Optimizing Your Partnerships at Scale: An Interview with Nikita Zhitkevich

Nikita Zhitkevich lives in the world of partnerships. He leads partnerships and alliances for PartnerStack, which is a leading PRM and partner marketplace.

Nikita shared his insights on when you need a PRM, identifying your ideal partners, strategies to avoid channel conflict, and how he sees the partnership landscape evolving over the next 5 years.

Can you tell me about PartnerStack and what makes it different from other PRMs?

We provide the tooling for partnership and revenue leaders to reach their growth objectives.

As a graduate of Y-Combinator, PartnerStack has been rooted in helping some of the world’s fastest growing SaaS companies scale. Companies like Asana, Monday.com, Unbounce, Intercom, and Intuit all use PartnerStack to manage and scale their partner programs, and onboard thousands of partners into our platform. 

There are a few unique aspects to PartnerStack, which has led us to becoming the #1 platform on G2.

PartnerStack is the only solution that has both the PRM and a B2B focused marketplace that connects vendors with partners. On average, our marketplace drives a 30%+ lift in revenue for customers.

We are extremely focused on partner experience, which is a big distinction for us. Most PRMs are focused solely on the vendor experience. But if both sides of this equation are not having a good experience, then it becomes a problem. 

And with PartnerStack, all of your channels can be managed from a single platform - affiliate, referral, reseller and ambassador. We see a lot of companies, agencies, and resellers choosing our platform to help them consolidate their channels into a single view.

How is your partnership team structured at PartnerStack?

Our team is still relatively young, as we launched it in April. The majority of this year has been building relationships and working with both agencies and resellers.

I lead the team, and we have an incredible Account Manager that works closely with our partners, as well as a partner marketing manager that works on any co-marketing efforts we run with partners.  

Our partnership team is currently focused on two core areas:. 

  • First, working with agencies and resellers that are currently reselling SaaS vendors, bringing those vendors onto PartnerStack. 
  • Secondly, working with agencies and resellers that are looking to shift their existing customers onto a modern partner management solution.

We often work with sales when one of their SaaS prospects wants to launch PartnerStack right away but doesn’t have the internal bandwidth. In those cases, we connect them with an agency partner who we know can do it right away and do it well. 

Nikita Zhitkevich

Technology partnerships are also on our radar. We have recently built a number of integrations. One of our goals in 2021 and going into 2022 will be to further build out our technology partner program and our own integration marketplace. 

We also plan to enter the app marketplaces of other SaaS vendors, especially CRMs like SugarCRM or Hubspot. CRMs are good partners for us because, with the exception of Salesforce, no CRM has a PRM as part of their product offering. So our software is complementary rather than competitive. And it benefits our customers to have those systems integrated.

What advice would you give for organizations trying to think through who their ideal partners are?

Ultimately, everything has to come down to revenue. Whether you’re pursuing referral, reseller, or technology partnerships, you have to tie them back to driving revenue. 

Especially since you need the support of other departments in your organization, whether it is collaboration with the sales team or the product team to help build integrations, the benefit to the business needs to be very clear.

For agency and reseller partners, I would advise looking to see if they power similar products to yours. I’d also think about whether the partner will continue to evolve over time in the direction you are going and whether they truly understand your product and space. 

For us, we also want to see commitment and investment from our partners. 

We consistently ask our partners, “How can we do better? How can we do more for our shared clients?” If partners are receptive to these conversations and being active in the partnership, it’s a good sign they will continue to invest. 

If we invest and our partners invest, it becomes a win-win-win for us, them, and our clients.

I do think a necessary part of the process of figuring out your ideal partner profile is forming a number of partnerships. Through that experience, you’ll be able to identify more clearly what is working and what you need in a partner to be successful. 

We went through a number of partners at the beginning, and that helped us to really identify our ideal partner profile. Data has helped us realize that an agency of a certain size that truly understands our product and is willing to invest in it brings the best results. 

Is there a stage of growth you would recommend a company adopting PartnerStack? Are there criteria for when it is the best time to adopt a PRM?

A lot of SMB companies ask this. My guidance would be to ensure you have product-market fit, know who your ideal partners are, and have an understanding of how much you are looking to invest in partnerships.

If you have those three answers, it is often beneficial to purchase at that point in time. A PRM really provides a better partner experience and gives you data and scalability. If you’re investing in partnerships as a path for growth, you need the functionality. 

We do have a lot of companies who purchase when they have already launched their partner program. But it is more important to think about how serious you are about partnerships as a revenue driver and how many partners you seek than how many employees you have on the partnership team. Even with one partnerships person, for example, if they are trying to manage 10-15 partner relationships, a PRM would be beneficial.

If you’re planning to scale your partnerships at all, you need the infrastructure in place to do this. For some organizations, this can be a tough decision to make at the beginning. 

How much do you seek out partners versus handle inbound demand?

Due to the fact that we have this massive marketplace on our platform, we do receive a decent volume of inbound demand. But at this stage of program growth, we are very targeted in whom we partner with. 

We do outreach to agencies who fit our ideal partner profile because we want to ensure that each of our partnerships are very high value. As we scale our partnerships team, we will be more open and be able to form more partnerships. But right now, we are incredibly selective.  

How do you measure the success of your partnerships?

We track many metrics that are all ultimately tied back to driving revenue. We track how many sales and referrals are coming from our partners. Then we also track the retention rates, LTV, and customer satisfaction of partner-driven customers.

There can be an interesting challenge around weighing the value of direct customers versus clients who have never seen the inside of our portal because it is being managed for them by one of our partners.

Right now, we are more focused on our resellers but our attention to direct referral partners is growing over time. Partners in that category will start by referring clients to us but then move to co-selling and co-marketing activities.

How do you advise organizations to avoid channel conflict?

Channel conflict is a very real thing at large organizations. You really do not want sales and partnership teams working against each other. 

I think you need two things to avoid channel conflict. Leadership alignment and clear processes and tracking.

Leadership alignment is important because a lot of conflict comes from a lack of understanding of how sales and partnerships should work together. If your organization does not have an understanding of these relationships on a strategic level, there will be conflict.

Once there is a strategic understanding, you have to put a clear process and structure in place that enables that relationship. When does a person own an account? How can others contribute later in the process, if at all?

Once you define the criteria, using lead and deal registration can make it clear to everyone what the status of a particular account is. That helps avoid two people from different teams working the same account and feeling entitled to the win if it closes.  

Another tactic might be to incentivize working together by double comp-ing sales and partner managers when they work together to close a deal. Organizations need to have that conversation and figure out the right incentive structure to ensure their goals are being met. 

Partnership software, whether it is PartnerStack or another PRM, helps to avoid channel conflict because it provides visibility, communication, and tracking that lowers the chance of conflicts caused by not knowing who owns an account or who has contributed to its success. 

What is your advice for companies looking to grow their partner program? 

Keep it as simple as possible. Make it easy and simple for partners to join. Be data-driven and ensure you have the visibility to connect your partnerships to revenue. Make sure your organization is aligned on the value of partnerships.  

What I see with a lot of partnership teams is they don’t invest in the acquisition of partners as much as they should. Just like you have SDRs, you need PDRs. It is very much its own sales process. 

Partnership leaders face a lot of competing priorities but it is important to continue to focus on outbound. Ensure that that motion is healthy. Do not overinvest in one or two partners. 

When you’re looking for partners, understand that customers are always at the heart of organizations. Show your partners how a relationship with you will drive revenue and benefit their customers. And be clear how the partnership will do the same for you. Partnerships should be a win for both partners and for customers.  

How do you see the partnership landscape in SaaS evolving over the next 5 years?

A lot more SaaS companies are going to grow up and this channel will grow up with them. As organizations lean into the channel more, partnership infrastructure is going to be more important, whether this is PRMs, account mapping, or marketplace software. 

There are going to be new distributor and reseller models cropping up. More SaaS distributors will just sell solutions and do nothing else. But managed services will also continue to grow because keystone systems like CRMs and PRMs can be complex to set up, and not everyone will have the resources to do this internally. 

Technology partnerships are also going to continue to grow in importance because of the proliferation of solutions. Customers want to be able to use the best-in-breed tools and have them be integrated with each other and their keystone systems. SaaS companies should continue to grow their partner program. Their overall revenues coming from the partnerships channel will increase dramatically in the coming years.

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