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How to maintain healthy relationships with small security vendors

When selecting a small security vendor to work with, the wrong choice can lead to a soured relationship and loss of profit. Learn what to look for in a small security vendor and how to keep your relationship healthy and profitable.

If you're anything like most of the value-added resellers (VARs) I know, your time is precious, and you don't have enough of it. You also have finite space on your line card. So how do you decide which security products to carry and, more specifically, which vendors to work with?

Lots of security startups are coming to market with a channel-only model. It seems like a politically correct sales strategy nowadays. Give some margin to the channel, and VARs and service providers will help establish the company and accelerate adoption of the new product. That's the thinking anyway.

It's not unusual for sales folks who have been successful with products from security channel dominators like Check Point, Nokia and NetScreen/Juniper to appear on your doorstep with brand-new business cards from a startup. The first calls they make are to their old reseller buddies -- you have just got to see the widget produced by their new company. (Thanks to voicemail, you don't have to take these calls all day.)

What to do? Can you ignore them, given how much business you've done with them at their former employer and your desire to maintain a healthy relationship? There are so many small companies with bad ideas and even less interesting products that you'll most likely be disappointed by their pitch. You might as well flush that time down the toilet. You're not getting it back.

But your folks raised you right. You know it's not polite to just ignore an old friend, so you've got to hear them out. But that doesn't mean you need to pay much attention to their pitch, either.

Odds are the market for the startup's product is early, and there's little market pull for it. If you focus a lot of resources on this new product, you're going to be in the trenches with them evangelizing. Evangelizing may be fun, but it doesn't pay.

You know as well as I do that the vendor's sales reps get paid through those early days. The vendors expect it to take a while to get the first few customers. But as a VAR, that doesn't put money in your pocket, does it? You only get paid if you sell something, so spending too much time evangelizing can be a lethal error.

Security reseller concerns
Read more advice for security resellers from Mike Rothman.
I suggest you focus on deal flow. That is the only currency that really matters. Sure, their widget is shiny and smells nice. But who wants to buy it? Have them bring a deal and then you'll talk. By the way, the vendor sales guys hate this approach. They would much rather just show up with a box and have you start moving huge numbers of units.

But do be careful. It's very easy to mismanage expectations. Most of these reps have forgotten what it was like to build a market. When they were with their former big employer, they got lazy. They expect that you'll just walk them into your customers' sites and get the ball moving. To be clear, that won't and shouldn't happen.

So whom do you take them to see? Take them to your lunatic fringe. Every VAR has a set of customers who are tinkerers. These are the guys that don't necessarily test the products out at work; they do it on the weekend. The ones that have no issue jumping off the cliff without being sure where they are going to land. These folks love to hear about new stuff and play around with it. So you bring the startup in to see these guys. That's maybe a handful of customers. I would not bring them in to see everyone. You'll just irritate your customers and frustrate the rep.

Who knows? Your customer may even buy something. Stranger things have happened. At the very least, they'll give you great feedback on whether the new product is ready for primetime or whether it's something to put on the back burner.

After bringing the reps to the early adopters, you wait. The startup will either bring you deals or won't.

This strategy allows you to sit on the fence. If the market for the sales rep's product develops, you can still maintain your position as a go-to partner, without expending a lot of effort or annoying a lot of your customers. It's nice to have your cake and eat it too.

About the author
Mike Rothman is President and Principal Analyst of Security Incite, an independent information security research firm. Having spent over 15 years as an end-user advocate for global enterprises and mid-sized businesses, Mike's role is to educate and stimulate thought-provoking discussion on how information security contributes to core business imperatives. Prior to founding Security Incite, Mike was the first network security analyst at META Group and held executive level positions with CipherTrust, TruSecure, and was a founder of SHYM Technology. Mike is a frequent contributor for TechTarget and a highly regarded speaker on information security topics.

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