Founder's Story: Bryn Jones
Would you believe that PartnerStack started out as a pretty bad version of Slack just 4 years ago? Let me take a step back and start at the beginning.
I was a competitive swimmer growing up (yes, the very beginning - I promise it’ll be quick) and swam at international meets around the world from 2009-2011. In 2010 I got sick with what turned out to be swine flu, immediately followed by pneumonia. It was brutal and I had to take time off swimming. Feeling out of shape, I joined an intensive training camp at altitude in Arizona that ultimately pushed my body to the limit when I wasn’t in peak shape and caused my organs to swell. It was pretty detrimental and my body was never the same after. I finished my varsity year of swimming and was voted male athlete of the year, but that was the end of my competitive swimming career.
That competitive spirit never left me, however, and it’s how I ended up at Western learning how athletes transition out of swimming into careers. And with the extra 30 hours I had back each week now that I wasn’t swimming, I had the time and energy to dedicate to a new pet project.
PartnerStack’s 4 co-founders came together in 2014. Luke Swanek and I had been friends for 7 years when we met our other co-founders, Neil Chudleigh and Jon Mendes in grad school at Western. We were all in a business accelerator program there where we started working on a company we called Pod.
Our first (horrible) startup was born
It was essentially Slack for nonprofits. Neil and I even dropped out of school - against our families’ wishes of course - to dedicate our full attention to the fledgeling business. The 4 of us moved back to Toronto and lived together in a small house in Koreatown that we worked out of. Things were bad - Luke and I both took out loans and the debt started piling up; we couldn’t even afford a metro pass to get around the city for investor and sales meetings. We were driving a small amount of growing revenue but we couldn’t raise any capital and had no customers. Why? Because honestly we were a bad version of Slack. Potential customers kept asking us if Pod could do everything Slack does and we had to say it couldn't...
We started paying outside people commissions to sell Pod for us, and through agencies in Toronto and London we started making 20K/month. We did realize it at first, but we’d basically created a channel marketing program. What helped me see the value of what we’d accidentally built was when companies started asking us how we were running our channel marketing.
Our second startup was born
At the end of 2014, I was in the air on my way to our holiday vacation when I realized Pod was a slow-moving business while we’d always wanted to create something high growth. After the holidays, I measured the opportunity cost of pursuing this vs. starting something new, and I somehow managed to convince my co-founders to build a landing page that focused on the one part of Pod that was working. It didn’t actually do anything at first but we talked about letting anyone refer a business and be rewarded. We even listed 10 ‘sample’ profiles of companies supposedly running channel programs through us (Including, of course, Microsoft among other big names). Then Luke and I started cold calling companies we thought had partner marketing programs and suggesting they use us. We landed 40 companies in 2 weeks and that was the proof we all needed to be sure we were onto something big.
I did some serious research and learned that approximately $300 billion was sold yearly in SaaS, and that ⅓ is through 3rd party vendors - aka partners - but manually. Partner marketing was the last fossil in tech even though it was such a big revenue driver. Even as a manual process, it was a significant differentiator for the big companies like Microsoft, Cisco, Shopify, Hubspot, etc. who were already doing it and I was confident this was the direction we should be heading in.
I think our perseverance was due in part to desperation - we needed this startup to work. Coming from Western University (not the more prestigious University of Waterloo), the 4 of us didn’t have an open door into the big tech companies. We applied to every incubator program we could find from 500 Startups to Techstars and beyond but no one was accepting us. We even drove to Philly during a nor'easter to interview at an incubator.
The turning point
We applied to Y Combinator (a leading accelerator program) 3 months after having the idea for PartnerStack (initially called GrowSumo based on a 5 minute search of cheap domain names); our site still didn’t work when we applied but we had a strong understanding of the issue companies were facing through our customer conversations. We were thrilled when they asked us to fly to California for an interview. As typical Canadians, we arrived in San Francisco and froze in our tee-shirts and shorts, but we all thought the interview went really well and were expecting to be accepted into the program. After a stressful night of checking our phones every hour, we finally got our acceptance call from Y Combinator’s Kevin Hale at 10:45pm, a few hours after we’d given up hope.
We worked extremely hard during our time at Y Combinator and while we weren’t always impressing our advisors, we left as a top voted product on ProductHunt. This drove a ton of new customers for us and helped us close a round of funding in February 2016 before heading back home to Canada. The rest of that year we spent slowly and deliberately building a product that worked, and that customers wanted (this is Y Combinator’s mission too), with a very lean budget and team. We hired our first sales rep in 2017 and spent that year learning how to sell PartnerStack.
2018 has been spent scaling PartnerStack to the high growth company it is today (hooray!), but I think it’s the highs and lows along the way that really helped shape PartnerStack - and I'm grateful for all of the learning experiences we've had along the way.