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The Deal and Beyond: Building Lasting Partnerships for Scale with James Windsor

An interview with James Windsor, Director Sales & Alliances at CyberCX

In this insightful conversation, seasoned partnership leader, James Windsor, Director Sales & Alliances at CyberCX, shares valuable lessons from a career spanning multiple global markets. Discover the strategies that have driven success at companies like AWS, Accenture, and CyberCX. Learn how to build and maintain trust in partnerships, navigate the complexities of partner dynamics, and effectively activate and leverage collaborations for mutual benefit. Get ready for practical advice and real-world examples to help you master the art of strategic partnerships and drive business growth.

Can you share more about your background and any valuable learnings in the world of partnerships you’ve gained along the way?

I got my start recruiting partners to make businesses more successful. For example, at AWS launching a product that wasn’t yet generally available, we needed partners to take it from zero to scaling it as a service in the APAC market. I’ve noticed some other companies recruiting Partner and Channel Managers want someone who has experience in that specific role, but I believe that to be short-sighted, as you need to be able to deeply understand the POV of the organizations you intend to partner with, so there is a lot of value in candidates who come from the other side of the fence.

When bringing other partners into the fold as well as managing existing relationships, like I was at Accenture, you have to look at it from the customer’s point of view. Some ISV partner’s prefer to sell directly so they get all the revenue. But, customers want a solution that works, which can mean multiple partners collaborating, requiring give and take. That’s why I prioritize how to work with partners to make the market proposition stronger rather than focusing on who gets the revenue. 

I was the Sales and Alliances Manager for the top AWS partner in New Zealand before we were acquired. Post acquisition I shifted my focus to Australia, where our alliances team didn’t handle go-to-market activities, they focused on onboarding new partners and transacting license resale, sometimes pulling through professional services. You need people on your team who focus on joint partner GTM as there’s value in understanding how partners can help you make a customer proposition stronger and using and repeating the great stories to market, which is what I’m doing now.

In your experience with traditional partner roles, how did you approach sealing the deal with partners?

At AWS, I was responsible in APAC for a service with a managed services platform superior to what most partners could offer. It was low cost, highly automated, and compliant out of the box. Sounds great, but partners still didn’t want to sell or use it because they wanted to do all the work themselves to make higher margins.

My manager at the time shared a great piece of advice with me: It can’t be that all the partners are stupid for not wanting the service. Instead, you haven’t made the value proposition compelling enough for the partners to work with you. Partners will think they can make more money doing it their way, so you must show them that partnering with you gives them a better chance of winning more opportunities by understanding their motivations.

For example, a partner could incorporate our managed service to make their proposition 50% less expensive when competing and pitching their service. Yes, they would make less money, but they’d be more competitive on price making a win more likely. Additionally, our service had more automation and compliance certifications, making it more compelling for the customer. Sure enough, the customer chose them. 

Think like a partner, down to the detail of how they are compensated and measured. I find it baffling when ISV partners hire for channel leads and say they want a partner person who has only worked in an ISV before. Why not consider people who were partners of ISVs or worked at hyperscalers? For hyperscalers, I’d recommend they look for those candidates who have worked at the partners they are trying to engage. Hire people who have a deep understanding of the perspective of someone in that organization.

How important is trust in building and maintaining partnerships, and what strategies do you recommend for ensuring the longevity of these relationships?

Pick a horse and ride it: If we were in the beverage industry and had a partner that made bottles, we would give them all our business and they would make different types of bottles for us. If another bottling company approached us to work with them, ‘sharing the love’ would burn the trust with the initial partner, who might be giving us a better price or other advantages that flow through to our end customers. You must demonstrate your commitment. 

To build trust, you can’t be all things to all partners: Identify the partners that are easy to work with and compelling to customers, then build your go-to-market strategy around them. If you pick the right partners the solution will work for many of your customers.

Smaller businesses face certain challenges when engaging with larger enterprises. What advice would you give to smaller businesses looking to establish partnerships with large enterprises, considering the differences in dynamics and resources?

I get about five reach-outs a week from small businesses wanting to partner with us. Even if it’s not in my space—which is focused on partnerships directly related to our AWS business—I still get requests from people with security products, for example, wanting to partner because we are a security player.

The mindset of many ISV pitching partner leads is, “I’ve got this cool product, why don’t you sell it?” But, we have 12 different practices with each practice having multiple groups, each selling numerous products. So, it’s tough to get people’s attention inside our business as sellers don’t have time to understand 100 new partner propositions in detail. To get our attention and make us invest time in learning about your product and skilling up our team to support it, you need to bring value to us that goes beyond the capabilities of your product. There are a couple of ways to do this:

- Act like a partner we already spend a lot of time with, bringing us deal flow and customer interactions – transact through us.

- Focus on a specific customer opportunity you have in the pipeline. Find a customer opportunity where we can add value and bring us into that deal. The next time one of our sellers encounters that same customer problem, they’ll think of your solution. 

Once partners have worked with us, we encourage them to set up a ‘lunch and learn’ to educate our people about their product. But it’s important to understand that initially, our sales team doesn’t care about your product; they care about their customers, so let’s find a customer to work with first and build a success story. 

Could you elaborate on the process of activating a partnership and the additional efforts required beyond solving a product problem? What key elements are involved in effectively activating and leveraging a partnership for mutual benefit?

There’s a lot of overlap in our partnerships. We currently have over a hundred onboarded partners, but we do most of our work with about 10 or 20 of them, with many others approaching us every year. The overlap in partner capabilities is significant, even among the big players. For example, one partner might have started with observability, and now they’re expanding into other areas. Meanwhile, another partner might have begun with a different focus and is now moving into observability.

It’s challenging to differentiate yourself especially with the big players like Microsoft, who claim to do everything. You can’t win every battle or be all things to all people. Start with what you’re good at, build traction around specific opportunities, and create success stories that will resonate with sellers and customers. That’s a great way to stand out.

As far as mutual benefit goes, it’s as simple as finding ways to make each other successful. Our sellers will prioritize partners who bring qualified leads over cash selling incentives any day of the week. Those same sellers bring these partners into their other customers.

Once a partnership is secured at the executive level, how do you ensure that the agreement is effectively communicated and executed by the teams on the ground?

There are so many partnerships initiated at the executive level that go nowhere, as someone must build a plan and execute that plan, it can’t just be about intent. It often comes down to the individuals involved on both sides. When I joined CyberCX we got momentum in the cloud space with a certain partner, but let our partner lead go after a restructure, and she was one of the best I had ever worked with. Her replacement didn’t have the same level of knowledge or passion so the relationship faltered. 

I once did a piece of consulting articulating a partnering framework, outlining how to establish a go-to-market motion, deciding on the types of partners they want to work with, qualify those partners, and created a lifecycle for them. It’s almost like a board game, showing where the partner is and how to move their piece on the board, breaking it down into simple and digestible steps. To approach it effectively:

- Identify the type of partners you want to work with, qualify some specific candidates, and find one that wants to work with you – business and cultural fit is important.

- Ensure that both leadership teams are on the same page, committing to investing time and resources. However, executives don’t execute the plans—it’s the people on the ground who do.

- To get each party to act, you need to make the goals concrete. Spell out specific objectives, like targeting five customers with a particular value proposition. If that doesn’t resonate, revisit the strategy, tweak the customer types or focus areas, and replicate what works. Iterate.

- Break it into small, actionable steps and start executing. High-level executive intent needs to be converted into concrete actions at the opportunity level. Nothing will happen until you start talking to customers and testing your approach. 

- Also – have some fun. Our best working partners also tend to be the kind of people we like to socialize with, humans like to work with people they enjoy being with. Make time to build real human connection.

Do you see partnerships or merger and acquisitions as a strategic approach for enriching your business offerings and adapting to evolving technology trends, especially in areas like generative AI? How integral do you believe these strategies are for staying innovative and meeting customer needs?

M&A is one way to do it. CyberCX built an end-to-end sovereign cybersecurity player in Australia and New Zealand to fill a gap in the market, after defining what a full-spectrum player looked like and bought the right trusted small companies to build a broad capability set. Thanks to our strong leadership, these pieces integrated quickly and effectively. Our CEO is a visionary who brought in a team experienced in integrating businesses. The corporate culture, shared values and cohesive brand united a larger cohort of start-ups into a single enterprise. We are now a leading provider of professional cyber security and cloud services across the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

This strategy is hard to replicate, especially without substantial financial backing. However, I believe smaller or medium-sized partners can adopt a similar ‘virtual’ approach by forming alliances with complementary partners so they can go to market together. Smaller partners can create a virtual team of partners with complementary skills, building joint value propositions and going to market together. This means focusing on your strengths and letting your partners handle other areas. It effectively doubles your sales team because your partners are also selling your services. Forming a consortium of aligned partners can multiply your reach and effectiveness, creating a powerful force multiplier.

What are the emerging trends in the world of partnerships, especially considering the evolution of designated partnership roles within businesses?

AWS has come a long way since its early days when it was a new concept with many sceptics. When I was at HP, being still unproven, AWS initially had a loose approach to partners as figured out what would work. But now it has established what works and put structures in place to deliver. The focus is on supporting partners, not just asking them to achieve competencies but helping them through the process, and assisting partners in rethinking their business within the context of a competency, and building go-to-market strategies around specific capabilities.

This evolution is likely happening elsewhere too, there’s now a lot more structure in how big partners think about it. Partner plays involve different domains: hyperscalers, ISVs, consultants, and integration partners who do the actual work. Each plays a part and depending on your organization, you need to understand these players and decide who to spend the most time with.

For instance, some ISVs may partner with AWS but don’t consider it their main go-to-market focus. They might prioritize other partnerships, like consulting or integration partners who can build deployment capabilities in the form of specialised professional services teams and build their ISV solution into broader security discussions with customers. The goal for ISVs is to make their product an integrated part of someone else’s value proposition, so their solution is included every time a security assessment is conducted, for example. The idea is to embed your product into every relevant customer interaction, ensuring it becomes a staple in the process.

Do you perceive marketplaces as effective drivers of sales, especially considering the trade-offs between building products in-house versus partnering?

It’s still transforming, and it could be a lot more effective, but marketplaces are a hot topic right now. I worked with an AWS colleague who was tasked with developing the GTM for AWS Marketplace locally, which was a new concept at the time. He was unsure how to build a go-to-market strategy because the concept was still evolving. Initially, there was uncertainty about its value, but over time, AWS figured out what worked and structured their approach to support partners effectively. 

AWS Marketplace is now a robust platform. It evolved from a small team unsure of its direction to a central and critical part of AWS’s offerings. A significant change was allowing customers to count transactions through the marketplace towards their AWS commitment, helping them access bigger discounts. However, AWS later made a change so partner professional services transacted via AWS

Marketplace no longer counted toward the customer’s AWS spend, which I believe was a mistake. If they allowed this again, more partners would push transactions through the marketplace and more customers would lean into procuring solutions this way. AWS could also further enhance the marketplace by enabling partners to build and sell more ‘standardized’ services and offerings, allowing customers to easily purchase bundled products and services that count toward their AWS spend.

In conclusion, while AWS Marketplace has made significant strides, there is potential for further growth by standardizing services and improving coordination with partners to streamline go-to-market motions.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your role as a partner leader? And what advice would you offer to aspiring partner leaders?

For me, the best part of being a partner leader is the interaction with customers and partners. Partners are essentially another type of customer, and the most rewarding part of the job is working face to face with them to solve problems together. Instead of tackling problems alone, I collaborate with a group of intelligent individuals who bring great solutions, creating great customer outcomes and stories. Many of our partners have distinct cultures, making it fun and interesting to work with people who think and operate differently. I could see myself focusing on this for the rest of my career.

My advice for any partner leader is to move beyond the typical playbook of motivating partners with superficial incentives. It’s crucial to understand each partner’s perspectives and motivations deeply. Testing and challenging your ideas while being open to different viewpoints is essential. Even if someone’s motivations seem illogical to you, recognizing and aligning with them can lead to success.

A final thought: over my 25-year career, I’ve noticed that the incentives and metrics organizations put in place often fail to drive the desired behaviours. For example, salespeople will game the system to hit targets, sometimes bypassing the actions the incentives were meant to encourage. This presents a significant opportunity for enterprises to rethink how they structure incentives and measure success. For partner leaders, understanding that behaviours are often driven by these misaligned incentives can clarify why partners might prioritize other activities over collaboration. This insight can be pivotal in navigating and improving partnerships.

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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