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Interview: she makes a six-figure startup salary as Head of Strategic Partnerships
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Q: Your job title reads like the type that could differ quite a lot depending on which company you work for. Can you tell us a bit about what you do?
Partnerships is traditionally seen as a business development role and at my previous company I was responsible for bringing our ecommerce platform into the European market. In countries where we weren't ready to set up shop yet I would start strategic collaborations with local partners to enter the market instead.
This was at a time when the foundation of the company had already been built and partnerships were a great growth lever. That's also what I love about strategic partnerships, it's one of the ways you can 10x your business. In new markets like Israel and South Africa, where I had zero contacts and knowledge of how to localise our product, our partners were essentially an extension of myself that I could rely on to help me execute on the company's business development goals.
I now recently moved to a company with a SaaS-product, where although I hold the same job title, I am now embedded in the Product team and my role is split between:
maintaining our own product integrations with platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter; essentially acting as a solutions engineer to stay on top of new API updates and to ensure our product's feature set remains competitive
setting up larger marketing partnerships that can help us grow our exposure; think of securing high-profile speaking slots or event partnerships
overseeing relationships with third-party integrations; the companies that use our API to build apps that live and operate in our ecosystem.
When I joined, these responsibilities existed but weren't formalised in any way. As the first person to work on partnerships it meant focussing on the foundational work first such as doing an API clean-up, running a Table Stakes analysis of what our product looked like for partners and working with the legal team to formalise the existing relationships with third parties in contracts. Now that this part is done, I'm starting to shift more of my attention towards new opportunities like community-building or exploring an affiliate program as an area of growth for the company.
Job title: Head of Strategic Partnerships
Experience: 9 working years
Current salary: €97.000 - €105.000 p/year (depending on conversion rates)
Location: Amsterdam (remote), US-based startup
Q: Was the move from a Strategic Partnerships role in a Business Development team to one in a Product team a conscious one?
At my previous job I started off in the business development team, but entering new markets soon also included responsibility over localisation of the product. By virtue of that I ended up getting a lot of product experience.
By the time I moved to my current company I wanted to make the shift into a role that combined partnerships and product, primarily because I enjoy the technical side of looking into documentation and thinking about how the product is perceived by an end-user. Because I didn't have any engineering resources at the start of my work here I ended up doing a lot of solutions engineering myself, which has helped me become a lot better at my job now that I actually do have engineers in my team.
In terms of career growth, I also felt that moving into product would be a more robust choice for future opportunities than simply staying in the business development domain. Ultimately there's more demand for product-jobs and the salaries are higher.
Even though my role is still very much business development focussed, I'm now also a product manager helping to shape both our own product as well as our internal tooling. I really enjoy having that variety of work: the social aspect of working with people and building relationships, while also helping to ship the actual product.
Q: How is success measured in your role and has that changed between your current and previous company?
At my previous company there was a very clear overarching company objective that my team and I were measured against, called gross productive clients. These were the absolute number of clients in any given market that joined our ecommerce platform and had generated at least $1 in revenue. I would oversee the country managers who then had sub-targets for how many of those clients would come in through partnerships, direct marketing or other channels. A clear north-star metric.
The big difference with my job now is that my objective is to add new value to our existing customer base as opposed to bringing on new leads to help the company grow.
We work with the OKR framework and as a result of the company being fairly small (80 employees) our quarterly department objectives are really focussed on making sure we ship that which is needed most for the company to reach its overall target. Being in the product team myself also means my own objectives relate much stronger to the product roadmap than to the business development side of strategic partnerships.
Q: How important is it to have a budget you can spend to do your job effectively?
It depends on the phase of the company you're in. There's definitely room for organic partnerships to drive meaningful results, but often having a budget when you're past the early startup phase can be necessary to setup the tooling you need.
As an example, at my previous company we had plenty of in-house capacity to build an affiliate program to ramp up lead generation, but at my current company building something like this would detract too much from the core roadmap. Having a budget to work with third-party platforms or external contractors can be a way forward.
You don't need a strategic partnerships budget to go off and pay an influencer money hoping that it'll drive results, but being able to invest in the proper software tools will certainly help you be effective. Part of that comes with its own price-tag.
Q: Tell us about your career trajectory: how did you get to where you are now and what helped shape you skillset along the way?
I definitely followed a non-linear path, as is the case with most people in tech. Product management isn't even a study you can follow in school as far as I'm aware of.
I initially studied political science and communications, but it was through my involvement in the student association that I started dabbling in the tech space. Although the focus was on politics, I received a lot of requests for creating graphics, posters and websites, leading me to eventually decide to go back to school again to study web development and get a degree in computer science.
School ended up being incredibly expensive and being from a working class family made me realise that I needed to roll up my sleeves, take care of myself and make sure that I was in the position to repay school debt as soon as possible. When I moved to the Netherlands to accept an interesting low-salary traineeship it prompted me to use my web development experience to generate an alternative source of income.
For a while I was taking web development jobs from Craigslist for as little as €10 an hour, which in hindsight makes me cringe thinking about how I robbed myself. On the positive side working for a lot of small companies gave me room to fuck up and hone my skills, which is something that has proven beneficial for my move into product.
Interestingly enough my developer-experience also helped me secure the Strategic Partnerships position at my previous company. I knew there was a candidate in the running with a stronger commercial background, but I was able to convince the company that my technical and entrepreneurial background would be more of a complement to their existing group of employees. After I got the position I remember thinking what a great reminder this is that just because someone is a better fit on paper doesn't necessarily disqualify you from being equipped to do that job.
If there's one other thing that helped me get where I am today, it's the fact that I really wanted to meet other young female developers when I started living in Amsterdam and as a result decided to host my own meetup. It turned out to be a very organic way of building industry connections and forced me to build relationships with companies such as Google, Booking and Adyen to help support these events. Many of my career opportunities can be linked back to the network I built up in this phase of my life.
Q: What drove you to switch jobs in the years that you did?
I've always had a list in the back of my mind with a few companies that I would love to work for one day given the right position opens up fitting my skillset. I've been lucky that both my current as well as my previous two jobs were at companies on that list.
What made me decide to move at the first of those three jobs was actually a combination of factors. In my first year I had an extremely steep learning curve, but after that the opportunities to grow no longer matched my ambition and the irregular working hours (event partnerships) made me realise it wasn't sustainable for me longer-term. When the opportunity came up to apply for another one of my dream companies I took the opportunity and decided to move on.
At my previous company, the decision to leave came after being there for more than 3 years during which I had been promoted twice and had grown my team to 8 people. At that time, we reached a point where we had entered the European market successfully and my team and I were now focussing on small incremental changes. It was still fun, but it lacked the same excitement I felt when we were still in that phase of growth.
I also think I would've hit a glass ceiling, because we started to move into a phase where even though you'd been at the company for a long time, they would hire someone from Google with 20 years of experience a level above you.
I really wanted the opportunity to grow again and the current company I work for offers exactly that. The company itself is already quite successful, but Partnerships is just a new functionality they've added into the mix. Even though I was able to increase my salary, taking this position felt like a risky bet at the time. I think my ego started messing with my judgement because I kept wondering whether letting go of having direct reports would be too much of a 'step down’ in my career.
What ultimately played a large part in my decision was factoring in quality of life. My previous job had me travelling once a week and living out of my suitcase. I really wanted to improve my work-life balance and at my current company I'm able to dedicate time to side projects, spend more time with my friends and pick up Dutch classes again. I ended up realising those things were more important for me in this phase of my career than the ego-boost of a fancy title or large team of direct reports.
Q: You've made quite the exponential jump in salary over your previous few years. How did that process go for you?
I've become more headstrong about knowing my worth. When I transitioned to my previous company I completely low-balled myself because I hadn't correctly assessed what my market value was or what salary-levels were common for a company that size.
Although growing my salary from €37.000 to €45.000 felt substantial, it was completely out of line with the level of pay for that particular company. I only realised after I was there for a while that I was earning much less than almost all of my colleagues.
When I received a promotion it initially came without a pay raise, but I decided to kick up a fuss since I knew my previous boss had been making almost €150.000 in the position I was now about to fill. It was definitely a frustrating experience and a learning curve for myself. Unfortunately most companies have a very untransparent salary scale and it just makes it very hard to know whether you’re on par.
If I had to summarise a few things I've noticed throughout my career about salary progression, it's that substantial increases usually come from either:
moving into a management position
moving from company to company
or having a particular skillset which companies are willing to pay up for
When I managed my own team I had direct reports with the same job title making less than me and more than me. In situations like that people had been placed on a much higher experience level in the same job type because their skillset or the prestige of their track record of previous companies demanded it.
Q: Any final advice for readers of The Hatchet?
I've always tried to focus on personal growth in my career and then chose to move on as soon as I hit a point where that stagnated. I think you really can't go wrong with following that advice.