So it’s Christmas morning, gifts have been opened, and family won’t be arriving for several hours yet, so I go to write. As I think about the great year wrapping up for us, and look forward to the even more promising year to come, I find myself reflecting on our current path, and how we got here. Maybe you’re interested, or maybe you’re not, I am writing this TLDR either way.
A Salesforce Sheep
As some of you know, we came to Microsoft after 10 years of being Salesforce.com consultants. My business partner at the time, was a Salesforce guru and rigid disciple. Me… I was a seller. We were Cloud CRM consultants when there was only one cloud CRM. I recall many conversations back then with business owners who were resisting BPOS, Google or even AWS, because of concerns about cloud security, and I remember thinking to myself, “You do realize that Salesforce is 100% cloud, running on AWS, right?”. But Salesforce had the momentum, Benioff was a master salesman, and many business leaders seemed to overlook, or were just oblivious to the whole “cloud” aspect.
Back around February of 2011, Microsoft launched Dynamics CRM Online. We had been somewhat familiar with Dynamics CRM as an on-premise product, but with the exception of large organizations, who had the IT resources to support the infrastructure, we did not run across it very often. Then suddenly, Microsoft was in the Cloud. Dynamics CRM Online was also introduced at $44/user. Uhoh, we better take a look at this. We signed up as a partner to check it out. As a Salesforce partner, our impression of Microsoft’s first stab at Cloud CRM was that it looked pretty feeble. My business partner in particular, thought it was actually laughable. But then, he was a Salesforce disciple. Similarly, my daughters think anything that does not have an Apple logo on it, is also garbage. I, however, am a seller. I don’t care what logo is on it. As a seller I am always looking for an angle to give myself an advantage, so I was looking at it differently.
As a Salesforce partner, in spite of our many years, we were not exceptional. We were nowhere near the strata of top Salesforce partners, we were floating in the middle of the pack. But, when I peeked over the fence at the new Microsoft CRM Online partner ecosystem, I saw literally no one. Dynamics had traditionally been an enterprise solution, mostly supported by big partners. This “Cloud” version was just too cheap and required too few resources to interest them, so they mostly ignored it. A light-bulb went off over my head, I was seeing an opportunity to move from being a Small fish in a Big Pond, to a Big Fish in a… Puddle… overnight. My partner reluctantly agreed that we would offer both platforms for a while and see where it went. He was thinking that we would convert any Dynamics leads into Salesforce customers. But remember, I was the seller.
For about 6 months, we presented ourselves as platform agnostic. Whatever your preference, Dynamics or Salesforce, we could help. We were on neither Microsoft’s nor Salesforce’s radar. As the person who talked to prospects, I started bringing up Dynamics to Salesforce leads. For many, the product was not mature enough for their needs, or they had fallen prey to the “everything else sucks” dogma, but for others, and mostly SMB, it was a much less expensive alternative, that still met their more basic needs. Suddenly, we started closing Dynamics CRM Online deals in SMB.
“Why is this guy from Microsoft calling me again?”
My past experience with a platform provider calling me was not good. On the rare occasion that a Salesforce person would call me, they were only fishing for information about a prospect of mine. I had learned that sharing this information with them, usually lead to us being kicked to the curb. And now Microsoft is calling me, no doubt for the same reason. We didn’t need Microsoft’s “help”, we are doing fine thank you. But this guy would not let up. Finally, guardedly, I take his call, and he says he will be in town and wants to take us to lunch. Ugh. I decide that we will go, but will turn the tables on him, and pick his brain for information this time… and we… will reveal nothing. BTW, out of respect for my Microsoft friends, I won’t be using their last names, it’s not that I want to play any gatekeeper role, but I don’t want you humping their legs and telling them “Steve sent me” either.
“Hi, I’m Todd, nice to meet you guys”, he says as we meet at a nice outdoor Italian restaurant that I picked because I knew it was expensive (a trick my Dad taught me to establish dominance in a meeting, along with taking the “Power” seat in the corner facing the door, which I promptly did). Todd was a “Partner Development Manager”, whatever that was. But as my business partner and I sat there, with our arms tightly crossed, Todd proceeded to do a very unusual thing, he did not ask us anything about who are prospects were, or what deals we were working on. Instead, all he talked about was us, and shared things that he could do for us. I remember looking at my partner, and both of us thinking we were on candid camera. Clearly this guy is full of shit, there is no way he is going to do any of this, there must be a catch. As lunch concluded, I suggested that Todd should leave a nice tip as I have a reputation to maintain. Sucker.
Microsoft is Two-Faced
Microsoft is an interesting company, on one level they are a world-class professional organization, on another, they are like kids in a candy store. This was before I understood their Score Card system. Unlike Salesforce, who treats partners like an annoyance, Microsoft is dependent on their partner ecosystem, and Microsoft spends a large amount of time planting seeds in their partners’ organizations. Seeds of things they would like for those partners to sell, like CRMOL. They sprinkle these seeds fairly evenly, until a few sprout… and then they dump all the remaining water on those. We sprouted.
Just like that, we are Microsoft’s new best friend, because we are selling a product they want to move, when few others are. Then they notice that we are also still offering Salesforce, and a frown starts forming across their face. Not wanting to see the buckets of water cease, I had to make a decision. It seemed obvious to me; on the one hand, we have this enormous company, seemingly desperate to make us a huge success, and on the other, we had a company that did not even know we existed. My partner saw it differently, he saw an immature platform, with no market share vs. the dominant market leader. So, I bought him out.
If there is one thing Microsoft likes, it’s logos. Microsoft will pull out all the stops to steal a big customer from a competing platform, so they can crow about it. It turns out, they also like stealing partners from competitors, and crowing about that also. Even if that partner is stuck with an unfortunate name, like Forceworks, that Salesforce never heard of. I was surprised at the time, how quickly we became a Microsoft poster-child for Dynamics CRM Online, and were put forth as a model for other partners to emulate. Sure, we had become pretty proficient with the platform, but we knew virtually nothing about Microsoft, or the mechanics of its partner network we had joined…yet.
The Microsoft Score Card
I became exposed to the Microsoft Score Card pretty quickly. Mainly because I am always wondering “what’s in it for you”, of anyone who is trying to help me. I have written about this in the past, as well as about how Microsoft moves the cheese for partners to where they want us to go. The Score Card is the Microsoft PSE’s cheese board. What I did not understand, at the time that we seemed to be getting too much unearned attention, was that with the launch of CRMOL, came a huge new metric on almost every Microsoft sellers’ score card for CRMOL. This was a classic case of being in the right place at the right time. I would like to say I planned it, but that would be disingenuous (a fancy word for lying). It’s funny, if you call someone a liar, they will be quite offended, but if you accuse them of being disingenuous, they seem to be okay with it.
A Walk about the Cloud
Todd was instrumental in getting us propped up in front of key people at Microsoft. As a fledgling partner, with a focus on CRMOL, we soon had a lot of Microsoft folks reaching out, most with red on their score cards. I have talked with Bob Stutz, Jujhar Singh, and host of others on the Dynamics team. Todd successfully politicized our way to a Partner of the Year award in 2014. I was asked to join Neil Holloway at WPC14, to speak to a group of Salesforce partners about our experiences with Microsoft. Things were going pretty awesome on this surreal ride we were on. Todd suggested that we should expand our offering to include Office 365… because all the cool kids were doing it. I looked at it and thought, “we are business applications guys, what do we know about that?”.
As it turned out, you did not really have to know much about Office 365 to sell and migrate customers to it, so we jumped in and sold about 10K seats pretty quickly. I even thought for a while that this might be an important path for us. While CRMOL was on the score card, and red, it was way lower down on the card than the Office 365 “Golden Goose”. But as more partners came on board, mainly because Microsoft was deputizing anyone with a pulse to sell Office 365, I saw that the margins would not hold, and since we did not possess any particular expertise, eventually we would land back in the middle of a pack again. We dabbled in Azure long enough to realize that we did not know our ass from a hole in the ground there, so we refocused all energies on CRM. As Business Process people we had no more business being in those areas than infrastructure, or managed services partners have in Business Applications. Our “walkabout” ended up being more of a stumble around diversion, but was behind us now.
Let’s Create some Noise
So, like I said, we seemed to be doing quite well with the SMB segment with CRMOL. Most partners were still ignoring it, so we were closing most of the deals that we came across, with no competitors in sight. Without much fear of competition, we were happy to assist Microsoft in trying to preach to other partners about starting a CRM practice. At some point you need more people talking about a product; even if they are potential competitors, just to make more noise in customer ears. I became, and still am, an evangelist, heavily engaged in partner-facing webinars and event presentations at successive WPCs, as well as MGX (Microsoft’s Internal Conference). The concept of partners “Starting a CRM practice” was proving to be more of a challenge than we all hoped. So we switched gears to Partner to Partner, without much more success. Microsoft had a hell of a lot more effort on this than just what they were doing with me, but this was a tough nut to crack.
In the Meantime, RapidStart emerges
While I was busy trying to create my own competitors, we were also growing our footprint in SMB with CRMOL. One thing we learning quickly about this segment, was that they don’t want to spend much money, which may also explain why nobody else was going after it. Individually, their budgets were small, but collectively, if you could capture them at scale, this was serious money. We needed a way to approach these customers with a lower cost, and more scalable, method of moving forward than the traditional long-term engagement route. If we were successful, we could own that segment.
When you think about the costs of providing services to customers, it mostly boils down to man-hours. So how could we reduce the man-hours significantly, while still meeting the SMB customers’ needs? To figure this out, we had to start by looking at what we were currently doing for them. The typical SMB customer seldom goes very deep with a feature, skimming the top really. So that was one factor. They also, taken in aggregate, seemed to do mostly very similar things with CRM. So that was another factor. More often than not, they deferred to us on how to move forward. A third critical factor. These factors lead us to the idea that “What if instead of asking them what they want, we just tell them what we know they need?” And what if we then offered a deployment model, for a limited scope, around only that pre-defined need? Could that work? Sure, it won’t fit every SMB, but it would fit a lot of them. So the first iteration of RapidStart was a set of spreadsheets, one for each of the 5 main COLAC entities, listing a reduced number of out-of-the-box fields and options, with a column for the customer to indicate changes they wanted on their own. We were able to offer this approach at a comparably low fixed cost, as it abstracted out many, but not all, of the typical man-hours. Even in its crude form, we started closing even more deals.
“Hey Steve, Microsoft is on the phone again”
When you are having a disproportionate amount of success on someone else’s platform, it does not take long for them to notice. I get a call from Michael, the Microsoft Global Lead for CRMOL for SMB. “So Steve, I hate to bother you, but would you mind sharing with me what exactly you guys are doing?” Still seeing few competitors in sight, I said “Sure”, and proceeded to detail our approach. Michael was one of those “Kids in a Candy Store”, with a huge score card metric around CRMOL in SMB, and no viable plan to erase the red. I could literally hear the gears turning in Michael’s head through the phone, when he suggested something that caught me completely off-guard. “What would you think about turning your approach into an ISV solution, that could be offered by other partners to help enable them to engage with CRMOL?” I said, “What is an “ISV”?”. Michael explained that there are thousands of Microsoft partners, all over the world, who are not selling CRMOL, because it is too hard, or various other reasons. I thought, “Thousands?”.
Betting the Farm
As a seller, and an entrepreneur, no matter how well things are going, I am never satisfied. Things were going great, we were setting the house on fire with CRMOL on our own, but… thousands? I called Michael back and said, “Talk to me”. He said that Microsoft would be very interested in supporting our efforts, to create a turn-key ISV solution, based on our successful model, that could move SMB CRMOL seats at scale, particularly through non-crm-selling partners. Exposure, introductions, money, whatever it took. Again, I had that sense of Déjà vu, this is too good to be true. Without really thinking this through, I blurted out “Hell Yes!”. Michael said, “Hold on, I am going to need you to commit to a few things first”. Ugh. Michael’s plan was that Microsoft would continue to pursue the “Start a CRM Practice”, and “Partner with a Partner” tracks, in spite of their dubious results, but would position us as a fallback for those who were not biting on the other tracks, he was going to call this track “Packaged Deployment”. I said, “how about we just call it RapidStart?”, so “Packaged Deployment” it would be. Ugh.
“So what are these “commitments”?”
“First, you would need to refactor what you are doing so that it could support “massive scale”
“As big as it could get”
“Second, it needs to be made in such a way that any partner could utilize it, without any prior knowledge of CRM”
“It would need to have a fixed selling cost of under $5K”
“You have to have it ready by WPC 15?”
“Lastly, you need to make it work in every language where we offer CRMOL”
“Ummm, can I get back to you on that one?”
One of the flaws of a true entrepreneur is that no matter how insane the request, we can never actually bring ourselves to say “No”. It was now about 90 days before WPC15, which was when Michael wanted to “Launch” his new “Packaged Deployment” concept to partners. Another thing I learned about key people at Microsoft, they all want to be internal “Heroes”, and seem to dream about walking through HQ and having Satya walk by and say “Nice job on that one, Bob”, “But, my name is Michael”, “Whatever”.
So I have decided that this post may actually be more of a ramble, and at this point I feel like I am only partway through what is turning into a short book. I obviously have no training as a writer, and really started blogging just as a way to vent excess stuff that was floating around in my head. Initially, no one was reading any of it, so I felt free to just say whatever the hell I wanted… like shouting into a closet. But it seems that some of my venting has struck an unexpected chord, and now there are a growing number of people in my closet. Suddenly, I feel some kind of obligation to you, though I don’t really know why. So my next post, could be a follow on to this one that I am thinking would start with “Refactoring RapidStart”. But, if you guys in my closet tell me that this boring, I guess I will respect that, and write about something else… though I really don’t know why.