Note: Upon her indictment on federal money laundering charges and her arrest February 8, 2022, Inc. dismissed Heather Morgan as a contributing columnist. As is our practice, we do not unpublish editorial content, and rather have added this note for full transparency.

Partnerships are a highly effective growth channel, but they're hard to get right.

The best business development professionals are able to stay on top of constant changes from all directions. Sometimes that might be navigating ever-evolving markets, complicated partner ecosystems, figuring out where new features fit in, dealing with changing compensation structures, or all of the above. 

Like acrobats, they are nimble enough to maneuver these challenges to create and grow fruitful business partnerships.

Before founding SalesFolk, my old job was business development. With zero network, I set dozens of meetings with top executives in the gaming industry to build global partnerships.  Likewise, I built most of SalesFolk's partnerships and co-marketing programs myself in the early days as we bootstrapped, helping us to rapidly scale. 

Beyond my own experience and insights, I wanted to hear how other organizations approach partnerships, whether led by business development professionals, marketers, salespeople or founders.

I reached out to hundreds of seasoned business development leaders and picked the eight best tips to share in this article. 

Whether you've been doing business development for a while, you're completely new to it, or just considering a possible career change, their advice can help you get more from your partnership efforts.

1. Quality over quantity, and don't overlook smaller partners.

For twenty years, Sue Fernand has helped business-to-business software companies successfully run channel partnerships and sales programs. She's currently the Systems Integrator Partner Manager for the Americas at Nexmo, the Vonage API Platform. Fernand's partnerships advice is to "Go for quality over quantity and don't focus just on the large global Systems Integrators ("SIs"). The smaller more focused partners are often easier to work with and be more strategic with." 

2. Have a deep understanding of the roles you're trying to partner with.

Beyond learning about the various companies that also play in your market, you need to have a deep understanding of the actual people you're trying to reach out to and partner with. Matt Murphy is the Market Development Manager at Vertebrae, and advocates for "learning the roles of your prospects nearly as much as you'd learn your own. If you're going to pitch a Director of Marketing, you need to at least understand the challenges a Director of Marketing faces."  Beyond conducting research on social media he will look at job posts for similar roles--something I also personally recommend to anyone in sales, business development, or marketing. 

3. Create win-win situations. 

Beyond doing extensive research about her potential partners and sending thoughtful targeted messages and persistently following up, Ironhack General Manager, Alia Poonawala advises business development professionals to create "win-win situations." In other words, only focus on partners that share mutual benefit with your company, and make sure incentives are aligned to have successful outcomes from your partnership programs. While this may seem obvious, you'd be surprised how many partnerships fizzle out because of mismatched incentives.

4. Learn to co-market like crazy, and don't neglect internal partners.

Nextiva's Marketing Manager, Jeremy Boudinet, is also big on mutual value. Boudinet adds that mutual value isn't just important with external partners, but also internally with colleagues who can help you with partnership efforts.  As a marketer, it's not surprising Boudinet is a fan of co-marketing, but he has some great tips on how to do it effectively. "Co-marketing initiatives are an easy way to amplify brand exposure. The more you can get additional companies to leverage time, money, and resources to the benefit of your brand, the better. Content initiatives work great in this regard, especially when you make them evergreen," says Boudinet. 

5. Be clear and straightforward.

As both the Chief Strategy Officer and Chief Marketing Officer of RedTeam Software, Frédéric Guitton is responsible or channel partner sales. Beyond trying to deeply understand what value he can provide to the person or company he's interacting with, his biggest tip is to "Be clear about who you are and be straight with your intentions."  While many will provide generic value statements for partnerships such as "to grow your business," Guitton believes you need to get much more granular, and I agree. He also shared an anecdote about a recent partner who was concerned about the future of his company's business model, and how he felt he needed a new product to keep his existing customers. This deeper understanding allowed for a much more effective partnership. 

6. Your organization needs to be aligned.

Organizational alignment is critical for many departments to function effectively, but especially so with business development. LeanData's Vice President of Business Development, Asher Matthew, says that to have fruitful and lucrative partnerships you must "Make sales enablement as natural as humanly possible so the people helping make the partnership successful, [including] sales, marketing, etc." That way it makes it easy for everyone to help solve the customer's problem.  He adds, "Business development is a company wide initiative, the business development leader is merely shepherd of the program."

7. Your unqualified lead may be your partner's most valuable customer.

It's important to pick partners that also share a similar audience to you, but in most cases, you probably won't be partnering with your direct competitors, so the exact value you add to customers will differ from your partners.  The Vice President of Strategic Alliances & Partnerships at eSUB Construction Software, Paul Jetter, makes a great point that "someone's crappy lead may be gold to someone else." He emphasizes the importance of brokering information to partners and being a diplomat that "pays it forward" wherever possible.

8. Try to add value before you ask for big favors.

Whether you're doing partnerships, sales, or trying to get someone to make any kind of introduction for you, it's best to build as much rapport as you can before you ask them for a favor, especially a big one. Piktochart's Head of Marketing, Agata Krzysztofik, brought up this great point and offered some actionable advice on how to do so. Krzysztofik recommends, "Start engaging with their posts [on LinkedIn]," or to try to find some valuable content or resource and send it to them, if possible. 

Do you have other business development tips that weren't mentioned in this article? I'd love to hear them.