An Inside Look at Microsoft's SP Program

Windows NT represents an opportunity for Microsoft to enter into the enterprise computing territory currently held by mainframes and minicomputers. The company has targeted this $50 billion market by offering a platform designed specifically for client/server computing. With BackOffice, Microsoft has created a minicomputer environment without the hardware. It's a radical departure from Microsoft's traditional area of expertise--the consumer and desktop applications market.

It's impossible for one company to build all of the mission-critical applications or provide all of the support required to make the Windows NT platform a commercial success. Microsoft needs an army of ISVs and support organizations--Microsoft Solution Providers (SPs).

I wanted to find out why organizations become SPs. What are the benefits and the opportunities? My journey started in Las Vegas at Fall Comdex 1994 at the Microsoft booth. Lining the huge booth were 75 SPs demonstrating their commercial solutions based on Microsoft's products. I asked several SPs what they thought of the program and of partnering with Microsoft. They were excited about it.

Later that evening, I attended an SP reception featuring Dwayne Walker, founder of the program. He spoke of the $50 billion opportunity and said, "If Microsoft gets only 10% of that business, it would double the size of the company. Our goal is to help you provide solutions. If we help you get rich, Microsoft will benefit as well." Ironically, Dwayne Walker left Microsoft in March of this year to become an SP himself.

During the reception I met Andrew Trawick from Intelisys, a Denver-based consulting company that provides solutions using Windows NT Server, BackOffice, and FoxPro.

How did you first hear about the SP program?

I met Dave Fester, a Microsoft consultant, at a trade show in the Denver area. Intelisys had just signed a contract to create a Donor accounting system for a non-profit organization, and we were evaluating tools. Dave suggested we use FoxPro because of its integrated development environment and database performance. He gave me the SP application and said that the SP program was the best way to get Microsoft support for the new project.

Why did you decide to sign up?

New business leads and 24-hour priority support. Potential customers call and talk to someone on the SP staff who passes the lead on to three SPs in the caller's geographic area.

What was involved in becoming an SP?

We filled out the application and included a check. As an SP, we had to have one Microsoft-certified professional on staff. There is a 90-day grace period in which to get someone trained by a Microsoft-certified training organization. That person must pass an exam in one area of specialty; ours is in Windows for Workgroups.

I understand that there is also a Microsoft Solution Partner program that requires you to have two MCSEs (Microsoft Certified Service Engineers). \[Editor's note: An MCSE is certified in at least six areas of specialty (e.g., SQL Server, Exchange, etc.)\] Solution Partners are assigned a specific SP representative, whereas Solution Providers get the first available SP rep. \[Editor's note: The cost for either program is $1995 and requires acceptance by Microsoft.\]

Is the SP program worth the money?

Oh yes, definitely! About a month after I sent in the application, we received our SP Welcome Kit. The software alone was worth the fee.

We receive an SP package every month. It includes the TechNet CD, beta and released software like BackOffice and NT Server, white papers, and marketing material on CD that helps us put proposals and presentations together. The SP CD contains a database of PowerPoint presentations and Word for Windows documents created by Microsoft and other SPs.

What do you see as the benefits?

Great support. You get a special 800 number that you can call 24 hours a day. The security is tight. You're required to enter your SP password before getting access to the support staff.

Another benefit is access to beta versions of Microsoft software. Intelisys was accepted into the beta program, and we're now receiving beta copies of FoxPro, Windows NT, Windows 95, etc. We look really good to our clients because we can demonstrate the software and help them make future buying decisions.

Had any leads from the program?

We have received several leads, but so far, none of them has resulted in new business. However, our biggest proposal yet is being reviewed by a company referred by (800)SOL-PROV.

Any changes you would like to see?

We would like a little more clout with people inside Microsoft. We're trying to work with the SP rep in charge of the health-care vertical market to put together some seminars directed at Health care systems decision makers. Overall, though, we're pretty satisfied with the program.

After talking with Trawick, I was convinced that Windows NT Magazine should become an SP. I wanted to see for myself what it was like. So I called and asked for an application and waited. Two weeks later, I had not received the application. So I called again. Two days later, two copies arrived. Filling the application out was fairly straightforward, but I had a few questions. The SP staff member was very helpful, and we were approved.

Christmas in February
When the SP Welcome Kit arrived, the entire IS department hovered over it like kids on Christmas morning. I was impressed with the amount of software, marketing materials, and other items. It was well organized. Within hours, the box was empty, and CD drives were spinning with the new "toys."

Since then, I've met several other satisfied SPs. One of them is Patrick Higbie from DataFocus, Inc. in Fairfax, Virginia. DataFocus is a member of the Solution Partner program. I recently talked with Higbie about the program.

Have you received any leads from the Solution Partner program?

We have received a substantial amount of new business. It is our consulting business model. It's not the money up front that brings in the leads; that just gets you in the game. We are investing heavily with Microsoft sales and consulting forces. We help Microsoft sell its products and satisfy its customers. You create personal relationships. That's what brings in the new business.

How much have you invested?

We have invested heavily in training our people. We now have eight or nine MCSEs. It's part of our credibility. Microsoft sincerely wants to create opportunities for its partners. It's not trying to compete with you but really treats you like a partner. Microsoft's product line is so broad that you have long-term opportunities to take advantage of the relationships that you build. And Microsoft is constantly releasing new products that require customers to seek assistance from SPs.

Got any advice for future SPs?

They need to keep up! When the paradigm shifts, the early adopters will do well. Novell and UNIX players should take NT very seriously. We believe that NT will be the standard architecture for distributed enterprise computing. NT has more capabilities, leading to a lot more business opportunities.

The environment is becoming more and more distributed; communications between machines are becoming occasional rather than persistent. Messaging will be a key enabling technology because it supports this occasional-connection communications model.

The model for client/server is going to change before our eyes. The number of servers used will increase dramatically. Each client will be attached to multiple servers--not necessarily all the time--and messaging will be an important protocol between clients and servers and among servers. Each company will need a secure, private network with no fear of outside intrusion.

Windows NT is going to be the standard, and it's going to be a large market. Pick a niche, and be the best at it.