From the Ground Up

By forming their own grassroots groups, partners find power in numbers.

It was billed as a "Technology Extravaganza."

In January 2006, Computer Solutions, a systems integration and technology-consulting firm and Gold Certified Partner based in San Antonio, Texas, sponsored a half-day event showcasing a variety of Microsoft solutions. The event, which attracted a variety of customers and partner companies, was extremely successful: "We had a high volume of large sales leads put into our pipeline," says Kara Buchanan, Computer Solutions' marketing and communications manager. Things went so well, in fact, that the company held "Technology Extravaganza II" just nine months later.

Of course, the Technology Extravaganza had Microsoft's backing. The Microsoft Partner Events team supported the gathering, promoted it and a Microsoft Across America truck, which features interactive technology displays, made an appearance. That kind of attention isn't surprising, according to Pam Salzer, senior director of marketing in Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Group. "Partners are our sales force and they are our lifeblood," she says. "Ninety-six percent of revenue comes from partners. We focus heavily on supporting the channel, the 'p-to-p' ecosystem."

What was particularly noteworthy about this event was that it wasn't Microsoft's party: Like a growing number of events worldwide, the Technology Extravaganza was organized and run entirely by companies in that local partner ecosystem.

Reaching Out
Even Microsoft can't be all things to all people, and as successful as its channel-building programs are, many companies find themselves falling through the cracks. "It's such a great big oil tanker of a company," says Robert Hoffer, managing director of NewForth Partners LLC, a San Mateo, Calif., consulting company specializing in strategic partnerships, IT transactions and mergers and acquisitions. "The problem is, the ship is so big that it's subject to erosion around the edges."

And as the market increasingly becomes specialized and stratified, The Big M is unable to dance with all the different partners in vast geographic spans. As a result, the seeds for grassroots partner organizations have been planted and begun to grow. Call them user groups, affinity groups, channel partners, mentorships -- there are formal and informal affiliations forming inside and outside of the Microsoft safety net.

Ted Dinsmore, co-author of Partnering with Microsoft: How to Make Money in Trusted Partnership with the Global Software Powerhouse (CMP Books, 2005) explains the spontaneous networking this way: "Compare it to medieval times, when you had a shoemaker, a blacksmith, a silversmith. People are realizing they can't do it all, whether it be SharePoint, SQL or security, so they're banding together. These groups are growing because the ecosystem is growing. People are saying, 'I can't do everything, so I have to meet others I can trust.'"

In fact, in Microsoft lingo, such groups are called "circles of trust." Such circles have been springing up since the 1980s. Harry Brelsford, founder and CEO of SMB Nation, a small-business training and consulting company based on Bainbridge Island, Wash., speculates that grassroots groups stem from technical user-group gatherings of a decade or so ago. "We were all learning Novell and the user group would have a LANfest [Local Area Network gathering] at the local armory," recalls Breslford, whose company sponsors several grassroots-oriented conferences each year.

Internet Impact
With the growth of the Internet, it became possible to connect with other ISVs or resellers, or with other companies specializing in, say, customer relationship management (CRM) or products for small and midsize businesses. Yahoo! tech groups flourished and blogs sprouted, especially for partners and other companies dealing with Small Business Server (SBS). One example, a Yahoo! Group called sbs2k, which offers support for all versions of SBS, boasts 3,028 members and posts more than 250 new messages on a typical week.

And even as these Web-alliances continue to flourish -- especially postings of technical problems and solutions -- partners want more. "These groups give you technical answers but don't give you relationships, networking. That's where grassroots groups are getting traction," says SMB's Brelsford, whose company sponsors several grassroots-oriented events each year.

"As a geographic area gets critical mass in a newsgroup, people say, 'Hey these guys are near to me, why not get together?'" says Matt Wilson of Milwaukie, Ore.-based Registered Member Brightstar Consulting.

And thus sprung up such organizations as Technology Wizards (of which Wilson is vice president), the Chicago Small Business Server Users Group, Cincinnati Networking Professionals, the Boston New England SharePoint User Group and the Oregon Computer Consultants Association, among others.

"Such grassroots groups are very important," says Joshua Feinberg, a former content provider for the Microsoft Partner Program and co-founder of Computer Consulting 101 in West Palm Beach, Fla. "Microsoft partners tend to keep to themselves out of fear of talking to competitors. Grassroots groups break down these barriers by getting like-minded computer consulting firms together in a safe, non-threatening environment."

A case study in grassroots: the Technology Wizards, a group of Washington and Oregon computer consultants who gather on the second Wednesday afternoon of each month at Microsoft's offices in Portland, Ore. Monthly speakers discuss everything from the debut of Windows Vista to the risks of patching to SonicWALL for the SMB space. A consultant referral telephone line helps members obtain sales leads, while Microsoft provides information, beta software, training and other freebies.

But sometimes the grassroots groups' real benefits occur after the meetings, says Bob Hood, a Chicago-based consultant and Registered Member who co-founded the Chicago SBS Users Group. That's when the parking-lot conversations occur -- "our equivalent of the water cooler," says Hood -- and possible business transactions and leads are exchanged and formulated. In one such instance, Hood and two colleagues huddled in the parking lot well past 10 p.m., talking seriously about combining their practices to create a much larger managed-services practice. Talks are still in progress, but "this wouldn't have happened without this user group," says Hood, a solo practitioner who's also found colleagues who can fill in for him when he takes time off.

Putting Down Roots

If you want your local partner group to bear fruit, you'll need to tend it well.

Looking to launch your own independent networking organization? Try these tips from people whose grassroots groups are already flourishing:

Take advantage of what's already in place. Familiarize yourself with the existing community, recommends Paul Hernacki, a member of Atlanta SharePoint Users Group and IAMCP. "Get to know individuals who are a part of these and find out what is missing from their current experience," says Hernacki, who is CTO of Definition 6 Inc., an Atlanta-based IT consultancy and Gold Certified Partner.

Keep the group autonomous and democratic. A grassroots organization should feel like it belongs to all involved, says Kevin Royalty, president of Cincinnati Networking Professionals and chief consulting officer at Solution Net Inc., a Cincinnati-based Certified Partner. "Grassroots don't work when surrounded by one company or partner."

Choose hot topics and speakers. "Attendance drops if monthly partner group meetings don't have a compelling topic," says Harry Brelsford of SMB Nation. "You don't want to be like veterans repeating old war stories."

Keep leadership fresh. "If leadership doesn't change, it's like a good ol' boys club," says Royalty, who is voluntarily stepping down as president when his one-year term ends. "A fresh set of eyes should be there every so often."

Remember that coopetition counts. If you're competing against a grassroots-group colleague, be open and honest about it. "Trust is critical," says Hernacki. "If you don't trust each other, then it's the Barney mentality. [You're saying]: 'I love you, you love me' -- but at the end of the day it really doesn't mean anything.' "

View Microsoft as a resource, not an adversary. "Taking on Microsoft is not a good business strategy," Brelsford says. "Work cooperatively and provide constructive feedback to Microsoft."

Expand your community. Reach out to local business groups or consider offering community services. For example, after a tornado damaged a local computer lab, the Cincinnati Networking Professionals helped rebuild it.

Existing Channels
The International Association of Microsoft Certified Partners (IAMCP), a more formal and structured peer-to-peer networking and partnering group, is especially fertile ground for networking opportunities. Thanks to IAMCP, Andrew Levi, founder and president of Aztec Systems Inc., a Gold Certified Partner in Carrollton, Texas, says he's hooked up with strategic partners like SoftMart Management Services of Dowington, Pa., a Gold Certified Member. SoftMart, which doesn't have a professional-services arm, looks to Aztec for solutions expertise -- particularly professional services for Infrastructure and Business Solutions (Dynamic GP and CRM). Alternatively, Aztec looks to SoftMart for licensing expertise and to fulfill software licenses and hardware for clients.

"There's a lot of business sharing that happens, mostly a result of us meeting frequently and developing personal relationships with people and discovering opportunities together," explains Levi, who is on the board of the IAMCP Dallas chapter, the nation's largest chapter. "As we talk, it's a good connecting point. Opportunities are born between people when you put people together who are all kind of chasing the same thing."

Microsoft provides funding to IAMCP, but each chapter is self-sufficient and finances its own activities through fees. The chapters are run by elected officials like Levi, a past Dallas chapter president. The chapter sponsors "speed-networking events," which, he says, work like speed dating, as well as golf tournaments and social events.

Perhaps the most telling success story of the IAMCP chapters is their self-duplicating nature, with one chapter spinning off another. For example, Terry Beck, president of The Harding Group Inc., an Arlington, Texas-based systems integrator and Gold Certified Partner, is a former Dallas chapter president who helped form the Arkansas and Oklahoma chapters.

Meanwhile, his own IAMCP affiliation helped lead to business partnerships with Little Rock, Ark.-based ClearPointe Technology Inc., which manages IT infrastructures, and Fort Worth, Texas-based IT giant EDS, both Gold Certified Partners.

The president of the Arkansas IAMCP chapter, Corinne Johnson, ClearPointe's director of marketing and strategic alliances, tells her side of the story: "As a managed services provider, we wanted to start selling what we do through other partners, so it made sense to us, especially here in Arkansas, that we needed to band together with installation and application development partners to deliver a more comprehensive solution to customers," she says.

The first meeting felt "very strange," she admits. "Before IAMCP, we were all competitors and it was odd to have all of us in one room. It's a scary thing for a small VAR to let another VAR in to our account." But the peer relationships helped open up dialogue about best practices, and the "joint connections gave us more clout and more credibility in the marketplace," Johnson recalls. Since then, ClearPointe has partnered with Allied Technology Group LLC of Little Rock, Ark., to tap that Gold Certified Partner's engineering resources. "Allied, in return, was a reseller for ClearPointe's remote management solution. It was a win-win for both companies," says Johnson. "It's not a one-way street. We're a network of industry experts banding together to offer a complete offering."

ClearPointe has been especially beneficial to other Arkansas IAMCP chapter members. Johnson says that when the chapter was formed two years ago, ClearPointe was Arkansas' only Gold Certified Partner. "We had a lot more connections with Microsoft, but we shared information with other members, giving them the opportunity to share our Microsoft knowledge," she says.

Global Growth
This member-to-member, chapter-to-chapter help network isn't limited to the United States. Overseas, grassroots groups are beginning to proliferate in the United Kingdom, Singapore and Australia, among other locations. In the U.K., Susanne Dansey, a leader in the Kent SBS Group, has been a key evangelist, helping to fertilize two SBSC groups in Edinburgh and London and spreading the seeds across the U.K. and Ireland, so that today, three years later, 19 partner groups exist.

"No matter what country you live in, most business experiences are the same," says Dansey, who is business development manager of Readycrest Ltd., a Chatham, England-based VAR and Certified Partner. "Based on that assumption, you can pretty well guess that other partners around the world are going to be asking the same questions as you at some point. All countries have a different slant on what their community looks like. Some are more structured than others, but wherever you may be, I would guess that there's another business not too far down the road from you that could share some war stories with you. The key to the community is to reach out to your competitors and realize that sometimes paddling one boat up the river is easier than taking two."

Dansey has created nationwide partnering opportunities through her involvement with groups across the U.K. Partners in the south of England, for example, can team up with partners in Scotland to deliver multi-site support to larger customers, which saves on travel time and provides more efficient service to clients. She's also formed international partnerships with partners in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

David Houston, technical business development manager of Dame Computers Ltd., a Registered Member based in Wicklow, Ireland, predicts that "the ability to create connections with other companies worldwide is only going to grow in leaps and bounds." Houston, a leader in SBS Ireland, which has three groups in Leinster, Ulster and Munster, recently helped an Australian company with a new customer's server, thanks to international connections.

But whether it's through Charlotte, N.C.-based Culminis Inc., an international not-for-profit IT professional group that claims more than 1.8 million members, or Brelsford's fast-growing 12,000-plus-member SMB Nation, grassroots groups all come down to relationships with people.

"If you've met a few people on the community circuit several times, you will find that, after all the business talk is over, what you have left is friendship and it is this that is the key," says Dansey. "While we're all in the community because of our business needs, it's important to establish a deeper-routed connection because we need to maximize the amount of enjoyment we get or else the experience becomes bland."

Meanwhile, some partner companies are still looking for local communities. Kevin Hidalgo of Ultimus Inc., a Gold Certified Partner and managed ISV focused on business process management, says he's working his Redmond contacts but having difficulty getting the attention of the field sales organization. His Raleigh, N.C.-based company "is between New York City and Atlanta, so getting to the regional sales power base is a major challenge," he says. "I'm thinking a grassroots group may give us a louder voice."

Hidalgo has realized what the organizers of many local organizations also know: There's power in numbers, which can translate to anything from finding some complementary partners to finally reaching the right people in Redmond. "These groups create demand and opportunity for members," says Levi, of Aztek Systems and IAMCP. "So ultimately what we are trying to do is create a scenario that says if you're not a member, then you're not getting the leads, the attraction, the credibility, the velocity that these organizations are creating."