In-Depth

Inside MVP Nation: What MVPs Talk About when Microsoft Isn't Looking

"Cloud" was king at the first annual MVP Nation conference, but this year's gathering of Microsoft MVPs covered other topics as well. This is RCP's report of those discussions, straight from the show floor.

Every year, some 1,500 Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs) gather near Redmond for the MVP Global Summit, three days of pep talks and product updates from Microsoft employees. This year, nearly a hundred of them took a short detour on the way home: The first annual MVP Nation conference, held March 3 and 4 in downtown Seattle.

Selected by Microsoft for their technical proficiency and active participation in newsgroups, online forums and user groups, MVPs are some of the most knowledgeable authorities on Microsoft solutions not employed by Microsoft itself. MVP Nation, meanwhile, was staged by SMB Nation Inc., the Bainbridge Island, Wash.-based company best known for its semi-annual events targeting channel partners who support small and midsize businesses (SMBs). According to Harry Brelsford, the company's CEO, the new show was designed to help partners, IT managers from the SMB market and vendors of SMB-oriented technologies get face time with people to whom they rarely have direct access.

"The MVPs are the subject-matter experts regarding Microsoft products, and the public would like to hear from them," Brelsford says.

So what do Microsoft's top independent ambassadors to the global IT community talk about when almost no one from Microsoft is around to listen? The cloud, of course.

"It's forcing all of us to look at our business as if we're in a different world," said Jeff Middleton, an MVP focused on the Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS) product and founder of SBSmigration.com, a Web site offering advice and tools for performing SBS upgrades.

Indeed, attendees had plenty of questions for MVP presenters like Middleton on Microsoft's new wave of cloud-based offerings. "One of the big challenges for partners is, how do I make money off this?" observed Chad Mosman, an Office 365 MVP and principal consultant at MessageOps, a Microsoft Small Business Specialist in Charlotte, N.C., that helps SMBs migrate onto Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS). Office 365, the soon-to-be-released successor to BPOS, offers some tantalizing hints, Mosman noted. With prices topping out at $10 per user per month and partners collecting just 6 percent of that after the first year, BPOS can be a disappointing source of incremental income. By supplementing BPOS with both on-premises and Web-based versions of Microsoft Office, however, Office 365 offers more attractive economics.

"You start getting up into the $25 to $30 per-user per-month range, which then translates into higher partner fees," Mosman told a somewhat skeptical audience. "You can turn that into a pretty decent stream of recurring revenue."

Same goes for selling SBS 2011 Essentials and Windows Storage Server 2008 R2 Essentials, two cloud-friendly products for companies with up to 25 users that shipped a few weeks after MVP Nation's conclusion. The first system combines on-site backup, remote access and file-sharing functionality with connections to Software as a Service (SaaS) applications from Microsoft and other providers. The second enables SMBs to create a simple, centralized storage repository, and is designed for use with network-attached storage systems from third-party OEMs.

Contrary to the concerns of some conference attendees, neither product cannibalizes existing revenue streams, according to Steven Banks, an SBS MVP and president of Banks Consulting Northwest Inc., a Microsoft Small Business Specialist in Port Orchard, Wash. "Look at this as a way to expand your customer base," he said. "The on-premises solutions are there. They're not going anywhere."

Conference attendee Bob Nitrio wasn't so sure. Nitrio is CEO of Ranvest Associates, an IT consultancy and Microsoft Small Business Specialist in Orangevale, Calif. "It's still viable," he said of the on-site version of SBS, but he believes that, within a few years, plenty of SMBs will be doing all of their computing in the cloud, leaving SBS resellers without cloud skills high and dry.

A Healthy Community
Of course, cloud computing wasn't the only topic of interest at MVP Nation. According to Brelsford, attendees also gave high marks to a session on Microsoft Windows MultiPoint Server 2011, an on-premises solution that lets a single PC support multiple users, each with their own monitor and keyboard. Aimed at the education vertical, where budgets are slim and students plentiful, MultiPoint Server can also be a cost-effective option for small businesses with simple computing needs.

Other sessions covered partnering-related subjects, including the advantages of forging close MVP-style ties with favorite hardware and software vendors. "Being able to influence the product helps my business and my customers, because the product works better for them," said Wayne Small, a Small Business Server MVP and founder of Correct Solutions Pty Ltd., an SMB-focused solution provider with two offices in Sydney, Australia. Vendors, for their part, benefit from the sort of in-depth technical feedback that small business owners are rarely equipped to provide, noted Julian Waits, vice president for strategic relationships at GFI Software, a Cary, N.C.-based maker of Web, e-mail and network-security products for SMBs. "To get the sophisticated input, there's nowhere to go but the partners," he said.

Still, speakers cautioned, for both parties to have the sort of tight working relationships that MVPs have with Microsoft, they must be careful not to abuse the privilege. For partners, that means not bothering your vendor contacts with routine tech support matters. For vendors, it means not pestering partners with news about the newest product launches and promotional offers. "We don't go out and sell the latest thing because it's on special," said Small. "We sell the customers what they need to fix their business problems, and I don't think a lot of the vendors get that."

Not that Small or most of the other MVPs at the conference were unhappy with Microsoft in general or the MVP program in particular. "It continues to be pretty strong," said Dave Sobel, CEO of Evolve Technologies LLC, a business IT consultancy and Microsoft Small Business Specialist in Fairfax, Va. "The nice thing about the MVP community is it's a bunch of highly motivated folks," he added. "It tends to be naturally a very healthy community."

Microsoft's assessment of the MVP program is upbeat as well. According to Nestor Portillo, director of community support services at Microsoft and worldwide head of the MVP program, there are presently more than 4,000 MVPs from 89 countries distributing technical expertise on Microsoft products in 40 languages. About 27 percent of them are drawn from the Microsoft partner community. Others are independent consultants, small business owners, corporate IT employees or just plain hobbyists, like the firefighter in Osaka, Japan, who shares Microsoft Excel tips in his spare time.

And they're all more valuable to Microsoft than ever, says Portillo, who's been working with MVPs in one capacity or another over the last decade. "Seven years ago the program was more like a thank you," he observes. Today, MVPs are in regular contact with key developers in Microsoft product groups, sharing feedback and suggestions. Portillo expects MVPs to exert increasing influence on Microsoft's cloud-computing platform, too, noting that cloud-related sessions drew heavy attendance at this year's MVP Global Summit. "The future is the cloud," he says, and MVPs are clamoring for as much information as they can get their hands on about Microsoft's emerging cloud strategy and roadmap.

Even Easier
As for MVP Nation's future, Brelsford intends to repeat the event in 2012. "The feedback was good," he says. The event's sponsors appreciated the candid product appraisals they got from the MVPs, while the MVPs appreciated the opportunity to attend sessions specifically designed for them on communications-related topics such as writing a book, giving a speech and maintaining a blog. "We thought, 'here's some content that Microsoft will not, cannot and maybe should not deliver, that we can do a better job of,'" Brelsford says.

What Sobel enjoyed most, however, was the attendee interaction. MVPs earn that designation by contributing hours of advice to other IT professionals. "This was an opportunity to continue that when it's pretty easy," he noted. "We were already there."

Brelsford plans to make attending the conference even easier next year by staging it in one of the same hotels MVPs stay in during the Global Summit. "We're going to align the venue to be an elevator ride [away]," he says. All the more reason for MVPs to tack two days of sharing insights with others onto three days of learning from Microsoft.

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