Expert Interview: Cari Kesten
Cari Kesten has been in partnerships for over a decade, and she’s learned what it takes to build a great relationship… …and when it’s time to walk away.
You can’t always get what you want, but if you close your eyes and wish on the right stars (and put in a LOT of hard work), sometimes they all just align. That’s Cari Kesten’s story of her 10-year journey in partnerships with her dream company Spotify. And it’s taken her through all the ups and downs a career in partnerships is sure to bring.
From starting a global partnership program from the ground up with a few ambitious insiders, to carving out a partner ecosystem that has transformed the music business we know today, Cari discusses the lessons she’s learned about building partnerships, crafting deals, and when it’s time to walk away from the table.
Sarah: Tell us about your time at Spotify.
Cari: When I first heard of Spotify it was a rapidly growing newcomer in the digital music landscape, with a lean and agile team of only 500 employees. I was obsessed with the product the moment I downloaded it, and I made it my mission to work there. I started with them in 2012, after securing an interview by sneaking into the NY office (that's a story for another day). A whirlwind of a career later and I was the strategy and development lead for their holding company partnerships.
Sarah: It sounds like everything just clicked.
Cari: Absolutely. In the early days it was still a true startup, so there was very little support and it made us scrappy. Everyone ended up doing a lot outside their job description, and I found out that I loved data and storytelling. When you’re passionate about something people notice, and I started to get pulled into a lot of projects with the regional vice president for big pitches to clients.
As the sales team continued to grow, Spotify launched its global partnerships team and they brought me in as a strategist. It was an incredible experience.
There were 6-8 of us in the beginning, and we had absolutely no playbook.
None of us had done it before, and we had to figure everything out from building partnerships to understanding how to measure success.
Sarah: How did it go?
Cari: Well, I came from a sales background, so I probably had no business doing any of this. My boss would tell me we needed a partnership deck with 250% growth year to year, and I had to figure out all the levers to make it happen and hope for the best.
The most valuable thing for me was being in the room when C-level executives were making decisions and talking it out. The feedback was great, but I discovered something far more important sitting in those meetings that’s critical for putting together a partnership:
I learned the nuances of body language, tone of voice, and the subtleties of reactions when you’re presenting, and how to use that to understand the way an idea is being received.
Reading a room is so important for being successful in partnerships, because there’s a lot in those conversations that’s nonverbal. There’s an art to not giving away too much when you’re negotiating. People have control of what they say, but not necessarily how they say it. Those nonverbal details can tell you everything.
Sarah: When did you decide that partnerships were where you wanted to be?
Cari: As I figured out all the different roles, I realized I really loved the building phase. It’s a blank slate, and you have to do a lot of detective work to find out who this partner really is, who the key players are, and where there is potential for strengthening your brand.
When you get it all right and the contract is signed, then the people on the ground can go be successful, and that’s what it’s really all about.
Closing the deal is only 20% of the partnership—the other 80% is landing it with the people you built it for. If they can’t utilize it, the partnership isn’t going to land because you ultimately built it for yourself.
Sarah: What’s the measure of a good partnership?
Cari: I think people tend to focus on numbers like growth and revenue, and that’s important because it’s the language we speak in business. However, it’s not always the mark of a healthy partnership. For instance, if a partnership drove Spotify’s podcast growth by 150% it looks like it was a success, but if that only came from two markets you might have missed the mark entirely on buy-in.
Our team tended to celebrate the small wins as well as the big targets, because the little details are what get you there in the end.
Sarah: Final question: if you could go back and tell yourself one thing at the beginning, what would it be?
Cari: Know when to pivot. Tenacity and creativity are important to succeed in partnerships but so is knowing when a deal is not right. There are two items I've found are important for a successful partnership: 1.Have at least one shared goal 2. Understand the influence of your partner to deliver what they agreed to. It is an important indicator of success.
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