerships and also tactical. You're currently leading partnerships in Playroll, tell us a little bit more about yourself and how you got into partnerships? And why this topic of evaluating partnership fit that we are going to be exploring today why it is exciting for you?
For me, I feel I've been building partnerships my whole life really. Whether it's building key strategic relationships on the school playground, all the way up to I've been involved in some pretty intense cross border transactions. And those require deep partnership understanding, understanding of who you're dealing with from a cultural perspective and beyond. That's always fascinated me, the strategic side of partnerships. That's something I've always been very passionate about. And professionally speaking, I've always been involved in business development and partnership roles in my career so far. Most recently, obviously, building out and leading the partnerships team at Playroll.
We've been together in On Deck, which is an amazing group of startup founders and business development leaders. I'm curious how your partnership looks like in Playroll right now. And what's been your experience across different types of partnerships like before, in tomato pay for example. You mentioned strategic, which is great. Just to give a little bit of context and depth for our discussion about evaluating partnership, tell us a little bit more about the type of partnerships that you've been leading.
Absolutely. I've run the gamut in terms of different partnership types in tomato pay in more fintech startup land. It was a lot more strategic partnerships with a bank or a big four consulting firm as an example, where really, those are long term relationships that you're building with a commercial outcome, obviously, but there might be some product exposure there as well. Whereas in Playroll right now, it's much more focused on the referral side, building out a proper channel for the business, but also looking more on how to accelerate growth for the company through product integrations and product partnerships as well. And the brand building aspect. I love that about partnerships and building, particularly in more early stage companies, building out partnerships that benefit both sides, benefit both businesses with their growth objectives. That's where we are right now. We've got a pretty robust partner program at Playroll. And I think this topic is something that's really important to me, in part because my recent focus has been building out partner programs in very competitive industries. When you're in a competitive industry and you're operating in this type of environment, you often get to see firsthand of why and how partnerships can fail. We've got this statistic out there: about 60 to 65% of partnerships fail. And when you're in a competitive environment, and you go into a partnership, and you're the second or third mover, an important part of the discovery work in that partnership, really is understanding how the partner has fared with your competition so far. And so early on in those discussions, really getting into how's it gone with our competition? Or how has your partnership experience gone with them so far? And you can learn, you can say, “Okay, that was great, how can I do better? or “It wasn't so good. Okay, let's pick up and take things forward and build momentum”. And while sometimes it will be good or great feedback about the competition, oftentimes, “it could be better” all the way to, “actually, we haven't heard from those guys in a long time”. And so as a partnership leader, hearing this feedback drives me to always think “I never want to be that partner. I never want to be that partner that someone hasn't heard from in a long time, or that they don't feel engaged by”. But how do we actually begin to address the failure reasons and push towards better outcomes in partnerships. For me, it really does start with the identification and effective targeting of partners, and using an iterative, but firm ideal partner persona to drive much of the targeting and the right actions and drive ultimately towards the right partnership outcomes.
We're going to be covering a lot of materials and I cannot wait for that. But just to give a little bit of context, what type of partnerships that we are going to be talking about mostly today?
For me, I think it's going to focus mostly on the strategic and referral partner types because that's what I do the most of. But really, I think a lot of the principles here could be applied to almost any type of partnership type - from product to more affiliate, to anything in between, because I think a lot of the fit criteria will be similar from a momentum and building a relationship perspective. But obviously, products are looking at different dimensions, and strategic and channel, you're looking at different dimensions as well. But I think, any of these lessons can really be applied across the board. But for the purposes of this conversation, we're going to be really focused on referral and more strategic relationships.
That sounds really exciting. I cannot really wait to dive in and learn about evaluating partnership fit. Talking about that, tell us a little bit more about Playroll, so we understand the context where you’re coming from? In terms of what the company is about and what is it doing?
Playroll is a global employment platform focused on talent mobility, we're part of what's called the VAT IT Group, which is a very large global business. Basically, we're supporting organizations as they grow distributed teams, they want to relocate valuable talent. And it's a really fun team to be involved in from a partnerships perspective, because we get to work with some really innovative businesses, but also putting the human side into HR. And I really love the partners that we've built so far, and those conversations and discussions, and it's also a pretty exciting time in the Global Employment industry as a whole.
Absolutely. The floor is yours, take it away.
I'm gonna walk through a few thoughts on evaluating partner fit. To start us out, I want us to look at the macro view of partner fit. To me, this is looking at the four it's often five Ws, but the four Ws - Where, What, Who, and Why.
For me, it's thinking about, where can we find our partners? Where can we find potential new partners? Where do our partners go? Is it events? Is it conferences, is it webinars? Is it nightclubs?
I had a great mentor, one time, say, go wherever your partner is. And he said, sometimes my partner in that context went to the nightclub. I always like to think of that and give my teams that analogy, because you really do want to be in the same environment as your partners, because that's where you're going to find them. That's where you're going to build those relationships out and really take things forward.
The second piece is the what. What content do your partners consume? What publications do they read? What media are they involved with? What thought leadership or thought leaders on LinkedIn as an example, do they listen to? Do our partners listen to the Partner Insight blog as an example? That might be a great place to start. And we know those types of businesses are maybe approaching partnerships from a learning perspective and growth perspective. And those are the kinds of partners we want to maybe get engaged with.
And then the who. Who is in their ecosystem? And this one is my favorite, because really, what we get to see is, if you go on someone's partner page on their website, you might get a little bit of an idea. But in those early discovery conversations, you really get to see who these people partnered with and why? And understanding that ecosystem that they're involved in. The industry, the industry dynamics, the competitive dynamics in that industry? Trends? What's going on? Is it a hot time to be in the HR tech industry? Or is it slowing down? And who are the leaders that are involved in the partnership dynamics in a specific industry?
And then finally, the why. Why does this company have a partnership program in the first place? And if you can't really answer that question, then it should make you step back for a second and say, why are we approaching them about a partnership? Or why are they approaching us about a partnership? I think it's really important to just start with the macro view of partner fit and look through those dimensions.
For me, I think it's really important to use the ideal partner profile to identify and target the right partners. And this really depends on the growth stage of your company. It depends on the growth stage of your partner companies, depends on your program maturity, and lots of factors. And obviously, your ideal partner profiles might change over time. But I like this chart here because it shows this chart of fit against time, and your approach to partner fit will change with company and program stage. Whereas if you have a new partner program, it might take a longer time to determine which type of partnerships are going to be a good fit. As you scale up, however, the time will be reduced, and the fit might be improved. And a mature organization will be able to determine fit on a relatively quick basis. Although, when you actually go into building these partnerships, the scale changes the other direction. And sometimes the best fit partnerships will take the most time to develop out. But I like looking at it this through this angle, because you really should look at where is my organization at right now? And where are my partner organizations at? And are we at similar spots on this journey? And then how do we build that convergence towards good fit and operating at a pace that's comfortable for both of our organizations.
And in terms of evaluating fit, I really look at the ideal partner profile more on a principles basis early on in the relationship, rather than just saying, “Okay, does this company fit our ideal partner profile or not?” And the reason I look at it on a principals basis is because it's a lot easier and often more effective to approach the fit conversation from the perspective of “okay, this partner has the same approach to partnerships, and similar principles that we do around their partner program. Let's start there. And then we can look at specific parts of the IPP as the relationship grows over time”. Whereas trying to say, “Okay, does this partner fit strictly with our definition or not?”
And then this is where your partner prospecting messaging goes a long way. I often tell our team to try very personalized approaches here like sending a Loom video, because when you can be really personalized with your messaging, it forces you to step in the shoes of the partner and really look at fit in a comprehensive manner. And I find that when you do approach with that personalized messaging and outbound partnerships, then those first discovery calls often are a lot more productive. However, on the flip side, we find that inbound partners are more difficult to assess from a fit perspective until you have those initial discovery conversations. And this to me is really the biggest trade off in making a fit assessment because you can take the risk and have a call, and you might get some key learnings. But without the proper evaluation structure in place for determining fit, there's obviously a risk that the problem will be one sided or just an ineffective use of your team's time.
Next, thinking about actually defining what are those fit criteria for us. And for me, again, it has a lot to do with where you are on your partnerships journey as a business. It could be brand fit, versus product fit, versus channel fit. And you could say I want all three of these with all of my partners or brands more important for me in the stage that we're at right now, product might be important down the road once we've gotten more technical resources, but channels is going to be an ever present important part of our strategy. It could be fit, depending on the growth stage, both you and your partner are at. Are they partner enabled? Do they have the right partnerships people on the team to be able to support the kinds of partnerships approach you're taking, and vice versa, obviously. You don't want to bite off more than you can chew. I remember, in a startup I was involved in, partnering with one of a very, very large global accounting firm. And it was one of those situations where it was me on one side as one person speaking to 25 people sometimes. And that's a situation where even though it might be exciting from a partnership perspective, is it actually going to be productive? Because you can be the small fish, but you might not be able to actually fulfill what you need to do in order to build a productive and good fit relationship there.
And then fit depending on program maturity or resources. Have I just started a partner program? Have I just launched it? Or am I pretty mature? Do I have an ecosystem around me that is very supportive? Do I have some automation in place that will allow my partners to come in, have a good experience, and then obviously fit depending on partner team profiles. I look at it from the perspective of specialists versus generalists. I think early partnership managers should come in and be generalists and learn as much as they can about different partner types, different verticals, and then move into that specialist area where they're seeing success.
Whereas some teams structure their partner programs where you're a specialist in this vertical or a specialist in that vertical. And that's more of a mature way to approach it. But also, I would look at does this organization that we're trying to partner with structure their team? And are we a good fit with the way that our managers are approaching partnership fit and those conversations?
Another angle to the fit conversation is really how do you train your team and organization on key partner fit criteria. It's actually really helpful often to give your generalist partnership managers room to explore early on in relationships. Let them have conversations, let them speak to partners, begin to gauge your principles from an active perspective. Then you can introduce the more structured requirements and parameters for them to operate in. And my favorite analogy, I saw this great post on LinkedIn. And it was basically saying that, early on in the partner program, your people are like Navy SEALs. They have to go in in an environment of uncertainty and chaos, and just do the discovery work really assess the situation of the battle, and build from there, be creative and everything like that. The next stage, once your partner programs a little bit more mature, you're looking at the Marines are coming in now, they're adding some order to the battlefield, it's still dangerous work. But there's a lot more structure in place, and the initial discovery work has been done. And then once you've got a pretty mature program, you're basically bringing in the Army to come in and follow orders and follow a process and follow structure, and then just build a scale from there. I really like thinking of partner program maturity in that way. And also assessing fit with the partner in that context, because you can say, “okay, we're Navy SEALs right now, but our partner might be an Army”. That might be a mismatch in terms of how we're approaching partnerships versus how they're approaching partnerships. And obviously, the other way around can work as well. Finding, depending on your stage, what the dynamics are, and those relationships can be really key, because ultimately, we're building out relationships here.
One of my favorite discussion points around evaluating partner fit is obviously, what not to do. The red flags to avoid. And I put this big bold sentence here partnering for the sake of partnering because this, it just makes my blood boil. Really, it gets me frustrated, because I think it defeats the purpose of partnerships. And unfortunately, I do see a lot of this out there in partnership conversations I have. Not to say the partners are approaching it this way, but that this is a big thing going on in the partnerships world right now. I personally hear this all the time, where it's like, “Oh, we got an introduction from our VC. And they told us we had to partner with this company. Or our VCs introduced us to this company, and we're gonna partner just because of that, and there's no substance behind it. And I think it's frustrating, because you almost want to help those people and say, “wait a minute, you're partnering but there's no substance behind it. Why is that? I wish you all the best, I hope you get something out of that”. And it can be internal as well, too, right? If one of your executive leaders introduces you to a company, you might feel compelled to build a partnership with that business, it might not be the right fit in terms of the criteria you've set out with your team. But it's still important to sometimes have those conversations and at least give the feedback each time. And obviously, inbound, any inbound partnerships that come jumping in too early, getting too excited too early, can be a red flag to avoid. And feeling just because they filled in our partner form on the website that we have to partner with them, or we have to find a way to make this work. That's the opposite direction that we want to be going in from the fit narrative perspective.
I think there are some best practices that you can use for fit throughout the partner lifecycle. As an example, I really look at this feedback loop with your partners. Do you have a consistent dialogue going and feedback and you're saying to them, “okay, this account mapping worked, this one didn't. This activity worked, this one didn't, and building that feedback and saying, “actually, we thought this partner was going to be a great fit early on, but maybe they're not so much. What do we need to do to change the dynamics there?”
Obviously, checklists and check-ins. Checklists from the perspective of, I'm equipping my partnership team with the checklist, “that they need to evaluate a partner from a fit perspective” so that when they come back to the team and say, I have this conversation, they're not just saying, this is what the company does, and this is who they are. And this is what their audience looks like. They're saying, this is an overview of why this partner fits with our criteria, why we fit with their criteria, and going into more depth around other dimensions of fit. And I think it's really good to have those kinds of checklists as a starting point. And then obviously, structuring check-ins with the partners later on, and at frequent points throughout the relationship as well can be really effective.
And I love to do this idea of IPP tests and iterations. Your ideal partner profile might change, it might change over time really depends on how fast growing business you are, what your requirements are, what strategic things change, what competitive dynamics in the industry change, but it's okay to change your IPP as long as it doesn't disregard the existing partnership building work you've done so far. I encourage people to look at their ideal partner profiles as a business and say this worked three months ago, does it still work now? And do we have enough information and feedback from this feedback loop of partners to make sure it's gonna keep working for what our objectives are.
Finally, accountability, just having accountability with your team, having accountability with your partner, and their team, but most of all, having accountability with the ecosystem that you're building. If you mistreat one partner, and you treat everyone else in your ecosystem right, word might get out. If you look at certain partners in a different way than others, and there's that feeling of “we're not being treated as well as that partner”, that's not a good thing. I think from a fit perspective, just having accountability, and holding yourselves accountable ultimately, I'm always looking at what are we doing wrong? Or what could we be doing better from an improvement perspective on the partnership side.
And then the question out of all this talk about fit might be “okay, but how do we actually get someone that's a low fit partner into a good fit partner?” And I think if I were to say, one line to take away from this, it's how do you upgrade your low fit partners into good fit partners? For me, it goes back to that conversation of principles. How does your approach to partnerships inspire your partners to upgrade whether it's actually a technical upgrade in your program, going from a Silver to a Gold partner, or it's an upgrade in terms of making sure that that fit, that mutual fit is there. And for me, the upgrade partner cycle looks something like this. Clarity, so giving clarity to your partners in terms of what the parameters are, in terms of what you're going to be working on together, in terms of how you both see the collaboration on and getting to that point of clarity. And I think bringing energy to those conversations, being excited and showing that you want to work on this, you want to be clear on what your goals are, and objectives are. But you're also willing to have those conversations and move things along, for the sake of improvement is really important. And I think my tagline is “high energy partnerships”. I love bringing energy to partnerships, because I think it builds momentum around all the other aspects. And then finally, honesty, you need to be honest with yourself, you need to be honest with your team, you need to be honest with your partners, and bringing honesty to the fit conversation is really a productive way to drive things forward for you and for the partner. And ultimately, you can break up if you need to, you can do it in a very civil way. But at least you've had an honest conversation and you're not dragging down your resources, you're not dragging down the partners resources and vice versa. I think this hopefully gives a good understanding of just some high-level principles for evaluating partner fit, leveraging your ideal partner profile, and then ultimately, how to have those conversations around what does fit mean for us, how do we upgrade partners into better categories, and so on and so forth.
This is a very important talk because I think a lot of people talk about partnerships and talk about Ideal Partner Profile. But I think this is not enough granularity in this subject and thank you so much for sharing years of experience and learning. Let me just ask you maybe a couple of follow up questions. In product management, when you create an Ideal Customer Profile, or in sales for example it tends to be reasonably granular. I'm wondering how granular you go with your partner profile? You gave a really good talk about the concept, maybe you would give you an example of “here's the ideal partner profile and here's how this manifested in our partnership work”.
The first question, I've done product, ideal customer profiles and product personas as well. I think you need to be just as granular from a partnerships perspective. We actually have people, we take stock images, we put them on the one pager, and we go through each partner type that we have. And we build personas out and they're very granular. They talk about like, what shows does this person watch? What media do they consume? What events do they go to? All of these parameters because ultimately, I want our partner managers to be able to look at that and say, it might not be an exact fit, but am I speaking with the right person? And also, where do I find similar people to what's working? And if you start from what's working and build the personas from that, then it can be really effective in terms of actually driving your team to speak with the right people, and then that ends up falling into the fit conversation later on. Just from a specific example of how to leverage the IPP, and actually turn it into tangible action, one of our partner managers at Playroll had an IPP that he'd been working on, and was really excited about bringing forward and testing out and literally the first partner that was defined as fitting some of those criteria. And that conversation is exceptional, and has been working really well. And I think in that case it was very much about looking a little bit indirect, not directly at where it's obvious to find a partner in our space, but being a little bit more indirect and thinking more creatively. And I think you can do that when you have the IPP, because you're looking more at what type of content are they consuming? And then where can I find these people? Rather than, who would they already be partnered with? That might be a competitor and that's often a more difficult conversation to have. Whereas I think, in this case, taking the IPP and the approach of where can we actually find these people that might be different than, what the rest of the industry is doing, I think allowed us to build that relationship early on, we actually found a niche that the partner company was saying, “wait a minute, we didn't even know that this type of business existed, this is really interesting for us”. And we share a lot in common with how we approach partnerships, from a principals perspective, from a team perspective, from a size and growth perspective. And all the recipes of fit are there to build ultimately, what I think will be a productive partnership.
Writing down the entire partnership profile doesn't sound easy, right? And typically, in the mindset of iterating, and starting small and growing. How do you do that over time? How do you add details? This is what I'm really curious about
For me, it's almost building a product out. You're constantly looking for feedback, you're constantly doing these kinds of discovery calls, just like you would early on in testing or launching a startup. It's getting feedback from partners, it's asking them, what do you think of us? How's it working so far? Like I said earlier in the conversation, how is it going with our competition, and then getting that feedback and then evaluating it against performance and against results? And I think that process of iteration is a creative one, ultimately. But it does depend on the stage that you're at in the business. You probably don't want to be altering your IPP too much as a mature partner program, but an industry challenge might happen or all your customers might start to lose money, and then suddenly you have to look at “okay, how do we then find where our new customers are?” Because partnerships is an indirect revenue driver, we do look at the customer base and impacts on them and how that can influence then who we partner with. And if that customer changes, or the customer profile changes, the partner profile might change as well. I think it's just having that awareness across the board. And understanding the dynamics of our business. And business model might change, how does that change or influence our partner profile? And considering all those factors is really important.
From this presentation, you shine through as a great partnership thinker. You now probably have many partners, right? But some of them are probably in the process of ramping up, some of them are already mature and some of them maybe not. My question is, how do you evaluate partners? Because you mentioned feedback. On your side, what's the framework that you use to figure out, “okay, we want to focus on these companies rather than these companies”?
I can give you an example for our team. A lot of it is about engagement at this stage in the business. How engaged is the partner actually? And we drive that through a few different metrics. We look at what are the touchpoints like? What's the velocity of engagement look like? How do those conversations go? And we have one partner in particular that we speak to pretty much daily and we have very frequent strategic conversations with that partner. We drive a lot of results to each other. And that's driven a lot by engagement. But also, I see engagement as part of the ideal partner profile ultimately and criteria to think about. Because if the partner is going to the same types of events you are, they're engaged in the same types of activities you are, like webinars is an example. That can be a great place to say, “okay, I know what they're interested in, I know what they've done before”. If we're trying to approach them and find some value-add activities, we know what's likely to work with them already, and maybe we can propose some new things that they haven't thought of before that add another dimension to their partner program as well. It's a factor of engagement. It's about enthusiasm and energy like I said, is really important for me. I want to be able to say, this partner loves us. They love working with us, they really enjoy it. And it's reflected in the results. And likewise, I want them to say the same about us. And then it's the more tactical and practical things like deliverables on the partner business plan, goals, and achievement to goals and just activities and other more strategic bits that we're working on together.
You mentioned upgrading partners from low fits to great fits which I absolutely love. And I would love your opinion, where do you think people miss opportunities in general, in partnerships? Where do you think opportunities in terms of upgrading partners from maybe low fit to medium fit or low performing to high performing? And where do you see people have a blind spot maybe?
It really goes back to engagement from my perspective. If you are engaged with all your partners on a consistent basis, the distribution naturally plays out. You'll find who's the most engaged and if it's, for example, “I thought that this was a good fit partner in terms of all the parameters around their business, the right size, the right growth, the right team, the right time approach, but the enthusiasm is not there that can throw the whole thing off. What I'll look for is out of the low fit partners, which ones do have that criteria from a fit perspective that we would want to believe in or we would want to think is good. And I think a lot of companies missed that step because they're so focused on the results of the top 10% distribution of their partners that you just look at, “okay, the 90% that are maybe low fit or medium fit. I'm not going to spend as much time on them”. But how much opportunity are you missing out on? Because maybe those will be a good fit from the right team and right parameters perspective. But you just haven't given them the enthusiasm that they need or the energy that they need to drive things forward. And I do see this dynamic a lot in the workplace technology industry because there are a lot of different software providers in the space and partner programs have become very inflated and there are hundreds, if not thousands of partners that don't have the team and the capability to match that level of energy and enthusiasm from their partner side. And I often hear the feedback, like I said, in the beginning, “we haven't heard from those guys in a long time”. And that, to me, it doesn't so much signal that that company is a bad partner. It signals to me that that program is potentially outpacing its own growth, because of competitive dynamics in the industry, or there's just been too much of an emphasis on the number of partners rather than focusing on fit and quality. And I could say you definitely can work backward and say, “okay, we've got 300 partners now”. How do we go back and have the fit conversation and get to that level of equilibrium that we want?
But I prefer to work up and say, let's make sure that we're building good fit relationships now and we'll keep expanding once we've defined that criteria. And we'll keep iterating on that criteria as we learn more and as we grow the program more. And I think ultimately, that approach allows you the flexibility to take on new partners while ensuring that the quality is there as well. And hopefully, that drop-off to low fit partners becomes less and the upgrade path is a lot easier because you're approaching it from a principals perspective.
Thank you so much. I really enjoyed this conversation and I think that the knowledge that you're sharing is very important and it will help a lot of people to understand partnerships better and actually not make many mistakes or actually improve their programs with your frameworks. Quick question related to how to reach out to you? Some people might want to catch up with you after this podcast. What is the best way to contact you?
Please connect with me on LinkedIn and send me a message. I love sharing best practices and thoughts with partner leaders in particular, but I'm also incredibly passionate about helping people early on in their partnership journeys. And I feel particularly passionate about this. If you're early on in your partnership's journey and you want to just chat, then get in touch as well.
By the way, I do love your energy and it shines through which is great. Thank you so much for your work and for sharing this with us.