7 Lessons I Wish I Had Known Before We Built Hopin’s Agency Program

7 Lessons I Wish I Had Known Before We Built Hopin’s Agency Program

Franz-Josef Schrepf 9 min

Why you need an agency program

In April 2020, Hopin had an unusual problem: too much demand. As the leading virtual events platform, we were swamped when the pandemic shut down every in-person event. Everywhere.  


What sounds like heaven can turn into hell if you don’t scale fast enough. Many startups crumble under this insane pressure. They open the floodgates and are overwhelmed by sales and support requests. Customers have a bad experience. Your reputation is ruined. Game over.


Unless you call in the cavalry: partners.

 

Hiring, training, and managing sales and support people takes time. If your demand spikes, an in-house team might be too slow to respond. In those cases, agencies can help you reach scale in a matter of weeks, not months or years.


At Hopin, it clicked when we realized a large chunk of our inbound came from event agencies. Many had closed up shop, furloughed their employees, and faced a tough decision: embrace virtual events or shut down.


These agencies struggled to survive. We needed more hands-on deck. Bingo. 


Before the pandemic, the job of a "virtual event specialist" didn’t exist. We crafted it together with our agencies. What started as a pilot with 10 agencies flourished into an ecosystem of +100 global partners.


Agencies helped us evangelize the new category of virtual events and provided services to joint customers. Some of our partner agencies grew 4x in a time when others shut down their business. This network created hundreds of jobs at a time when people needed them the most.


That alone should be reason enough to be proud. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We made tons of mistakes along the way that I hope to share in case you find yourself in a similar situation.


If your job is to build an agency program, here are seven lessons that will save you countless hours and some stress...but not all. It’s a stressful job.


Lesson one: Start small. Very small.

Our initial pilot program in April ’20 started with 10 small agencies. In hindsight, 5-7 would have been enough. But not less. After the pilot started, one agency shut down and we kicked out one bad actor. More on this later.


We selected agencies based on their experience with Hopin, tech savviness, and geography. The goal was to reach global coverage through agencies faster than we could hire. At this point, we decided to hold off on large agencies with +100 employees. We only onboarded these partners once our enablement program was ready to scale.


Small agencies also were quicker to embrace Hopin as the only tool they offered to clients. This is a lesson that Tai Rattigan at Deel drove home during one of our podcast interviews:


Find small agencies that will make big investments in your tech.


The Hopin platform became their main place of work. Their default browser tab was our product change log. 

Many partners went on to establish themselves as market leaders in their regions. The German newspaper Wirtschaftswoche even featured our partner Smartevents as the #1 events company to watch. Before the pandemic, Enrico and his team focused on local events in the Dresden area. Now they are a European events powerhouse.


The small cohort size also made sure we don’t get overwhelmed and allowed for rapid iteration. Chances are you have to Fred Flintstone your program at the start: talk to every agency. Listen to feedback. Build trust. 


Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Start small.


Lesson two: Set boundaries early.

Our partners are smart, creative entrepreneurs. They will find and exploit opportunities you have never considered. This can work in your favor as long as there are clear boundaries. 


One morning, I opened my laptop to find a message from our legal team. "Who is HopiNL?"(name changed). One of our agencies rebranded to signal they were the Hopin experts in the Netherlands. 


A few days later our marketing team pinged me. "Do you know SunRise Events?" (name changed). Another partner wanted to drive business via Google Search Ads. They started to compete with our own listings, driving up the cost per click. 


In an ideal world, there is a high level of trust between your company and your service partners. Many issues you’ll encounter don’t come from a place of malice. Agency owners are just looking out for their business and employees. Once pointed out, they were quick to reverse these changes. Even though they already spent money on incorporating HopiNL. 


Save yourself and your partner’s time and money. Set clear boundaries early. 


Lesson three: Give ground grudgingly.

Imagine it’s lockdown again (yikes!) and you’re cutting your partner’s hair for the first time. As in, your spouse. (We don’t cut our service partner’s hair.)


You could wing it, but chances are the result won’t look great and damage your relationship. The smarter approach is to cut less than you think, observe their reaction, and then adjust. It’s easier to cut off more hair than to add some back.


The same applies to partner programs. Repeat after me:


It is always, always, always easier to give than to take away.


Before you start your services program, listen. What is it your agencies really need? Understand their goals and business model inside out.


 Partners have an incentive to squeeze margins wherever they can. Give a less generous offer at first. Then observe. Look at actions, not words. If issues arise, address them. But give ground grudgingly.


Lesson four: Resell services. Not software.

This advice may not apply to your industry. If your service partners resell your software, feel free to skip ahead.


Events are a whole different beast. There is a short period of time, a day or two, when the event takes place. Everything has to be perfect. In these moments, your customer should always have a direct line to your support team for any issues. At least for major events, it’s key for us to have a close relationship with our customers. 


On the flip side, your partners might feel uncomfortable sending you their clients. They worked hard to build their book of business. The simplest way to address this issue is to establish trust. Pay it forward. Refer your clients to the agency or resell their services. 


Provide value to your agency. Make the first move. Build trust.


Lesson five: Don’t act like the Mafia.

One of our leaders hated commissions: "You know who operates on fees? The mafia."


I don’t agree with this statement, but there is some truth to it. It was the running gag at last year’s Catalyst Partnership Conference: "The 10% referral fee is dead!" 


Your agency partners are not affiliates. Their services have to add tremendous value to your customer’s experience. So much that customers are willing to pay more for the agency than for your product.


For every dollar Salesforce makes, their partners earn up to $6.19. Granted this covers services and integrations. But if you charge $20,000 for a license, your partners should make at least $40k. Who cares about a $2k referral fee?


This model works because software is a low-maintenance, high-margin business. Services are not. Higher overhead costs warrant higher returns. 


Drop the referral fees. Make your partners succeed, and they’ll make you win, too.


Lesson six: Let bad apples rot. Move on.

I hinted at this before, but we had a bad actor in our first cohort in 2020. One tech-savvy agency saw the success we had in virtual events and decided to compete. 


This is not a problem in itself. If you think you can build a better platform, go ahead. It’s the free market. Cut all ties, and may the best product win.


Unfortunately, this is not what happened. We were lucky to find out early when a frustrated and confused customer contacted us. The agency deployed a bait-and-switch that went like this:


The partner exaggerated his position in our program and pretended to be an exclusive reseller. The goal was to convince the prospect that all communications had to go through the agency. When the client asked for Hopin to complete a Data Processing Agreement, the partner stalled. They claimed Hopin was unresponsive. 


As the event came closer, the client grew desperate. That’s when the agency suggested the client should switch to the agency’s own software, which was a low-quality copycat.


One bad apple spoils the bunch, right? No. You pick out the apple, toss it away, and enjoy the rest. There will always be bad actors. Be prepared to defend your program in front of your C-suite. 


Lesson seven: The CX team is your friend.

When we built out our event services team, some of our agency partners got nervous. Would this mean we’d be competing for the same business? Luckily I had a good relationship with our partners, so they called me before rumors spread.


The truth is that your company might have to offer services to some high-profile customers. There are occasions when you want to control the entire experience. No discussion. 


It’s important for your CX team to focus on high-profile customers and mission-critical activities only though. The easiest way to signal this is via a higher price point. 


On top of that, we never invested in production studios and on-site teams. Our agency partners have. These are capabilities for which we always rely on our partners.


Always outline these differences for both your service partners and CX teams. There is plenty that these groups can learn from each other. They are friends on a joint mission: to help your customers succeed.


Agency programs are more important than ever.

A strong agency program and partner network can be your unfair advantage. When implemented the right way, it unlocks exponential growth and reach. It allows you to scale your sales or service capacity up and down with demand. So keep these seven lessons in mind:


1. Start small. Very small.

2. Set boundaries early.

3. Give ground grudgingly.

4. Don’t act like the mafia.

5. Resell services. Not software.

6. Let bad apples rot. Move on.

7. The CX team is your friend. 


If you have any feedback, thoughts, or questions, feel free to reach out to me directly on LinkedIn. Good luck! 

Prefer to listen? Subscribe to our PartnerHacker Audio Articles Podcast. Text-to-speech provided by our partner Voicemaker.in.

Franz-Josef Schrepf 9 min

7 Lessons I Wish I Had Known Before We Built Hopin’s Agency Program


If your job is to build an agency program, here are seven lessons that will save you countless hours and some stress...but not all. It's a stressful job.


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