Chicken or egg first? For partner programs, that makes a big difference
As Intel (Nasdaq: INTC), Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) and Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO) created the modern computing era in the 1990s, partner programs were at the forefront. The success of these companies and the distributed computing era in general was largely built on the backs of technology and distribution partners. In fact, these companies still rely on partners to drive a majority of their revenue today. The same cannot be said for the cloud era of IT, which was led by the direct sales strategies of top vendors such as Salesforce (NYSE: CRM) and Amazon Web Services (AWS; Nasdaq: AMZN). These two vendors became leaders in their respective cloud markets by selling directly to customers, bypassing distribution partners altogether. Partners are certainly playing a larger role now, but the timing does impact their position in the value chain for cloud. Without a well-defined value-add in the self-service, transactional and passive sales strategies for cloud, partners are forced to create or carve out activities that are both unaddressed by the cloud provider and hold value for the end customer. Rather than traditional IT vendors relying on partners to drive their business, in cloud those partners are on their own in many respects to identify and develop their own value-add. Being creative, developing intellectual property and focusing on the gaps between multivendor solutions are much more important activities for partners in cloud programs compared with traditional ones.
Partners may look the same, but are in fact quite different
“What does a cloud partner look like?” was a common question as these new cloud-centric programs came to be. It was unclear if a new startup class of born-on-the-cloud partners would come into existence, or if the existing stock of VAR, distributor, MSP, systems integration (SI) and hosting partners would eventually transform their businesses to align with the new cloud business opportunities. As shown in Figure 1, the types of partners participating in new cloud programs is just the first category of changes programs are undergoing. As the answer to what type of partners are needed for these programs comes into view, it is looking like a little bit of the former and a lot of the latter. Cloud-native partners that are focused on consulting, managed services, intellectual property development and cloud solution integration hold a small but important space in the market. The difficult thing for vendors is that there are not very many of these newly formed partners, and to make matters worse, many are being acquired. It is also difficult to spur their creation or fit them into a traditional partner program. While traditional partners are cattle that can be controlled and herded in a consistent direction, cloud-native partners are wilder animals that create, forge and follow their own path. In terms of existing partners changing to focus on cloud solutions, that, too, is a difficult task. The truth is that many traditional VAR-type partners, focused on reselling and implementation activities, may not survive the transition to cloud solutions. Part of this is generationally driven, as many of the baby boomer-owned partner businesses lack the incentive to adapt their business model with retirement looming. Many of these partners will ride the slow decline of traditional IT opportunity until eventually closing their doors. Those traditional partners that do make the transition to a more cloud-focused business model will compose the largest segment of cloud partners. While they may keep the same name, these partners will be operating in a fundamentally different manner compared with traditional partner models.