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Partnering with big tech as a startup
Two principles that helped Slido launch a successful partnership with Google
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine who works at a company called Deepnote reached out to ask me a few questions about my experience building the partnership with Google at Slido.
I worked on the partnership with Google back in 2019 in my partnerships role at Slido. Now I’m on the other side of this, part of building the partner program and platform and Cisco. In both roles, I got to see firsthand how complex and overwhelming partner programs run by big tech companies can really be.
Multiple partnership tracks, tedious onboarding, and filling out business plans (yep, they still exist). It's no surprise that the folks at Deepnote were asking whether it's all worth it. The answer of course, depends on the specific goals of every company, but it's a thoughtful question to ask at the beginning. Especially for early-stage startups where time is a scarce resource.
Today I'm going to write about two principles that helped me in the process and share a bit of the story that otherwise can't be found in a glorified launch blog post. Although none of this applies exclusively to Google, it may be helpful to note that I'm speaking from experience of a startup (Slido) partnering up with a big company (Google).
Principle 1: What does the end look like?
Made famous by Amazon, specifically, their approach to writing a future press release, working backwards can take many forms. To me, having a clear idea of the end state and working backwards from there is intended to be a gut-check for whether or not the product/partnership/X is worth building.
Slido’s team was only about 120 people at this point, and Google…was fucking Google. As with any decision like this at Slido, making our customers more successful was at the core of it. We were not in it to partner with big tech just for the sake of it.
In January 2019, I was drafting the go-to-market strategy for us to launch a new business line targeting presenters in meetings. From a product perspective, for us to be able to go after this market, we first needed to make sure our users can seamlessly use Slido with their presentation, so integrating Slido with tools like Google Slides, PowerPoint, or Pitch. We chose to start with Google Slides since we used Slides internally and Google had better documented APIs than Microsoft.
For the first time ever, we'd be building a completely new product outside of the core features. That meant that before rolling it out to everyone, we'd want to run a longer beta program preferably with a user persona that's not our enterprise customer either. From prior user research, we knew that we had many lecturers at universities who were using Slido in this way and would make a perfect initial target customer. Slido in fact, started as a tool for teachers to collect feedback, so we had a big pool of users in this space and we were also working with some of the largest events in the education industry.
So adding it all up, we have a GTM strategy where we start by building the MVP of Slido for Google Slides, launch that exclusively to our education users, do a full roll-out after we've implemented all the product feedback, and only after that replicate similar strategy for other presentation tools like PowerPoint. And this is where we introduced the idea of exploring partnership opportunities with Google for Education as a springboard.
In March 2019, we had our very first meeting with the Google for Education team after I presented our vision for the product to an audience of educators at SXSW EDU in Austin.
Just short 3 months later we were attending another education conference, but this time as Google for Education Premier Partner. I grant this to the fact that we were clear on what success looks like at the very end and shared this transparently with Google.
Principle 2: How do we fit in?
At this point, work on our partnership had just begun.
We could've gone the "easy" way and chosen from the list of co-marketing opportunities offered to our tier and presented on a carefully drafted one-pager. Instead, we chose the less straightforward route that involved me regularly asking Google: "What are the top 3 things Google is investing in over the next 3 months?". And then doing the internal check-in and asking ourselves how we fit in and can play a part in any of their priorities.
It took me a while to start asking this openly at the beginning of any partnership discussion. Perhaps I was shy or afraid that the partner would be secretive and not transparent. Which of course happens often, but even with that they have a story or a direction to share.
I can't tell you how helpful this exercise is, especially with the big companies where the process and meetings usually take longer; hence you're risking that you're going to waste a lot of time until you realize that your company's logo is listed in the partner's directory but you haven’t solved any of your customers’ pains.
Of course, it isn't that black and white and you can be successful even if you're not directly aligned with the top priorities on the partner’s agenda. And priorities change often, so you should ask this question regularly to know where you are. One way to do so is by doing monthly roundups or partner updates where you can highlight 3 things going well and point to areas where you feel blocked.
Back to the customer
In summary, working backwards and aligning with Google's priorities made us confident about our investment in the partnership and allowed us to be much more creative in terms of designing it.
An example of what I mean by creative is the fact that Google hosted our product launch event at their Chelsea Market office in New York City. They told us they would never do things like this for their partners.
We could invite the community of our customers and friends in New York and make them the core of this launch as well.