The Power of Partnerships

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A story about the partnership journey of three key players in the digital space; MyWorkReload Media, and Shopify.

Key people:

  • Craig Somerville — Reload founder / current Managing Director.
  • Llew Jury — Reload founder, now Managing Partner at Sprint VC.
  • Rhys Furner — Early Reload employee, now Head of Partnerships (APAC) at Shopify.
  • Matt Holme — Founder of MyWork, now CEO of YouPay.

Intro

Engaging in a business partnership is like setting off on a journey together. Some are short trips, while others are long adventures. There may be some challenges along the way, and some businesses are better prepared than others! But embarking on such a journey can often mean beneficial growth and change, and invaluable lessons along the way.

I spoke with key figures from Shopify, MyWork, Reload Media and Sprint VC to explore how they developed and maintained business partnerships in the digital agency space. These relationships have had a significant impact on them professionally, both in the short and long term.

Llew Jury and Craig Somerville during the early days of Reload Media

Reload Media and MyWork — the early days

In 2010, MyWork was a fledgling website design company based in the Logan area. Founder Matt Holme’s focus was on delivering simple websites for small businesses, at a very affordable price point.

It was at this time that Rhys Furner was fresh out of university and working as a digital marketing consultant at Reload Media, a Brisbane digital marketing agency who had been active since 2008. Rhys was eager to increase business revenue at Reload, and was enthusiastically looking for web design agencies in Brisbane to partner with. While selling digital marketing services, he learned that a professional website was an important factor for the marketing to succeed, and there was little point in sending traffic to a site that wouldn’t convert. MyWork had the skillset in-house to build high quality, professional websites, but seeing those websites succeed on Google required a different area of expertise.

Due to this mutual need, Rhys suggested setting up a meeting to tell Matt about Reload, and suggested referring some MyWork clients for Reload’s SEO packages. At the time these SEO packages were fairly basic, built around keywords, and aimed at small businesses. They were suited perfectly for MyWork’s customers, who enthusiastically started signing on.

From there, Rhys introduced Matt to Craig Somerville and Llew Jury, the founders of Reload Media. As the managing director, Craig explained that “Reload made partnerships a big part of our focus from day one. Many of our first partners were those from the industry that we already knew, and from there we started to expand it outwards.”

Llew remembers that at the time, the foray into partnerships allowed the team to assess the viability of the Reload business model. He said “very quickly, it became the case that 50% of our leads who converted were referred from our partners. So very early on, Rhys and I saw that we had to develop Partnerships and away we went.”

Within 18 months the Reload team had built a formal partner program based on revenue share agreements, with 150 partners throughout Australia and NZ. As Partnerships Manager, Rhys utilised LinkedIn and enquiry forms on websites to reach out to potential agency partners. “I was looking for web designers/developers of all sizes who were great at what they did, but didn’t have the in-house marketing component already and would benefit from partnering with an agency who had complementary services.”

He listed multiple benefits of the partnership channel, including “good quality revenue, easier to sell, shorter sales cycles, overall lifetime value, and clients who are more likely to stay with the company longer as they were seeing results.”

Llew said that building the partnership program at Reload “allowed us to learn that in Australia, partnerships are everything, and relationships are the number one thing partnerships are built on.” When it comes to criteria for forming a partnership, he believes the most important thing is for the business founders to be like minded. “They need to have shared ideals about what they want to do with their business. Treat their staff well, be customer-centric, value relationships. Putting the human first rather than coming in with a monetary piece.”

When MyWork and Reload were sharing referrals, they also shared the aim of engaging people they trusted to look after the client. Craig mentioned that he doesn’t necessarily think of partnerships in terms of ‘entering an agreement’, but more in terms of starting a business relationship where there is mutual benefit to be gained. “The best business partnerships aren’t overly formal, are based on mutual trust and are with people who we genuinely enjoy working with.”

Matt agreed heartily with this, saying “if you buy into the partnership mindset, and you have a genuine relationship with like-minded businesses that can add value to your customers, you’ll succeed.” Matt also emphasises the importance of being all-in on partnerships. A scenario where a business purposely tries to take good leads for themselves and refers “bad” ones, would erode the fundamental trust which the partnership is built on.

He used MyWork’s partnership with Reload as an example. “If you’re using a partner for SEO, you need to give all the SEO referrals to your partner. You don’t want an awkward scenario where you’re saying, we do SEO for these clients, but we refer these other clients. It’s much better to structure your business around the mindset of this is what we do best, this is what we can deliver on, and if we’re not strong in other areas, use the partnership.”

In the short term, this referral-based partnership allowed MyWork and Reload to be experts in their own fields and focus on the things they do best, keep their customers happy, and provided an additional source of revenue for both businesses.

They stayed with that model for a number of years. Llew said “very quickly, we worked out who were going to be our partners for the next couple of years and beyond. In terms of opportunities, mutual respect continues even if you’ve moved out of that digital landscape. You always look after the people who’ve looked after you, and it’s all about giving back.”

Matt didn’t realise it at the time, but they were laying the foundation for a relationship that would continue for more than 10 years and into the present day. More on that later!

Matt Holme started MyWork in 2009 and is now the CEO and Founder of YouPay

Rhys and the Shopify Partnership Program

During these early years, Reload Media were also building a strong partnership with Shopify. The long-running Shopify meetup event in Brisbane is facilitated by Reload to this day, and the two companies have an excellent relationship. Rhys recalls that “at the time, it was very rare for a service-focused business to have partnerships with other service based businesses,” particularly for an intangible service like digital marketing.

However, Reload had built a reputation of doing the right things and delivering sustainable results in what was then perceived as a slightly dodgy industry. They were increasingly working with eCommerce businesses, and it was becoming apparent that Shopify was set to become a major player in the digital space. Rhys’ experience in building partnerships in Brisbane led to him playing a foundational role with an international industry leader.

“I was speaking at a networking event, an eCommerce event in Brisbane. The other panelists were Nathan Bush and Jason Bowman, the only Shopify employee in Australia at the time.” After this event, Rhys invited Jason for a coffee to discuss running a Shopify meetup in Brisbane, talk about getting Reload more eCommerce clients, and other potential partnership opportunities between Reload and Shopify. It became apparent there was an opportunity for Rhys to take his expertise in partnerships to Shopify, to help them build their partnership program. He said it was a bit of a no brainer, as he already knew the agency space, had built a partner program before, and Shopify needed someone to help them build in Australia. “Next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Canada and started at Shopify!”

When a business has a partnership mindset, the scenario of an employee moving on means a potential opportunity to forge new connections. Llew mentioned the importance of not burning bridges in this scenario, as it’s actually “an opportunity for future partnerships and major benefits in your business . I’ve learned over the years how many opportunities come from the great humans you hire and where they go next.”

Though Rhys had prior experience building a partnership program, moving to a company of Shopify’s size was a totally different experience. They had around two thousand employees at the time he started, and he needed to quickly build context around what’s important to Shopify and what strategically made sense for them.

“When you’re one of two people in a big region, a big market, you have to wear a million hats. You’re doing partnerships, sales, marketing, running events, doing support — trying to grow the region as quickly as possible. It’s a tough slog but it’s easy to do when you believe in the product and the mission,” he explained.

One of the reasons for his belief in Shopify was their unique appeal as a platform. Rather than being targeted specifically to certain audiences (eg small business or enterprise), it suited a wide range of businesses. Rhys set about moulding their agency partner program to reflect this, so anyone could sign up — from a freelancer to a 3000 person agency, or indeed, a midsize web design company like MyWork.

As Rhys established the partnership program at Shopify, he reached out to Matt to start the onboarding process again — this time signing up MyWork to be a Shopify service-based partner.

The common goal for a partnership between an agency like MyWork and a big platform like Shopify is the success of the merchant (e.g. the eCommerce business owner). Rhys shared the interesting statistic that “Shopify makes less revenue through subscription fees, and more through merchant service revenue. I.e. Shopify benefits when merchants succeed on the platform.”

Therefore, when a company like MyWork creates great Shopify websites for merchants, this drives more success for their businesses, and therefore contributes to more growth for Shopify. Rhys uses the metaphor of a flywheel to explain how partnerships lead to continued growth:

“When you have over a million merchants, it opens up product gaps which need to be plugged, and as they’re plugged, it makes the platform friendlier to a wider range of merchants. As those gaps get plugged, we get more merchants, and it’s a self fulfilling flywheel that continues to speed up.”

Looking at it through this lens, it’s clear that their partnership model has been a huge contributor to the success of the Shopify ecosystem. Rhys believes the “secret to Shopify’s success is that they’re a platform which allows people to build on it in a range of ways.” As well as service partnerships, they also offer technology partnerships, app partnerships, affiliate partnerships, and more. Shopify uses partnerships to grow and develop their own business, and as a result, they are now known as not only an eCommerce product, but a platform that creates opportunities for all types of partners. So, what’s next for a company that seems to have conquered partnerships across all territories?

“We’re in the process of rebuilding our commercial partnership program on a global level to provide more value for agency partners. We’re building developer certification, dedicated service models, customised onboarding, tiering, and ultimately more consistency across all our regions.”

From two people when Rhys first joined, he said “Shopify now has a team of around 200 people across the Asia Pacific region, with agency partnerships a key focus.” Shopify have provided the platform for collaboration, invested heavily in growing their partnership program and the result is they now have over 1.7 million merchants across 175 countries. From humble beginnings, Shopify is now the gold standard for how partnerships can influence and benefit a business at a global level.

Rhys Furner started his career in digital with Reload Media, and is now the APAC Head of Partnerships at Shopify

Long Term Impact — Reload Media and MyWork

Over the years, MyWork continued their relationship with Reload, but also experimented with setting up their own internal digital marketing team.

Due to the trust and mutual respect they had built working together in the early days, the two companies remained friends, and would regularly see each other at digital agency conferences and events.

In late 2018, a Shopify event was held in Melbourne and the MyWork senior team decided to attend, with the aim to learn more about being a Shopify partner and grow in that area. Craig was set to be one of the speakers at the event, presenting a workshop on business strategy. Naturally, due to their long term relationship with Craig and Reload Media, Matt was keen to hear Craig speak on the importance of business strategy.

“It turned out, this was a huge turning point for MyWork as a business,” he said. Craig’s advice on that day led to MyWork refining and focusing their business strategy, and successfully communicating it to their employees. “Going in with an open mind, listening to what Craig was saying, and ultimately letting his advice impact the direction of the business, may never have happened without the foundation of the partnership at the beginning and that mutual respect.”

Being open to other perspectives and having a give-and-take dialogue is a crucial element of successful partnerships. Craig said that at Reload, “all our partnerships evolve as our respective businesses mature, and the relationship with MyWork and Shopify is no exception. One thing that does stand out is that trust grows over time, and that makes it even stronger.

“I’m always taking ideas and inspiration from everyone we do business with, whether that’s partners, clients or someone else entirely. I try to have lots of influences on my business thinking, and aim to surround myself with people who do that.”

Though the surface level benefits of partnerships may be monetary-based, businesses have a real opportunity to work together for all types of mutual benefit. But to do so successfully, they need to align in their ethos and attitudes.

Matt said “people may be skeptical or lack knowledge around how it works, but it really comes back to the old-fashioned concept of having trust in relationships. Just as personal relationships are founded on trust and mutual respect, so too are healthy business relationships.”

Another notable result of this long-term trust and respect between MyWork and Reload was when MyWork had the opportunity to rebuild the Reload Media website.

As a young business owner, Matt looked up to Reload as a larger, more established business. So 10 years on, when MyWork were rewarded with the recognition of designing their website, Matt describes it as a full-circle moment. “The MyWork team were optimistic that if they could deliver on the web design side, they could knock it out of the park and deliver it to Reload. That would give Reload even more confidence that when another of their customers needs a great website, they would recommend speaking to MyWork as one of the options.”

Craig said that “you never know when a relationship is going to go full circle, but if you keep doing the right things it invariably does.” From his perspective, not much has changed at the core of business partnerships in the last 10 years. “The basic principles are the same. The type of businesses we partner with have changed as our industry does, but it’s still fundamentally about people and an alignment on things that matter to us and to them.”

Craig Somerville, Founder and Managing Director at Reload Media

Long Term Impact — YouPay and Sprint VC

Though still involved as part of MyWork, in 2020 Matt also launched a startup, YouPay. The core idea behind YouPay is making it simple for another person to pay for your eCommerce order. When shopping online, a user can let someone else pay on their behalf by using a secure YouPay link.

When Matt had the lightbulb moment for YouPay, the first person outside MyWork he told was Llew. The internal MyWork team were already on board, and Matt had a feeling YouPay had serious potential, but wanted to run it past someone in the industry.

Llew was excited about the idea right away, he said “when Matt described the simplicity of YouPay to me, I thought, I need to go and have a chat about this — this is awesome!”

Having mutual respect and an open dialogue, being able to bounce ideas back and forth is another way partnerships can be beneficial outside of the monetary aspect.

Matt said “it was great to have someone trustworthy to get their external perspective on the idea” and due to their long-running relationship, Matt deliberately made sure Llew was part of the conversation from the beginning.

Llew said “building a business is all about stages and steps, and the first one is seeing if other people think you’re on the right path. Once you get that confirmation, onto the next step. Matt’s now 15 steps ahead, and the idea is validated, but it starts with small steps and people that you trust validating it for you.”

As the founder of Sprint VC, an early stage technology investment company, Llew now applies his experience with business partnerships in the startup ecosystem — which relies on the same principles of trust and long-term commitment.

Llew Jury is now the founder of venture capital group, Sprint VC

“Partnering in the startup ecosystem is about paying it forward,” he explains. “You have to put in a lot of time and energy, and we don’t mind doing that, because we know that these partnerships will pay off in the future.”

In another full circle partnership moment, Llew’s investment company Sprint VC have recently been confirmed as one of the first investors in YouPay, further solidifying his and Matt’s long term business relationship.

Llew said “we raised our very first sprint fund that invested in YouPay, all on trust. We have 20 investors and the whole thing has been built on trust and our reputations.”

With Sprint’s backing, YouPay are going from strength to strength. Keep an eye out for big things from them soon!

Conclusion

Of course, not all partnership stories have happy endings. No matter how well-intentioned both parties are, challenges can arise when trust is betrayed, or mutual respect isn’t shown. Matt’s advice is that “communication is the key to preserving relationships, and it’s important to find ways to work together to overcome any issues.”

It’s also necessary to keep in mind that partnerships offer much more than just short term benefits. According to Matt, any commission benefit is just the icing on the cake.

“The true benefit is the long term relationship, the growth and trust building over a long term period. You don’t go into a partnership model focusing on the money, or you won’t reap the long term benefits — so be in it for the right reasons!”

Craig mentioned that one of the biggest challenges Reload have faced has been “finding others who share similar business values to us on things like transparency, honesty and doing what’s right for clients. As sad as it is, not every business puts such a standard on ethical behaviour.”

He shared one example of a partnership which didn’t work out for this reason:

“I remember vividly walking away from a potential partnership when the founder told me that they always recommend a particular web platform to their clients, even when it’s not the best fit for them, because they could charge more for that over the alternatives. I just knew we didn’t want to be working with a firm like that. My values are a big area I won’t compromise on.”

Llew believes that you shouldn’t overcomplicate partnerships, especially at the early stage. He advises “keep partnerships free and loose, you don’t want to put too much legal rigor around them because otherwise they don’t become a trusted, relationship-led partnership.” Rather than a legal agreement, “partnerships should be all about giving back and paying it forwards.”

Rhys acknowledges that the craft of partnerships is extremely broad, and often misunderstood, but his number one insight is that partnerships should be transformational, not transactional.

A transactional partnership is all about educating your partners on your product and getting them selling your product, and this is how 9/10 tech companies operate their partnerships model. “Technology based and service based companies often don’t invest in partnerships, and it’s seen purely as a sales channel. But that’s a transactional way of thinking — think about how to do it in a transformational manner and find the objective that matters to both of you,” Rhys suggests.

A transformational partnership is built around what the partners want to achieve. What’s the north star both are aiming for? If you can both agree on a mutual goal, and work towards it with mutual trust and respect, the next partnership success story might just be yours.

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