The HubSpot App Partner Program: Why We Eliminated Tiers

Hugh Durkin
Feature image

When I joined HubSpot in November 2018 to lead the HubSpot Connect Partner Program, Scott Brinker had a pretty big initial “ask” for me - could I redesign the program to match our vision for a bigger, better Platform Ecosystem?

”HubSpot Connect” launched in 2017 with 65 partners, and would exceed 200 partners by late 2018. Growing fast, set to grow faster.

The Connect Partner Directory was well thought out and well designed, with distinct categories, search, featured listings, and pretty comprehensive information about each integration. It worked well, but its hull was starting to creak as we grew.

Yes, almost two years after leaving HubSpot, I’m still making nautical references.

We had, at the time, a fairly typical “tiered” program setup. Typical, in that we had mirrored a typical “tiered” setup for agency, affiliate, and referral partner programs.

You know, the ones with names based on precious stones. Lots of carats and carrots.

”HubSpot Connect” had three tiers, with different install requirements and benefits:

  • Beta Integrators (10 installs) earned a listing in the HubSpot Connect Partner Directory
  • Certified Partners (50 installs) earned additional exposure through HubSpot channels, plus marketing support
  • Premier Partners (500 installs) earned quarterly business reviews, co-marketing opportunities, and event invites

It was simple and it worked well. App Partner programs often struggle to scale beyond 200 partners - this structure achieved exactly that. Yet, from speaking with customers and partners, there was room for improvement.

Most go-to-market partner programs focus on driving distribution of existing products, and incentivizing service and solutions providers to increase adoption and retention of those products. App Partner Programs primarily focus on product innovation outcomes - creating new product value.

Tiers make a ton of sense for the former, less so for the latter.

Customers only care about scary tiers

One theme became clear early on - customers didn’t care so much about tiers. And, because we didn’t expose the tiering rationale to them, they didn’t really understand the differences between them.

Yet, they were unusually scared about one tier. Beta, as it turns out, created negative connotations for customers. Whether or not an integration was fully formed and complete, or a “thin” integration between products, if it earned between 10 and 50 installs, we branded it “Beta."

"If it’s in Beta, it’s broken,” said one customer. “What if I can’t generate 50 installs? Will I get stuck in Beta purgatory” pondered a partner. Beta - especially for indie developers without well known, trusted brands - had inadvertently hurt partner install growth and adoption.

We quickly shipped our first program change: “Beta” became “Listed” and the fear subsided.

Encouraging diversity

A second major theme emerged through conversations with partners, and through conversations with a growing queue of developers eager to join the ecosystem party. Our install requirements didn’t accommodate a growing number of partners, and a growing diversity of partner types.

A cohort of what are now known as “ecosystem entrepreneurs” had emerged, creating unique “Built for HubSpot” apps. Products, like OrgChartHub, that would not exist if HubSpot did not exist.

These developers were creating unique product value that created an impenetrable platform moat for HubSpot.

Products and features are relatively easy to clone and copy. But cloning and copying an ecosystem of products built solely atop a platform is impossible. Platform moats like these are a big reason why Microsoft, Atlassian, and Shopify are where they are today.

Heck, Shopify even recently launched their own “Built for Shopify” program to recognize and reward creators just like these. Creating new, unique customer value is always a positive.

Less is more

But getting to 10 installs when you’re an indie developer is a tough trust-building feat. And, in reality, even our largest partners (by install volume) were testing early versions of their integrations with an average of 3 customers. Many of these “Market Maker” integrations were low quality “thin” integrations. This seemed unfair - we held indie developers to a higher standard than our platform peers.

So we shipped our second change.

Getting “Listed” now required 3 or more “active” installs - a requirement that still stands today. Combined with a thorough marketplace onboarding process, the number of “Built for HubSpot” products grew quickly.

OrgChartHub was joined by “ecosystem entrepreneurs” like and hapily, each building a variety of products uniquely suited to the growing needs of increasingly diverse sets of customers in more than 135 countries around the world.

At the same time, for the same reason, we removed the 50 install requirement to earn a “Certified” badge.

”Certified” apps pass through a rigorous review process, requiring a ton of upfront work from developers. That badge, once explained to customers through listing tooltips, was a powerful trust-building device. Yet, to earn 50 installs, developers first needed to earn customer trust. Chicken-and-egg.

So, as long as apps were listed, they were now free to apply to become Certified.

Premier (Inn)

As we evolved “Beta” to “Listed” and revised our active install requirements, another theme became abundantly clear. “Premier” was more “Premier Inn” than “Premier Product.”

Personally, I’m fond of Premier Inn Hotels. They’re usually clean, cheap, and functional - but staying at a Premier Inn is absolutely not a “Premier” experience. No minibar, no room service, no nice toiletries to enjoy the bubble bath of your dreams.

Not exactly anyone’s first choice for a spa weekend.

Many of our “Premier” partners - though they had earned 500+ installs for their apps - definitely didn’t offer a “Premier” product experience.

One partner in particular, who shall not be named, passed through 500 installs suspiciously quickly. Digging deeper into the data it also became clear they didn’t retain most of them. Their “active” install count was in the tens, not the hundreds.

”Premier” was encouraging exactly the wrong behaviors - creating not-so-great customer experiences.

We also couldn’t guarantee many of our Premier tier benefits. Co-marketing opportunities were ad-hoc, not à la carte. Posts on our user blog required editorial input and approval - many submissions were self-promotional rather than helpful.

Last, but not least, many “Premier” partners didn’t even know - or care - about it. They were happy to be listed in the directory, happy that they had a free store in the HubSpot mall to earn distribution and trust with what is now 215,000+ customers.

So, with that, Premier was no more. We expected lots of partner pushback, which never materialized. Phew.

No more tiers

So that’s the short version on how we ended up with a “no tier” HubSpot App Partner program.

We started with a focus on the customer, to create a diverse and innovative ecosystem to meet their increasingly diverse needs. We incorporated feedback from partners - present and future - to create an inclusive program which removed friction and distance between our customers and their solutions.

And we killed vanity metrics, focusing on innovation and product quality over all else.

It’s far from perfect - nothing ever is - but I’m immensely proud of the program we created in a very short timeframe. The HubSpot App Partner Program launched at INBOUND 2019, alongside the new HubSpot App Marketplace - the creation of which is a blog post for another day. All-in 9 months from program inception to program launch.

I’ll share more on how we evolved our approach to partner benefits in a future post. It is, after all, a big topic. And our approach to drafting listing and certification requirements deserves far more detail than could ever be included here.

But hopefully this post is a solid starting point for Partnership Leaders thinking through how they can structure their own App Partner Programs.

And, in case you’re wondering, the header image is Christine Ianni, Brandon Greer, and I, looking deeply concerned and contemplative in the launch video for the HubSpot App Marketplace in 2019. Fun times.

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