Why Partnerships Fail: The Nine Deadly Sins of Ecosystem Building

Why Partnerships Fail: The Nine Deadly Sins of Ecosystem Building

Rob Rebholz 7 min

Over the last year, I interviewed over a hundred CEOs, VPs of Partnerships, and Partner Managers. They all understood the value of ecosystems and ecosystem-level thinking. But many were still struggling to make partnerships work.

Again and again, the same issues came up. By the end, I identified nine themes in organizations that were struggling to get value out of their partnerships. I’ve turned these nine deadly sins into a list, to help you avoid common pitfalls.

I’ll begin with a little confession of my own. I made many of these mistakes myself, when building my first partner network. By sharing my experiences and insights, I hope to steer the conversation in a direction that leads to better, stronger ecosystems.

Deadly sin #1: Not knowing your Ideal Partner Profile

Every salesperson understands the importance of Ideal Customer Profiles (ICP). Move over to the partnerships team, and what you should see is Ideal Partner Profiles (IPP) front and center.

Surprisingly, that’s not the case.

Quite a few partnership teams don’t know their IPP deeply enough to identify high-value partnerships. Instead, they place opportunistic and serendipitous encounters at the center of building partnerships; pursuing multiple partnership types without mastering any.

I made this mistake myself. I tried to launch partnerships under three completely different verticals - tech, agency and reselling. But I painfully learned that each profile required specific, tailored messaging. That meant I needed to spend time and focus my energy in each vertical. One at a time.

The takeaway here is that focus matters.

“One partner profile nail you must. Then move on.” - Yoda

Deadly sin #2: Short-term thinking murders long-haul relationships

Partnerships don’t usually generate returns in the short term. Like any relationship, it takes ongoing deposits of energy and usefulness - that’s when people get on board, feel empowered and excited, and ultimately, trust you. It’s trust that brings the leads; not the partnership agreement that was signed. Building trust takes time. Often 12-18 months or even more.

Sadly, I’ve recently seen quite a few early-stage companies cut partnership teams for not generating leads in the short term. That’s not how you build lasting ecosystems that pay revenue dividends.

Don’t trade long-term gain for short-term savings.

Deadly sin #3: Failure to understand your partners’ businesses

Think long and hard about how you can contribute to your partner’s success. “Win/win” only happens when you deeply understand your partner’s business goals and align with them.

This matters at an individual level, too. Every person in their business is important. You must know their challenges and aspirations. Why should their account executives bring you into deals? Ideally, because you add so much value that they ask you to join those calls.

The question goes as follows:

What would make [Jenny from {your partner}] invite me to that sales call with [enter prospect name]?

You only truly know the answer when you’re attuned to your partners’ needs.

Deadly Sin #4: No shared goals and commitments

Great partnership teams talk openly about expectations and goals with their partners. There’s no other way to maintain alignment. Sadly, this doesn’t happen enough. And even where it does, it’s just the first step.

Once you have open communication channels, both sides must agree on what needs to be done, by whom, and when.

Specifying roles leads to accountability on shared projects. In my previous company we learned just how valuable this is when we were introduced to it by the Salesforce partnership team. They took this stuff more seriously than most. And that’s when our work with them started to truly take off.

Deadly sin #5: Lead mania strangles healthy partnerships

Understandably, CEOs tend to measure the impact of a partnership function in terms of leads. Partnerships do need to generate leads, but they’re not the only metric of success.

Many partner organizations will tell you that partner influence is more important. I’ve been in roles where 100% of the top deals were partner-influenced. We closed deals with some of the biggest enterprise clients in our space because reputable tech platforms vouched for us.

Our partners even enabled us to punch far above our weight by introducing us to Global Systems Integrators (GSI) who would not have considered us otherwise. Partners can also play a crucial role in reducing customer churn, by briefing you when you’re about to lose a relationship and helping you turn the wheels around.

Fundamentally, partnership is not (just) about leads. It’s a strategic function that enhances almost all other functions in your organization.

Deadly sin #6: Never looking beyond your fellow man[anagers]

In many cases, you’re brought into deals because an account executive knows you. She trusts you, and understands how her pitch is stronger with you by her side.

But many partner managers just focus on building relationships with their counterparts, usually other partner managers.

They’re important, of course, but you need to go deeper. The real magic happens when your partner’s sales or CSM team loves you. That takes work; you may even need to engage hundreds of people individually, but it’s definitely worth it.

Here’s my recommendation: Do some stakeholder mapping. Identify influencers and decision-makers at multiple levels of an organization. These are the people you need to win over if you want to access more people and bolster internal support.

Deadly sin #7: Neglecting to build one-on-one relationships

Your long standing partner hires a new Customer Success Manager. She’s reluctant to introduce you to her customers.

This is frustrating, but not inevitable. Map out a partner contact journey that treats your partnership with a company as the sum of many individual relationships. Each of these relationships may be at a different stage of a lifecycle.

New employees need to be onboarded and enabled, existing ones need to be nurtured and supported. Those who have forgotten about you need to be reactivated. It’s a lot of work, but no one is going to do it for you (although tools like Superglue may make that a lot easier and more scalable).

Your partner’s new CSM could end up being your strongest advocate after all. Put in the work!

Deadly sin #8: Expecting tech to solve all your problems

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the opportunities that partner tech represents. I’m a founder of a partner tech SaaS company myself. But tech is an enabler, not a silver bullet.

I’ve talked to partnership teams who believed that simply introducing a new portal was going to lead to greater success in reselling. Unfortunately, this usually amounts to putting the cart before the horse.

First, you need to address the parts of your process that don’t scale, and make them work. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be in a position to leverage the power of partner management software to become more efficient, create better partner experiences, and scale.

Deadly sin #9: Careless hiring and people development

This was one of the most surprising sins that I encountered in the course of my interviews. When it comes to partnerships, many CEOs take hiring too lightly. This is a mistake, because building a powerful partnership function is a formidable challenge. Experience, training and career paths really matter.

A novice is not going to build a winning ecosystem for you, try as they might. Take this stuff seriously, from hiring to creating personal development options and attractive career paths.

So what’s the penance?

Thankfully, none!

The good news is that there are amazing resources out there for young, ambitious partnership people who want to learn. You’re reading one of them right now.

Subscribe your people to the PhD, send them to Catalyst, Supernode, or SaaS Connect. Introduce them to other leaders and ensure they have mentors. That’s how we will equip a new generation of professionals to thrive in a future shaped by complex partner ecosystems (without repeating all the mistakes I made!).

Rob Rebholz 7 min

Why Partnerships Fail: The Nine Deadly Sins of Ecosystem Building

Organizations are struggling to get value out of their partnerships. Here are the nine deadly sins to help you avoid common pitfalls.

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