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English, Gestión e innovación

So you want to be a big software player

You may know I’ve spent the past ten years working at an “integrator”, a sort of consulting-cum-technology company that takes several other companies’ software products, sells them to large customers and then makes sure they all work together to satisfy some real business need. In different roles, I’ve had to work with all types of partner among those software firms: the distant, the involved, the small, the powerful, the boss and the techie and the bright and the dumb and the rest. I’ve evaluated and sorted them for customers. I’ve been one (of sorts), the short spell I worked at a startup. I have to talk to them every day (big ones, small ones, behemoths) as key technology contact for the Macuarium.com portal and our reviewers. I dare say I can tell what makes some thrive and some be trodden.

And now, a certain representative from a software company that should be among the best has asked me for “feedback” on what they can do to improve service in Spain… Well, first things first, Ross: get me the quote I asked for over a month ago.

But, just in case you’re serious, here’s a few ideas (I’ll skip the partner agreement template, you can find many):

Cherish your partners

Never, never forget that it’s a buyers market, and when I say “buyer” I mean “integrator”. There are vey few companies that don’t have a close-enough competitor. And having a better product is not enough: watch Microsoft, or VHS. They succeed because they get business partners that make their offer superior to the competition. Windows is crap compared with Mac OS X, but the Windows ecosystem beats the Mac one in the business arena, hands down. Microsoft is buying itself partners against Nokia (not just money: help and support mean a lot), and it’s working. That’s the way to compete in the grown-up, big-app arena.

Marketing: handle smoke with care

Yes, you need to appear to be great. Yes, you need to sell. But a partner is not a customer: a partner is the person (or company) that takes your product and turns it into a solution. If the partner does not know you upside down, warts and all, he’s dead. He’s bound to put his feet in it sooner or later, will lose his shirt in the project (or risk doing so), and will raise Cain with you. Then, he’ll switch parters… and badmouth you all over the market. I know, I do it.

You can smoke up your collateral, those tools (white papers, sample slides, Gartner studies, even your references up to a point) you provide your partners to sell with. We expect it. You can smoke up events, TV ads, whatever. But once you’re getting down to business, don’t smoke your partners.

Training

The main cost for an integrator is getting people to speed on the tools they will be using. Marketing costs are fixed (if they don’t peddle your app, they’ll be peddling another one). So they need the means to do it fast and (ideally) cheap. Be aware that the ability to get people up to speed is one of the key barriers that prevent a potential partner from bringing their customers to your product. The lower you can push it, the better. If it is not low enough, no serious integrator will look at you twice. The smaller fry may risk it, but they will really depress your prices.

Too many companies seem to think “training” means “an opportunity to charge people for some half-cooked certification, regardless of existing business”. But if you want to have effective partners, you will take care to establish two layers:

Easily available documentation that can help people handle the implementation of your product. Clear, good, updated, structured according to roles (administration, design, user). In English at least (it’s hard to believe but there’s people who give documentation only in French and expect their partners to push the product). This will give some help to people who are already hands-on with your product. If this includes some basic standardised courses, so much the better.

Gold-plated certification. Once you have some respectable market share, you can set up a certification program. But if you’re wise, you won’t see it as a cash cow: induction to your product needs to be cheap because that is the step that gets you new customers. Then you can add an upper layer of expensive “expert” certifications, which will help you fund the effort and also provide something you can use to help your best partners along.

Support

Yes, you need to have technical support. Not just training. And yes, you can charge for it, because by the time someone needs support, they’ve already sold your product (or are putting your cost as an item in the proposal).

Front-line support. You don’t need to give it yourself, but you had better arrange someone to give some type of support to customers in every country. That may be an integrator or many of them… o, ideally, as many as you can get plus a team of your own people. Because integrators need help too. And if you can’t provide it, hands-on, you’re a second- or third-level player.

Remote support. Email, on the phone, whatever. Get some good people and a nice price list, but get them. Without the ability to give remote support to an implementation, you don’t exist as a player. And this usually mean speaking the language of the customer country, or fluent English at the very least.

Developer network. Yes, please, set up one. Allow your partners’ technicians to get on with business among themselves. “The expert is out there” is Macuarium’s motto, and it’s true. Your people can’t ever see every possible situation, but someone else probably has, or will have seen it when your application or platform expands enough. At the beginning, it may looks as if half your employees are troubleshooting on the forums, but that should become exceptional as your partner base consolidates.

And a developer networks needs a few yearly events, too. In every main market. Don’t forget, they make great selling occasions (to take potential customers to, and to invite potential partners) and keep your current partners motivated.

Pilots & prices

A nice price list is essential. It needs to be nice, and it needs to be there. Then, there’s the “partner agreements” stipulating what part of that price goes to the integrator. So far so good.

But many projects nowadays start with pilots and trials. You need to provide the means for that. Failing everything else, you need to contemplate “introduction” or “special” pricing when neccesary to close a first sale at a customer. Rigidity there has swayed many a sale: remember, the integrator sells a solution, rarely a product… and can usually find perfectly sensible reasons to switch product during the sales process. Any integrator worth his salt can get the customer to ask for that change.

Responsiveness

Now you have a nice product, nice prices, good documentation, and a sensible support structure. That’s not enough, in three main areas:

Quality. Nobody expects perfect code any longer (well, I do but never confess it in public). An implementation will often push the expected limits of your application. Bugs and changes may be needed. Some you will find yourself, some you will be notified of. Having a responsive QA team is a key part of keeping the partners happy.

Sales. An integrator relies on the developer to put together the offer that will feed both. Your partner needs current prices, latest specs (and never, ever sell smoke to them: see previous items), times of availability, terms of support. He needs it current, and he needs it by yesterday. So you had better ensure your people have the means to give that information, and the motivation to do so fast.

Business development. When a new potential partner arrives, or an existing one wants help chewing a big account or trying a complicated gimmick, or a problem arises with any other part of your collaboration, or some analyst want to peek into your product, or some media wants to put you on the limelight… you need someone up high in your hierarchy to be on call, available, fast: keeping an opportunity frozen for a month kills it. Sorting the unpredictable takes management time. And any good business growth rate takes a lot of unpredictables.

And then…

That was only half the list, and most of the items are simplified. But then, this isn’t a business plan (and I’m not getting paid for it :-)). Watch around, and see what successful companies have done. But if you want to do business with the big boys (and any sensible mid- or small-size firm) you could do worse than heed this.

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