As a tech or IT company, there’s a chance you’ve considered becoming part of the Microsoft Partner Network. After all, as a business owner, you have to consider all means of standing out from your competition. A gold certification from Microsoft certainly couldn’t hurt, right? But there’s a lot to consider. Chiefly, you have to look at the cost—a partnership fee is expensive in its own right, and keeping staff trained can also be a pricey proposition.
Is membership in the Microsoft Partnership Network (MPN) right for you? Let’s take a closer look at the issue.
What is the Microsoft Partner Network?
At its core, the Microsoft Partner Network is a program that offers tech companies a variety of resources so they can build their business around Microsoft technologies. Founded in 1992 as the Certified Solution Provider program, MPN gives companies a level of support past the Microsoft Certified Professional Certification by offering product licenses, technical support, and online training, as well as access to connect and collaborate within its partner ecosystem.
While the tools it offers can be almost invaluable—some partners get up to 100 individual-use licenses for programs such as Office 365 and Microsoft Azure, the company’s cloud-computing platform—entry into the upper tiers of the network requires a lot skill. In order to receive gold- and silver-level classification, companies have to earn competencies in specific areas, including cloud computing, data analysis, and productivity. Achieving those competencies isn’t cheap, either either: a gold competency in a specific area comes with a pricetag of more than $5,000.
But for many companies, it’s worth the cost and extra work. The network’s 60,000 partners—which include equipment manufacturers, software vendors, resellers, and telecommunications companies—are listed in the company’s Pinpoint directory, with gold-level members given the stand-out designation next to their company name. Network members also get access to the popular World Partner Conference, an annual four-day event hosted by the company.
The Varying Levels of Microsoft Partnership
Any organization can become a Microsoft Partner, it just takes some work. To qualify as a certified partner, companies must have primary function of selling, servicing, supporting, or building Microsoft-based solutions. They must also have a record of selling more than 75 percent of their IT services to unaffiliated third-party customers. A company needs to have been established for at least five years and have demonstrated skills in their field. But not all Microsoft Partners are created equal. While there are basic and free tiers available, preference is given to partner companies that earn competencies in specific areas—and obtaining a competency costs money. Let’s take a look at the different partner levels, and each level’s requirements and benefits, all of which the company maps out here.
- What it is: The top-tier competency for Microsoft Network Partners.
- Annual cost: $5,260 ($3,800 for small businesses)
- Sample requirements: Five customer references and four Microsoft Certified Professionals on staff, with two having completed business-focused competency assessments and two completing technical assessments. Most companies must also employ or contract with four Microsoft Certified Professionals who don’t count toward any other competency the partner has obtained.
- Sample benefits: Use of Microsoft partner logo; licensing, solution, and cloud incentives; use of partner marketing center; technical presales assistance; 50 partner advisory hours; 20 incidences of product support; unlimited support for cloud-performance competencies; up to 100 internal-use licenses per product; 10 Visual Studio Enterprise subscriptions.
- Summary: The up-front investment is large, but for a diligent, professional company, a gold competency could be a boon to business. In addition to the licensing, assistance, and advisory benefits the designation gives partners, the company announced in July that only gold-level partners would be able to use the Microsoft logo. (“If you earn gold, you’ve earned the right to have the Microsoft logo on your card,” a company vice president said at the time.)
- What it is: The tier down from gold, the silver competency still offers a way for companies to stand out from most of the competition and get access to product licenses, technical support, and training
- Annual cost: $1,850 ($1,490 for small businesses)
- Sample requirements requirements: Three customer references and two Microsoft Certified Professionals on staff, with one having completed a business-focused competency assessment and one completing a technical assessments Most companies must also employ or contract with two Microsoft Certified Professionals who don’t count toward any other competency.
- Sample benefits: Licensing, solution, and cloud incentives; use of partner marketing center; technical presales assistance; 20 partner advisory hours; 15 incidences of product support; unlimited support for cloud-performance competencies; up to 25 licenses per product; five Visual Studio Enterprise subscriptions.
- Summary: While silver partners no longer have access to the Microsoft logo for advertising purposes, the support and licensing benefits make it an attractive certification for companies that aren’t at the gold level.
- Annual cost: $475 (annual subscription)
- Core requirements: No customer references, but one technical assessment test.
- Sample benefits: Cloud incentives; use of partner marketing center; technical presales assistance; five partner advisory hours (after first cloud sales); 10 incidences of product support; up to 10 licenses per product; three Visual Studio Enterprise subscriptions.
- Summary: According to Microsoft, the Action Pack is an affordable yearly software-and-support package for companies that want to “want to begin, build, and grow their Microsoft practice in the cloud-first, mobile-first world.” This partnership tier offers enough licenses for a 10-person office a the full suite of Microsoft software to experiment with and demonstrate to clients.
- What it is: A no-cost means of getting some of program’s benefits
- Annual cost: Free
- Core requirements: None aside from completing a profile and agreeing to terms of service.
- Sample benefits: Access to network newsletters, eligibility for technical and business training through the Partner Learning Center, and access to Microsoft financing for customers.
- Summary: While missing out on most of the benefits included in the program’s premium partnerships, free-tier members do get a handful of perks that nonmembers miss out on. For a curious business, it likely makes sense to sign up.
But does the MPN Help Your Company?
It certainly appears that most Microsoft Partners think they’re getting their money’s worth. A June 2016 Microsoft-funded white paper completed by AMI Partners found that the network’s members reported more satisfaction and higher profitability than companies who used Microsoft’s chief rivals. Overall, 86 percent of Microsoft partners said they were satisfied with the profitability they achieve when partnering with Microsoft, compared with cloud-based competitors Google (83 percent) and Amazon (79 percent). That number jumped to 90 percent for partners who had achieved gold-level competency, the study found.
AMI also found Microsoft partners on average derive profit margins of roughly 43 percent, 19 percent higher than the figure for its next closest competitor. MPN members said that key profit drivers included more opportunities for attaching value-added services and prospects for bundling additional cloud products. Anecdotally speaking, partner companies have found great success with the network. On the MPN blog, 5nine Software vice president Symon Perriman said that the most valuable asset for his seven-year-old company has been the access to all-important Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) subscriptions.
“As our business grew and began offering more services, we needed to hire developers, write new code, and test it in simulated environments,” Perriman wrote. “This required software and user licenses for Visual Studio and our target platforms. With the MPN-provided MSDN subscriptions, we had full license keys for most Microsoft products, reducing our upfront licensing costs, and enabling us to do more, faster.”
Perriman also said the soft skills provided through the network have been invaluable for 5nine. In particular, the Microsoft resources helped the growing company’s sales efforts through training on sales tools and channels, how to build relationships with national sales teams, and more. But even with those benefits, there’s still a high cost. Speaking to Microsoft-focused trade magazine Redmond Channel Partner, Susie Ibbotson, vice president for marketing and alliances at Navantis Inc., said that maintaining the company’s 11 gold competencies and four silver competencies requires substantial annual investment—as much as $7,100 in exam fees and $70,000 in billable hours.
Despite the large investment, Ibbotson said that the training has helped the company attract more work and maintain a higher profile with Microsoft. “I’ve worked at a partner that had two competencies, and I’ve worked at a partner that has more than 10. We definitely get more attention with more competencies,” Ibbotson told RCP.
The ‘Evolving’ Slate of Competencies and the IoT
In April, Microsoft announced its MPN competencies will “evolve,” with several new areas of discipline joining the grouping and others getting retired. By October 2017, the MPN will have gone from having 29 distinct competencies to having seventeen. The changes take place over the remainder of 2016 and 2017. Notably, the retiring competencies include: customer-relationship Management (CRM), devices and deployment, digital advertising, software-asset management, OEM, and volume licensing. Microsoft urges companies that have completed affected competencies to visit Evolving MPN site to determine their best next steps.
Microsoft added a new Windows & Devices competency this past spring that is designed to help partners take advantage of the unprecedented demand the company is “seeing for Windows 10 and mobility,” the announcement said. That demand is creating an ecosystem of partners that includes developers, deployment-service firms, sellers, and experts focused on the Internet of Things. Microsoft believe the new competency will help companies that focus on Windows 10 to take advantage of the demand.
At the root of the changes, the company said, is the desire to partners better connect with customers. “We have a big, bold mission at Microsoft: Empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more,” Microsoft corporate vice president Gavriella Schuster said at the time of the announcement. “Realizing this mission takes creativity, determination, and you—our partners. For us to be successful together in this journey, it’s critical that we continuously evolve.”
The Microsoft Professional Degree Program
Creating a well-trained, high-functioning workforce that can meet the demands of the 21st century is chief among Microsoft and its partner’s goals. As a result, the company recently unveiled a new program at aimed at helping partners close the so-called skills gap for themselves and their customers. It will not only provide training, but also allow partners to create a profit-generating, learning-as-a-service business.
According to a company announcement, the update allows partners with a cloud competency to offer learning-as-a-service programs using Microsoft online courses and leveraging Open edX on Azure as a platform. Launched with a pilot focused on a data science, the program covers 10 online courses and labs and will provide course instruction and lab work expected to provide a boost for both young people looking to break into the field and mid-career professionals looking to sharpen existing skills and dive in on new areas. All 10 classes are free to audit, but it costs about $500 to complete the entire certificate-granting program.
Expect the résumé-enhancing program to grow beyond data science sooner rather than later, with the data-science degree becoming just one of many areas of study offered through the Professional Degree program. In August, the company said the nascent program has received “amazing” feedback surpassing even its most optimistic early prognostications. According to WinBeta, the company is expected to announce more courses at its Microsoft Ignite conference, which kicks off in Atlanta later this month.
Gavriella Schuster and the Cloud’s Potential for the Microsoft Partner Network
In June, Microsoft named Gavriella Schuster, a 21-year veteran of the company, corporate vice president for its Worldwide Partner Group. In the role, she’ll work to help the company’s partners transition to a new cloud-solution-based business model and grapple with upgrading to Windows 10, which was released in July 2015. Along with the new Microsoft Professional Degree program, Schuster has promised several improvements for the company’s partners. Along with branding updates aimed at helping its gold members, Microsoft will invest more capital in the network, doubling its investment in free software, cloud services, and platforms, as well as providing extra support for its 3,500 field employees.
While it’s early in her tenure, many of Microsoft’s partners think Schuster’s hire means good things for the network. That includes Ric Opal, the vice president of Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.-based Peters & Associates, who told CRN that Schuster is “unquestionably committed, aggressive, and just no-nonsense in her approach.” Expect that approach to focus heavily on cloud-computing and Microsoft Azure going forward. In her keynote address at the July partner conference, Schuster cited an International Data Corporation report that shows nearly 80 percent of customers are deploying cloud technology today and anticipates cloud spending will climb north of $500 billion by 2020.
Calling the “cloud the new normal,” she said that partners that see more than half of their revenue from the cloud are earning $5.87 for dollar of Microsoft services sold—40 percent higher than peers not invested in the cloud, she said. The cloud’s profitability is certainly reflected in the MPN’s competency tracks, which including cloud computing and cloud-platform competency. “Microsoft chose to embrace change, and our partners who have embraced the cloud have seen the payoff,” Schuster said.
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Written by Lorraine Tran and Macala Wright