The year was 1995. Consumers were on the cusp of becoming e-commerce slap-happy. Officials at FirstData Corp.—the king of credit card transactions—had two choices: figure out an e-business strategy fast or watch FirstDatas key industry slip through their fingers.
The answer was to quickly develop an e-business strategy by partnering with key e-commerce sites. But how was this conservative, brick-and-mortar company in Denver going to attract the best and brightest of Web partners? Enter Carolyn Brackett, who as vice president for business-to-business commerce services for SurePay LP—the Internet-agile prodigy of FirstData that was spun off last October—is just one of a new breed of e-business pros thats adept at handling the tangled and ever-shifting web of business relationships thats sprung up since the advent of e-business.
"A business executive in this role must really understand IT to a point that they actually think like IT people," said David Foote, managing partner of Foote Partners LLC, an IT work force management company in New Canaan, Conn. "Not only must they understand the enormous complexity of bringing together different technologies but also the people who built those technologies."
In 1995, FirstData formed a committee of three people to determine just what its e-business strategy should be. One member was Brackett, who was brought into the company as the director of product management for Internet products.
Brackett became the liaison between her decades-old employer and a crop of some of the hottest Internet business-to-consumer e-commerce and hosting startups of the time. Among the young set were Netscape Communications Corp., Yahoo Inc. and Excite@Home.
According to Brackett, partnering with the e-commerce companies was no beer Friday, what with the suspicion and hesitation on both sides.
For one thing, FirstDatas seasoned executives werent used to dealing with senior managers who were barely out of college and who did such unorthodox things as work far into the night, crashing at their desks for catnaps, or bring their pets to work to help create the comforts of home.
On the other side, startup executives were hesitant to partner with a company not initially involved with the Internet. "Folks, like the ones at Netscape, saw themselves as the heart of the Internet," so it wasnt easy for them to start including outsiders, Brackett said.
How did Brackett overcome the strained beginnings of these relationships? By making sure that by the time everybody left the negotiating room, all parties involved would benefit, somehow, from a given deal.
Stephen Flett, who became the CEO of SurePay in April, said he believes the liaison/buffer roll Brackett played was critical for FirstDatas successful partnering, and its why he wants her in a similar roll at SurePay as the company fosters strategic alliances with VeriSign Inc. and IBM. "The employee [in this role] needs to have that same sense of obligation to the partner as to their own company. Otherwise, the relationship quickly dissolves," Flett said.
While at FirstData, Brackett examined potential partners businesses from several angles, including technology, business practices and the treatment of customers. On the flip side, Brackett convinced startups that it would be to their benefit to plug FirstDatas credit-card transaction services into their lineups of online offerings.
Trying to understand the mind-set of startup executives helped Brackett prepare for being the strategic partnership manager for what is now a small company of about 100 employees in Melville, N.Y. In fact, things have been nearly reversed, now that SurePay considers its most strategic partners to be large companies such as VeriSign (an investor in SurePay) and IBM.
Each company will be pairing some of its offerings with SurePays B2B services. But partnering cant stop there. "You need a sensitive, effective communicator," Flett said. "You need someone who marshals the teams together by constantly networking and feels a high level of commitment to both sides."
Flett said he feels that having been on both sides of the fence allows Brackett to bring the right qualities to the bargaining table. "You have to have patience to be in Carolyns role," Flett said. "At a small company like SurePay, decisions can occur very quickly. But at a much larger company like IBM, decisions have to be considered by far more people."
In addition to Brackett being a key negotiator, SurePay counts on her to identify new opportunities for SurePay and each partner, Flett said. That requires Brackett to stay a few steps ahead of major industry changes, such as the fast-evolving state of wireless technology. "Im constantly monitoring for big shifts," Brackett said.
Of course, being a natural extrovert doesnt hurt either, said Brackett, who has lived in Redwood City, Calif., since 1989 and keeps a strong network of industry movers and shakers in the San Francisco Bay area and Silicon Valley.
"This is definitely not a stay-at-home job," she said.