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MPN Small Business Competency: More Benefits, Bigger Price Tag

When Microsoft rolls out the Small Business competency next month, partners will find a program that is more expensive to join than the popular Small Business Specialist Community (SBSC), but also far more loaded with benefits and focused on cloud.

Microsoft officials released most details on benefits and requirements of the Small Business competency this week. The competency joins a roster of about 30 Microsoft Partner Network competencies that allow partners to establish and brand their specialized expertise amid Microsoft's vast array of products.

Previously SMB-focused partners established and demonstrated that expertise through membership in the SBSC. Microsoft considered adding a Small Business competency before the launch of the MPN in 2009, but opted to keep the SBSC intact and add a Midmarket Solution Provider competency.

The partner cost of joining the SBSC was generally much lower than the cost of silver and gold competencies in the MPN. The SBSC only required an Action Pack Solution Provider subscription, which costs about $329 (all prices in this story are for the U.S. subsidiary). A first silver or gold competency in the MPN costs $1,850 and $3,800, respectively. Subsequent competencies have no enrollment cost.

"The cost from a gold and silver perspective will be the same as the other competencies," said Julie Bennani, general manager of the MPN, in a phone interview. Still, in a nod to the cost increase, Microsoft will run a promotion allowing enrollment in the Small Business Silver Competency for $999 from June to December, she said.

There are other costs associated with the new competency. To earn the silver competency, partners must have one Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) pass two exams, one person pass a licensing exam and one person pass a business-focused small business assessment. For the gold, partners must have two MCPs each pass two exams, one person pass the licensing exam and two people pass the business assessment. Those requirements are substantially lower than for other competencies, which generally require two MCPs for silver and four MCPs for gold. Partners will also have to submit three customer references for silver and five for gold.

Bennani said that partners are getting a lot for the cost increase and additional administrative requirements. "It's a big step up on the benefits side," she said.

Under the Action Pack Solution Provider subscription, partners get 10 internal use rights (IURs), which are licenses that partners can use internally to test Microsoft products or even to run their Microsoft businesses on. Silver competency partners will get 15 IURs on core on-premise products, while gold competency partners will get 30 IURs. These numbers are generally lower than for other competencies, which grant roughly 25 IURs for silver and 100 IURs for gold.

Microsoft is also loading Small Business competency partners up with cloud IURs. The silver competency carries 250 Office 365 and Dynamics CRM Online licenses and 25 Windows Intune licenses. Gold includes an additional 75 Windows Intune licenses. For now, the cloud IURs involve combining the silver competency with Microsoft's separate Cloud Essentials program, and the gold competency with Cloud Accelerate. As part of Cloud Accelerate, Small Business Gold Competency partners get the ability to perform Admin on Behalf of Office 365. While it's not the direct billing that partners have been asking for, it does give partners a way to handle provisioning and administration of Office 365 for their clients.

The gold and silver competency logos, which align with Microsoft's other modern branding for top partners, are another benefit. The logos clearly state that partners belong to the MPN and have a specialization in the Small Business Silver Competency or the Small Business Gold Competency. The competencies also mean premium placement in the Microsoft Pinpoint directory.

Joining the competency structure will also plug small-business partners into Microsoft's more extensive support structure for its more committed partners. The silver competency includes 20 partner advisory hours and gold includes 50 hours and a five-pack of support incidents. Both competency levels include unlimited technical presales assistance for deals greater than $3,000.

In a major move, Microsoft is also committing to named Microsoft contacts for Small Business Gold Competency partners. A few get Partner Account Managers (PAMs), more will get Tele-PAMs and many will be served by a new tier called Tele-based Partner Account Specialists (TPAS). Microsoft declined to provide ratios of partners to each type of Microsoft field professional.

"It's a named person who will help you, as well as assist in solution incentives or opportunities in PSX [Microsoft's Partner Sales Exchange]," Bennani said. "We haven't made that type of statement before," Bennani said of providing a named contact for almost every small business partner. The only small business partners who wouldn't at least get a TPAS are those who need a language Microsoft doesn't support, Bennani explained.

One thing those named Microsoft representatives will also be doing is checking up on Small Business Gold Competency partners' progress toward revenue goals. The gold competency, like other gold competencies, carries a revenue commitment, which will go into effect upon renewal after October 2013.

How high those revenue commitments will be is still being worked out. "This competency is a balance between on-premise and cloud," Bennani said. "There are very different thresholds for pure cloud versus on-premise. We're trying to bring them together in a unique way."

The main products the Small Business competency focuses on are Windows, Office 365, Windows Server, Small Business Server and Windows Intune. Microsoft is pressing its finger on the cloud side of that on-premise/cloud scale, as the company's internal research shows small businesses are becoming more interested in cloud offerings.

"The competency will lead with the Cloud and be a key differentiator for partners focused on the small business segment," Bennani wrote in a blog post detailing some of the changes earlier this week.

Meanwhile, Microsoft expects the Small Business competency to grow quickly into its largest competency by number of partners enrolled. "I have no doubt the Small Business competency will be our most sought after competency," said Jon Roskill, corporate vice president of the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Group, in a blog post.

One big pool of potential partners for the competency is the SBSC, which has ranged as high as 20,000 members. Over the last 24 months, the SBSC has been closer to the 10,000-member mark, Bennani said. "We used to have very active, on our end, engagement both globally and locally into that community, including dedicated resources," she said. "We have continued to engage that community, but I think not probably as deeply as we did five years ago."

The SBSC will continue as is for a year after the competency launches, then become a partner-to-partner structured community similar to Microsoft's MVP community.

Microsoft is looking to other groups of partners than the SBSC as potential Small Business competency holders. "There are a number of VARs that transact open business for Microsoft. They might not be in any other competencies. We think this is a really good place for them," Bennani said.

One Microsoft partner who noticed the company's de-emphasis of the Small Business Specialist Community said he's encouraged by the opportunity of the competency.

Joe Bailey, principal of Annandale, Va.-based Bailey Systems, said his company's pursuit of a Small Business Specialist logo stalled about a year ago when most of Microsoft's resources around SBSC seemed to disappear from the Microsoft Partner Portal.

"We were going after the logo," Bailey said. "People don't necessarily ask you about it, but it's on your business card."

After hearing about the new competency, including the higher price, the logo that includes the key words "Small Business" and the heftier training requirements, Bailey said, "I'm good with that."

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