How 19 SaaS Companies Got Their First 100 Partners

May 27, 2019
Company Tips

Have you decided to start a partner program?

In partnership with the research team at Databox, we asked 19 SaaS companies how they got theirs started.

But, first– why did they start one?

The majority of these SaaS companies started their programs due to demand from potential partners or resellers, and over half used their program as an experiment for growth:

So, you’re in good company if you have some demand and are serious about growing through partnerships.

But, if you’re reading this, you might be struggling with one thing: what should you do to attract, engage and activate enough partners to make it worth your while.

That’s why we asked, “What did you do to get your first 100 partners?” One hundred partners felt like a great benchmark for a new partner program. It shows people are willing (and trusting!) enough to refer your product or service to their own network, and allows you to see which type of partner is the best fit for your program.

So, as you develop your partner program launch plan, here’s some ideas and inspiration from folks who have done it...

1. Define what makes a good partner program for  your business.

Partnering with other software companies—whether it’s on a referral, support or technical basis—is a great way to build connections and generate more revenue.

Virtru’s Roy Duckles said a good partner program has these six qualities:

  1. Branded – Indicates what it does for the partner
  2. Simple – Clear and structured partner model
  3. Manageable – Easy to deliver, use and operate
  4. Measurable – Effective processes for business governance
  5. Accountable – Cost effective and economic
  6. Adaptive – Scalable, and flexible”

Duckles says: “From this we defined and delivered the "Virtru Velocity Partner Program," launched it in EMEA and North America with 3 primary distributors and within 6 months we had recruited 110 IT Security resellers to deliver the program to its clients.”

So, are you ready to see similar results to Duckles—and build a partner program that drives new customers?

2. Understand your partner’s motivations

When we asked Nataliya Lysyk how the CallPage team worked to get their first 100 partners, her answer was simple: “We made a helicopter view on the situation.”

“We analysed the market and buyer persona of our customers,” Lsysk explains—something that lead to the realization that their team could “sign bigger customer with the help of resellers (partners who help to on board customers) but when it comes to smaller customers we focused on our affiliate program.”

“Our challenge was to compare these two factors in one program and make it easy and 100% automated for partners to sign up for the program, add and manage their customers, and in the end be able to receive the commission from the transactions.”

Lysyk says: “When it comes to the key thing that helped us to sign up first 100 partners - it was understanding which partners we want to have and focusing on making their life easy working with our tool.”

The CallPage team aren’t the only company focusing on their customers (and what they want) before building their partner program.

Sprout Social’s Tara Robertson says: “Rather than jumping in and building a partner program based on what the industry was doing, we took a customer-led approach and spent our first few months with our customers learning what would help them grow and where they would see value in a program.”

This process included “qualitative surveys, live interviews, and reviewing our early program plans for feedback with customers,” which lead to Robertson’s team “recruiting a select group of 'founding members' to help us build and scale together.”

The best part? Since getting to know their ideal partners, Robertson says: “Since then we have scaled to over 1,000 partners and growing month over month!”

3. Invite your loyal customers to become partners

Chris Samila told us that FullStory gained their first 100 partners after reaching “out to existing digital agencies and consulting firms using our technology and explained the value proposition of having a more official relationship that could help them build new service line revenue off helping other customer[s] use the technology.”

But if you don’t have an army of loyal customers to reach out to, don’t panic.

Our research discovered that over 35% of companies had fewer than 100 customers when they started their partner program:

Drift’s Michele Albanese also invited existing customers to become partners before opening the floodgates to anyone and everyone: “When we started the program, we began with a small handful of 12 companies already active in our community.”

Albanese says: “They were already Drift customers and we knew they could provide valuable product knowledge and marketing expertise quickly.”

Michał Szczygłowski from LiveChat reported the same success with recruiting partners from their install base, “We found partners in a few places: people who have written valuable content in our industry, as well as our existing clients who are marketing agencies and freelancers.”

4. Headhunt your ideal partners

“We started off by identifying the pain points and advantages we could offer (not just financial), then began a multi-platform approach following successes based on reporting back the source and keyword of active referring Partners,” explains Pete Allcock of Ruler Analytics.

To do this, Allcock’s team “produced blog content relevant and useful to the agency partners,” and “used a combination of social (organic and paid) channels to get the content in front of them.”

But instead of exclusively relying “on the inbound approach,” the team at Ruler Analytics “attended relevant events, outreached on LinkedIn and email as well as some heavily targeted cold calls.”

ClickFunnels’ Dave Woodward also echoed Allcock’s advice to actively headhunt the companies you want to partner with. To do this, his team “would send them something in the mail that was relevant to them and their business. We would then follow up with them via email, FB messenger, text etc. Whichever way we thought would get us the best response.”’s Avital Cohen used this strategy with a twist. The team opened two programs: “1 for referral partners and the second for resellers. The referral partners had a kind of organic growth, starting from existing clients who asked to promote”

However, Cohen “realized the huge potential and we added a "join the partners' program" form on our website and started to get many applications (without promoting it).”

“With the resellers, we did do "head hunting" according to the profile we were looking for. We were searching for experienced resellers in different locations and were able to recruit the leaders of the industry,” Cohen summarizes.

...Including those already partnering with other SaaS companies

The partners you’re choosing for your program are important for its success.

Your own reputation could be tarnished if you’re partnering with any company open to collaborations—and look like you’re motivated by sales, rather than helping your customers.

But if you’re struggling to headhunt companies who would be a great fit, take a leaf from CrazyCall’s book: “We started to reach out to companies who are already someone else's affiliate (not exactly our direct competitors but a SaaS partner),” explains Szymon Golyski.

5. Run webinars to educate partners

When Peter Caputa IV started HubSpot’s partner program back in 2009, he noticed a trend in the way agencies run:

“Most digital marketing agencies were generating most of their revenue from projects. They were doing website projects and short-term SEO projects. As a result, most agencies suffered from the cash-flow roller coaster. They'd sell a bunch of projects and then get real busy doing the work. As a result, they'd stop selling. Then, all of a sudden, they'd have no work and no cash coming in.”

He followed the advice of understanding your ideal customers, and decided on an idea to help them solve the problem he identified: “We ran a webinar series to teach prospective partners how to package and price up services that our product could help them deliver.”

“We taught them how to package up a set of services that could deliver more ROI if the client kept paying them to perform them every month. [...] This way, they'd get a client and have them pay them a set amount of money every month.”

“We also taught them how to market themselves better, so that they would have plenty of qualified leads to sell their services to every month.”

Caputa initially ran these “training webinars [for] free.” And since HubSpot’s “marketing team was already generating a few thousand leads per month at that time,” they promoted the webinars to their “email list, have people attend and follow up with the hand-raisers.”

HubSpot wasn’t the only one who put marketing first when they launched their progran. Of the 18 companies we surveyed, almost 50% put a marketer in charge of the program:

6. Use a partner marketplace

Have you already defined the type of partners you want?

Barbara Derkowska of Brand24 explains how this initial understanding helped build their program: “At the very beginning, we invited several "testing Partners,” picked from our customer base, industry, and the closest network. It brought us precious feedback and let us improve the program before launching it on a bigger scale.”

Following the launch, Derkowska’s next move was to invite “a selected, yet larger, group of satisfied customers and entered PartnerStack's marketplace.”

“Surprisingly, the marketplace turned out to be the biggest game changer of all,” Derkowska says. “It got us (and is constantly getting!) a huge number of Partners. Thanks to this source, we crossed a number of 100 Partners in 1 month.”

7. Align Your Packaging with Your Partner’s Business Model

Going back to bringing your customers onboard as partners, Hike’s Andy Allen says: “Our partners are marketing agencies/consultants who use Hike to deliver SEO to their existing, or future, client base.”

But instead of following the “norm,” Allen used the feedback from Hike’s partners, and created a new product to better-fit their needs: “We created an 'agency' product which is aimed at agencies, and differed from our existing product that was aimed at individual SMEs.”

“For example, the agency product allowed for multiple websites to be added into a single account, and the pricing structure was more relevant for agencies (eg the pricing was not based on length of contract, which is important to agencies as often their clients can change through churn/acquisition) as it gave them more freedom to add and remove websites within the platform.”

Peter Caputa IV, Databox’s CEO, also started their partner program in a similar way—by giving “the product to 20 marketing agencies for free for 6 months with a promise that we would make it very inexpensive for their first 10 clients.”

“These were people I had known for years because they were pretty early members of the HubSpot partner program. After they played with it a bit, I then simply asked, "How could this help you?"

“A few of them suggested that if it could do a few more things for them, they'd use it to report results to clients. So, our product team started building the integrations our partners asked for, like more robust integrations with Google Analytics, Facebook Ads and HubSpot, as well as new integrations with common agency tools like Jira, Teamwork and Harvest.”

“Over time, we built a bunch of functionality they requested like the ability to automatically send last month's reports to clients by email, and a screen so agencies could see how they are performing for every client in one view.

This lead to a very different pricing and packaging model for agencies with a unique product for them. In fact, the first question our interface asks every new user when they create an account is to identify whether they will be a partner or not. Then we create the right account for them.”

Similar to Hike, Databox allows agencies to add and remove their own clients, “At HubSpot (and other SaaS companies I’ve advised), we struggled with the mismatch between the way agencies do contracts and the way SaaS companies need to do it. Agencies often have short-term engagements that are often productive and mutually beneficial for both parties. On the other hand, SaaS companies obsess over churn reduction. This caused major internal consternation and often lead to underinvestment in the partner program. At Databox, I decided to simply embrace the agency’s model. Agencies pay us for a group of clients (10 at a time) and they can add, delete, downgrade and upgrade clients all on their own. By having this agreement and payment be between us and our partner, we’re mostly insulated from the churn. Further, over time, agencies have increased their spend with us, on average. So, as they grow, we grow and we do not have to worry about every client they lose or fire. ”

8. Offer generous incentives

Why should partners join your program?

The answer to that question should be plastered everywhere—including your sign-up form, information page, and even your onboarding emails—because people often need incentives to do something.   

“We created a super to join easy affiliate program without any approval process,” explains Maros Kortis of Mangools—who also “offer lifetime 30% commission, ssince our subscriptions have both monthly and annual billing cycles.”

By doing so, Kortis says “our affiliate partners can earn a lot of money.”

...That’s as good an incentive as any.

9. Gamify the onboarding process

Great job! You’ve piqued the interest of several SaaS companies, and they’re hitting the “become a partner” button on your website to find out more. Don’t lose them at the last hurdle.

When we asked David Batchelor how got their first 100 partners, he mentioned how their success lied in the onboarding process: “One thing we've found is making the program fun and more "game-like" has really helped our success from it.''

That’s why Batchelor recommends “adding tiers and levels that are able to be reached based on the number of referrals brought in.”

JetRails’ Robert Rand also advises to focus on your onboarding process: “Have a process for onboarding partners, and supporting them through next-steps. This can include scheduling kickoff calls, creating press releases and various other co-marketing activities, and setting up joint Slack channels for communication.”

10. Be cautious of over-automation

One report found 55% of B2B companies are using some form of marketing automation.

But Jean-Francois Poirier said the team at VidCruiter “designated a partner relations/community outreach manager very early on”—something he credits the success of their partner program to.  

Kent Raju answered similarly, and said Folderit Ltd’s partner program “had a very personal touch with our sellers from the start, and we still do. That's what should make any reseller program different from affiliate programs.”

While automation seems to be taking over the marketing world, Raju says: “There should be some automation to the process of course, but it should still be mostly manual -- vetting the interested companies and reaching out to some yourself, discussing the agreements and later on taking the time to care about the relationship between the two companies.”

“It goes a long way and helps you sign up more and higher quality resellers when the word-of-mouth gets going,” Raju summarizes.

11. Don't neglect your partners once they're onboard

“Getting the first 100 partners was great, but you need to keep them engaged and working with you”—something Pete Allock says “can be almost as difficult as acquiring them in the first place.”

To retain their partners and keep them happy, Allcock’s team “have recently started a Partner Listing page on the site.” He says “only a small proportion of partners are on this so far, and it's quite basic, but it's been a good way to keep [that] contact up, as well as offering a link back to partners domains.”

Seventh Sense’s Mike Donnelly recommends this, too. His team are “now on version 3.5 of our partner program based on successes, challenges and most importantly, feedback from the agency partner community.”

“When we first started the program it was designed as a pure "reseller" program, however we quickly learned that this is not really what agencies wanted. They wanted a way to grow their services revenue, so we started placing a heavy emphasis on building out playbooks that agencies could follow to deliver additional retainer services around our product.”

How to Get Your First 100 Partners

While there is no single, perfect playbook for launching a partner program, these 19 stories reveal some common wisdom:

  1. Define what success will look like for you.
  2. Put the right person in charge. They need to have a special set of marketing, sales, account and program management skills.
  3. Consider starting an affiliate program first. Quickly, provide a path for affiliates to become referral and reseller partners, though.
  4. Market your program to your install base and audience, first.
  5. Market your program, in general, to attract the right partners.
  6. Tweak your packaging  and pricing and maybe even how you product works, so that it serves your partner’s needs, not just their clients.
  7. Spend some time recruiting the best partners.
  8. Show partners how to make money by wrapping services around your product and by banking commissions. Consider making commissions recurring.
  9. Onboard your partners properly.
  10. Keep tabs on your partners and provide them the right level of support.
  11. Make it a two-way street by helping your partners get business too. Build a marketplace and do co-marketing that helps them show off their expertise.

Follow these steps and you should be well on your way to building a solid partner program.

But, perhaps the most important advice, is to understand and solve for your partners. Caputa warned, “Over time, you’ll be tempted to optimize for your own business instead of your partners.” Instead, he recommends go the other way. “Treat partners more like employees. Help them learn and grow with no strings attached and reward them when they do. In my experience, the more I’ve given, the more passionate they become about what we’re doing together and the better the results we generate together.”

Elise Dopson

Elise Dopson Elise Dopson is a freelance B2B writer for SaaS and marketing companies. With a focus on data-driven ideas that truly provide value, she helps brands to get noticed online--and drive targeted website visitors that transform into raving fans.

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