“Partnerships are a two-way component, add more value to your clients, but in return, if you can accelerate clients coming back to you then that’s a good news story for a lot of firms”. – Bryan Williams, Honey Stick Advisory
Today I’m speaking with Bryan Williams, Founder of Hockey Stick Advisory. In this episode, we talk about all aspects of “Partnership” and how through his new business Bryan Williams is enabling tech companies to reach their ambitions faster: by unlocking the benefits of partnership ecosystems so they don’t have to grow alone, whilst delighting their customers every step of the way.
- The concept of partnerships
- The benefits of partnering
- How have partnerships evolved over time
- The pitfalls of partnerships.
- The difference between an ecosystem and a partnership
- Examples of how great partnerships work in the Accounting and Bookkeeping industry.
- How Bryan measures partnership efforts
- Bryan also talked about the tech industry, and the trends coming through the ecosystem.
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Tell us about your story and how you came to establish Hockey Stick Advisory.
Bryan: Yeah, thanks Heather. I think for myself is in terms of a journey of how I got to this stage is I’ve always seen the value of partnerships ongoing. And even in my Vend time, I sort of grew into a senior account manager role for a period of time and I got a chance to travel around Australia, New Zealand, chatting to merchants who are using the software and I’d encourage them to onboard and use more connected apps because I would see the benefits of them to be able to operate sharper businesses and indirectly a few years later, that’s how I got to work with Nick Holdsworth again as I got to lead across the region down here about on the Xero side to try and get more apps connected into either the small businesses, the accountant/bookkeeping solutions or for financial services ahead. I’ve always sort of been intrigued in this space and I’ve had a natural curiosity which has sort of stemmed to where I’ve had today.
How I got to launch Hockey Stick on the back of that is being Melbourne based, stuck in lockdown, as many of us were, I did a little bit of consulting on helping a few other tech companies build partnerships and partnership ecosystems and I’ve got a bit of a flavour of how that would work. Then on the back of that I’ve been involved with a few startup accelerators over the years. Startup Vic down here in Victoria, and over the recent years, Blackbird’s Giants mentor programme.
I’ve got a bit of a taste and feel of firstly what the benefits of connected technology can do in my day-to-day role. Seeing the benefits and way too many case studies of those who rise up, who are you using and harnessing the technology. Then on the other side I got a taste and a flavour of consulting and how do you deploy that knowledge information into setting up a business? It was far from a knee-jerk reaction, it was a natural migration I suppose, or my sort of pathway to where I’ve ended up today and bit longer than six months in now, I’m enjoying life on the other side, with ;ots of different challenges but going well so far.
You started exploring this new opportunity while you were working at Xero, is it something that’s encouraged there?
Bryan: I think it’s by definition, designed there. They’re trying to advocate for small businesses to thrive, right? And the side hustles is a part of that around it. I know in tech industry we’re seeing all these examples alongside and I think in Xero with a strong accounting and bookkeeping practice, you also get exposed to these award-winning, digital, cloud first firms who are doing stuff. The inspiration’s really all around us. To sort of explore what it looks like further, it wasn’t uncommon. I know Google had a 20% time and I’ve got a few friends that are there who get involved in all sorts of initiatives on the side, and I think in this sort of day and age it’s not uncommon and increasingly the gig economy and those aspects and there’s various components which people are testing or trialling new ways of working going forwards.
Heather: Yeah. It certainly is interesting and I think it nurtures the environment.
Where does the name Hockey Stick Advisory come from?
Bryan: Yeah, it’s a bit of a play on words and a bit of fun. There’s a general belief of startups and scale ups that there’s an up until the right growth curve of like, “We are going to go to the moon” in aspirations of either eccentric or hopeful or ambitious founders, which I love to see. And often they don’t always have the recipe to get there and what does that look like? And typically businesses, they’ll have their core sales function and that’s usually focused on either having a direct sales team, a digital sales team or product led growth to be able to get there. And what I’m trying to come in to do is companies who are at a scale up stage, they’ve got product market fit, the founders know they want to either grow internationally or expand through other channels and I’ve seen and experienced and been able to use my IP to help them head up and to the right with a hockey stick style shape through partnerships and order benefits that unlocks. And that’s what I’m sort of bringing to the table.
Heather: We have a number of intersections and one of those is that my husband plays both ice hockey and field hockey, spent many a time at a hockey field. Let’s talk about partnerships, Bryan, and being mindful that we’re talking to the accounting and the bookkeeping industry and we have vendors, accountants, and bookkeepers all with slightly different nuanced requirements listening in.
If we could talk about partnership relationships in relation to them, what do you mean by the concept of partnerships?
Bryan: Yeah, sure. In a tech environment, it’s usually built by partner as the strategic decisions as you get bigger and go down the … And for an accounting or bookkeeping lens, it’s outside of your core services, who else can you connect and partner with in order to provide more value to your clients? Now there’s buzzwords of advisory and we could spend the time talking around that left and right, but you don’t have to do it all yourself if you don’t choose to or you don’t want to outgrow that component. And you’ve got the opportunity to partner with others to be able to bring those services to life and nurture those relationships.
They’ll deliver a great service. But imagine for each of your clients if beyond tax compliance or completing their BAS or doing advisory or components if like, “Hey I’m interested to get this grant, the export grant. Who can help with that? I need a lawyer to set up some components, who can help with that?” And to have a trusted network in and around you, but if you choose by design or size or growth or aspirations that you don’t want to offer these other components, then why not fulfil all the needs of your clients through partnerships? I think that’s the opportunity that accountants and bookkeepers have to sort of relish. We’ve had a lot of work, just some watering, some nurturing and see what comes back full circle.
Heather: And I guess you could have informal or formal partnerships.
Bryan: Yeah. So I mean, you’ve got the opportunity to recommend someone or go chat to these guys down here. If it materialise and there’s a common sequence and usually it prioritise all the components of what is the jobs to be done for a small business? And if there’s a bunch of themes where, or it might even be by industry or sector where you’re like, “Hey, I’ve got a lot of tradie clients or a lot of farming clients,” then what else do they need to do? And if you are regularly sending leads or recommendations across to another trusted partner to deliver those services, then the natural partnership to come with that might evolve and grow into that in time. But in the instance you’re trying to provide more value to your clients and that’s where the partnerships opportunity is to sort of realise.
Are there any other benefits of partnering that we should unpack here?
Bryan: Yeah, there’s a whole range, right? To start off with it’s services which you don’t have to offer yourself, it’s higher NPS and customer satisfaction. If you’re able to provide and connect people with trusted services and they’re like, “I love working with you guys, you always help me out and if you can’t help me directly, you’ve got the opportunity to go with it.” Then in return and as you water and grow these over the years, especially when I was at Xero commonly like, “Oh, we grow by word of mouth.” Okay, well if you amplify partnerships then maybe you can accelerate word of mouth.
Because if you started recommending people to say to a legal firm or to someone who does grants like I said, or other services, then there’s a high chance in time that you are going to be top of mind on their side and that word of mouth in return will start to come around. It is an opportunity to access new clients, which you otherwise wouldn’t get. And if that same conversation in reverse, they’re at a legal firm like, “Hey, I need a great accountant” and like, “Oh, actually we work closely with these guys,” or, “I need someone to help with BAS,” then you’re top of mind. Partnerships are a two-way component, add more value to your clients, but in return if you can accelerate clients coming back to you then that’s a good news story for a lot of firms.
Heather: And I guess that’s possibly your move from making it informal to making it formal and getting the right balance there.
Bryan: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. Yeah.
Heather: A random man on the internet I saw called you the prince of partnerships. It must be true.
In your opinion as the prince of partnerships, how have partnerships evolved over time?
Bryan: Yeah, I know who you’re talking to on that one as well. Desmond, who’s part of the headquarters. Yeah, I always have a good laugh with Des. How has it evolved over time? In a traditional business sense, I’m talking around tech to start off with, is that there’s defined business units over the years, right? It used to be sales and then it used to be operations and marketing and partnerships used to be a component which was over to the side. It was a component was like the CEO was like, “Oh, I know these guys, go chat to them” or, “Someone worked in sales for a period of time, can you go chat to them?” And it’s becoming a prominent and strategic asset for a lot of businesses now that those who invest in partnerships and do them properly and water them and nurture them and expand through it, is a growth opportunity for the business.
In time it’s definitely gotten more serious, it’s taken more serious, the benefits and to go with it have definitely been realised. And behind the scenes of all that and which is really pleasing on my side is there’s a lot of actual partner tech coming behind the scenes to actually measure that now, which a lot of this tech’s only a few years old. Jay McBain from Catalyst in Florida who’s like the leading analyst globally in this, he’s got a map of over 220 different partner tech solutions out there. And you picture the Xero ecosystem of a thousand plus apps and HubSpot’s got a thousand plus, but there’s always tech which is emerging. A lot of it’s only a few years old, which is coming through to be able to measure if you introduce someone to someone else around how do you track that behind the scenes and what’s the commercials and what’s the benefits, how do you make that easier? Which is really exciting.
Heather: Yeah, no, that is really interesting because it does seem to be almost a difficult thing to track, but we cannot measure what we cannot … We cannot manage what we cannot measure.
Bryan: Yeah, that’s right.
Where has the partnering approach gone wrong in the past? Are there pitfalls that we should avoid?
Bryan: Yeah, so I think the intentions are always well set out from people who are growing out the partnerships and from where it’s come from where it’s like, “Hey, go chat to all these people and try and get some business or get some leads or try and offer more.” The approach is usually passed over to someone with a sales like methodology that partnerships is only there to evolve, to go and attract new business and try and extract customers from elsewhere. And in reality it doesn’t work that way. And it’s frankly quite annoying. You picture, if someone comes to your firm or accounting, accounting or bookkeeping firm, they say, “Hey, we want to partner with you and can you introduce us to all your clients?”
It’s like the approach is wrong and in tech and it’s definitely at Xero, I saw that approach far too often. The way to go about it inversely is to … You need to add value, you need to build trust, you need to build those relationships, offer something back in return for a period of time so you can earn a trust with the partner that you want to work with before you can expect stuff in return. It’s an investment. There’s a saying, Jared Fuller from PartnerHacker in the states says it a lot. It’s that a partnership should be a strategy, not a department. And it’s like an investment ongoing before you start to reap rewards in return.
Heather: And I guess also one of the pitfalls could be if is you develop a partnership but then the other partner does something that doesn’t align with your value and your culture and you need to extract yourself from that partnership as well.
Bryan: Yeah. It’s important to have just clear expectations on both sides around what it is and also what it isn’t to go about it and how do you work together and what is the road forward? And that’s where as you formalise it over time, if it requires that, you start to really just make sure … It’s kind of like a rules of engagement that how you promote each other or push that sort of stuff to going forwards.
What’s the difference between an ecosystem and a partnership?
Bryan: Partnership is typically a channel per se and it’s a distribution, right? You buy a car from a car dealer, you’re not buying from the manufacturer itself. And a partnership’s typically one-to-one and you go to a supermarket and you buy a range of things. And that’s effectively distribution from partnerships which are locked in to go around it. Whereas ecosystems, the third party component where there’s the points of value that’s added and sort of collected together, right? And talking around the Xero ecosystem, which I’m familiar with as you are Heather, is that it gets better when there’s a whole range of options in the marketplace for various solutions to be able to provide third party solutions or extend the value of Xero and/or others. That collectively together is the ecosystem together and the that’ll all start to work together collectively. There’ll be competition in there which helps them continually improve and move forward. The ecosystem is where the magic happens, the flywheel per se, as Amazon originally coined it, to make the whole environment hum.
Heather: Absolutely. I’m keen to talk about examples of some great partnerships, especially within the accounting and bookkeeping industry. And I’ll just throw in and start by suggesting there’s a gentleman you might know called Chris Wheatley who is one of the moderators of the Small Business Brains Trust Facebook group. And I’ve known him for over a decade now and he always says, “I’ve got a guy for that, I’ve got a guy for that.” Whatever issue you have, “I’ve got a guy for that.” And it’s interesting that he’s managed to grow this group with his other moderators and there’s now bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, referrals happening, partnerships happening, et cetera out of it.
Do you have other great examples of great partnerships working?
Bryan: On the accounting front, if you look at the event series which happen nationally ongoing, whether conferences up in Sydney or Melbourne, ABE or Accountex, they’re partnering with industry advocates or tech vendors in order to bring together that conference. Without their help and promotion through a partnership, those events don’t happen. They can’t work in isolation, they don’t have the reach, the contacts to go about it. In exchange obviously you’ve got to pay a sponsorship component to be part of it, to invest in it as per Xerocon or roadshows to go with it. On the events aspect, the events only happen through partnerships to go about it.
The other one on the tech side is that the partnerships are underpinned by a strong integration and the integrations and the better they are and no surprise, you add more value to your clients and they are partnerships directly as well to automate information, to improve efficiencies and offer more between those and so on, those components. In reality they’re actually all around us in a day-to-day component. But I suppose the opportunity is for accountants and bookkeepers is around well, who would you partner with that’s closest to the core of your services, which can complement what you are offering yourselves?
Heather: And I guess to that, many BAS agents may partner with a tax agent, so many bookkeepers may partner with an accountant and they get to know the way they work, et cetera. And a lot of work can flow back and forth and they have that great communication channel happening as well.
How can you harness partnerships to offer more for your customers?
Bryan: Yeah, so alongside, I’d recommend to sort of start closest to the core, right? Whether you’re a BAS agent or tax agent or accountant or management accountant, whatever the specialty is, it’s like what else is your ideal customer, what’s the services which you’ve made a decision not to do and if you can’t do it, who can do it alongside you and go down that route? It’s no good, and we’ve seen many attempts over the years by many apps who might do a very small niche and they want a bunch of other unrelated people to go and promote their services. But the closer it is to alongside of what your service is, then it makes most sense because it’s complementary by design of what it is and that’s where the real depths of the sort of partnerships are, that sort of come to life. For a prioritisation process it’s not too hard to work out who they might be based on your unique circumstances.
Heather: You answered that in reflection to the accountants and bookkeepers.
How can accounting apps or the vendors in the industry harness partnerships better?
Bryan: In the same instance, who are they targeting? Who is their ideal customer? Are they selling into enterprise firms, into sole traders? Is it into multi-entity firms around to go about it? Then in terms of who they partner and build their own ecosystem over time around it, what does that look like? Are they services which extend the value of what they offer quite closely and do they have sales teams or digital processes or product growth components where you might be able to extend the value through some integrations to make your product offering even more? A lot of the accounting apps or vendors might have a point of solution or a niche, they just solve a component, right? And look at AccountKit in and around of what they do or a bunch of these … Firms which have done really well in recent years, they just build a solution.
But it’s likely that an accountant or bookkeeper at the end is using other workflows throughout their day and who are those partners who will complement that as well? They’re also probably trying to sell to the same sort of audience similar once you’re able to identify that. If you picture a Xerocon or one of the major conferences and you’ve got all these stands and exhibitors set up, effectively or most of them are trying to sell to the same sort of person. If a lot of them work in and around nicely together, why don’t you partner up to either access some of their customers in the right way or go to market together to be able to bring a stronger value proposition together?
Heather: Yeah, absolutely. And another way you can identify that is if you ask your customer based what other tools and solutions they are using and then approach those tools and solutions and some of them you may know because they’re very vocal and then there might be others out there that you don’t know who you have an untapped market that you can both work with together.
How do you go about prioritising which partners to work with?
Bryan: Beyond making a strategic decision around how far your services go around about that and be very defined, like don’t offer something you half do or trying to … Make a decision around where you do you rely on yourself. And from there, like you said Heather correctly is like how else can we help our ideal customer? Is it oh we want to get tradies clients, we want to get more of them? Okay, well what other tradie apps would plug in and around the accounting solutions and how do we chat to those? It’d be a very logical component to work through as you sort of triage to go around that. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel or over engineer it, start with two or three around it and get those humming and try and build a bit of a blueprint around how do you approach this and then build it out from there.
Heather: You’re very purposeful and strategic in how you look at this. I got that from, I was listening to your interview with Petra on Trusted Authority. Is that the right-
Bryan: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
Heather: You’re very purposeful in this.
How do you go about measuring partnership efforts?
Bryan: Yeah, so you got to think about what you want to get out of it I suppose. Then from there start to reverse engineer what efforts you’re required to do it and who would do it to go with it, right? If you’re working in the business and you’re a small business, then how much capacity do you have to actually invest in this component? If you’re a bigger firm and you’ve got someone to say, “Hey, we want you to go and lead this project,” there’s a different story to go about it. I suppose it comes back to the strategic vision of what you’re trying to bring forward and what you want to go out of it and how you invest in it to be able to measure what return or expectations you are to sort of harness back in return to go about it. To answer your question Heather, I think it’d be reflective of just size of your firm and the purpose of what you’re doing and just to start with one or two and get started and then build it out from there.
Heather: And I guess in some instances, accountants and bookkeepers, a lot of their partnerships are actually with their vendors and I know I see my vendors as a part of my business team and the people, and that’s one of the interests for me about the humans behind the software because I see them as part of my business team. But whether you’re referring work or trying to get other people involved with what they’re doing. We are facing challenging economic climate, a global recession is looming.
What are your thoughts on this for the tech industry? Is embracing a partnership model an opportunity to survive and thrive strategy for businesses?
Bryan: A hundred percent. The more touchpoints you have into complementary services around where you are top of mind ongoing, then there’s a groundswell movement, there’s an ecosystem model in itself, right? I know and through research and various other marketplace and ecosystems of stuff that I read that those who connect to more apps are less likely to churn or they’re more likely to be higher value clients. If you can offer more than your standard services, and offer more through partnerships, whether official or not, then you can offer more and say you’ll be able to bring on growth easier.
As well as the most pleasing component is the partnerships are actually a triangle component, right? It’s your business, your partners, but best of all it’s the clients in the end. If they’re using connected tools and they’re plugged in and they’ve got the efficiencies and automation and all the benefits which all the software promises come together, then they’re more likely to be successful and also survive to go through it. For not only retaining clients but growing clients, I think in these economic times I think there’s going to be a bit of a moment where partnerships, it’s sort of time to shine because a lot of us who have been in this space have seen the opportunity for years and as we head into a recession globally, I think it’s the opportunity and the benefits which I talk of I think are really going to come to light.
Heather: And I just jumped off a Xero ecosystem webinar and one of the things they said was they could see if a business was accessing more of the apps, then they were a stickier business for them overall. If you are an accountant or bookkeeper and someone is accessing your go-to guy on grants, your go-to bank, your go-to mortgage lender, your go-to SMSF advisor, they’re perhaps in your sphere and staying stickier with you for the longer term. Because leaving is complex.
Bryan: Yeah, that’s right. The switching costs which come to actually up and leaving, it becomes more complex and the more things you plug and play into it or the more connections, as well as building that trust for your end clients. Why would they up and leave you if you provide a core service and you are connected and plugged in? I like the guy you referenced earlier around someone who can always add to a conversation of I know a guy to help you and stuff. It’s a great mandate and philosophy to live.
Heather: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. We had some listener questions for you Bryan.
What are some of the most progressive apps you’ve seen in the ecosystem?
Bryan: Yeah, I do do some work with XBert ongoing, just for full transparency around it. The reason why I do some work with them in particular is I do feel like they add an accounting file on steroids and add to the data quality but it’s able to make sure there’s more informed information to go around with it. To your point earlier Heather, around some of the learnings from the webinar you were on earlier, I had a view for years around what trends were sort of coming through the ecosystem and some of those which are progressive and moving along, it makes sense for me to work with in some capacity in a post Xero world and XBert’s one of those guys because of what they’re about. And we’re at an exciting tipping point where they’re actually, we just need to get out there and tell more people around what they offer and how they can give some time back to a lot of staff.
And it’s hard to hire staff right now, we know, and through some of the workflows, automations and audits, I’m quite bullish on their future in particular. They serve the category, emerging category of data integrity, which is something that sort of popped up increasingly in recent years. Beyond them, I think in a increasingly hybrid or in work environments, I’m seeing a lot of the, just in general the employment apps come through increasingly more, whether rostering, scheduling, the forecasting of payroll, managing remote work and whatnot and stuff. I’m seeing them come to the forefront and expect it. Anyone following a tech news over the last week, AI is everywhere. Chat, you can’t go anywhere without seeing sort of the content that’s going to write it all for us or we tell it or it takes a picture for us or all this sort of stuff. I think that’s got a way to go, but it’s definitely a way to watch. Beyond the one that was talked about and had one of the fastest growth of ever that’s come out this week, just in recent weeks…
Heather: ChatGPT I think you’re talking about. Yes.
Bryan: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. One of the fastest product lead growth companies. Jasper.ai is already a little bit ahead of that without the fanfare and a virality that we’ve seen this week. Notion, which is a document collation app has got their own version of it. And it was only two weeks ago Canva released their own version of it to go with it as well. There’s this whole industry of all right, AI’s at the forefront now. It’s already been around for years but it’s definitely it’s time to shine. Interesting to see what sort of user cases come out the side. When this sort of technology comes out over the years and APIs are released in various capacity, there’s always edge cases around it and that’s where the real exciting innovation comes. I think it’s an area just to sort of observe and watch and we’ll see.
Heather: Absolutely. It is an area that’s in terms of communication, it’s an area that is of interest to me. And for listeners, if you jump over to the Two Drunk Accountants Podcast, we had a whole session talking about communication apps and communication AI, which you might find listening.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about the outlook on the tech industry in the short or in the near term ahead?
Bryan: I think there’s an opportunity to lean into it. Regardless of what size firm you are, I’ve seen it time and time again that just help yourself with one new app around it or one problem that you’re looking to solve around it. And just be in a mindset of moving forwards down this space. Whoever’s listening, you’ve probably listening on a phone, you’ve probably got a hundred plus apps on … You didn’t sit down and instal a hundred apps straight away, right? When you’re thinking about how you operate your business, try and consider where you’re really stuck or what can you automate.
Then there’s likely a range of solutions out there to go about it. And most importantly, whatever route you go down, just do one at a time and do it properly, go deep in it, solve one component and then move on to the next. And one part of the business I’m really enjoying, Heather, as I build it out is using all the tools myself and now I’m getting a chance to really get my fingers into some cool bits and pieces ongoing and I’ve got a long list of others I want to add as well, but I’m just progressively building components out.
Heather: Excellent, excellent. It is part of the interesting side of running the business is having all the apps and the gadgets and the add-ins happening and automating things in the background for you. And as Bryan said, if you do have something that you think you might need to automate, throw it up on social media and ask people what’s out there. The research that you do, you’ll be surprised at what people will come back with and how it will actually save you money and sort of turbocharge your operations.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our audience?
Bryan: Yeah, sure. I think just in summary is that I think there is an opportunity for, regardless of size of what you’re at today there, there’s partnerships which you can offer outside your core services, which is going to help your clients to win and if they win they’re going to be happier, increased customer satisfaction and sort of secures the sustainability of your business going forwards. Lean into it, harness it where applicable and just take it one step at a time as you build that out. I have done a little bit of work with a few firms since sort of leaving Xero just around what an app stack looks like, and as per the partnerships ethos, if I can’t help if people reach out, I’m most always willing to pass on to who I would recommend can also help them move forwards as well. There is a bit of a pay it forwards component and we’ve all got the opportunity to help each other win and thrive ahead.
Heather: Yeah, absolutely. You have the opportunity to build some amazing relationships and gain this knowledge about an area. Because it’s interesting because when you went out into it, while it makes perfect sense, I did wonder, “Oh, is there a business in there?” But obviously clearly helping people do that is really, really important and is possibly a sort of an untapped or unrealised opportunity for a lot of businesses out there now. We did talk a lot to the accounting and bookkeeping industry, but to the vendors out there. Thank you so much for joining us.
How can our audience get in contact with you?
Bryan: Yeah, so follow me on LinkedIn under Hockey Stick Advisory or myself, my own name, Bryan Williams. I’m quite active on their posting around various partnership methodologies and principles, upcoming events and webinars and whatnot. I’m also leading Partnership Leaders’ APAC chapter, which is an extension of a US tech community and we’re looking to amplify the impact and awareness of partnerships down here with some big plans in the next year. Stay tuned on that one.
Heather: Excellent. Thank you so much, Bryan, for joining us today. Really enjoyed this conversation, this masterclass on partnerships and look forward to hearing from you again.
Bryan: Thanks Heather. Always a pleasure to chat.