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From Unknown to Unstoppable: Partnering with Industry Giants as a Smaller Organization

An interview with Jason Hill, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Buildkite

In this interview, we dive into the journey and strategies of seasoned partner leader, Jason Hill, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Buildkite, who has navigated the complex world of sales, customer success, and strategic partnerships. With experience including a pivotal role at AWS, our expert shares insights on identifying and nurturing technology partnerships that drive growth and innovation. Discover how Buildkite leverages strategic alliances to enhance brand awareness, streamline customer acquisition, and create a robust technology ecosystem. Learn the importance of trust, the nuances of partnering with industry giants like AWS, and practical advice for aspiring partner leaders on building successful and adaptable partnership programs.

Tell me about your background and how you became a partner leader in your current organization. 

I’m not from a traditional partners background – I spent most of my time in sales and customer success, culminating in the time I spent at AWS, where I led an account team for software businesses in scale-up motion, mainly Series B to F, that were in the hyper growth phase. 

As part of that there were two ways we could grow their commercial relationship with AWS. Firstly, we could grow their direct spend through the use of AWS services in the way they build their products and services. Secondly, we could increase consumption of these products, and thus AWS services, through supporting our customers to acquire new customers. 

During my time at AWS we moved from a phase of hypergrowth into customers in the SaaS space becoming more focused on cost optimisation and reduction. This meant that the growth that was previously there in direct technology spend with AWS started to slow and even regress as companies got more focused on their profitability. This naturally led me to spend more time thinking about how AWS could partner more deeply with companies like Buildkite to help them win more customers and thus revive the increase in technology spend through additional customer workloads. This is where the relationship started with Buildkite and now I lead the relationship between the company and predominantly AWS, helping to build out a partner ecosystem to drive customer acquisition and a stronger technology ecosystem. 

How do you identify potential partners that align with your company's goals and values?

Our partners are split into three different types of partnerships: 

  • Hyperscale partnerships
  • Technology partnerships
  • Solution integration or reseller partnerships.

Technology partners make the most sense for us and align with our company values so we consider our developers and what their day-to-day looks like. We spend time here thinking about how we can build out the tool chain through integrations and bring together ‘best of breed’ tools to make developers' lives easier and allow us to create a ‘better together’ narrative for a more efficient experience which resonates with our end users. 

How can smaller or lesser-known companies evaluate the potential success of a partnership with investing a lot of valuable time? 

As Buildkite is pretty unknown in most markets, we have to look for relationships with companies that are heavily used by our potential customers. The goal here is to work with these companies to help us drive brand awareness when we’re thinking about how we go to market. We have to evaluate what is being used in our ecosystem and look at ways a formal partnership will improve the outcome for our current and potential customers.

Secondly, I’d consider what story you can tell the market to position yourselves and your partners against your core competitors, in our case such as Microsoft. When we look at Microsoft’s strategy we see them pushing more of an all-in-one tooling narrative. So, we have to work with our partners to position ourselves as a better option for our customers to drive the outcome they desire than the competitor's story.

Lastly, we look at how closely partners lean into the relationship with us. For example, there are companies which have a very different way of doing partnerships to us. They’re looking to build out a large ecosystem, they have 700 partners onboarded a year but we have to be more strategic than that. Our focus is bringing on 5-10 aligned partners a year with how we want to go to market, how we want to talk to customers, and how we want to win potential customers rather than simply having a broader technology ecosystem in place. 

From a product partnerships perspective, how can organizations decide whether the product team should build a solution in-house or partner with someone who can fill that gap?

Does it sit within your sphere of expertise? E.g. Buildkite sits in the DevOps tool stack whereas a lot of our initial partnerships have been in the security tool stack so a completely different field for us and wouldn’t make sense to build that functionality. We’d basically have to build a new business which would require significant capital and people investment. 

We then think about things like; What is the age of the market? Areas like security, observability, and big data are heavily funded long-standing businesses now. It wouldn’t be wise for us to build in an adjacent field because we would be playing catch up with established players and thus wouldn’t be able to capture the market.

Then secondly; How close are you to the products you have today? For example, what I’d consider for Buildkite is the level of effort to build versus the level of effort to partner with others in the industry. While we work across the build, test, package, and deploy stages of the DevOps lifecycle we do partner with various companies and tools along the stages we are prevalent in where we see significant value for our customers and the requirement to build out a niche solution or extension of what we do today doesn’t meet the cost/benefit of building our own solution in the space.

What are the key elements you focus on when initiating a partnership, and how do you establish a win-win scenario for both parties?

There are core elements we consider like alignment in what we’re trying to achieve, whether we sell to the same sort of companies, if we have overlapping customers, and if there’s a customer need for Buildkite plus the partner. 

On top of those core elements, we track where we can find what tools are being used in our customers’ tool sets and tool stacks to identify the most relevant partners. This goal here is to make our end developers’ lives easier through the partnership on a technical level. 

How do large enterprises evaluate potential partners, and what challenges might smaller businesses face when seeking to partner with these large enterprises?

Being brutally honest, partnering with the likes of AWS is hard, there's 130,000 partners in their ecosystem that are all trying to do the same thing. You have to have a big differentiator and your solution has to be very close to AWS’s core buyer. From my experience if you’re not an infrastructure tool or a cloud consulting partner that speaks about infrastructure day in and day out it can be hard to use the hyperscale partners to access your core decision maker. While not impossible, it becomes very hard for companies that sit outside of that technology ecosystem to successfully partner with the hyperscalers because access to your core buyer is adjacent to the core relationships of the technology hyperscalers. This becomes even more of a challenge when you can’t prove your direct value to the core champion of your partner. 

Buildkite is in a unique position because we are not just an AWS customer driving direct consumption through building products and services on AWS, but because of our architecture we drive consumption of AWS services with our customers' usage of our platform meaning we can prove additional economic value to AWS. This in turn opens doors with sales leaders who can support a co-sell motion as they're interested in jointly positioning Buildkite to influence their own portfolio to grow their direct spend year-on-year.

Without the value it’s an uphill battle and you see a lot of partners do it badly by just going to the sales teams and expecting co-sell to just happen. I believe ‘co-market penetration’ is a better way to describe co-selling. The challenge with co-selling in its purest form is the depth of knowledge needed to be an expert in the category and tool that the partner is trying to co-sell. This isn’t easily obtained and when a rep from the likes of AWS is trying to balance this with 250+ internal services and 130,000 partners it becomes impossible to be an expert on everything. Taking this into account you may see a small amount of reps become experts in your specific solution but it doesn’t scale. What is scalable is taking industry challenges or a point of view and working jointly to ‘open the door’ to their customers using the built trust and positioning and the likes of Buildkite as a core partner of AWS who has solved this. The challenge for the partner here though, is that to do this means that you have to jump through a lot of hurdles at the hyperscalers before you can even get going. 

To simplify this, above all, you have to make it as easy as possible for the big enterprises to work with you because they have a lot on their plate already. Ultimately, that isn’t you coming into the room with a presentation they’ve heard from 129,999 others. It’s being market-wide with your challenge or point of view, something that they can take to their customer, but when it comes to selling, getting very, very narrow with a specific customer with a specific problem and a specific ask. 

As a smaller organization, how do you ensure that you remain innovative and adaptable as a partner while ensuring you continue to add value to your customers in the ever-changing technology space?

Don't spread too thin. Work from team to team and be present with the partner for a period of time until you see success. When I was on the AWS side, the ones that spent time with account teams regularly became the go to partner when their customer had a specific problem the partner could solve or even potentially solve. The trust was built.

This then, for us, leads to innovation happening more at the conversational level than the product level. How are you defining your product and services in a way that shows understanding and matching the needs of what AWS is talking to their customers about and what their customers are talking to them about. Often we get stuck in the weeds of what we’re a specialist in. How do we elevate this conversation to a core topic that the business is driving as part of their agenda with AWS?

Last year, it was all about how your product serves the cost optimization story. This year, from what we can see, the conversation has moved to being a mix of productivity and cost control, so price performance and how your product service then matches that conversation. 

When I think about AWS and how we stay relevant with their field. Innovation means constantly redefining; presenting the feedback you’re hearing from the AWS field organization in a way that they believe they can take to their customers. They are customer-driven so you need to work backwards from how your service is going to help them help their customers. Whether that's cost optimization, entering a new market or building a new service.

How important is trust in partnerships, and how can organizations build it with enterprises like AWS? 

Buildkite doesn’t have a large partner org in place yet and so our sales team is the largest part of our organization in the field representing our brand. The number one thing I say to them is you have to treat partnering with the likes of AWS like it’s a customer pursuit and you win customers at enterprises level through building trust, you don't win through just ringing up and suggesting they check out the website. 

Trust is the number one focus for us in partnering at Buildkite; in fact, when I was at AWS, there were about five partners in my phonebook that I’d always ring about any particular customer problem I was facing because I trusted that they could deliver the solution. Good partners are the ones that can put themselves in the customer’s shoes and can prove they’ve been listening. 

If we look at AWS, they will closely guard their relationships with customers after spending so long cultivating and earning that trust between the two organizations. They can’t, and won’t, risk the wrong partner entering at the wrong time with the wrong offering. This is why we share that value of earning trust. We believe it is so crucial when it comes to getting their backing and thus building a strong working relationship; they need to know the value exchange and that we can deliver. Trust is personal, not just professional. 

What advice would you give to partner leaders building out a partner program for the first time and managing expectations and alignment with executives in the business?

Partnerships and alliances are relatively new fields compared to established fields like sales, customer success, marketing, finance, and technology. To be effective, it's crucial to be open and clear from the start about what you want your partner organization to achieve. For example, at Buildkite, partnerships and alliances initially played a key role in driving brand awareness and supporting the sales organization in targeting specific customers due to a small marketing team.

Clear goals are essential for defining what you want your partnership team to accomplish. Different companies place partnerships in various departments with different goals—some in R&D for ecosystem development, others in sales to support bottom of the funnel conversion or marketing to help dry top of funnel activity. Alignment on goals and metrics is vital, similar to how sales metrics are tracked by pipeline and conversion rates. For partnerships, metrics might include sales-accepted leads or direct revenue attribution, depending on the maturity, and goals, of the partnership organization.

Metrics should be as rigorously reported as those in sales or marketing, and partnerships should be clearly defined within the overall business strategy. It's crucial to determine where partnerships fit in the sales funnel, whether it's broad awareness at the top or conversion-focused at the bottom.

To keep the C-suite aligned, having an executive sponsor who believes in the value of partnerships is essential. This could be the CRO, CMO, or even the CEO, depending on the company size. Without strong C-suite support, building a successful partnerships strategy will be challenging. Signing strategic collaboration agreements, like with AWS, can help accelerate partnership value by establishing trust and credibility. However, without a solid relationship with the C-suite, you may struggle to gain the necessary internal support and resources to execute on these types of agreements.

How can partnerships add value for businesses expanding into new markets with no presence? 

Partnerships can help you identify effective strategies for market entry: We leverage existing relationships with partners who already have a presence in the target market to help us understand its nuances. On-the-ground research and gathered insights will then feed into your broader market entry approach and strategy. 

For instance, when we look at somewhere like Southeast Asia, we might analyze how significant companies like Grab value case studies from the likes of Uber to help us form a tactical approach. This helps us adapt successful strategies from other regions to the local context. We rely on our in-region partners to help us formulate and validate our strategies and provide localized insights.

From here we think about how we can categorize our partnerships to maximize their potential impact for us. For instance, we use our hyperscalers to introduce us to the right players and drive strategic entry initiatives. They can also act as a large multiplier to our on-the-ground delivery team, ensuring we have the necessary support and expertise in the new market.

The goal would be to then focus on winning key flagship customers with your partners’ help: Identifying and securing a high-profile client, such as a Grab in Southeast Asia or a HSBC in London, serves as a critical milestone. Winning such a customer signals to the market that you are a viable player, attracting further attention and opportunities.

Once a flagship customer has been secured, the goal would then be to expand our presence by building on that initial success. Partnerships play a crucial role in this expansion, helping us establish a solid foundation and grow our market share effectively.

What emerging trends do you see in business partnerships? And how do you think these partnerships will evolve over the next 5-10 years?

Personally I believe the era of cold calling is waning, as many potential clients are weary of unsolicited outreach. In enterprise sales, especially in established (brownfield) environments where existing systems are being replaced, partnerships and alliances are increasingly taking over the role traditionally played by traditional cold outreach methods. Instead, I believe the focus will shift more towards Account-Based Marketing (ABM), which targets specific accounts with personalized strategies.

Partnerships can be instrumental in this approach. By leveraging the trust and relationships that partners have already built, companies can create a more compelling narrative for prospective clients. Instead of trying to win over a CTO with cold calls or automated LinkedIn messages, sales teams can use established partnerships to introduce their solutions through trusted intermediaries. This method is already being utilized globally I believe will become the standard for enterprise sales, emphasizing the importance of stacked, trusted relationships to drive sales.

That being said, I do believe that the traditional cold outreach functions will still be relevant in new (greenfield) environments where the cost of change, and the risk associated, is lower. More complex sales involving migrations and tool replacements require deeper trust. This trust is not easily built through cold outreach but through meaningful relationships and proven value.

Looking ahead, we should see solutions emerge that better quantify the impact of partnerships and alliances. Current methods often involve manually checking systems like HubSpot or Salesforce to see where partner tools are being utilized. Future solutions, potentially powered by AI and machine learning, could provide more precise measurements of these partnerships' value in new business acquisition and customer retention. They could highlight how partnerships make a tool stack more cohesive and valuable.

For partner leaders, keeping the C-suite aligned and supportive requires a data-driven approach. They need to delve into data to understand, and demonstrate, the value of partnerships in acquiring new customers and retaining existing ones. Without this data, they risk being unable to substantiate their claims and could face skepticism from leadership. By showing clear metrics and success stories, partner leaders can maintain executive support and continue to drive strategic partnership initiatives.

Can you share a piece of advice for any aspiring partner leaders?

Get comfortable with the fact that your business will likely need to continuingly pivot and evolve what the partnership organization is meant to achieve. It is a common trend I hear from other partner leaders as their business evolves and their partner motion matures. 

For example, partnerships often start as a marketing function to drive top of the funnel activity and, as a business becomes more of a known entity, transitions into a sales function to support bottom of the funnel conversion. Initially, the focus might be on creating brand awareness and generating customer interest. Over time, this evolves into closing deals and driving long-term revenue. So over time you may see your company shift its emphasis from building an ecosystem to creating a marketing engine and then to developing a sales practice. Being adaptable and prepared for these changes is crucial.

At Think & Grow, we work with founders to source and leverage partnerships in the new markets they're looking to expand into to make their market entry a success. Get in touch to see how we can help.  


ARTICLE by Aisling Curley, Head of Partnerships and Ecosystems, 14 July 2024

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