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Pioneering Partnerships: Building Partner Strategies from the Ground Up

An interview with Marc Tan, APJ Channels & Alliances Director, Traceable

In this conversation with Marc Tan, APJ Channels and Alliances Manager at Snyk (now Traceable), we delve into the experiences and insights of a seasoned channel leader who has successfully navigated the complexities of partner ecosystems across major players like Telstra, Pivotal (VMware), and Snyk. Marc shares best practices for pioneering partnership frameworks that select the right partners, build trust and integrate products into diverse ecosystems that align with business goals and customer needs. Prepare yourself for invaluable and actionable lessons on maximizing the potential of strategic alliances.

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

I spent about 10 years building products and developing go-to-market strategies at Telstra. During that time, I had the opportunity to work with Microsoft in the enterprise product space. I was involved in the early days of Office 365, as a cloud-based service on Telstra’s Business Application Marketplace. We saw an opportunity for Telstra to position business productivity and collaboration applications to mid-market and enterprise customers, on an online marketplace.

This approach is similar to the current cloud hyperscale marketplace model, where companies like AWS, Google, and Microsoft aggregate technology and business productivity spending into a single bill.

After leaving Telstra, I moved into partner sales at Pivotal, which was acquired by VMware. More recently, I’ve been at Snyk, a cybersecurity start-up transitioning to a scale-up, where I help build out their channel and alliances go-to-market strategy in the region. Throughout my career, I’ve focused on leveraging partnerships and channels to drive product success and market reach.

When you transitioned to focusing on partnerships in your career, was the concept of partnerships a well-defined role at that time? 

Absolutely, partnerships are fundamentally about scaling a business. Regardless of the product—whether it’s SaaS, cloud, phones, or burgers —you typically start with a direct sales approach, hiring more sellers to target accounts. However, at some point, it makes sense to leverage an ecosystem to expand your product’s reach more broadly and efficiently.

This approach goes beyond just a sales model. An effective ecosystem can enhance customer centricity; driving customer success and renewals. Done right, it’s a win-win for everyone. For instance, with a SaaS solution like Snyk, which is a cybersecurity product for software development environments, the ecosystem plays a crucial role. Snyk integrates with various developer tools and cloud ecosystems because developers like choice.

The key here is that a product’s value is greatly enhanced by its ability to integrate with different frameworks and platforms. This flexibility allows customers to derive maximum benefit from the product within their existing technical ecosystems. By leveraging partnerships, a company can ensure that its product is not just widely available but also deeply integrated into the tools and environments that customers already use and trust.

Service partners also have a role to play: In some cases, they’re a significant part of the enterprise in question, whether it be shaping their technology/security strategy or delivering/enabling their business outcome.

When you first landed at Snyk, did you have to build the partnership strategy from scratch?

At most start-ups, there is no guidebook or framework to follow in building out partnerships. You have to understand the product as well as the market and see how you and the ecosystem can add value to that.

If you think about it, delivering true customer value with a cybersecurity SaaS product involves more than just the product itself. For organizations like banks, digital native companies, or government institutions, it’s not feasible to operate solely within their own frameworks, regardless of their resources. When building or acquiring capabilities, they typically follow one of three models: building their own, buying, or partnering.

For instance, a bank focuses on managing financial capabilities and assets for its customers, which is its core competency. Cybersecurity tools, although it’s an absolute necessity in delivering the financial capability, however, may not be. In this case, the bank might choose to buy or partner for that capability, integrating it into their operations. This illustrates the broader ecosystem in which we all function.

How do you go about selecting partners that align with your business values and address customer needs?

That’s an excellent question and a few things are important here:

  •  Know your segment and product well: This is obviously beneficial. 
  • Engage with your product teams and talk to your customers: It’s essential to understand the specific problem you’re trying to solve.
  • Recognize not just your customer’s pain points, but how they think and work: This insight is foundational to providing effective solutions and building strong partnerships.

When you decide that a partner is the right fit for you and your customer, what are the key elements you focus on when initiating that partnership?

Partnerships can sometimes get a bad rap, with some people referring to partnership meetings as “tea and biscuits” sessions, implying they lack substance. Building trust and relationships are obviously important, but equally you need to be direct about your goals. Unlike transactional sales, where there’s a clear exchange of product for money, partnerships often involve more nuanced alignment.

Good partner managers need to have a keen sense of the conversation, building common ground while swiftly identifying and articulating mutual value. Before any meeting, consider what you can offer the partner, not just what you want to gain. Misreading the conversation can lead to unproductive meetings where the value-add isn’t clear, and the relationship becomes fragile. Many agreements end up forgotten because the initial value wasn’t properly communicated.

Early on, it’s important to be opinionated but open and ask questions if you don’t know the answers. In sales roles, for example, understanding the return on investment for every dollar or minute spent in a partnership is crucial.

In the AWS ecosystem, many partners are consultants based around service utilization. Understanding how much additional revenue in services a product sale can generate is key. Always validate this in initial conversations (and again), ensuring you understand their business model. People enjoy talking about their businesses, so use that to your advantage. If a partner is direct and impatient, it might indicate they’re not inclined towards partnerships, and it’s important to recognize and adapt to this early on. Effective partnerships are challenging to establish but vital for mutual success.

What methods do you use to research and ensure potential partners align with your business goals and can effectively address your customer needs?

Websites and tools like LinkedIn are invaluable for understanding customer use cases. LinkedIn, in particular, is much more than just a networking tool; it serves as a vital resource for professional education. You can gain insights into the number of people within an organization, the customers they interact with, the segments they target, and the problems they’re trying to solve. In my role within product partnership sales, I needed to identify partners that deliver specific outcomes, such as cybersecurity solutions or application development for clients.

Good partners often advertise their capabilities and the problems they solve for clients, such as banks, on their websites. This transparency is beneficial because it helps potential partners understand the value and success they bring to their customers. Interestingly, I’ve had experiences where partners initially rejected the idea of a partnership multiple times before eventually agreeing. One particular partner rejected us three times before they decided to partner with us. When they finally did, they became a very valuable partner. This was partly because they needed to see our brand become more established before committing resources. 

This experience taught me that persistence and understanding the partner’s perspective are key. It’s important to be patient and build your brand’s credibility. Once established, even the initially hesitant partners can become significant contributors to your ecosystem. In many ways, partnerships are not very different from sales, but probably more nuanced.

Do the challenges remain the same when looking to partner with larger enterprise-style businesses?

I’ll give you two examples:

- There’s the partner who rejects your proposal multiple times, similar to a customer refusing a sale repeatedly. However, if you’ve done your homework and identified mutual benefits, there’s still potential for a fruitful collaboration.

- On the flip side, there’s the seemingly easy win where a partner agrees to collaborate quickly, similar to a SaaS sale where the customer purchases licenses but never fully utilizes the product, leading to non-renewal.

In my experience, I’ve encountered partners who swiftly sign agreements but then display disinterest in further engagement. This can be puzzling and frustrating, similarly to someone agreeing to meet for coffee and then avoiding further interaction. If given the chance to approach partnership roles again, I would adopt a more deliberate approach to partner selection, prioritizing organizations that demonstrate genuine interest and commitment to mutual success.

How do you maintain and strengthen partnerships long-term once both parties are committed and bought in?

You need to be able to deliver value every time you catch up. No one wants a recurring meeting in a calendar where you talk about the weather. Narrow down your focus partners. So if you’re one person, think about your span of influence (seven as a number is enough to manage). 

If you’ve got over seven partners, you probably have too many. For one person with seven partners, you consistently review the value add and end those that are not adding value. Initially you don’t need to meet too frequently, but you want to deliver value in those early conversations.

So at different stages, at the early engagement, you want to be able to educate the partner on your product and success by being very clear on what value they bring for the customer and the value add you can bring too.

AWS taught me a lot about how to engage: It’s always the customer first, what’s the problem that you identified and can solve for and being able to speak to why they are happy. What is the shared common ground between partners? The customer, always. Do you think the approach to measuring partnership success is influenced more by the maturity of the business or the maturity of the stakeholders within the business? How do changes in personnel affect the perception and effectiveness of partnerships, and how do you navigate these challenges?

Have that conversation at the CEO or the CRO level. Be clear to them in asking ‘what is your expectation of the channel?’ If you don’t get a clear answer, then make sure you have an opportunity to shape that. 

The tech industry has definitely reached a pivotal point on how it approaches partnerships. When times were good, every business had a partnership team because they all had to have one. But when money was harder to come by, everyone started putting a question mark on the value partnerships create. I believe the challenge with partnerships is that metrics can shift from a medium-term to a short-term focus. And no one can clearly articulate them because partnerships are really a medium-term or horizon two story. I genuinely think that it’s at least a one or two year ‘deal lifecycle’.

One question I will ask a sales leader is ‘what’s easier for you to bring on board, partners or sellers? I think partners have longer memories and partnerships are based on trust, not necessarily just about the money.

Partnerships take time, so if you take up time and don’t deliver any value, they will not give you another go. Different companies at different levels of maturity have different expectations of what they want their partners to deliver. Let’s say you had a company that had a sales team and a channel team, and the question is asked, ‘what value is the partnership bringing in?’ You can review what’s the average size of a deal that’s brought in by a partner and what’s the average size of the deal that a seller brings in. 

Does a partner originated deal or a sales originated deal have the longer term contracts signed, or do they take shorter to close? Because, the question then becomes, ‘how do you measure the value of a trusted relationship?’ 

Does a partner deal have a longer term, can it short circuit time to close a deal? Is the average deal size bigger? There are many metrics that you can use to measure the value of a partnership but make sure you measure and track them. If you measure it as a sales pipeline (nothing wrong with that if that’s your only expectation), then you see partnerships purely as a sales channel.

Where do you see the partner ecosystem progressing or evolving in the next 5-10 years?

The cloud marketplaces will drive a consolidation of the channel go-to-market, it’s already beginning to happen. In 2-3 years, we’ll see that starting with the customer view. The hyperscalers will continue driving customers, partners, and ISVs to list products onto a common transaction platform. If you are a services partner today, I would be very much surprised if you did not have a cloud relationship or cloud go-to-market model because it delivers so much value in terms of managing your debt risk, foreign exchange currency collections, so they act as a clear financial clearing house.

The cloud marketplaces will become the SaaS distributors of the future.

What piece of advice would you give to aspiring partner leaders?

Understand the expectations from a partnership. The advice I was given was to start off every conversation with, “What does success look like for you?” The question is about them but it will help you understand what their drivers were.

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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