The key big bet they made in the early days was to be a channel-led business. It was more out of necessity and a genuine aversion to managing a big sales team. Brett Campbell and Brian Cook made an early decision that later propelled the business to heights they never would have imagined at the time.
It was the year 2004. Our two co-founders were running a Systems Integrator (SI) out of Melbourne, Australia called OBS. They were encountering virtually the same hairy issue project after project – building custom and laborious workflows on the back of SharePoint projects – and saw a business need to make building, deploying, and managing SharePoint workflows faster and easier not only for themselves, but also for their end customers. The idea of a drag-and-drop automated workflow engine was not necessarily envisioned as a grand plan into the rich margins of a successful ISV business, it was more out of the necessity to deliver a better end-customer experience and a much better way to deliver real solutions more efficiently and at a lower cost. Like with many things, to get to where Nintex is today was a cycle of trial and error on product; learning the hard way in many cases from an operations perspective; and trying different go-to-market techniques. One thing they made sure of was not to get ahead of themselves in how they transitioned from being an SI into organizing into a software company and an eventual cloud business.
They were confident that the product would do well. It worked, it was easy, and had a clear ROI value proposition. They had some great customer proof points early on as well as a lot of validation from Microsoft. What they had to decide was what path they would take as it pertained to their go-to-market direction.
They could roll Nintex out into a new geography with a direct sales force and a set of consulting services by expanding their SI arm. They could focus on some key industries and vertical markets in their current geography, build out some special features and deliver consulting while signing up niche partners. Or they could build out a channel and focus their sales efforts on their partners. After contemplating the various alternatives, it became a very clear path to focus on developing out a channel as their go-to-market approach. It was the only way they saw possible to expand into additional markets, not have to deal with all of the pain in managing a lot of direct sellers and extended delivery teams, and to deliver the various and unforeseen scenarios that their customers demanded professional services for.
As a result of rolling out a simple and clean channel model, Nintex soon expanded into additional markets, into hundreds of verticals, and avoided expensive operational overhead costs, which helped to boost its bottom line profitability and growth. And our partners enjoyed a rinse-and-repeat model predicated on workflow automation along with forms and mobile scenarios, strong product margins, and increased profitable professional services revenues.
Nintex today has over 1,000 partners, is in 90 different countries, in 22 languages, with 5000+ customers and an estimated 8M users. Nintex is the global leader in workflow with some of the top Fortune 500 brands in the industry on its customer list. A key reason for this was the fact that a well-run and effective channel model was the preferred original path to market.
Here are a top 10 rules-to-live-by based on what I have seen from Nintex as well as my observations in general over the course of the last nine years.
  1. Keep it simple and be easy to work with

    To be easy to work with means putting trust into your partners. Give them the benefit of the doubt at the outset and avoid making them jump through unnecessary hoops to get your time and your investment. It doesn’t mean that you do everything your partners ask and it doesn’t mean you don’t confront hard issues. It means that you keep things low-friction.


  2. Don’t introduce channel conflict

    Channel conflict is a partnership killer. If you have built a product and want to distribute via a channel and you also do professional services, just be mindful that you are already creating channel conflict. The ultimate channel friendly software/cloud company won’t do any professional services and leave that to their partners. If you do happen to offer pro services, at least be clear and unambiguous where you play and where you don’t and ensure that you stick to it or you will single handedly kill your channel relationships.


  3. Keep investing and be smart about it

    You can survive and even thrive by achieving number 1 and number 2 above….for a while. However, if you don’t keep investing, evolving, and innovating with your partners, partner performance will level off or worse, decline. Like in any relationship with a set of constituents, you must keep investing and offering more. Expectations rise the longer the relationship goes and you have to stay ahead of the curve. Don’t go stale! One word of warning, however. If you put something out there, make sure you have set expectations at the outset. It is much easier to put something into market vs. pulling it back later, even if it is barely utilized. Perception is reality.


  4. Don’t lose your partner centricity, have legitimate empathy for your partners

    As you grow, you will bring on new people with new fresh ideas which is all goodness, but you must keep them focused on what got you to where you are now. When products are built or messaging is drafted in the product team for instance, ensure that they are not only thinking of the end-customer but also the partner who has to sell it. This goes across all functions in your company. If you don’t stay ahead of this, you will lose your partner centricity over time and I believe that will negatively affect your balance sheet.


  5. Bring partners along for the ride

    Important to keep partners up to speed with your roadmap and your vision. This can be achieved with low-cost web-based events as a cadence throughout the year or better via a partner conference done either at a big industry event or on your own. Either way, partners will invest more, and you will keep them excited, and investing.


  6. Nobody expects you are perfect so lose the BS, tell the truth, even when it hurts

    Partners can smell a falsehood a mile way. Your colleagues may think that covering up a mistake or spinning something or just not being proactive with a statement of transparency will help mitigate whatever mistake or misstep you have made. However, 99.999% of the time it will backfire on you and will make a relatively small issue a massive problem which will hurt your credibility or worse, cause a partner to de-invest in the relationship. And believe it or not, when you are transparent and proactive, you end up building more trust, which may seem counterintuitive, but it is absolutely true.


  7. Help your partners connect with each other

    One of the biggest things that partners ask for and companies don’t invest in is to facilitate partner to partner connections. You can be a company with only 100 partners, but when you spend the time and energy to connect them, you create synergies you never would have expected. Partner Advisory Boards and partner events are a goldmine for partners looking to learn from each other. I have seen this to the extreme as well where partners have bought out other partners to make a bigger impact. Being the broker of this is only a good thing for you.


  8. When selling direct, bring the partner back in

    Another form of channel conflict is when you sell direct and you don’t bring the partner or at least try to bring the partner into the deal. If you have a mantra that all deals must go back to partners or that you try everything to get partners back into deals, you will maintain your leverage model and resist the temptation to go down the slippery slope of a direct model and it will pay you back downstream.


  9. Back the partners with the right partner program model

    A partner program can be simple with one tier. It can be more sophisticated with multiple tiers. Or it can be a complex beast that sometimes gets mistaken as the end goal vs. the real goal of company growth, revenue performance, and valuation. I am a big fan of creating a simple and effective program with more than one tier. It must remain simple without a lot of unnecessary hoops or gates. It must be premised on enabling partners and helping them do their jobs faster and more effectively.


  10. Establish partnerships based on mutual commitment and mutual investment

    The good old fashioned principle of partnership basically means “the more you invest, the more I will invest” and “the more you produce, the more I will pay and give you leads.” If you can’t look back at how you are delivering a channel program or model and say that this is the case, then you don’t have a channel model that is set up for success, in my opinion.

I have never seen any one company (large or small) get all of this right all of the time, but I have seen some get most of it right a lot of the time, and those are companies that have the commitment to a channel model from the CEO down. One of the big reasons I moved to Nintex was because I saw these characteristics embodied within the DNA of the company and their genuine interest to take things even further.
When a channel is treated well, when it is based on trust and mutual effort, and when it is constantly invested in, everyone wins! And isn’t that what we are all trying to achieve?
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