The intersection of product-led and partnerships-led... For better or worse.

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A product-led growth strategy is pretty standard for most successful SaaS companies over the last 10 years.

"Product-led growth" means the product features and funnel create the inbound, convert the users, retention them, and the cycle continues to optimize as the product team iterates on the data. This system does not rely on sales and marketing teams to grow.

[Here's an article that helps you understand great examples of where product teams build features that bring partners closer to the funnel to help grow a SaaS solution.]

The features these teams build are there to create as many reasons as possible for users to stay and refer friends, peers, or co-workers.

Now, "partnerships-led growth" means the org understands the value of including a third party (the partner) in as many marketing campaigns and sales conversations as possible.

If you're somewhere where you can watch a video, here's a short explanation:

These partners are also providing services on top of the product - implementation, integrations, and support - which supplement customer success.

So imagine you are at a product-led growth SaaS - like Airtable. Monday, or Zapier.

These tools, being needed by multiple teams in an organization in a massive number of use cases... are in a special place to draw in digital agency "solutions providers" (i.e. "experts").

These third-party experts are selling services on top of the products.

They are also running operations for clients in their own accounts.

And, they are receiving incremental new value from the product the more clients they have buying services on the product.

Here's Alec from to explain:

So what happens when the SaaS decides to open up new markets, go upstream, or enter a new competitive market?

These orgs begin to receive new types of requests from customers, and they start to feel the compounding stress on their support teams. Soon, more and more solutions providers step up to the plate to meet those needs, and fill that demand.

So some propose they launch a partner program to train and enable these service providers.

They task someone internally to run it, or hire.

This person is rarely a partnerships expert.

To start, the main tasks of a new partnerships team are operations and partner success-focused:

  1. Figure out and organize what third parties are involved in user accounts.
  2. Ask a log of questions, figure out what they need.
  3. Hire some partner success support.
  4. Build an onboarding and support system.
  5. Consider an LMS for partner credentials.

Now what?

Well, your team is great at onboarding, training and supporting partners...

But the higher-ups want partner-sourced net new revenue.

So now...

The team built for partner success and training is now responsible for a revenue number.

Which means they have to reach out create a new incentive structure, and nurturing process, then reach out cold, present the partner opportunity, and more than ever before... Become a sales team.

So your partner success team has to now take these steps:

  1. Call on any underperforming partner accounts asking them why they haven't referred business (or worse, outsource that process to an agency).
  2. Run an analysis of successful KPIs of these accounts vs accounts without third parties involved.
  3. For those accounts which are most successful, define all of their agencies by service offering, size, location, and other tech partners they have... to create a partner persona.
  4. Enrich a list of targets who match that persona.
  5. Begin outreach to net new partners.

The "sale" from a partnership perspective is much different. As a partnerships manager, you are selling:

  • To net new leads on why they should build a business on top of your SaaS.
  • Through a current partner to get them to introduce their clients.
  • Current partners on referring their peers.

- Which takes both sales and partnership skills.

It's very difficult to do. And the important partner prospects are finite. So you cannot burn bridges.

And that's one reason why partner teams who have grown up in product-led orgs struggle to prove their worth. They are doing a lot of valuable work, but the product is so good that they have difficulty showing where they've brought in the net-new revenue.

The second reason partnerships-led growth may be a tough transition for a product-led org is because of the changes in KPI priority at the account level.

Let me explain...

Product-led companies just want users. As many as possible.

When this org wants to focus on profits, they have to take their current user-base and create as many paid accounts as possible.

How this shift to profit-focus works in practice is as follows:

  1. Further restrictions on shared accounts under current paid plans.
  2. Telling the third-party partners to stop adding their client's work to their own account, or prevent through product changes, and instead, start helping their clients to create their own accounts.
  3. Partner "Success" loses priority to partner-sourced leads and net-new users attributed to partners, which puts pressure on the partner managers to do more sales outreach asking for business from partners as opposed to helping them retain or win business.

And clearly, this would upset the solutions partner ecosystem that had been working well up until that point.

So, how can an early-stage tech company work to mitigate this potential issue between product-led and partner-led?

Here are some product tips from Alec Biedrzycki Head of Partner Marketing @ Jasper:

  1. "Have your partners sell to the end customer the same way your GTM team would (i.e. instead of a partner managing all the work out of their own sold portal, direct them to sell 1:1 to each client). Otherwise, you'll paint yourself into a corner like Zapier.
  2. Give your partner the same type of visibility they would have on the post-sale side (i.e. a 1:many "umbrella" look of all their managed accounts). Think "How would a CSM want to manage all their client accounts?" because a partner will operate in a similar way.

"With that mindset, you should figure out the short term solution to manage it, and then once you show impact, get the product team to invest in making a more specialized partner experience." -">Alec Biedrzycki

To hear the full episode - head to:

My advice:

  1. Everything Alec said ^
  2. I'd add - replace partner referral commissions with billing credits - to be used by the agency partner as a gift for their clients, or on their own account to reduce their bill. Airtable does this really well.
  3. Additionally, allow agencies to purchase licenses in bulk at a 30-50% off discount, to be given out to new clients to increase their value to the new client - and also speeding up the sale cycle, and giving partner teams another way to generate end of quarter sales by using those bulk license discounts in partner campaigns.
  4. Finally, begin all of this as soon as possible. Don't wait until you have hundreds of agencies associated with user accounts to start rolling out a "partnerships strategy." It's going to happen, so build your product with this advice ahead of time and let partnerships just be a part of your growth natively.