How to Get Started in Partnerships As a Small Business

Here's how to kickstart your partnerships journey with PartnerStack's expert insights tool.

Nearly 98 per cent of all businesses in Canada are small businesses, defined as under 100 employees. And did you know that the professional, scientific and technical services sector has the most small businesses? We’re looking at you, enterprising tech startups. 

Almost all companies in this technical services space have less than 500 employees. This is because this sector typically involves work that requires a high level of training and expertise. South of the border, 99.99 per cent of businesses are small businesses, and they employ 46.6 per cent of private sector employees.

Small businesses face some common key challenges:

  • They may have a limited number of resources in the form of people and disposable cash. This is heightened if you’re working in a highly technical field. 
  • They may also have a hard time scaling up and down in order to meet fluctuations in demand. 
  • They can also struggle with sales and marketing, since they’re spending so much of their time on day-to-day operations that serve their existing customers. 

This is where partner programs can be of significant use for B2B SaaS companies that are small businesses. To learn more, we chatted with Adam Faber, Customer Success Manager at PartnerStack, to find out why it’s advantageous for small businesses to have a partnership program. He also shared specific tips for how to get started and how to succeed. 

What exactly is a partnership program? 

Creating a partnerships program is a business strategy to make more money by increasing the reach of your product or service.

A real world example of partner programs

Take HubSpot for example. You or another small business owner you know likely uses HubSpot for their email marketing, online sales, or other customer relationship management needs. Hubspot uses a partner program as part of its business strategy to get its solution in front of as many businesses as possible. There are many third-party organizations (organizations other than HubSpot) that help businesses with implementing new business systems or marketing agencies that help with advertising campaigns and inbound marketing. Companies trust these consultants and their suggestions. These consultants can join HubSpot’s partner program. If they believe HubSpot would be a good fit for one of their clients, they can recommend HubSpot and if their customer uses the software, HubSpot will give the consultant an incentive, which might be a revenue share depending on the nature of their partnership. 

Types of partnership programs

Partnerships come in many different forms. One partnership may be a revenue share agreement (for example, if you sell a subscription, we’ll give you a 10 per cent cut of the annual revenue). Other partnerships could be a co-branded marketing campaign, so two companies can access the other’s audience (like this case study of GoPro and RedBull partnering up since they have an audience with a shared brand identity – a love of adventure). Other types of partnership arrangements include co-development (like Microsoft Azure and NetApp working together to create a cloud-native storage solution, Azure NetApp Files), re-selling, co-selling, referral programs, and more.

One of the most popular, and easily scalable, partner program strategies is offering a referral or affiliate program. You’ve likely watched YouTubers or read bloggers who mention that there are affiliate links  You’ve likely seen bloggers mention that they may get a cut of the price if you buy something through one of their links. This also exists for B2B businesses who can offer links that partners can use when they refer to their product.  

Why should small businesses explore partnerships?

An image showing a mailbox with an arrow pointing and the word "value", indicating that value is delivered to the small business owner

You have audience value delivered to you

Communities and influencers are no longer the sole domain of the B2C world. You’re likely already familiar with influencers who sell consumer products like clothes, electronics, and makeup to their large audiences. This exists in the B2B space, too.

Today, there are experts and advanced users of enterprise technology who have large platforms through well-known tech sites or have cultivated communities out of their social media followings. These B2B influencers can be found in our PartnerStack Network.

Sometimes, these influencers are not an individual, but a brand – such as a consulting firm – that has managed to amass a loyal following of people in their industry, including key purchasing decision makers. 

This is one of the main areas where Adam Faber, Customer Success Manager at PartnerStack, says that a partner program can really help small, but mighty, businesses get their B2B product more exposure. 

“You want audience value being delivered to you,” Faber explains. “You want to be in front of more eyeballs. And these people who are joining your partner program, they're already an established person with the audiences they present to. So you're getting that audience value, and that's that kind of stuff that normally you're paying Facebook or LinkedIn for. You're getting that audience value without even paying for it — and then whatever converts is what you’re paying for.” 

Related: How to unlock profitable partnerships with B2C affiliate marketing

Your business and your product get more credibility

Credibility is another reason why it’s important for your startup to have a partner program. If you can connect your solution to a more well-known name, with more clout and connections in your industry, it’s more likely that people will take you seriously. 

“By working with so-and-so who's potentially a big name, or a big name in their little niche, your small business is more credible. And that can go both ways. A partner may want to work with you because they get to say they’re a certified partner with your company,” explains Faber.

When you don’t yet have a lot of case studies or customer logos to add to your website, co-marketing campaigns can boost your company’s attractiveness. It helps build trust with your prospects and supports brand familiarity in the right way.

You can scale up customer acquisition easily

Many companies have a solution that can be easily integrated into their target customers’ tech stack, but they need to lower the cost of marketing their solution. Suppose you’re a company that offers a great tool for making landing pages or an easy to install plug-in for calculating tax for online sales in different countries. You’ve got a great product that doesn’t need a lot of explaining. In fact, the people you’re selling to are probably already looking for the solution. You want to get in front of as many people as possible, without breaking the bank on paid ads or a large sales team. This is where a seamless partner program and the right partner relationship management technology (PRM) can help. 

“These are the kind of [companies] who are saying, ‘We want a partner program so that we can be in front of more eyeballs’,” says Faber.

What are some best practices for small businesses who want to get started with partnerships?

Understand that this is a “year one” not a “Q1 strategy”

A partnership program can be really effective once it’s rolling, but it’s important for small business owners to recognize that it does not have overnight results. It does take time to get ROI and you will need to dedicate either part of your role or part of someone else’s role – if not an entire person – to getting it ready. But once you’ve got it set up, with a clear strategy backing it up, a partner program produces results. 

“You need that first year,” Faber explains. “You spend the first three months focusing on things like, ‘Who are the exact right types of partners I should be working with?’ or ‘We've done a few, and that kind of vertical didn't quite work.’ A partnership program is a startup within your startup. You are trying to convince a business they can make a business out of selling your product.”

Develop an example type for your ideal partner persona

When you’re starting your partner program, avoid the temptation to take a throw-everything-at-the-wall-to-see-what-sticks approach.

Faber’s quick persona tips

  • Find a company that you’d want as a partner
  • Use that ideal company to create your partner persona
  • Get an idea of your ideal outcome (for example “we want social media influencers and tech review websites talking about our program” or “we want consultants who work with accountants talking about our program”)
  • Use that ideal partner’s pain points as the inspiration for your partner program messaging framework and copy

Find the noisiest people and see if they want to join your partner program

Sometimes, your future partners are just out there waiting for someone to come along and recruit them into your program. There may already be really outspoken, charismatic individuals who are using your technology or are talking about a pain point that your technology solves. 

“Every industry has a Reddit channel,” Faber says. “You go onto that Reddit channel and you find the noisiest people and you're like, ‘You should be on my partner program, because you give a lot of advice.’”

Use your existing sales flow to understand what kind of partner program strategy is best

When you’re starting a partner program, it can be confusing to know what kind of approach you should take. If you’ve been pursuing other companies’ partner programs, you’ve likely noticed that there are types of partner program offerings such as co-marketing, co-selling, reselling, and affiliate links, and you’ll want to find the type of partner program that’s best for you. While the approach you take will depend on your goals and your team’s strategy, Faber offers some advice on how to make this choice. 

“What your sales flow is on your landing page sort of dictates the type of program you should be running,” explains Faber. “If a customer is to check out all the way through and make a purchase unassisted, you are looking for a link-based program. That way, people can be sharing and just increasing that funnel because your website already handles the funnel. But if at some point in the sales cycle you've got to get on the phone with someone and talk to them and demo a thing, that's when you're looking for a referral or a reseller program.”

The main difference between a link-based or affiliate program and a reseller program is that a reseller program requires you to answer the question: Who’s ultimately doing the selling? You’ll have to ask yourself questions such as: 

  • Is our team doing the selling?
  • Is the partner sending you referrals for you to then do the person-to-person selling? 
  • Is the partner selling the product on your behalf?
  • Does your partner essentially own the entire sales pipeline on your behalf?

What are the benefits of working with a partner relationship management tool like PartnerStack?

Of course, there are the actual features that come with having an easy-to-use partner relationship management platform. PartnerStack’s technology:

  • Connects with the most common marketing, sales and business intelligence software including Salesforce, Hubspot, Stripe, and Slack. It also has an API that allows companies to build a custom connection.
  • Enables different types of partner programs including affiliate programs, referral programs, and reseller programs, so that you automate time-consuming tasks such as calculating partner payments and paying partners on time. 
  • Supports multiple different stages of a partner program, so companies can get started no matter where they sit. PartnerStack’s platform can help with recruitment, activation, tracking, rewards, optimization, and recruitment.

But there’s also the significant expertise that working with PartnerStack brings. You’ve likely already heard the wisdom that you need people, processes, and technology to pull a new project or transformation off. Working with PartnerStack helps ensure you use your technology with the right processes. 

“If you're running a partnership program and you're a 21 person company, you're probably the only person in your company who is working with partnerships. So an additional thing you have now is the experience of hundreds of other program managers at your fingertips,” says Faber. “[Our service] also comes with a Slack community of program managers you could reach out to directly, and we have people doing that regularly. And then just the best practices on the tool itself, giving you what partners expect in a decently run program.”

For instance, Faber shared that participants will reach out in the Slack channel of over 200 program managers to ask questions such as how to approach their boss for more money to expand their partner program. Other program managers chime in with their own, real-world experience and what worked when it came to convincing their manager. 

Case Study: Glide uses PartnerStack to turbocharge its consulting arm in a cost-effective way 

Glide is a no-code app builder that makes it easy for companies to build fit-for-purpose business software. Even though Glide’s tool makes app building incredibly easy, some of their customers are too busy to build the app in house. So after purchasing Glide, they want to find developers who can build their app for them using this cost-effective tool. They often turn to the Glide team for help finding someone. 

While this would be a great thing for Glide to offer its customers, it would be risky to keep on a team of developers as a small business. Instead, Glide started a partner program called “Hire an Expert” that consists of app developers. App developers can get a 15 per cent revenue share if they onboard a customer to Glide. They also have the income they’d make off of the gig of building that customer’s website. And PartnerStack’s platform makes managing all of this pain free for Glide. 

A screencapture of the Glide "Hire an Expert" page

“Customers come in through these experts, and then we're automatically calculating the 15 per cent revenue share and giving it to the partners and we're cutting the check,” explains Faber. “And then when the partner wants his tax form at the end of the year, we provide it.”

This offers a win-win situation. Glide gets a pipeline of new customers. Plus, they can ensure their customers are as happy as possible by providing them access to the experts they need. On the other side of the relationship, the developers get access to new customers plus a cut of the revenue from the sale of Glide’s solution. 

“Because they're an app building tool, they wanted a tool with a solid API and we have an API so [for their partner management], Glide was able to build their own flows, native to their own stuff, the way they want it.” 

A partner program can add fuel to a small business’ strategy

Partner programs help you maximize your small business’ existing resources. They help you take your SaaS product, and put it in front of more people, without straining your budget on ad spend and marketing initiatives that may or may not deliver a return on investment. With a well thought out partner program, you can create mutually beneficial relationships with people and companies in your industry, delivering value for your business, your customers, and your other business owners. Sounds like a pretty good strategy if you ask us. 

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Joint venture

[joynt ven·chr]

A joint venture is a business collaboration between two parties on a project. Both parties will benefit from bringing their shared resources and knowledge, and neither party will take on the sole burden of the risk.


Buyer persona

[bahy-er per-soh-nuh]

These depictions of target customers help to define your company's ideal target customers.


SaaS partner programs

[sas pahrt-ner proh-grams]

SaaS (software-as-a-service) partner programs are a systematic way that software companies form mutually beneficial relationships with agencies, influencers, and other companies to drive business results.

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