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Channel executive veteran Bob Skelley has learned a lot about the vendor-partner relationship during the past 15-plus years while working at Dell, EqualLogic and Microsoft Corp. In April, he assumed the title of vice president of global channel with 4-year old storage accelerator vendor Infinio Systems Inc. He's charged with moving the company away from a direct sales model and towards a channel-first sales strategy.
This is the first time SearchITChannel has chatted at length with Skelley since he left Dell in April 2015 where he served for the previous 10 months as executive director, North American channel sales. He was promoted to that position after serving as executive director, Global Certified Partner Program and channel programs at Dell for more than six years.
Why did you leave Dell?
Bob Skelley: This was the right opportunity at the right time for me. I was excited to get back to something I could have more of an impact on. It's a smaller start-up environment. I loved my experience at EqualLogic, I loved my years at Dell, but I was ready to go back to an opportunity where I could have a really big material impact on the company and do the things I knew that I needed to do, make the investments that I needed to make to build a world-class channel ecosystem and a good place to do it.
That coupled with the leadership team that's here and the technology … because I've talked to a lot of companies over the years … but the combination of what I wanted to do next and the technology and leadership team that was here was just a really good fit.
What channel strategy was in place at Infinio Systems?
Skelley: Before I joined a couple of months ago, it was primarily a direct model. There were a couple of reasons for that: The product was engineered for one particular type of storage -- file system storage -- and we were launching our 2.0 software, which supported iSCSI and Fibre Channel. So at the timing of my arrival, in April, we were launching version 2.0, which took the addressable market and multiplied it by five to 10 times.
The customer market is really the midmarket storage arena. The hybrid storage market is the space that we can now address with our solution.
So you were brought in to develop the company's channel strategy and put together the pieces to make it work?
Skelley: Yes. The strategy, our channel go-to-market model, partner recruitment and on boarding, training and nurturing … even things like helping internal sales people understand the most effective way to engage and work with the channel.
And you said that Infinio Systems now has a channel-first market strategy?
Skelley: Yes, that's a big part of it. And, there are several things that make building a channel-first strategy effective.
The first is to have a really good understanding of the channel ecosystem and the channel partners that you're going to be working with. So, with that understanding … What is the value proposition? Why is this something that's worthwhile for a partner to take on and add to their portfolio? And making sure that you build a program that rewards the partner community on balance with the requirements to sell and be successful with that solution.
What elements are required to build a channel program?
Skelley: First and foremost on many channel partner's priority list is, "Can I be profitable with this solution?" So you have to build a financial model that rewards the partner and provides the right level of profitability for them so that it's a rewarding proposition for them. But it's not just the discounts and profit from that point of view, but it's also the soft costs, such as, "Are we easy to do business with? Is the addressable market such that I can go and find customers that will want this technology?"
Bob SkelleyVP global channel, Infinio Systems
So helping the partner understand how they'll make money, what the addressable market looks like and how they can go after that, having marketing capabilities to do that with them -- helping them build demand and grow the business; to have a discounting strategy that is rewarding and profitable for them; that you're helping them with the sales cycle and they're not left on their own; that there's sales support and that you're there to sell with them and help them close opportunities and bring business in … all of those things are a critical part of the decision for a partner to bring on any new technology.
Who is the target partner for the Infinio channel?
Skelley: Today, the target partner is the traditional and classic VAR [value-added reseller], regional in nature for the most part, has storage expertise, virtualization expertise [and] is focused at the midmarket primarily. But we do sell all the way up into the enterprise so having those capabilities isn't something that's not going to be utilized. This doesn't mean that we're not building relationships with traditional, large VARs with numerous branch offices or the direct market resellers, but the core channel ecosystem that we're embracing and going after relationships is that traditional, regional, midsize VAR.
What does your roadmap for building a channel look like?
Skelley: We've made pretty good progress so far. We've already got the foundation of our program -- what the program looks like, what benefits we will offer; we know the ecosystem that we're going after and we're already having meaningful dialogues with partners and have signed up several already. We have a marketing organization that is working very closely with us to put on events and do partner marketing campaigns with the partner community. And as we add partners and they have an interest in doing that, we're set up to start doing events with them.
We've developed what I'm calling an engagement blueprint in lieu of a partner portal for now. So there's not a dedicated portal. There's the Infinio portal and there are partner links off of that portal. But really, the most important thing for partners is to have the tools and resources that they need to be successful to grow the business.
The engagement blueprint takes the resources that they need -- how to work together, how to build demand, how to identify the right customers, and training and enablement resources -- they're all in one document with links to the resources.
When we get a big enough ecosystem to warrant a full partner portal we already have the groundwork done in terms of what needs to go on there. It's a matter of building out the interface and the dedicated portal section of our website, but that's down the road.
The last piece is sales engagement. We're already on a path to work with our existing sales team on the best way to engage, communicate, interact and collaborate with the channel. We're taking our sales team through a series of meetings. That's underway and will take several more weeks to complete.
We've already built a deal registration platform.
Any more info about the Infinio Systems partner program -- is it tiered?
Skelley: It's designed to be a tiered program over time. So we'll have three levels -- an authorized partner, premium partner and elite partner -- but we're bringing all of our partners in today at the premier level. And, they'll get all the benefits associated with that level.
Today, the program is built mostly on the benefits side of the equation. We haven't built out all of the requirements to maintain a partner's status in each of the three levels. As the ecosystem builds out and we get enough partners to warrant having to do that, we'll implement requirements in order to stay at that premier level and the things you need to do to move up to elite, and what you need to do to maintain the authorized level.
What are the challenges to building a channel at a start up?
Skelley: There's a lot to do for a young company. No. 1, you have to prioritize that you're doing the most important things first. There are so many things that we want to do and we can't do them all at once.
A second challenge is … we're recruiting partners, and, although my database of partners and the relationships I've built over the years is very deep, at the end of the day they still have to make a decision to bring on a new vendor relationship. The advice I've given them [partners] over the years and continue to give them is that you need to take that decision very seriously.
So, cutting through the noise -- whether that be from their existing vendor community or the other priorities they have for their business -- and becoming a priority that they want to invest in is hard. It's a challenge so that's one of the things we're really working hard at to be successful.
How will you gain confidence with partners who are looking for a long-term vendor relationship?
Skelley: There are several dimensions to that. First, of course, has to be that you gain confidence in the technology itself. If they don't believe that the technology has a place in the market and solves a problem, then as a vendor, you're not going to get very far.
That means making sure partners get hands on with the product and that we give them access to both engineering and sales people on our team to help coach and train them.
Step two is then showing them the vision and roadmap from both a company and engineering standpoint so that you build confidence for the long haul. That comes in many factors, as well -- from the product roadmap and leadership team, to the funding and working capital that you have, to the strategic relationships that you've built. All of these things help instill confidence in the long term feasibility of the company.
Also, making sure that you put together a program that's very partner-centric. That's where my team and I have a job to do in terms of building the right program.
Who else is on the channel team?
Skelley: I've added two people so far -- a program channel marketing person and a channel account manager. We'll continue to grow that as we build up the channel ecosystem.
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