SharePoint Goes Strategic

Since its initial release, SharePoint has always been something of an enigma. In the early days, the common response to "What can SharePoint do for my business?" was "Whatever you want it to." Probably not the Microsoft-sanctioned response, but true enough.

The challenge for many SharePoint partners has been to convince enterprise customers that the solution is more than a document repository. SharePoint 2013 takes a huge leap forward in functionality, and Microsoft has been laying the groundwork to prepare partners for a more structured and strategic approach to deployment in the enterprise. 

Bringing Structure to the Message
There have been several attempts to bring structure -- the kind of structure that enterprise organizations want -- to the flexibility of SharePoint. First, with SharePoint Deployment Planning Services, which is still a popular way for partners to help customers create a grander plan for SharePoint's role in the business. Next came Business-Critical SharePoint (BCSP), which, according to Microsoft's Web site, was designed to "improve visibility, productivity and compliance across the enterprise with advanced SharePoint solutions."  

"The BCSP premise is that SharePoint can serve as an enterprise-wide knowledge management system or work platform providing a single source of information across the organization," said Eric Riz, executive vice president of Concatenate Inc. "The BCSP value comes through surfacing up business-critical line-of-business data from the legacy systems into SharePoint."

As a SharePoint MVP, Riz dedicates much of his time to spreading the message of SharePoint as a strategic tool rather than a point solution. Over time, his audiences have changed from primarily IT professionals to operations-focused VPs and CEOs.

"SharePoint is a place where business gets done," Riz explains to his audiences. "Understanding that people can complete their job functions in SharePoint changes the perception from a place that you go to get stuff, to the place that you go to do work."

Integrated Collaboration and Communication
Figuring out how to manage the explosion of internal communication options is another hot topic for enterprise organizations. The number of ways -- from IM to Lync to Twitter to Yammer -- that employees can send messages to one another has ballooned, leading to fragmentation. The convergence of Office365, SharePoint and Yammer holds the promise of a uniform platform for enterprise social engagement and communication.

"I think the buyer is becoming more educated on the value of an integrated system of collaboration and communication and Microsoft has recognized that," Riz said. "There has been a paradigm shift from the technical decision to the strategic decision."

While there has been tremendous change in the partner approach and opportunity with SharePoint over the past few years, there is clearly more to come. The shift in conversation from technical to strategic can only be good for partners in finding their place to build value to customers through services.

How are you delivering the SharePoint message? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on November 07, 2013 at 1:03 PM0 comments


When IT Projects Go Awry: A Timely Reminder for Partners

It's unlikely that a partner exists who doesn't have a cringe-worthy memory of a project that got out of control and didn't end well.

We may never know the full story of how HealthCare.gov joined the ranks of poorly executed IT projects, but it's pretty easy to imagine -- endless committee meetings, ignored recommendations and unrealistic deadlines. 

HealthCare.gov should serve as a vivid reminder to partners that the customer is not always right. You are the expert. You know the planning and execution steps that are required for a successful implementation of the solutions you represent.  

The Cloud Accelerates
One of the promises of the cloud is faster time-to-realization. While implementing new solutions quickly is clearly a benefit to customers, the cloud can also tempt quick solutions to complex problems. Solving problems instantly instead of thoughtfully is not a recipe for success.

The mantra from Microsoft that sales velocity must increase for partners to be successful with the transition to the cloud needs to be balanced by a measured implementation approach. Businesses can get hurt when decision makers don't understand the implications of the choices they make. On the front lines, partners have the responsibility to force customers to step back and consider the risks of acting without proper planning.

With strong operational guidelines of your own in place, you can help guide your customers through the temptations of a cloud-based quick-fix. Educate your entire team on the need to always adhere to best practices, like:

  • The on-boarding plan. No matter what solutions you offer, having a clear, step-by-step plan for on-boarding can help you guide customers to make better choices. If you don't already have a plan in place, tap into Microsoft training and resources to build it.

  • Partner for expertise. Because Office 365 opens the door to far more than just Office -- like SharePoint and Dynamics CRM -- you need to help customers take a broad approach. If you don't have the expertise, partner with providers that have the training and experience to help clients avoid mistakes.

  • Project management. Every project, including fixed- and subscription-priced implementations, should have an adequate amount of project management built-in. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

  • Sales accountability. It's never easy to say no to an opportunity, especially when you're the salesperson. Salespeople should have a vested interest in closing sales that are the start of long-term relationships with customers. Compensation based solely on churning transactions will support behaviors not in the best interest of the customer or partner.

The next time you are tempted to give in to the customer's driving need to "just get it done and we'll work out the details later," think about the project managers on HealthCare.gov. They will surely tell you it's not worth it.

What steps are you taking to help customers take a thoughtful approach to cloud solutions? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on October 24, 2013 at 11:09 AM0 comments


Bootstrapping a Cloud Services Business

What does it really take to start a cloud services business? While the headlines glorify those entrepreneurs who rake in millions from VCs, there are plenty of startups that are pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. They choose to own their destiny and build their business -- usually while holding down a "real" job -- one customer at a time.

Building a Base Through Beta
The idea for Winsitter, a cloud service that monitors Windows servers and delivers alerts to busy admins, evolved from Bret Fisher's own sysadmin experiences. Now CEO of Winsitter, Fisher wrote on the first entry of the company blog, "I thought...what if we took the combined ideas of everyone we knew in the biz of Windows Server engineering and built an analysis engine in the cloud? ... What if the analysis engine does all the wizardry and you just get alerts the way you prefer (e-mail/SMS/Twitter/Facebook/Jabber/phone)?" 

Now in its second year of beta testing, Winsitter has been building a global user base that provides feedback on its functionality and usability. There is currently no charge for the service, but that will change soon -- which will be the real test of the startup.

All of the progress that Fisher and start-up partner Kevin Griffin, Winsitter's CTO, have made to date has been accomplished through time investment, with no outside funding. Like many entrepreneurs, the team works regular jobs to support their startup habit.

As is clear from Winsitter's Web site, Fisher and Griffin have built a strong group of supporters through a culture that invites participation. It's hard not to root for a company that toasts its supporters on the About Us page: "No sysadmin learns everything on his/her own, so cheers (*clink*) to all those who have helped us over the years to be better computer geeks."

Microsoft Support
For most startups, Microsoft is not the platform of choice, but Fisher spent his entire career on Windows and wasn't going to change. The entrepreneurs took the route few others have taken by building their cloud service on Windows Azure with Node.js.

"The majority of recently developed business and personal apps have been on Linux or Mac," Fisher noted. "On the Windows side, we are still playing catch-up. I feel like that culture has been lost in the Microsoft world."

While Microsoft's cloud reselling partner model is clear, finding support for Windows-based Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions is more challenging. As most startup partners know, getting attention from Microsoft team members is not an easy task, but Fisher has found Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) to be effective.

"If you are a SaaS company, it's key to find the right people in Microsoft to help you," Fisher said. "The way that I have been able to find them has been to attend WPC. One week at WPC is more valuable than a year's worth of e-mails and phone calls."

Fisher made another important discovery while at WPC in Houston this year -- Microsoft's Pinpoint partner directory. During a 20-minute visit to the Pinpoint booth, Fisher worked with the Microsoft reps to build the Winsitter profile. "I am now a big advocate," Fisher said. "Since we set up the profile, we get user adds almost every day." A huge benefit of Pinpoint to the SaaS startup is that, unlike pay-per-click, there is no cost for each customer add.

The Journey Continues
The cloud has broken down barriers to entry, but the journey from startup to sustainable business still follows a long, winding road. From designing an appealing Web site to processing payments in multiple currencies, there are countless issues cloud service businesses need to manage. We'll check back over the next few months with the Winsitter team to share more lessons learned.

How are you building your cloud business? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on October 10, 2013 at 4:07 PM0 comments


The Costly Forgotten Question: Archiving to the Cloud

As more and more customers opt to move e-mail to the cloud, there is a very important question that partners may forget to ask -- but they only forget once.

Not asking for the details about the company's e-mail archive system can be a painful and costly oversight. While transitioning an enterprise or midsize organization e-mail to the cloud takes careful planning, migrating e-mail archives requires in-depth knowledge combined with years of experience.

The Shift to Cloud   
Bishop Technologies got into the e-mail archiving business over 10 years ago, when Microsoft Exchange mailbox limits drove the business requirement. Exchange's purpose was to manage e-mail traffic, not store it. For compliance and discovery purposes, businesses had to enlist the help of archiving solutions.  

"Fast-forward to today. Microsoft is essentially offering e-mail archiving in the cloud at no cost," noted J.R. Haag, VP of North American sales at Bishop. "There is a dramatic shift. Customers want to move archived data into the cloud."

Since Microsoft does not offer the services to enable those migrations, they look to partners with a history in data archiving like Bishop to help. "Microsoft wants to work with partners that can demonstrate a clearly defined process," Haag added. "They want to set customer expectations from the start."

The Critical Question
Partners working in the enterprise space are likely prepared for the archive data discussion, but the question should be asked before quoting any Office 365 migration: "Do you have an existing archive system? And if yes, what is it?" The second part of the question is as important as the first.

While there are tools to help partners migrate live data from Exchange to Office 365, moving archive data is an entirely different process. Many of the e-mail archiving systems are built on proprietary systems. "These are very complex, time-consuming migrations," explained Haag. "Partners should do their research and find an archiving specialist that knows the source and knows the target. There are probably six firms in the world that can do these migrations. Bishop is one of them."

Expanding Opportunities
For both Microsoft and the partner, there is a huge benefit to helping customers house legacy data in Office 365, whether they are using it for live e-mail or not. The commitment to the platform opens the door for limitless opportunities in add on services.

As companies need to search across all of their data, both structured and unstructured, including legacy information simplifies the search and discovery experience. The ability to search data across Exchange, SharePoint and Lync supports legal, compliance and governance activities. This centralization delivers on the promise of the cloud for customers and provides the key to more services for partners.

The Partnering Win-Win
Migrating archived data into the Office 365 environment is not a job for the uninitiated, but the service can build a stronger relationship with your customer. Avoid surprises by asking about legacy archives proactively with full confidence that you can deliver a solution. Partner with an experienced expert, like Bishop, to migrate the legacy data and then build additional opportunities for your business through data management services. A win-win for you and the customer.

How are you adding value to Office 365? Add a comment below or drop me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on September 19, 2013 at 9:00 AM0 comments


Partner Gets Ahead of the Curve on Windows 8 App Development

There are a group of partners in the Microsoft channel who aren't waiting for universal adoption of Windows 8. Partners who are charging ahead to lead their customers, not follow them, into the next generation.

Businesses are struggling to keep up with an evolving workplace where paper processes and outdated line-of-business software don't work. Partners at the forefront of Windows 8 are already delivering the solutions that support the new workforce.

Ahead of the Curve
One of those partners leading the way is BlueMetal Architects, which earned the U.S. Windows Microsoft Application Acceleration Program (MAAP) Execution Excellence Partner of the Year for its efforts. MAAP provides funding assistance for Microsoft customers who lead their industry in committing to build custom line-of-business or business-to-consumer applications on the Windows 8 platform. 

"The MAAP program has enabled us to take the latest technology to clients, delivering on the incredible promise of modern touch applications," said Szymon Rozga, BlueMetal senior software engineer. "Our teams are passionate about early-stage technology and our ability to access and exercise it through our client work."

BlueMetal attributes its success with early adoption to its active engagement with the Microsoft development community. "In 2012 we participated in two code camps, three training engagements, one conference presentation on Windows 8, and contributed to the creation of Windows 8 MCSD exams. We also had two Windows 8 MCSDs on board before the end of the year," said Dmitri Artamonov, senior software engineer at BlueMetal. "When you are this grounded in the community, you have a much deeper understanding of the technologies you're dealing with and therefore are pushing the cutting edge forward instead of lagging behind it."

Tablets Open the Door
The bulk of apps that BlueMetal is building for Windows 8 are designed for tablets, driven primarily by the market. But those apps also help to support Microsoft's aggressive goals to promote Windows tablet adoption in the enterprise. Any partner looking to get Microsoft's attention this year should be tuned into the fact that many a Microsoft employee's 2014 compensation is tied to how much traction Windows tablets can get in the enterprise space.   

[Click on image for larger view.] Screenshot of BlueMetal's app for Tech Data, accessTD.

For most clients, replacing paper processes or aging line-of-business applications are driving the need for Windows 8 apps. A few examples include an app that replaces paper binders for field inspection agents, a timecard app for engineers on remote locations and an insurance adjuster app. Seeing huge opportunity in health care, BlueMetal added an industry expert to the team to build its medical services vertical.

"Another big challenge for our clients is platform fracturing," Artamonov added. "Windows 8 uniquely provides the opportunity to unify the mobile devices in the organization on a single platform, reducing the costs of owning a fleet of mobile devices."

Enterprise Apps as an Extension of Consumer Apps
BlueMetal places a lot of value in the design to meet the higher expectations set by consumer apps. "We really see the next generation of the enterprise app as mobile, data-driven and having a social layer. Like the consumer app that people can't live without. It has a solid architecture and infrastructure, but it is very intuitive and easy to use," explained Sadie Van Buren, BlueMetal's director of marketing. "That is what we see as the future and are working to bring to the enterprise."

User interface design ranks high on the list of requirements to meet those expectations. BlueMetal employs a staff of design experts to add the sophistication in appearance that enterprise apps now demand. Not surprisingly, it's still a challenge to get the budget, but the value of user interface design is gaining more traction. 

Partners in the channel like BlueMetal are betting the future on the universal adoption of tablets and Windows 8 in the enterprise. There are clearly plenty of businesses, small and large, that are just getting by on old applications and platforms. Pent-up demand and a much better way of doing business seem to be a good combination of factors to bet on. 

How are you promoting Windows 8 apps in the enterprise? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on August 29, 2013 at 10:18 AM0 comments


Office 365 Business Analytics: The Secret Sauce for SMBs

The success of Office 365 in the small-and-medium-sized-business (SMB) space is making it a good year for the growing legion of Microsoft cloud partners. To keep that momentum going, building on recurring revenue each year, partners need to answer two questions: How do you help customers get so much value from Office 365 that renewals are a non-event? And what additional services will you deliver to build on Office 365 customer relationships?

For at least one forward-thinking partner in Atlanta, the answer to both questions is the same. The business analytic capabilities of Office 365 give SMB customers access to enterprise-level tools, and give the partner opportunities to make the magic happen.

Not Just for Enterprises Any More
Business analytics used to be the exclusive domain of large organizations, given the significant investments of infrastructure and human resources required to build data warehouses and dashboards. While some partners did build successful businesses around business intelligence (BI), the target market was generally not SMBs.

Joe Treanor, president of RoseBud Technologies, saw the change coming.

"When PowerPivot was released we saw that the capability which had been reserved for the enterprise was going to be available for SMBs. We knew that this presented an opportunity to bring BI to our clients without the big investments in infrastructure," he said.

"It's an exciting time for Microsoft partners to be able to show SMBs how to leverage those capabilities with Power BI," Joe continued. "The more Microsoft drives parity between the capabilities in the cloud and on-premise, the more we'll be able to put enterprise level BI tools in the hands of our clients."

The Value of Office 365
Educating customers about the depth of the Microsoft stack that they can access as part of Office 365 is the first step. Treanor's visits to customers always include explaining how much they can accomplish without any additional investment in software. (For an excellent overview of Power BI for Office 365, check out Kurt Mackie's in-depth article, "First Look: BI for Office 365.")

"All of these tools are part of Office 365. The client owns them and we want those customers to use all the functionality, driving real benefits for their business," noted RoseBud Vice President Greg Treanor. "From the partner viewpoint, the fuller the adoption, the more likely they are to renew at the end of the first year."

The flip side to that point, which should be top of mind for every cloud partner, is that customers who use only the bare minimum of Office 365 functionality may question their renewals. In that light, your role with customers has changed.

The Value of Added Services
"It takes a mental shift for the partner. It's different than the infrastructure approach. The value that the partner brings now has to be in helping customers be more profitable and more successful in the marketplace," Joe said. "Power BI gives you the opportunity to talk to clients about helping them improve day-to-day operations."

When speaking to business executives, Joe finds that reporting is a universal challenge and the perfect entry point to prove the value proposition of Office 365. "Most controllers and CFOs are held captive by software vendors with a fixed set of reports," he said. "When we tell them that we can connect the data from multiple departments and line-of-business applications, they see the value immediately."

As cloud partners build dependence on recurring revenue and new service models, BI for Office 365 can be a powerful tool. No matter what the size of the client, information is the life blood of their business. By helping customers tap into data that has been difficult to use, you add valuable services and help them leverage the full Microsoft Office 365 stack. Definitely a recipe for success.

How are you promoting Office 365 adoption? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on August 15, 2013 at 11:01 AM0 comments


Partner Bridges Gap with CIO Advisory Services

The end of a financial management system implementation is often just the beginning of a process of technology transformation for a growing company. At Brittenford Systems, a Dynamics and IT services partner, that transformation represents an opportunity to bridge the gap between technology and business strategy.

Formalizing a CIO Advisory Services offering about five years ago, Brittenford bridges the gap between business operations and technology. "We become an advisor, helping them build their IT strategy, writing policies and procedures -- the entire gamut of services that an internal CIO would provide," explained Ryan Risley, Brittenford's chief technology officer. "We are aligned with their business purposes, essentially working as one of them."

Most of Brittenford's engagements begin with an assessment, and then expand into other services, including:

  • Vendor management, helping clients deal with a growing number of service providers.
  • Rescue assessments to intervene when a company's IT systems are not delivering on promises.
  • Working with the CEO to chart strategies and present to the Board of Directors.
  • Cloud-readiness audits.
  • Assisting with relocation to minimize business interruption.

Decision Paralysis
"There is so much technology available to companies today that it creates decision paralysis. They don't want to make the wrong choice," Risley noted. "We tell them exactly what we would do if we were in their situation."

Building the trust that makes clients believe and act on the advice from Brittenford is earned over the long run. The term "trusted partner" is grossly overused as a self-descriptor in our industry and, as Risley rightly points out, "It takes a lot of work to be trusted. You have to continually deliver on everything you promise. You have to work to earn trust. The client decides if you are a trusted advisor, not you."

The second component to the success of Brittenford's CIO Advisory Services is responsiveness. "Lack of responsiveness from vendors is the other issue that we hear from customers. It increases their perceived risk," Risely said. "We use Lync to make sure that every call is answered by a real person. We ask them about the level of urgency and operate at their level."

A Network of Partners
As president of the Washington, D.C. chapter of the International Association of Microsoft Channel Partners (IAMCP), Risley is a big believer of partnering to connect clients with good providers.

"We work with all kinds of partners -- MSPs, cloud services, hosting, learning partners -- bringing in the experts that best serve our client's needs," Risley noted. "On the flip side, it's often hard for MSPs and other partners to break into advisory services because they don't have the personnel to do business process analysis or they aren't connected to the CFO or CEO. We can help."

While technology has become easier for companies to access, it has not become any less daunting to manage. CIO advisory services like Brittenford's provide complementary revenue opportunities for VARs and IT providers and promote long-term engagement with customers.

How are you packaging services to better engage with customers? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on July 31, 2013 at 8:23 AM0 comments


Microsoft Global ISVs Lead Enterprise Strategy for Dynamics

During last week's Worldwide Partner Conference, the Microsoft Dynamics group announced the addition of four new global independent software vendors (GISVs) to the exclusive program: distribution and manufacturing provider I.B.I.S. Inc., automotive software maker Incadea, food supply-chain consultancy Anglia Business Solutions, and retail automation vendor Escher Group.

Started three years ago, the GISV program's goal is to build a portfolio of vertical enterprise-level solutions built on the Dynamics AX and CRM platforms. Thirteen partners have joined the GISV corps to date, with another half-dozen expected to join this year.

Vertical Approach to Enterprise
GISVs are chosen from the thousands of ISVs in the Dynamics ecosystem based on their extensive industry knowledge, according to Doug Kennedy, vice president of Microsoft Dynamics Partners and Support Services.

"We look at the roadmap and identify the white space for enterprise," Kennedy said. "For us to win in that industry we need a complete vertical solution. If we are not going to build it, our strategy is to work with a partner whose solution is deeply compliant architecturally."

In addition to the solution itself, GISVs are expected to have the presales and sales resources to effectively sell into the industry. Their expertise is brought to the table through the Microsoft EPG team, as well as global and regional systems integrators (SIs).

Channel Impact
While there is clearly a win for the partners who are chosen as GISVs, the opportunity for Microsoft and Global SIs to offer viable Dynamics ERP and CRM into enterprise accounts helps the entire partner community. Establishing a foothold in an industry at the top validates Dynamics as a viable solution for that entire vertical -- opening up opportunities to all Dynamics partners.

As for those chosen, becoming a Microsoft GISV is a game changer, according to Andy Vabulas, CEO of I.B.I.S. Participation in the program has allowed the company to build direct relationships within Microsoft and the partner community, greatly expanding I.B.I.S.'s reach and creating opportunities for new business that would not otherwise be possible.

"It's probably the best business opportunity that we've ever been presented from any partner, including Microsoft," Vabulas said. "I can see where we will double or triple our business over the next five years."

Establishing a Model for the Future
While the GISV program is limited, Kennedy encourages ISVs to keep doing what they are doing. "This is a new model. We are starting with a few key white spaces that we think will have the biggest payback and then we will expand," Kennedy said. "ISVs shouldn't feel like they are missing out today. They should keep doing what they are doing because there is a lot of business that we can't cover with these ISVs...tons of business."

Over the past decade, Dynamics ERP solutions have struggled to gain a foothold in the enterprise. The GISV strategy is a big bet to build respect and presence in global organizations. While the exclusivity of the club will surely cause some hard feelings in the Dynamics ISV community, the strategy is reasonable and will benefit all partners if successful.

How are you gaining access to new markets for Dynamics solutions? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.         

Posted by Barb Levisay on July 17, 2013 at 11:58 AM0 comments


The Cloud Changes the Role of Field Personnel

Everyone could identify with Jimmy Fallon's portrayal of the IT guy who barks, "Move!" in the old "Saturday Night Live" skit. Funny then, and a reminder of how times have changed.

As businesses move to the cloud, the role of IT support is no longer focused on getting persnickety hardware to function, but to deliver the business value that technology promises. With that transformation, the skills that served IT well in the days of networking and break-fix aren't the same ones that support a successful cloud practice.

The Shift to Proactive
In the past, the services that MSPs, VARs and SIs offered were largely reactive, fixing and replacing machines and systems. As technology moves to the cloud, your value-add has to become proactive, helping customers make the right choices and using technology to improve their business.

Going from reactive to proactive is a huge transition for techs who are probably much more comfortable working in a server room than a boardroom. But while the transition may not be easy, the value that experienced technical personnel will bring to your clients can't be replaced.

Building People Skills
As part of your cloud transition plan, include training for all your employees on how to listen, observe and advise. Building people skills, especially for the techs working in the field with customers, will have a direct impact on your success with new business models.

Monthly company meetings are a great place to start. You probably already have a pretty good idea which team members can engage proactively, so you can use their skills to help the rest of the team. Role playing is a very effective tool to demonstrate how to deal with real-life customer situations.

Monitor with Satisfaction Surveys
The only way to know if your customers are getting the kind of service that will keep them happy and keep your business going is to ask them. If you don't have a survey process in place, this is a critical time for you to understand if you are delivering value to your customers.

With so many moving parts affecting your business strategy, it's easy to overlook key factors of your success. Your employees are your greatest asset and need guidance to make the leap to a new world with you.

How are you preparing your service teams to support new business models? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on June 27, 2013 at 11:58 AM0 comments


ISV Expands Developer Opportunities Through Vertical Approach

All eyes are on the cloud right now, but vertical market focus is still a driving force for partner business model transformations. Microsoft suggests that partners, from systems integrators (SIs) to value-added resellers (VARs), need to build industry specialization to prosper. And while sales may be the initial motivation to go vertical, there can be important operational benefits as well -- as Keyora, an Ontario, Canada-based ISV has discovered.

The Cost of Generic
An ISV with 50 employees, Keyora traditionally took a horizontal approach, building a generic e-business suite of products named "Wave." Ever-growing customer expectations and stiff competition in the e-business market has made a horizontal approach increasingly expensive.

Prospects want to see how Wave is going to solve their specific needs, so Keyora takes the time to understand each company's market challenges during the sales process. Using the prospect's data and products, Keyora mocks up a custom site to demonstrate the functionality of its platform.

"With horizontal opportunities, we have about a one-in-50 close," said Susan Griffiths, Keyora's CEO. "That represents three to six months and a lot of effort."

Building Subject-Matter Experts
Keyora's response has been to focus on vertical markets with the help of both customers and partners. Working with several Dynamics AX partners to offer an end-to-end financial solution, Keyora has customized the e-business platform to meet industry needs.

"Building industry expertise through customers or partners is always the easiest way to do it," Griffiths noted. "We do a lot of research, but the customer's employees have a strong sense of what doesn't work and what they would build instead. They are very willing to share the information with us."

While customers define what they want, Keyora's developers still have to translate those requirements into a working solution. As they build their understanding of the customer's unique needs, the developers become subject-matter experts. That expertise translates into the opportunity for career advancement in the traditionally flat organizational structure inherent to the ISV business model.

"It's helped us to create a different structure to the organization," Griffiths said. "We have incredibly talented developers who were all supporting a horizontal platform. Now we can give ownership to them as subject-matter experts to manage the application from the vertical perspective."

The opportunity for the developers lies not just in building the vertical functionality, but also to apply their industry expertise to other uses of the solution. With their deep understanding of the Keyora platform, the developers can see uses of the application that the customer would never recognize.

"As the specialist, the developer is the subject-matter expert for all three of our application suites. They can define how they all interact within one vertical to become a subset of the platform," Griffiths said. "It has created tremendous excitement within our team."

More than Sales
The message of going vertical has been focused on market opportunities and closing sales, but there is more. Providing career advancement in an increasingly competitive job market is clearly an important consideration for partners. As Keyora has found, vertical markets add new dimensions to organizational structure and give developers the opportunity to build knowledge and take on new challenges.

Are you finding unexpected benefits of going vertical? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on June 13, 2013 at 11:58 AM0 comments


SharePoint Community Attracts 1,200 Members in 11 Weeks

There are countless Web sites that have been started with ambitious goals to build a place for a special-interest community to congregate. Most of those sites never attract enough participants to reach the tipping point and add real value to the community they serve. But there are exceptions.

The SharePoint Community has attracted over 1,200 members from around the world in the 11 weeks since it launched, far surpassing founder Mark Jones' expectations. Started as a collaboration between SharePoint partners as a central place to post blogs and build SEO links, the site has become a meeting place for a growing legion of SharePoint users and practitioners.

Membership Direction
"The first few members really drove the direction of the site," Jones said. "There seems to be a real thirst for an all-encompassing SharePoint site that is Facebook-like, but more than Facebook. We have blogs, lists, events and other sections, but the chat forums are the most popular. It's really snowballing now."

The growth of the site is largely due to word of mouth and the leadership of SharePoint Community Reps. As the site's membership started to take off, Jones and Co-Founder Vlad Catrinescu understood that they needed help. Thirteen Community Reps moderate activity and provide guidance on the direction of the site.

The Community Reps are SharePoint experts -- from architects to developers -- representing countries around the globe. Reps moderate chats, answer questions and monitor the site for misuse. With a global representation, there is 24-hour moderation support for the site.

Currently, about 30 percent of the members are U.S.-based with U.K., Canada, Australia and India also well-represented. Jones attributes the international adoption of the site to the its functionality. "I think we didn't have a global SharePoint user group because the platform wasn't there," he said. "Twitter is challenging with time differences. Facebook is personal. LinkedIn groups are the closest but there is no support for blogs and, frankly, they are just too full of recruiters."  

House Rules are clearly stated on the site to limit vendor intrusion and keep discussions on subject. "It's a fine line, really," Jones noted. "We want to be pragmatic and allow reviews of products that can be valuable to SharePoint users. So far, the combination of rules and moderation is providing a good balance." Job postings are strictly forbidden. 

Future Direction
With the success of the SharePoint Community, the focus in now on how to improve the value of the site for members. The popularity and diversity of conversations in the chat room has led to plans for chat rooms dedicated to specific interests. There will be chat rooms for beginners, developers and IT pros to promote deeper conversations. 

Additional Community Reps will support a growing number of moderated subgroups. Virtual conferences, including the concept of a 24-hour event to "follow the sun" around the globe, are also under discussion.

Social Site with Common Purpose
The SharePoint Community has quickly built a solid foundation of MVPs, bloggers, community contributors, educators and users with a common purpose. SharePoint as a product has always generated an enthusiastic following, and this new online community appears to be filling a global void for SharePoint users and practitioners.

How are you building user communities? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on May 30, 2013 at 11:58 AM0 comments


Microsoft Partner Pivots To Meet Cloud Realities

While partner adoption of the cloud may have started slower than Microsoft had hoped, the transformation seems to be fully under way. With 125,000 members in the Cloud Essentials program, SMB partners are facing an ever-more crowded field.

More competition accelerates the need for cloud partners to build new revenue models. For those partners who took on the cloud early, lessons learned include the need to demonstrate competency and invest in deeper, long-term customer relationships.

Everything Must Change
For 20-plus years, Greenwich, Conn.-based Lighthouse Technology Partners served local businesses as a traditional IT service provider. Most of the Lighthouse customers were 20- to 50-person organizations that needed IT support services from desktop to datacenter -- all on premises. 

"Three years ago, a company with 35 employees needed an enormous amount of IT support," said Brian Desrosier, president of Lighthouse Technology Partners. "E-mail, voice, availability, security and storage were all human resource-intensive."

Seeing its clients' needs evolve, Lighthouse started offering hybrid solutions which transformed over time to a full cloud services practice. "Our practice today is completely aligned with Microsoft corporate direction," Desrosier said. "Absolutely everything is different in my business...in just a couple of years."

The fundamental reality is that customers don't need as much support from their IT service providers when they move to the cloud. For those partners who have transitioned over time, keeping on-premises customers and adding cloud customers has eased the transition.   

Stepping Up Relationships
Since cloud customers require fewer of the traditional IT services like security, backup and upgrades, each partner needs a larger client base to make ends meet. And with the increasing number of cloud partners chasing those deals, competition is especially tough in SMB.

"We have realized that we need many more customers and we need them to be bigger," Desrosier noted. "We have to seek out clients who place value in and have a need for our competencies."

Treating cloud opportunities as a two-step sales cycle, the Lighthouse team works to prove their value during the initial migration to Office 365 or SharePoint Online. Once they have gained a position as a trusted advisor, they build on the relationship with training, workflow and SharePoint design services.      

Reaching Further
Chasing more and larger opportunities means working outside the region for most partners. Historically, Lighthouse customers were local businesses, but vertical opportunities are expanding the company's base. "We can't just work on word-of-mouth referrals like we did a few years ago," Desrosier said. "We have to reach outside our boundaries."

To expand its industry and geographic reach, Lighthouse has made significant investments in proving its value to education and nonprofit organizations. Most of these larger opportunities have long, expensive sales cycles. Multiple demos, sandbox environments and proof-of-concept engagements take consultants off billable time, but have the potential for big payoffs. 

Greater alignment with Microsoft sales reps in the enterprise and education groups has also helped open doors for Lighthouse. "We are working to prove our value to the Microsoft account manager as well as the customer," Desrosier said. "The Microsoft sales team is an important success factor. More partners are clamoring to get their attention, so you have to jump at the opportunity to prove yourself."

The Tipping Point
While Microsoft is surely happy that we've reached the tipping point for cloud adoption, partners have to figure out how to adapt to the new realities. Not all will make the transition successfully, but there are plenty of partners who are thriving. An industry that once rewarded technical generalists now requires specialization and industry expertise for survival.

How are you making an impact with cloud services? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.  

Posted by Barb Levisay on May 16, 2013 at 11:58 AM0 comments