Friday, July 06, 2012

My Two Cents on the Current Changes in the SMB IT Community

This blog is intended to talk the SMB community off the ledge. (This is not intended as a "defense" of Microsoft, but a bit of reality check for people.)

Yesterday the Yahoo Groups and email lists were all abuzz with the news that Microsoft will be dropping the SBS line. Many people seem to be in a panic about this. I wrote a blog post that "No One" was surprised by this announcement. Boy was I wrong. Lots of people were surprised.

I don't understand how that can be. This has been coming for YEARS. Being surprised by this announcement is a little like General Motors looking around in 1980 and saying "WHAT? People want smaller cars? Nobody told us!" Come on. Really?

Seriously, folks, this has been coming for years. I think a good deal of the pain and anguish is around all the other stuff going on at Microsoft with regard to the SMB community. But there are also a lot of changes going on OUTSIDE of Microsoft - community changes. Here are some highlights:

1) The SBSC program is end of life

2) The SBS Competency is available to Certified Partners

3) Small Business Server line is end of life

4) SBS Essentials is moving to a "permanent" home in the Server 2012 family

5) SBS MVPs are in a bit of a panic. In a world of product-specific MVP designations, end-of-product means uncertainty at best.

6) The User Group Leaders still have a vibrant communication channel, but have fallen apart in recent years with regard to any guidance for the community. In other words, they talk among themselves more than they talk with their group members.

7) The IT Pro Groups are clearly no longer SBS User Groups. Their numbers are down across the board.

8) IT professionals have been reduced in number. As the recession drags on, they need some positive news and stability they can grab onto.

A Bit About Microsoft

1) Microsoft is a huge company - almost $75 Billion in sales. They have the resources to do just about anything they want.

2) Microsoft has some of the best people in the world. By best I mean talented, dedicated, smart, friendly, and creative. With very few exceptions, these are the people you want living next door to you, giving you advice, hanging out with on the weekends, and doing business with.

3) Despite the criticisms of Steve Balmer that have suddenly become so popular in the media, Microsoft is a very innovative company that takes chances. As a stock holder, it doesn't bother me that they're writing off $6.2B for their failed Aquantive acquisition. That represents taking a chance.

4) Having said that, Microsoft makes a lot of really bad decisions sometimes. And they have never been very transparent about what their big-picture plans are. On one hand, some very technical decisions are mapped out years in advance. On the other hand, product announcements and timing often come as a complete surprise to the "partners" who are most affected.

. . . And a little reality about Microsoft

5) Microsoft is a for-profit business. I might not always understand what they're doing or why, but one big motivation is profit. That's why they get to stay in business, hire those people, and push that innovation.

6) I am less than a gnat on a flea on Microsoft's eyelid. If my company sells $100,000 in Microsoft software in a year, that's a good year. That's 1.333e-8 percent of Microsoft's revenue for the year. They'll make more money on mouse balls this year than they will off me in my lifetime. So I need to be realistic about where I am in the universe.

7) Microsoft is famous for playing the long game. They will sit on a product for years trying to build a foundation and market share. They rarely release something and drop it the next year. Once they commit, it's a long commitment. But eventually, they need to make a decision that is based on profit. It is NOT a bad thing to drop Response Point or MS Financials when they end up not having the necessary sales. That's part of the innovation process. And it's not bad to drop SBS or any other product line that has served its purpose and evolved.

On Partnerships and Competencies and Communities (Oh My)

I have been a registered partner and a certified partner. My company was in the certified partner program for ten years. Now we're SBSC and registered. The certified partner program is no longer for us. It is very clear that we are no longer in the target market of companies that Microsoft wants in their certified program.

That's not a bad thing. It's just a thing.

Here's a truth that no one in the Registered Partner Community seems to want to hear: The SBS Competency is not intended for YOU. Microsoft is not putting in higher requirements for you. They are not charging $2,000 for you. They're not requiring two MCPs and a bunch specific exams for you.

You - the micro company of 1-2 employees - are not the intended market for the SBS Competency.

And here's another unpleasant truth: You're not the partners Microsoft sought advice from regarding these changes BECAUSE you're not their target for this program. (Certified Partners are the target market, and it's their advice that matters.)

No one is "doing this" to you. This isn't about you.

Microsoft's Partner Network is intended to build relationships with companies that become experts in delivering Microsoft-centric solutions to end users. At all times, it must mold and change to fit the future needs of Microsoft. It is their greatest sales machine. And in exchange, the partners receive training and support. It's a business relationship with a fairly minimal barrier to entry.

If you think the barrier is too high (2 employees, a bunch of exams, and some money), then this program is not for you. Period. And that's okay.

I never hear anyone bitch about the steep requirements to be certified by Cisco or other companies. Many, many vendors have Gold, Silver, and "reseller" partnerships. Each has different barriers to entry. If you don't sell a million units, you don't get to the top tier. That's just the way it is.

It is not a negative reflection at all that we decided to not renew our certification status with Microsoft. It served us well for ten years. The truth is that Microsoft gives away an AMAZING amount of resources, information, training, and support for free to registered partners. And the Action Packs are so cheap that they simply can't be considered a barrier to entry.

In other words, we get everything we need from the registered partner program. We don't need to be certified. It doesn't fit our business model or needs. It might again someday. But not today.

Please stop complaining about the SBS Competency. If you can't attain it - or it doesn't do you any good - then it's not for you. So stop whining. Again, no one is "doing this" to you.

As for the end of the SBSC program . . .
I think it's too damn bad. It was a great program. And I think it could live at a "registered" level alongside the competency. So I think dropping it is a mistake. But again, let's look at reality. The certified partners grabbed onto the SBSC program and got the blue badge by simply snapping their fingers.

For five years now, our company has required that every new technician pass an exam to be a small business specialist. 100% of our technicians for the last five years have been SBSC. That means when they leave us and go on their own, they need to pass just the marketing exam and they are full fledged small business specialists in their own right.

That served us well and we would love to keep doing it.

But Microsoft needs to maintain the partner relationships that are most valuable to them - the Certified Partners.

Here's the Part That IS About You

When Harry Brelsford started writing about this cool product called Small Business Server, is was a pretty damn clunky thing. It reached perfection in SBS 2003 (in my opinion) and a whole community blossomed around that product, Harry's events, and the "SBS User Groups" that formed.

These groups reached their peak just about the time the economy collapsed. They were growing and strong and vibrant. Now they are shrinking and weak and disorganized.

I have traveled to dozens of IT Pro Groups. I've seen groups that get 300 people in a room and groups that can't get TWO people in a room. At one point a vendor paid me a lot of money to fly to another city and make a presentation to a group (in a major metropolitan area) that had exactly one person in the audience. The check cleared so I was fine. But I thought it was horribly sad that a major U.S. city couldn't get two computer consultants in a room for a widely publicized event.

IT professionals are NOT participating in their own groups. It's almost fair to say that they're not participating in their own success. Most groups are shrinking or disappearing. Big events are poorly attended.

More and more, the micro-size IT companies are asking companies like Microsoft to give them all kinds support and love with no intention of returning that support and love. We all want something for nothing.

Well that kind of one-sided relationship can only go on so long. At some point, the party doing all the giving and very little getting will simply stop giving. Right now Microsoft gives an amazing amount to us for free.

Our community has always been very vocal. We have sometimes been very active. But we have also been taking, taking, taking.

Microsoft doesn't need our money. They never engaged us so I could put an extra $1,000 in their pocket.

This community is valuable to Microsoft to the extend that we are vibrant and active, positive and promoting. When we have low participation, low cooperation, and all we do is bitch, then Microsoft would be foolish to continue giving, giving, giving.

In our heyday, the SMB IT community was a band of cheering Microsoft supporters. We just aren't anymore. That's partly Microsoft's fault. We changed. They changed. But it's also our fault. If you don't participate, and you don't engage, and you don't build up your local groups, then the community ceases to exist. And that's not Microsoft's fault.

Our community can be extremely active at times. We need to nurture that.

Many, many people have talked to me about rebuilding this community over the past few years. Bob Nitrio, Dave Seibert, Rayanne Buchianico, and Jeff Middleton have been the most interested and involved. But so far, the broader community seems to be just waiting for something to happen.

Bottom line on the SBS End of Life: It is sad for all of us because that product represents a broad community all over the world. As Steven Teiger wrote on Facebook: "User Groups, blogs, writers, Facebook pages, Internet fora and such have just had their heart ripped out This whole spider's web of people will unravel as we all go our separate ways - and hopefully we will find a glue that somehow keeps us together."

SBS represented a wonderful group of people at Microsoft interacting with a wonderful group of people in "the community" at large. But times change.

Lost in The Mix

I'm not sure what happens to PAMs and PALs and MVPs.

I assume PAMs just stop paying attention to the smallest registered partners and focus on certified only. That's okay because, to be honest, any registered partner that engaged with Microsoft at a significant enough level to deserve a PAM became a Certified Partner. If you don't use free resources, you can't complain too loudly when they're taken away.

As for PALs and MVPs, I just don't know. They seem to be 100% left out of the loop on all of this. Microsoft has always taken their advice, added a grain of salt, and done what's in Microsoft's best interest. That's the way it works. This is not a democracy. If you're a PAL or MVP, you exist to promote Microsoft's best interest. If you got confused about that somewhere along the way, it's not Microsoft's fault.

I'm sure someone at Microsoft has a plan for what happens next with PALs and MVPs. At this point, I haven't talked to anyone outside Microsoft that has a clue. And the only person I talked to inside Microsoft would only say, "Obviously there are changes coming."


The Very Very Good News

In the end: All of this amounts to great news for you - and huge opportunities to make money.

I'm not kidding. In my next blog post I'll tell you why the current environment is the absolute best chance for you to make money in IT consulting since the glory years of 2003-2008.

Life is good. Business is about to get great.

Please also see the following posts:
How to Make Money in IT Consulting in 2012
Microsoft Announced the End of SBS, Surprising Absolutely No One 



  1. I do want to be very clear about the requirements for the new Small Business Specialist certification. The requirement is ONE MCP and only $999 is the introductory price. To the bar is not set too high and the price is reasonable.
    - kp

  2. For another perspective, check out Cliff Galiher's spective on the Third Tier blog:


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