The Usual Suspects: Identifying Key Decision-Makers for B2B Strategic Partnerships

July 6, 2015

B2B SaaS startups can gain great go-to-market leverage from partnering with larger ecosystem players, whether via co-marketing, a referral-based arrangement, product bundling, technology integration, or OEM. All sorts of work goes into the process of striking the right relationship and appropriate structure, and obviously, identifying the right partner is the first step. But once you’ve done that, you could be faced with a simple yet surprisingly annoying and common question:

Who do I talk to at potential partnering organizations, specifically? Who is making the decisions? Who can help me?

When it comes to landing strategic partnerships, successfully navigating organizational labyrinths can be one of the toughest early challenges.

Major software behemoths often take on incredibly complicated org structures, so identifying the key influencers and sponsors can be complicated (sometimes even for internal employees who want to help you). Getting in front of the right people is a crucial early step toward your ultimate goal of pushing through a great deal. To help you do that here is a rundown of the usual suspects you’ll want to be thinking about, and who you’re likely to encounter along the way:

6 Roles You May Engage Pursuing B2B Strategic Partnerships

1) Product / Brand Manager

This is likely one of the early decision makers due to his/her responsibilities around road-mapping, positioning, and the evolution of the product line you want to develop a partnership around. This person needs to be your friend and should hear your ‘pitch’ early on. Not only will they have the broadest knowledge of the product line and where current gaps exist in the offering, you will also need them to be your evangelist when it comes time to get potentially more senior decision makers on board.

2) Business Development

This is the core function handling alliances and partnerships (and potentially strategic investing or acquisitions, which sometimes result from partnerships). These folks will work in tandem with the product teams, but may focus more on execution matters such as negotiation, financial analysis, process management, etc. They are also are likely to be among your earliest conversations.

3) R&D and Sales

Interaction with both the technical and sales teams may come into play during diligence on your technology, viewing (and providing their own) demos, estimating potential customer demand, and generally trying to prove out the value proposition of a partnership. If there is a technology / product integration being contemplated, the product’s R&D lead will be critical to helping build out the roadmap.

Both R&D and sales leads can be strong influencers for or against the partnership, and they will need to be heard as the deal team puts together their pitch for internal approvals.

4) Finance / CFO / FP&A

This is the money. Depending on the structure of the partnership, some sort of approval from finance folks may be required, whether regarding upfront spend, royalty rates and revenue sharing arrangements, or budgeting and forecasting for the product line. They can be a strong voice in the organization and will need to believe in the proposal’s ROI.

5) Business GM / Unit CIO / Other senior decision makers

If the potential relationship is highly strategic — i.e. it involves contemplating a new or adjacent market, it requires a significant financial commitment, it potentially generates meaningful near-term revenue, etc. — it may require buy-in from business leaders or upper management.

Although you may never interact directly with these individuals in most situations, they can sometimes be the best place to start out if you’re fortunate enough to have an existing relationship and / or a chance to pitch them first before going through the typical channels. Having buy-in at this level from the start can ensure a much smoother ride. That said, it’s difficult do, as the typical constituents mentioned above exist for a reason.

Looking for more tips on aligning yourself with strategic partners and potential acquirers? See my post, “Thinking Like an M&A Expert: 7 Tips on Aligning Yourself with Potential Acquirers.”

Photo by: Ian Hayhurst

John McCullough


John works closely with OpenView’s portfolio companies to help strengthen business and corporate development activities with the aim of driving growth and strategic exits. He focuses on identifying potential strategic acquirers, facilitating engagements that result in alliance partnerships, driving M&A and capital raise outcomes, and building and maintaining relationships with the global investment banking community. Prior to joining OpenView, John was Director of Corporate Development at Rocket Software, a global enterprise software company where he drove inorganic growth initiatives and business development activities; while there he successfully executed 10 acquisitions, including public company carve-outs, stock purchases, and cross-border transactions.