Confessions of a GSI: Here's What GSIs Look for in an ISV Partner

Confessions of a GSI: Here's What GSIs Look for in an ISV Partner

Zoe Kelly 12 min
By Zoe Kelly

For those not familiar, a System Integrators (SIs) is a kind of channel partner that audits, leads, and manages improvements to their client’s tech stack. Global System Integrators (GSIs) are SIs with global offices and hundreds of thousands of employees.

Because of their scale, partnering with a GSI is incredibly advantageous for Independent Software Vendors (ISVs). Done correctly, a GSI partnership becomes the key to scaling your business beyond what it could ever reach with direct sales. However, GSIs are in-demand and can be difficult to partner with. 

Examples of GSIs include 

A meeting with a GSI could be a pivotal moment for your company and a huge win for your partner program (if it goes well). A partnership with a GSI could mean access to their client companies (who frequently show up on the Fortune Global 500 list). Partnering with a GSI is also a signal to other potential partners, customers, and investors that your ISV is or is becoming a giant in your respective space.

For example, Icelandic carbon-removal tech startup Climeworks partnered with GSI Accenture. The partnership has included:

So how can you prove that you’re a good ISV to work with? And how can you ensure you’ve done the necessary homework before speaking to a GSI?

We chatted with two people with four decades of combined experience both watching and forming partnerships between GSIs and ISVs. In exchange for total candor, we granted each anonymity. One person, whom we’ll call “Casey”, is a managing partner at a GSI while the other, “Riley” serves as a VP at a company with 10,000+ partners in their ecosystem, including both GSIs and ISVs. .

They both shared their perspectives on what they look for in ISVs, what the smartest ISVs are doing, what mistakes ISVs should avoid when trying to partner with a GSI, and revealed some shared truths about ISV/GSI partnerships:

  1. ISV/GSI partnerships hold just as much value to the GSI that they do to the ISV. Riley shared that both the CEO and sales leader at their company are “ecosystem focused” and see ISVs as an opportunity to bring innovation into their ecosystem.
  2. ISVs need to do their homework before partnering with a GSI. ISVs need to be knowledgeable about and able to support the functions of scaling with a GSI.

“An ISV might feel jazzed with the relationships that a large SI has and they feel that just being a partner helps them gain access to everything. That is the most naive approach and it doesn’t work,”  Casey told us. “On the other extreme, there could be a whole organization that has been set up [in the ISV] just to ensure that they are productive with the SI. But it is important to understand that an early stage company might not have the bandwidth to create all the homework required to meet the needs of the partnership.” 

In order to help ISVs prove that they have substantial value to add to a GSI while also scaling in a manner that’s sustainable, we have translated the feedback from Casey and Riley into actionable things you can highlight when talking to potential GSI partners. 

Specifically, ISVs should highlight their own

Let’s explore how to prove your value in each:

Demonstrated scaling success

An ISV needs to have the mechanisms for scaling already in place before partnering with a GSI. Think of it like a fire. The ISV provides the wood and kindling (the product and scalable workflows) all set up in the firepit and the GSI provides the lighter (their substantial channel and resources). 

“The ISV has to have created the predictable sales motion. Nobody else can help scale that. [The ISV/GSI partnership] is not about trying to define the sales motion. That will never work,” Casey told us. “The startup themselves have to define the sales motion, create some predictability, and then the GSI works to amplify that.”

To show that your go-to-market strategy is ready to scale, highlight…

  • Organic momentum from existing partners in your ecosystem.  You typically don’t start training for a marathon by tackling all 26 miles on your first day. Similarly, you typically don’t kick off your channel partner program by partnering with a GSI.  

The more replicable channel partner motions you can demonstrate, the more likely a GSI is to feel comfortable partnering with you. “It is important that a software startup understands the mechanics of working through a channel,” Casey told us. “It’s not intuitive. And it’s not automatic. ISVs have to be knowledgeable enough to understand how a partnership with a GSI would work and how it can be made more productive.”

Mention success stories from your other channel partnerships. Do you have testimonials? Case studies? A webinar you can share? The more specific you can get with what your channel partner workflows look like, the easier it will be to convince a GSI that helping you scale those processes is worth their time. 

  • How your sales processes can be scaled. In a channel partnership such as the one between an ISV and a GSI, success hinges on the channel partner’s ability to re-sell, manage, and/or deliver the ISV’s product. Therefore, the ISV must be able to successfully train the GSI’s sales team. “You can’t just rest on the laurels of your product. You need to address the ‘what’s in it for me’ question for the salespeople on the ground,” Casey told us. “This requires some infrastructure on the part of the ISV.” 

Both Casey and Riley recommended proving that you have the right setup documentation to train the salespeople of the GSI. An ISV needs to have a program that works with the sales channels of their GSI to make them understand the product as it is evolving. How do you communicate with your sales team?  How do you train them on new partnerships? Have you trained a channel partner’s sales team before? This is all important information to bring up in your conversation. 

  • The internal support and access to the cross-functional resources needed to support a partnership with a GSI. 

Casey and Riley both look for ISVs who have the resources and bandwidth to scale quickly. “How do you come together as a team to create the most value for the end customer? I think there’s a lot of learning and process involved in this. It’s not just the SI that has to show maturity in this process, but ISV also has to understand these whole dynamics and be ready to invest the bandwidth and the resources towards making that successful.” 

One way to do this is by sharing your org chart. Highlight the roles you already have in place to take on partner-specific lifts. Explain how your current team is ready to scale should you partner with the GSI or outline your plans for expanding the team should the partnership come to fruition. 

Strong business strategy alignment 

Like any good partnership, there needs to be alignment between the two partners’ business strategies. Without that alignment, there is little appeal for GSIs to invest in helping the ISV scale. 

Therefore, an ISV needs to prove that there’s strong business strategy alignment between the ISV and GSI. And according to both Casey and Riley, there are two primary factors behind proving initial business strategy alignment: 

  • Innovation. ISVs can help GSIs break into spaces or fill gaps in the tech stacks of their clients. “The biggest thing we look for is innovation,” Riley said. “[ISVs] can get us access to a space that we are not in or address [a gap in] the technology we are putting into a space. Can we sell together? Can we broaden the market together?” 
  • Product market fit. You wouldn’t talk to an investor without including product market fit, and you shouldn’t talk to a GSI without it. “Just like any other investor, we are investing in ISVs. So we look for growth potential and in the end, what is the revenue stream gonna look like in the next two years, three years, four years, right?”

Casey and Riley noted that most ISVs use the words “innovative” and “product market fit” without much actual evidence to back it up. Instead of reducing them to buzzwords, prioritize showing the innovation and product market fit behind your business strategy. 

To prove business strategy alignment, you should…

  • Summarize your research on your target market. How does your product solve a need that hasn’t been addressed? How are you taking into account upcoming changes in the market? Will your product be relevant in three to five years?

    Riley shared that they look for ISVs that are focused on solving emerging issues (for example, tech that focuses on sustainability). Use a tech research service to surface data on your target market audience. We recommend 
  • Highlight your existing and proposed integrations. Showcasing your process behind your product roadmap gives GSIs insight into your strategy helping to determine if there’s strategic alignment between your companies). Do you:

The more advanced your decision-making process, the stronger the likelihood you have of a GSI wanting to partner with you. 

  • Explain your three-year partner plan.  As we learned from Lisa Hopkins at Supernode, creating a three-year strategic plan for your partner program highlights “the art of what’s possible.” Your market research gives the GSI insight into the problem your product is solving (the history), your integrations show your current ecosystem (the present) and a business plan shows what’s to come (the future). Include:
  • A list of your desired integrations. This includes integrations you are working on, tech partnerships that you are working on establishing, and potential integrations that align with your desired product roadmap. 
  • Any additional headcount that you plan on hiring (even if you haven’t been given the green light yet). 
  • Your yearly ARR goals and the OKRs that you plan on implementing to hit those goals. 

Maturity within leadership

“The whole process around working on a deal together can be fraught with a lot of emotions on the ground,” Casey told us. “[There can be tension in] deciding who has access to the customer and who doesn’t and what sort of messages can we take to the customer.” 

An ISV/GSI partnership is a slow burn, with no immediate payoff. “The expectation should not be such that just because you have a partnership you will see that partnership being productive and adding dollars to your revenue base immediately,” Casey said. Leaders that are impatient and expect results within a few months of beginning a partnership might become frustrated and difficult to work with. A mature leader will take the opportunity early on to set expectations around the timeline. If your ISV only has the resources to sustain a partnership for, say, six months without a return, it’s the responsibility of your leader(s) to communicate that and ultimately decide whether or not you are ready to partner with a GSI. 

A mature leader also shows persistence and strong communication skills: “An ISV needs to invest time resources and bandwidth to help educate the sales channel and be persistent with it before they find results. I think that sort of expectation is very critical. Otherwise, there will be a lot of false starts and false stops as well.” 

In other words, GSIs want to work with leaders who are experienced in managing large-scale, long-running partnerships. 

To prove that you or your leaders are up to the task, mention…  

  • Your leadership team and their leadership style(s). While softer leadership skills are more difficult to prove than data-backed product market fit or a clearly outlined business strategy, you can still include information that shows how a leader would or has handled large partnerships. Consider including the following:
    • Highlight how your partner leadership team navigates conflict between your team and your partner’s teams, should it arise.
    • Share how your partner leadership team manages expectations of their higher-ups (and what those expectations are, i.e. OKRs).
    • Describe how your partner leadership team went about implementing and scaling your largest channel partnership. What lessons were learned? What would you do differently? 
    • Emphasize that you realize a partnership with a GSI will be a long process and that your partner leaders have the mental stamina to be persistent. 
Zoe Kelly 12 min

Confessions of a GSI: Here's What GSIs Look for in an ISV Partner

For an ISV, partnering with a GSI can be the key to unlocking major scaling opportunities, funding, and gaining customers. But how can an ISV catch the eye of a GSI? We went right to the source and asked them.

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