When I look back on professional lessons I’ve learned over the last 15 years I realize how many were painfully simple. In some cases I spent years grinding away only to uncover a simple truth that was right in front of me all along. I wish someone had just provided me with some kind of career SparkNotes or Cliff Notes.
That's one reason why I started This for That. And it’s why I wanted to write a brief guide to working in technology partnerships / business development (BD). This post is for those navigating the early years of their career and looking for signposts and trail maps.
Partnerships wasn’t even a job function 20 years ago. And even today, the meaning of partnerships varies widely from company to company (my definition here). So partnership roles vary too. As a result, answers to even the most basic questions can be difficult to find. That is what this post is all about.
Below I will cover:
What are the most common types of partnership roles?
What type of experience is useful for getting into partnerships?
Why should I / should I not take a job in partnerships?
What skills will I develop in partnerships?
What will my compensation look like?
What are the downsides of working in partnerships?
What kind of opportunities will be open to me after I work in partnerships?
Create your own opportunities - if you take away nothing else, remember this visual from the essayist Tim Urban. You may feel at times like you have limited options. But there are infinite options open to those who are hard-working, persistent and creative. You are at the green dot in the center of this graphic. And if you aren’t energized to create opportunities for yourself, then you’re probably not well-suited for work in partnerships / BD.
As important to technology as innovation - I cannot write this post without addressing the work we need to do to make the technology industry more diverse, equitable and inclusive. This is as important to technology as innovation itself. In this post I’ve tried to highlight a diverse selection of partnerships/BD executives below. In doing so I was reminded how much work we have left to do, particularly as it relates to women and Black and Latinx talent in senior leadership roles. This work needs to be part of how we hire, how we develop products and yes, how we forge partnerships. More on this in a separate This for That post. Until then, one way your company can make progress is to partner with YearUp. To learn more about their work checkout this interview with YearUp’s Emily Shaeffer.
Note: the executives referenced below are entirely US-based and there is a bias towards ex-Googlers (aka Xooglers) given the years I spent there.
Cultivate your own ‘board of advisors’ - you don’t need to navigate the maze of career alone. Ask for help. Find talented people with more experience than you and ask their advice. Listen to them. Understand their strengths. Learn from their mistakes. Then express your appreciation for their time. Ask how you can help them. These people work at your company. They are family friends. You can find them on Twitter and LinkedIn. Some you may find below. They can help you avoid making bad decisions. And they can change your life. But you have to reach out.
Collect skills - You probably don’t know yet exactly what you want to become but stay focused on the skills you will develop in each role you take. For some, a job in partnerships is a temporary stop to develop a skillset. For example, Peggy Mangot’s career has spanned across a number of different functions - legal, marketing, consulting and more. As Head of Partnerships at Google Payments, Peggy developed skills that made her more effective later on as a startup founder, a general manager at Wells Fargo and now as an investor at PayPal Ventures. Jorge Tapias has stayed closer to Partnerships/BD roles. He has refined his skills by taking on challenges on at companies of different sizes and stages - from larger (LinkedIn, Google) to smaller (Earnest, Helix, Rev.com). Peggy and Jorge followed different paths, but both have grown their impact by diligently collecting skills in different roles and organizations.
A Primer: Technology Partnerships/BD
What type of roles are useful for getting into partnerships/BD?
There is no prerequisite for deal-making in tech. Below are some of the most common backgrounds that I see but there are many others not listed here. What matters most is the skills you can bring to forging partnerships. Those skills can be cultivated from a variety of different backgrounds.
Sales / Account Management / Customer Success
Roxie Mitchell Hill leads Partnerships and Strategic Alliances at Microsoft and began her career in sales.
Richard Au leads partnerships at Airbnb after +10 years in BD roles at Amazon; David Richter is VP Corporate & Business Development at Doordash; Sunil Daluvoy is Head of Global Partnerships at Feedzai. They each began their careers as lawyers. Richard and David worked at law firms and Sunil started his career at the FCC.
Tech Other - talented people from a wide variety of roles end up migrating into partnerships/BD from other roles within technology organizations.
Product - Konstantinos Papamiltiadis began his career in product and went on to become VP Partnerships at Facebook and just recently moved to Snap.
Marketing - Raymond Bautista started his career in marketing and now leads Global Partnerships at Airship.
Program Management - Aaron Verstraete leads Partnerships at unitQ and began his career as a Program Manager at Microsoft.
Engineering - Gagan Kanwar is Senior Director of Technology Partnerships at Salesforce and began his career as a software engineer.
What are the most common types of partnerships roles?
Several core functions within a company find that they need external-facing team to build relationships, pursue partner agreements and support the execution of those agreements.
Product & Platform Partnerships support the Product team
Channel Partnerships & Alliances help support the sales efforts. These partnerships are revenue-generating via indirect channels.
Marketing Partnerships support marketing via partners. This role is increasingly bundled into what is now called ‘growth marketing.’ From a partnership perspective, this includes licensing, events, promotions, sponsorships, etc.
Corporate Development often supports the Finance team. This role is a different flavor of partnerships/BD more focused on executing transactions (acquisitions and investments). These roles often require a background in finance.
Strategic Partnerships - this type is the most ambiguous because the term “strategic” is ambiguous and the team’s focus can vary from company to company. This can be a great team but do your diligence.
Why should I take a job in partnerships?
I want to build relationships externally but also work closely in building new products with other internal teams, like Product, Legal, Engineering, Strategy, Marketing, etc.
I'm drawn to ambiguity and complexity and I enjoy the challenge of bringing structure to chaos.
I've got a knack for working with many stakeholders; I identify each person’s skills and enlist them towards accomplishing a shared goal.
I want to develop deal-making and other skills I can apply later as a general manager, founder, investor, etc.
Reasons not to take a job in partnerships:
Strategic partnerships sounds more important than sales.
Correction: partnerships/BD, when done right, can be transformative for certain companies. But sales are essential for every company.
I like sales, but I don't want to carry a quota.
Correction: you’ll still be accountable for delivering impact whether or not you carry a quota.
I want to build new products but I’m not technical.
Correction: you don’t need to be an engineer, but the more fluent you are in technical matters as you work alongside technical teams, the more valuable you will be.
What skills will I develop in partnerships / BD?
Leadership skills - e.g. setting a vision, building a coalition, etc.
Communications skills - sales, presentations, cross-functional communications
Negotiation skills - e.g. gives & gets, negotiation strategy, risks & mitigation, etc.
Stakeholder & project management skills - e.g. turning an idea into an operational plan and enlisting others in executing that plan
Strategic-thinking and analysis - e.g. quantifying opportunity, risk and trade-offs
Product development - e.g. understanding the process and how to influence it to impact your partnerships.
How do partnerships / BD roles vary?
Company size / stage - this factor will have a huge impact on your experience and warrants its own post. Subscribe below for more on this one.
Leadership & culture - is Partnerships/BD valued?
Product & Product team - what is the product’s value proposition? Product team’s view towards partnering?
Partners - are you establishing new partnerships or supporting existing ones?
Industry - are you doing deals in healthcare, finance, commerce, etc.
B2B vs B2C - are you serving consumers or businesses?
Comp structure - what is the breakdown between salary vs. bonus vs. equity?
Deal type - content licensing, co-marketing, reseller, etc.?
What will my compensation look like?
Compensation will vary widely based upon the sector, company size / stage and your level of experience. Given how widely compensation can vary, I’m not going to detail salary ranges here. But some generally guidelines (with many exceptions):
Compensation is generally tied to driving tangible impact. Partnerships/BD roles are accountable for delivering results from external parties, like the sales team. But the time horizon is often longer than sales and is in many cases indirect or more difficult to measure than sales.
Structure - Partnerships/BD roles in tech are typically compensated with a base salary + bonus. At some companies there is also an equity component. The bonus is typically a sizable portion of the overall compensation (20% - 40%) but generally less than the sales team (often 50% or more).
Comparison to technical roles - Partnerships/BD roles are usually compensated less than equivalent technical roles (e.g. Product, Engineering) but typically more than other non-technical roles (e.g. Marketing, HR, Operations).
Comparison to sales roles - the base salary may be higher than in sales, but high-performing salespeople will see a higher overall compensation. Salespeople take on more risk and can, in turn, generate higher rewards.
Company stage - earlier stage (pre-IPO) companies will tend to have a lower base salary and less or no bonus. These companies incentivize with equity. If the company soars, your comp may too.
What are the downsides of working in partnerships?
You won’t likely make as much money as your friends in sales or engineering and you may end up working longer hours.
You will often invest enormous energy into deals that do not materialize.
You may find that other internal teams are confused by what you do and think that they are better suited to do your job.
What opportunities will be open to me after I work in partnerships?
This question deserves its own post. Subscribe to This for That to read about where work in partnerships/BD can take your career.
A special thanks to the talented individuals whose involuntary service helped to enhance this post. Some of them are friends, former colleagues, partners and others I’ve admired from afar.
Lastly, if you know someone just setting sail on their career who could benefit from this post, please share it with them.