The role of the channel was, traditionally, to expand the sales reach of an IT company. Putting more "feet on the street" to help sell IT products that were well established, perhaps even commoditized, was the goal.
But talk to channel chiefs today and it's clear those days are gone. IT vendors with groundbreaking technology are engaging with the channel earlier and increasingly counting on partners to not just sell leading-edge products and services, but even serve as an evangelist for those products and help customers get the maximum value from them.
Take big data software developer Hortonworks, which launched its Partnersworks channel program one year ago. "We have a leading-edge technology," said Chris Sullivan, senior vice president of global channels and alliances. The company has been recruiting solution providers who are capable of working with Hortonworks' software to help customers solve challenging data transformation problems.
"That's a complex thing," Sullivan said. "But it's also a tremendous opportunity."
Startup Cohesity is likewise relying heavily on its partners to evangelize the value of its hyper-converged secondary storage systems. "Partners are so eager for an alternative to the legacy vendors," said Joe Barnes, head of worldwide channels for the company.
For its part, CRM application developer SugarCRM now derives about two-thirds of its revenue through the channel. But it's not the volume that matters. SugarCRM enlists partners with deep expertise in CRM technology, in specific vertical industries, and/or in business processes.
"Our reseller ecosystem has been very strategic for us," said Clint Oram, SugarCRM's co-founder, chief marketing officer and channel chief. "We see that a way to differentiate ourselves is to have a very vibrant ecosystem of implementation partners and technology partners."
One good example is the exploding IT security industry where startups today are quick to engage with the channel to help customers implement leading-edge security technology. In recent months security startups like ThreatTrack Security, Menlo Security and SecurityScorecard have all launched partner programs with an emphasis on recruiting, training and enabling partners who can sell state-of-the-art security solutions.
Given the heightened expectations for solution providers, it's not surprising to hear that partner needs for enablement, training and support are much higher today. And vendors are responding with expanded programs and training curriculum for partners.
Take Silver Peak, a developer of software-defined WAN technology. Last year the company developed a go-to-market strategy around a core set of partners with deep expertise in SD-WAN technology. The company introduced extensive SD-WAN training and certification for partners and drove SD-WAN opportunity awareness through a series of educational seminars and webinars.
And the heightened expectations work both ways. Talk to channel chiefs today and you'll hear many say they are emphasizing partner quality over quantity. Rather than touting how many partners they recruit, some even brag about how many solution providers they've cut from their partner rosters.
Cohesity is committed to a 100-percent channel model. But the company has recruited only about 100 partners in North America and 25 in Europe. "We're being somewhat selective now," Barnes says.
About 80 percent of SugarCRM's channel revenue comes from its top 50 channel partners, Oram told CRN.
So which channel chiefs do solution providers need to know in today's fast-changing industry? Here we present the 2017 Channel Chiefs, CRN's annual list of the top channel executives and what they've been doing to ready their channel programs for 2017.
Our 50 Most Influential Channel Chiefs of 2017, designated with a star on the following pages, are an elite group drawn from the larger pool of Channel Chief honorees each year that represent the cream of the IT channel crop – leaders who drive the channel agenda and evangelize the importance of channel partnerships.