Jack Rossi, a Director at SPMB Executive Search, recently sat down with his placement Kris Jenkins, who leads Strategic Alliances and Business Development at ON24. During their discussion, they delve into perhaps the most common partnership pitfall — the “Barney” partnership. Named after everyone’s favorite purple dinosaur, Barney Partnerships are ones in which two or more vendors do a song and dance about how much they love each other but offer little to no value to the engagement beyond that. These types of arrangements tend to fall short of achieving common goals or any measurable benefit — and instead consume valuable time and resources.
So, how do you avoid the Barney Partnership? As Kris illustrates in this Q&A, the first step in doing so is identifying the missteps that can lead you down this tempting and well-traveled partnership path.
Kris, as a seasoned Strategic Alliances leader, how have you gone about avoiding “Barney” partnerships – the ones where you and your partner say, “I love you. You love me,” and that’s all that it amounts to? How do you create partnerships that drive meaningful business outcomes for both companies involved?
First of all, it’s hard work to avoid them. You do a bunch of work with a partner – spending time, money, effort, and other resources to make something happen – and sometimes it results in little more than a big press release. In my experience, it’s critical to understand what causes these types of partnerships so you can do your due diligence and assess the viability of an alliance at the very outset.
What are those key things to look out for to avoid a Barney partnership?
I’d say there are four main things to be aware of to avoid a Barney partnership:
#1 – The real work starts after the partnership is formed
As a startup, you hope that your technology is sexy enough for a larger partner to want to work with you. When you ask that larger partner to the dance, and they say, “yes,” you’re thrilled that you got that opportunity. This is where so many partnerships fall short or fail altogether — smaller companies think that going to the dance is enough. You assume that because your partner is so much bigger, you’ll be able to drive revenue just by stuff falling off the wagon. However, you cannot create value through association alone — there’s just no substance to that approach. Too often startups become so enamored with big tech partnerships that it becomes the end goal when, in fact, it’s just the starting point.
#2 – Prioritize long-term value
The second thing I’ve seen lead to a Barney partnership is only focusing on partner managers in the ecosystem. Partner managers are working with blinders on, because they’re thinking about engagements from a short-term go-to-market perspective — “How do I drive revenue now?”
This happens when incentives are misaligned within the organizations. If it doesn’t produce immediate revenue, then it dies. However, if I have a partner program that has zero integrations, but I am being measured on revenue in the short term, then I’m going to ignore the long-term value that integrations create. You simply focus on sharing lists with your partner and forcing account conversations to happen. You also tend to bring in marketing to share a big press release and drive a whole bunch of other activities, but you fundamentally fail to go deep on what the true value is that you’re bringing to a customer.
Through this approach, you’ll likely find a few turnips that fall off the pickup truck and drive value occasionally, but it’s very difficult to show long-term value and that resources should continue to be committed to a partnership. The long-term value of the integration is the most important thing to consistently prioritize.
#3 – Get the right people together
Another misstep I often see is not getting the right people in both organizations to weigh in on use cases and the technical viability of the partnership at the outset. Product and engineering need to be heavily involved in the process. Partner people cannot be the only ones to drive the engagement, because they don’t and can’t go deep enough to uncover the actual use cases — the detailed value, the persona that would buy that integration, and the value that is created in the ecosystem.
#4 – Buy-in must come from the top
Lastly, I think the most important thing for the health of a partnership is buy-in from the CEO. If the CEO isn’t committed to investing in partners and isn’t fully on board, they won’t work. With my current employer, ON24, the leadership team made it very clear that partners are a key part of their strategy.
The Partner team, which relies on these groups, will get snubbed or pushed aside without support from the top. You have to have sales engagements. You have to have sales enablement. If partnerships are not a priority, they will never get off the ground. If your CEO doesn’t care about it, then your Head of Sales Enablement isn’t going to care that you have a great partnership, your Head of Product or your Head of Integration won’t care about having a great partnership, and it goes on and on across the org. You need to have somebody at the top saying this is a priority and then the rest of the organization will follow.
Looking back at your Workfront days, what did you put in place to ensure that both sides were tracking towards some sort of meaningful business outcome?
We did a really great job of organizational mapping of our partners. We identified the right individuals throughout our partners and had regular touchpoints with them. Large strategic technology partners like the Adobes and the Salesforces of the world, the big guns — they don’t really care about you. As a smaller company, you need them more than they need you. Getting in and staying in is a huge challenge. The key to our success was being able to connect with multiple people at different levels and in different departments. It comes back to this: you can’t just have partner managers on both sides managing it. That alone will not drive the right kind of success.
For the partnerships that were the most successful, we had teams of people working in alignment on both sides to ensure its success. We got our product team aligned with their product team and our CEO with their CEO-equivalent. The solutions engineers and architects were connected. The enablement teams were connected. Our partnerships team wasn’t really driving most of the work. We were just orchestrating all the right people and making sure that they were having the conversations. The partner team was really just quarterbacking it all and connecting the dots.
As you start to build out your team, what skill sets or types of people do you look for?
There are a few things that I look for:
#1 Creativity and conviction
They’ve got to have a creative mind and very good people and sales skills. You have to be able to pick up technical jargon and value propositions quickly. You have to learn fast. You can’t be uncomfortable having hard conversations about ideas. Oftentimes, your ideas are actually completely opposite of where your organization has been in the past, and you’ve got to convince them that your new idea or your creative way of doing things will work. If you aren’t able to articulate your ideas, then I don’t think you’re going to be as successful in this role.
#2 A value architect
Next, I look for people who have had to build something fundamentally new from the ground up. In many partnerships roles, you have to be really good at being on your own and driving activity that doesn’t exist yet. You’re creating something out of nothing. You have to be able to see that thing that is going to drive value that nobody else sees and without anybody telling you. So much of this job is being on your own and being a self-starter.
#3 The tie that binds
And finally, I look for someone who is a connector and a great interviewer. These are people who have had experience connecting with the whole organization — that’s important. You have to be a really great interviewer – someone who can really get at the core value of what’s going on at an organization, which usually means being able and comfortable running in many circles!
The best people I’ve hired have been really great at picking up on the value proposition, they’re self-starters and have solved problems with creativity.
Kris, this has been such an insightful window into the work you do as a Partnership leader. Thank you for taking the time to pull back the curtain and share so much detail with us. This is a functional area that I’m fascinated by and love working in because of the impact partnerships can have on an organization—from both a growth and revenue perspective—when they’re executed successfully. Thank you again.
If you’re looking to add to your Strategic Alliance/Partnership team or seeking general advice on hiring, please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit us at SPMB.com.