IT Communities: A Primer for Microsoft Partners

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Channel communities are key for partners who want to network, shore up resources and bolster their access to the larger organizations they are partners with. But given their wide variety, it can be a challenge for partners to know which communities suit them best. In this primer, Howard runs down the different types of partner communities to help you find the best fit for your partner company.

NOTE: A shorter version of this article appeared in RCP's March issue.

The hands-down best thing about joining a good IT community is the incredible people you get to meet and learn from. One of the best people I've met during my time serving one of those communities is Richard Losciale, owner of Premier Knowledge Solutions in St. Louis. Richard once noted that everybody in the world has the same favorite radio station: WIIFM, or "What's in It for Me?"

And when it comes to investing your time, your energy, your effort and your resources into anything, it's a question you have an absolute right -- in fact, a mandate -- to ask.

Partnering: Definitely Necessary, But Not Necessarily Evil
Many partners I speak to consider partnering with others to be something to avoid. In their minds, nobody can deliver as well as they can, and the companies they partner with might steal their customers. I, of course, suggest that if a company can steal your customers, those were never really your customers. You don't have that relationship with them; otherwise, they'd stay.

Others see partnering as a necessary evil.

My observation is that partnering is and will continue to be our way of life for the foreseeable future. With the introduction of the Microsoft Partner Network (MPN) Microsoft has made it all but impossible for anyone but the largest MPN members to earn more than a few competencies. The goal was to get partners to declare their focus and to raise the bar for them to become the best at the disciplines within that focus.

There are many arguments that can be made for and against this strategy, but it's worth pointing out that prior to the introduction of the MPN, the No. 1 partner on the Microsoft Partner Locator Web site had about 20 people on staff total, and yet held all but one of the 29 competencies that were available to be had at that time. Is that a program that customers can depend upon to identify quality partners?

Partnering allows customers to get the best of the best in every facet of every project. Everybody wins. The customer gets a bigger, better, broader solution. The partners each get business they could not obtain otherwise. Microsoft sells more licenses. It's all good.

The Role of Communities
The first prerequisite for partnering is trust. You must find partners that you can trust to deliver their services at the same level as you deliver yours. You must be able to trust in their integrity and their ability to conduct themselves professionally. You must trust that they have your back.

Where do you find such partners? Communities.

The best partner organizations build "trust communities." People who join quickly come to realize that if they intend to poach customers, or otherwise conduct themselves in an unseemly manner, they will be mustered out of the community quickly because the other members have become wise to them and shut them out. The reputations of partners who partner well spread quickly, and they regularly find others approaching them to partner. It should be a very self-regulating system.

Also, the really good communities have conferences where you get to meet the other members on a fairly regular basis. This is a great opportunity to cement relationships and share experiences -- the cornerstone of great partnerships.

What Kind of Community Is for Me?
There are several kinds of communities in the IT channel, and it's important to examine their structures and their motivations to determine which ones best fit your needs.

Vendor-Run Communities
Most every channel vendor has, by definition, a channel partner program. Many hail Citrix as having the best. Others appreciate the focus of the MPN. Smaller software providers and hardware manufacturers may create incredibly strong, intimate bonds with their partners, while larger manufacturers may provide incredible training and development benefits. The programs vary widely and usually include many inducements, such as joint marketing funds, training and support, special discounts, deal registration, and more.

Distributor-Run Communities
Some distributors have seen the value of providing a venue for partners to gather together to share expertise and best-practices, build affinity programs, add broader training opportunities than any one vendor would, and otherwise find ways to help partners work together for their mutual advantage. As long as members remember that their sponsor has a very clear motivation for supporting the organization, there can be great value here, as long-running communities like TechData TechSelect and the Ingram Micro VentureTech Network have proven.

Entrepreneur-Run Communities
The fact that someone has a financial motivation to operate a community does not mean that the motive is ulterior. Some entrepreneurs have simply seen the need for a community to support a specific group of IT channel companies and have elected to fill that need. That's how most great businesses get started. Many of these communities foster focus groups that meet regularly to discuss their challenges and gain insight from one another. Many partners can't say enough about how much value they've received from these discussion groups.

Listen to members of some of these communities and following their social media postings, you get a strong appreciation of just how loyal they are to their community and how appreciative they are of the value it brings. Great examples include Harry Brelsford's SMB Nation and Arlin Sorensen's Heartland Technology Group.

Some of these communities are formed by suppliers of services to the IT channel to deliver value beyond the services that are purchased. One great example is the ConnectWise IT Nation.

There are fundamentally two types of associations that a channel partner should consider joining: those that are vendor-neutral, and those that are independent but vendor-focused.

Vendor-Neutral Associations
Perhaps the premier vendor-neutral association is the Computer Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), which has driven its funding through the growth of industry training standards and programs like the A+ Certification that most techs pride themselves on earning. This has allowed CompTIA to hire staff to drive the programs, hold industry events, create informational and developmental activities, and deliver greater value overall. In addition to hired staff, this association depends on involved members of the IT channel to drive its various focused communities. The committed professionals who have given their time and talent are a very impressive group, and each exemplifies the passion with which association members work to benefit other members.

Independent Vendor-Focused Associations
Part of being a successful VAR lies in choosing your partners carefully. In many ways, the key manufacturers and software providers you choose to partner with become some of your biggest investments of time, money and effort. As such, you need to remain focused on how to get the biggest return possible from those investments. The other challenge for you is that the key partners will always be far larger than your organization, rendering your business open to changes any time the vendor partner's partner program changes.

Joining an independent association that is focused on a major vendor gives you the opportunity to join with many other of that vendor's partners, thus aggregating many voices into one larger voice that can speak much louder and be more impactful than any one VAR could be alone. Another powerful value in an independent vendor-focused association is that members learn how to maximize their return on the investment in their partner by helping them learn how to get the most out of the relationship.

One excellent example is the International Association of Microsoft Channel Partners (IAMCP), which serves as an "on-ramp" for members. Regionally, nationally or globally, the IAMCP can readily point members at the best resources and the best strategies to accomplish what they need to grow their businesses. Thanks to the deep relationship the IAMCP has with Microsoft senior management, it has the ability to be "patriotically adversarial" in discussions when members feel that new policies disserve them. When the MPN was introduced, the IAMCP was instrumental in bringing challenging issues to Microsoft's attention and obtaining compromises that helped everyone.

The double-edged sword here is that the most value in an organization like IAMCP exists and is conveyed in dozens of chapters located around the world. What works in one region may not work in others, so each chapter needs to band together, build a great local trust community, and work locally and with nearby chapters in their region to grow great programs. The other edge of that blade is that organizations like the IAMCP become totally dependent on the consistency of leadership; they need new, committed leaders stepping up every few years to keep the chapters going and growing. While this is challenging, to say the least, it forms the backbone of an all-volunteer association like the IAMCP. Think globally, act locally.

Communities are the only way the hundreds of thousands of small to medium partners that are the heart of our channel can join together to have a truly independent strong voice within the larger organizations we turn to for products and services. It preserves the balance in our channel.

Join. Research the many communities that are out there. Ask peers you trust about their experiences. But whatever you do, step up and join communities. I have been proud to be a member of many over the years. I'm a believer that the more good you do for more people, the more good finds its way back to you. The opportunities I have found to do good in IT channel communities come back around to me every day, in so many ways.