How do you build a thriving partner ecosystem?

I worked on the Salesforce AppExchange for almost 10 years, overseeing its growth into the tremendous partnership powerhouse it is today. It was a wild experience — one I’m very proud of — and years later I’m still peppered with questions on how we did it, what benefits we realized, what made it successful, and what challenges we faced along the way. Here are some of those answers. 

What is an ecosystem?

In enterprise SaaS technology, an ecosystem is a group of products that integrate and work well together. The products enhance one another, offering additional value to the end user. The parent companies are partners in a mutually beneficial relationship.

What are the benefits of building an ecosystem? 

Ecosystems signify that your company is on a solid growth trajectory. Done well, an ecosystem leads to additional revenue, product expansion, market expansion, and valuable partnerships. Ecosystem partnerships can also lead to acquisitions, additional funding, new partnerships, and a whole host of other things that make your company stronger. 

When should companies start thinking about partnerships and ecosystems? 

Immediately. Your company is probably in several partner relationships already, whether you know it or not, so it’s wise to put a strategy in place as soon as possible. Think about what value you’re looking to achieve, as well as what value you have to offer; then build a roadmap for how you see your partner relationships working in 1, 5, and 10 years. 

What type of a team do you need to build a partner ecosystem?

Team is a good word for it — because the day-to-day functionality of an ecosystem is often overlooked. It takes a *major* effort not only to build your ecosystem, but to keep it running smoothly. So it’s not just a product team, it’s not just a support team, and it’s not just a marketing team. You either need a super-person who can do all that stuff or a super-group of people. Very few companies think about building out the support function of an ecosystem because it sounds expensive, but it’s absolutely necessary.

What’s important to consider as teams think about partnerships and growth? 

Ecosystem partnerships are relationships that can really last, but it’s important to make sure you position your company in a way that you can pivot both how and when you need to. Just because a particular relationship works for you today doesn’t mean it will work for you in the future, so be careful to allow yourself the freedom to evolve. This can be as simple as added language in your contract, but it’s something to think about as you build a strategy. 

How should younger companies approach their partnership strategies?

One angle is to think about building a cluster. You can’t be partners with everyone, so think about a couple of apps that surround yours and make it a suite that becomes supremely powerful for the user; then build partnerships with them in a way that lifts all of you. It can’t always work that way, but that’s definitely a strategy smaller companies should consider — Who are the other two companies that make us a powerhouse cluster? 

How do you not pick favorites inside the ecosystem but still build growth?

This is tough. Once you’ve got options in your ecosystem, customers will start asking, “Which one should I get?” But you cannot make recommendations. Again, you are building a democracy in the middle of a kingdom — Yes, you have to accomplish your sales objectives, but it’s vital to remain impartial while doing so.

What’s one thing companies underplan for in an ecosystem?

Channel conflict. Companies building an ecosystem always think it’s never going to get “that bad” or cause channel problems, but issues will arise. What you’re building here is basically an indirect sales team or an indirect sales channel — so you need to consider the impact this will have on your direct sales team and how their incentives align.  

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