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Change Agents: Juniper's Efforts To Build A World-Class Channel Program

Since Tushar Kothari joined Juniper from Cisco last July, he and his lieutenants at this plucky David have been singularly focused on one big thing: building a world-class partner program that will bring the company the name recognition and, perhaps more important, the market share enjoyed by networking Goliath Cisco Systems.

On a dreary Friday afternoon in March, a group of Juniper Networks employees gather at Arrivederci & Bella, a large, dimly lit, nautical-meets-Italian-themed restaurant that looks out over the bay about 30 miles south of San Francisco. The 15 or so Juniper folks are there to celebrate, sort of. The occasion: a wonkish event that only true industry insiders could appreciate--the completion of a project to make their M-Series routers "channel-ready."

The attendees hail from two distinct parts of the company: Some are from the channel and business-partner team responsible for product sales and distribution, while the others are product-marketing types who spend their days trying to promote the technology.

Despite the abundance of food on the menu, the tempting bottles on the wine list and the imminent weekend, no one is getting too rowdy. The Juniper managers have planned a post-lunch round of fun in the form of go-cart racing, but relentless rain outside has jeopardized that plan. As the lunch winds down, the group, led by Juniper channel chief Tushar Kothari, discusses what else they might do to prolong the celebration, but few suggestions are forthcoming. Welcome to a blow-out, over-the-top party, Juniper style.

What Juniper lacks in flash, it more than makes up for in production. Since Kothari joined Juniper from Cisco last July, he and his lieutenants at this plucky David have been singularly focused on one big thing: building a world-class partner program that will bring the company the name recognition and, perhaps more important, the market share enjoyed by networking Goliath Cisco Systems.

During this time, Juniper has opened its doors to VARBusiness to observe the company, its people and its efforts. For six months, the magazine has enjoyed unprecedented access to a wide variety of closed-door meetings, internal and external briefings, and strategy sessions where Juniper's channel team has worked feverishly with its product, marketing and financial teams to create that world-class program.

Now, as the company begins to roll out the fruits of its labor, we can finally report what we observed firsthand, including the challenges Kothari and his colleagues face, the decisions they have to make, and the way they work. The result is a uniquely intimate look at what might just be the prototypical, post-boom, Silicon Valley company, one that eschews hype and glitz to produce predictable, positive results with yeoman consistency.

Starting From Scratch, Almost

There are times in the life of a hot Valley company when nothing seems to stop it. Think Apple in the 1980s, Netscape in the 1990s and Google today. That's the kind of roll Juniper's approaching right now. In two years, the company has more than doubled its revenue to $1.3 billion. Losses posted in 2001 and 2002 have been completely erased, and last year the company generated roughly $1 in profit from every $10 that it sold. As for its share price, it, too, has doubled in the past two years.

The company's channel-management team is also on a roll. In barely two years, a mere 10 months with Kothari at the helm, it has transformed the company's sales model from 64 percent indirect in 2002 to 75 percent indirect last year, with an eye toward running 100 percent of business through the channel as soon as possible.

It's a time when even mistakes or setbacks seem to have a silver lining. At a recent off-site partner advisory council meeting, for example, two Juniper channel execs had their laptop computers stolen from their hotel minutes before they were scheduled to deliver a key PowerPoint presentation to their top partners. Steve Pataky, Juniper's marketing director for worldwide channels, thought his work was lost, but he and his colleagues buckled down and quickly rebuilt the presentation in time for their session. "It was a major headache, but it taught us a hard lesson about having backups," Pataky says.

This may have been the biggest bump in the road that Juniper's partner team has encountered since Kothari's arrival last summer. Recruited from rival Cisco after a long vetting process, Kothari was essentially told to do whatever he felt necessary to build a world-class program. "When I got hired, I went to my boss and asked how many open recommendations I'd have [to hire a channel team]," Kothari says. "Their response was, 'We've done our homework on you, and we're giving you carte blanche,' which allowed me to bring in very capable people to work with and build a team very quickly."

Kothari has assembled a group that comprises other Cisco veterans, including Bob Bruce, vice president of Americas channels, and Carolyn Crandall, who managed distribution at Cisco for eight years. The team also includes Donna Grothjan, who left Ingram Micro after 16 years to become the company's vice president of channels. Rounding out the team are Pataky, director of customer service Barry McPherson, global channel marketing manager Doug Erickson and vice president of marketing Christine Heckart. Does that mean the team's complete and no one's doing someone else's job now? "No one's doing two jobs now," Kothari says, with a laugh. "We're all doing five."

Juniper CEO Scott Kriens says the free reign he gave Kothari has paid off. "The results we've had so far speak to how well he has built the channel team," he says. "He was able to bring hundreds of years of experience to the table very quickly."

Though he was given carte blanche, Kothari didn't exactly start with a blank slate. When he arrived, the company had a fledgling J-Partner program that was largely based on the successful channel program built by NetScreen, which Juniper acquired in 2004. But Kothari and his team began revamping it right off. "We did some reconciliation work to put together our legacy-focused carrier company with the VAR-focused NetScreen," McPherson says. "We started to do that before Tushar arrived to provide a vision for a worldwide channel program, but once he got here, he backed up and took a broader look at what we want to do."

The Plan In Motion

When enticing resellers to go with Juniper, the company's channel team tries to strike a balance by making it easier for partners to qualify for its program without having the entire channel rushing to sign up. For example, the company made the decision early on to recognize Cisco certifications rather than making partners requalify. "We're late into the router game, so it's ludicrous to tell them to get all new Juniper certifications," Pataky says. "By giving them credit for Cisco certifications and doing gap training, it quick-starts them and us and provides investment protection." (According to Juniper, about 90 percent of its partners also partner with Cisco.)

That doesn't mean any VAR can qualify for the program. "We try to find the hybrid 'super' solution provider who can add value," McPherson says. "If you're just a box-pusher, you probably won't get into our program." Even with this screening process, the company has added approximately 1,000 new partners since October.

This suits partners just fine. Dan Wilson is vice president of vendor relations for Accuvant, a security reseller and consultant in Denver, and a member of Juniper's partner advisory board. Wilson says the company's selectivity has him optimistic about Accuvant's potential in the program. "They've drawn nice lines between the partner levels, and they want value, not volume, though there's probably a place for both," he says. "If training were the only barrier to entry, any Cisco VAR could automatically be a Juniper partner, which is why the elite levels are invitation-only."

Once partners are in the program, Juniper will create a system designed to make their daily lives run as smoothly as possible. The company has roughly 50 channel account managers who work with partners to plan two to four quarters out, and they also have added a number of subtle techniques to the program that they hope will relieve some standard reseller headaches. These include encouraging partners to establish better relationships with their distributors, having distributors honor VAR-generated order ID numbers, simplifying the purchasing process by aggregating orders whenever possible, helping partners generate contacts and leads, and giving elite partners exclusive access to some products in exchange for adding value to them via services or bundling. Juniper also fulfills 100 percent of its orders through the channel and claims to have no designs on expanding its services business at the expense of partners.

"We don't want to undermine the channel and give the impression that they can put together a deal and we come in and take it direct," says Kothari's boss, Jim Dolce, Juniper's vice president of worldwide field operations.

Together, these qualities have resulted in positive feedback from J-Partner's "early adopters." One of these is CSCI, a security-focused systems integrator and managed-services provider in San Diego. CSCI came to Juniper as a NetScreen partner just as it did with Compaq when HP bought the PC-maker several years ago.

"After that acquisition, HP listened to us and brought us along in their program; Juniper is a miniversion of that," says CEO Rich Tear. "A year ago, I didn't know a damn thing about Juniper. But they're willing to give back what you put into it, and they've been very helpful [about] how I can be a better MSP; they're really thinking outside the box on that."

Channel-Focused, Channel-Friendly

Rewind to mid-January at Juniper's headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif., the heart of Silicon Valley and, truth be told, the heart of an area brimming with once-booming, now frequently deserted, buildings and office parks. The company's main campus has three low, wide office buildings, one of which has basketball and volleyball courts that a Juniper spokesperson swears get used regularly, though all evidence is to the contrary.

Inside, the decor is largely glass, steel and blonde wood, sleek and modern but without a lot of dynamism. Behind the keycard-protected doors are acres of half-full farms of cubicles. Juniper isn't dour, but it is bland. The primary source of color is found in the generic modern art prints and photos, furnished by a corporate art supplier, that line the walls. Dot-com era start-ups were notorious for offbeat qualities like foosball tables, skateboarding employees and raucous work environments. There's little of that here; the decibel level throughout most of the campus makes a library seem like a gymnasium.

Inside one of the glass-walled conference rooms called the Amazon--they are all named after famous bodies of water--another in a seemingly endless series of meetings is under way. Today's topic: the partner portal. Inside the room are five people. They are joined on the phone by a caller from Europe. As in many meetings at Juniper, it's difficult to tell who's in charge, but that's not to suggest chaos. It's a by-product of the company's flat hierarchy, in which everyone shares an equal voice and ownership of his or her corner of the J-Partner program.

The discussion digs deep into the most granular levels as the attendees discuss such issues as whether to include model numbers on this form or that one, which e-mail address a J-Partner applicant should use and what calling an application "complete" truly means. In the midst of this, the voice on the phone warns of possible burnout among the IT staff. "At some point, we need to take a breather because we're starting to kill people," he says. "We need to get out of being reactive and stick to the six-to-nine-month plan for getting things done." The others briefly acknowledge his concern and move on.

Like many groups, Juniper's channel team is largely reflective of its leader. Kothari may lack the voluble personality of Symantec's Allyson Seelinger or IBM's Frank Vitagliano, the imposing presence of Cisco's Paul Mountford or Microsoft's Allison Watson, or the back-slapping sales vibe you get from Cisco's Chuck Robbins and Edison Peres (something Juniper's gregarious Bruce possesses in spades). In fact, some have speculated that one of the reasons Kothari didn't move farther up the channel food chain at Cisco was because he simply didn't fit in as well as the others; it's practically impossible to imagine him hamming it up onstage in all-black rock-star attire, as some Cisco executives did at their April partner conference in Vancouver.

What Kothari does have is a reticent quality that seems like shyness at first, but, in fact, is really a steady confidence that propels him and his team to tackle hurdles big and small in the same measured, focused way. Make no mistake: The IT staff building the portal may have been flirting with burnout, but they hit their deadlines. At Juniper, they've coined a phrase, "Tushar Time," to let each other know when a deadline is particularly crucial.

"'Tushar Time' means it needed to happen yesterday," Pataky explains with a laugh. "At one point, it had a nice connotation, but now it's, 'Oh my God, it's Tushar Time!'"

The transformation of Juniper's rudimentary partner program into a global one within nine months of Kothari's arrival was done on Tushar Time, which has made Kothari very proud indeed. "Our execution has been very good because I brought a lot of experience with me," he says, unable to resist a subtle dig at his former employer. "The biggest thing I've learned is that I don't always know what to do, but I always know what not to do, which has been very valuable."

One thing Kothari has decided not to do is offer rebates to partners. Many partners of other vendors, Cisco's especially, have grown accustomed to them, but Kothari is philosophically opposed to the concept. "Rebates are medicine for a disease we don't have," he says. Another disease Juniper is striving to avoid is channel conflict. Crandall, for example, who jumped from Cisco to Juniper last December to help manage J-Partner's systems integrators, says her new company's two-tier program has effectively reduced conflict thus far.

But not everything has gone smoothly. Integrating the NetScreen partners with Juniper's pre-existing channel has been one of the biggest challenges, especially among lower-level partners. "The NetScreen support structure was geared to react quickly to customer needs, but it wouldn't scale over time," McPherson says. "Some lower-level partners don't need the same access to some features of our support, and some still want access but don't want to qualify for it, so some of the NetScreen partners have realized that they have to evolve to more results-driven behaviors."

The truth is, Juniper isn't doing anything radically different in constructing J-Partner; it's merely stripping away the superfluities that befall a lot of cumbersome channel programs and streamlining its operations into something that's navigable. And it encourages the partners themselves to innovate.

Gary Fish is president and CEO of FishNet Security, an integrator in Kansas City, Mo. The one-time NetScreen partner says he hasn't actually seen many changes yet from Juniper, but was pleased with how smoothly the company helped him transition over from the acquired company.

"The ultimate driver for us is what technology our customer base is asking for, but the compelling reason to leave a relationship with a vendor is because they have a poor channel program," Fish says. "Juniper is not really doing that many unique things with its program, but they are doing an equally fantastic job as anyone else who has a good partner program."

Always Be Executing

While Juniper's ambitions are spectacular, its methods for achieving them are not. Six months spent inside the company leaves an impression of steady, almost mundane, consistency and execution. Juniper managers set goals, meet their deadlines, identify new objectives and don't rest on their laurels. There are no big egos hijacking meetings or storming from conference rooms in a huff; to this point, they're all on the same page.

Moving along to late March, Kothari sits down with CEO Scott Kriens to update him on J-Partner's progress. The two meet like this once or twice per quarter, but have little day-to-day contact; to wit, a moment after the meeting starts, Kriens interrupts Kothari to clarify why there's a reporter in the room.

With the company's partner conference approaching in May, Kothari is getting Kriens up to speed on all that has been accomplished and what he needs from the CEO to prepare for the event. The presentation is measured, almost formal; Kothari has prepared PowerPoint slides for Kriens to review, and much of the conversation is a fairly elementary discussion of partner programs in general.

"How do you measure how many partners you need?" Kriens asks.

"It's a dynamic thing," Kothari explains. "As long as you keep the sales practices clean and set the rules of engagement early, all the partners will add to a sustainable and profitable model."

Kothari tells Kriens that after the May show in Vegas, there will be others in Italy and Asia. "If it's Italy in the summer, I'll go," Kriens jokes. "I can survive that." They discuss what types of awards the channel team is preparing for the Vegas event--since it's their first partner conference, none--and Kriens asks if there will be a QandAmp;A forum for partners to grill Juniper executives.

The meeting concludes with Kothari showing Kriens the company's latest print ads and a brief discussion of the success of their unique branding campaign (see "A Comical Approach To Selling," page 30). Kriens is pleased with the results, but says he thinks the company is doing well for simpler reasons. "It's interesting to see the payback from the brand investments we've made," Kriens says, "but when I recently asked a customer why he does business with us, he said, 'Because you do what you say you're going to do.'"

That's Juniper in a nutshell. The company lays out plans big and small and completes them one by one, quickly and efficiently, with minimal conflict and even less flash. During the entire six months VARBusiness spent as a fly on the wall at Juniper's headquarters, by far the most colorful display put on by the company happened in Las Vegas in May, at the much-anticipated partner conference. Juniper hosted roughly 300 of its top partners for one day at the plush Bellagio Hotel, putting on a playful show that used the company's unique branding methods to sell the partners on why they should believe that Juniper will be the industry's next great channel company.

Emceed by Bruce, the program included a two-part spoof of the David Letterman show, dropped in between presentations by Juniper executives, that included comic bits, interviews with company executives, even a Top 10 list. The send-up could've been an outright bomb, but its clever conception succeeded, thanks largely to the performance of the celebrity impersonator. Even the Juniper execs got in on the fanciful act, eschewing PowerPoint almost entirely and concluding each of their speeches by figuratively laying a "paver"--inscribed with qualities such as "team engagement," "we listen" and "integrity"--onto a cartoon screen behind the stage that, when completed, showed partners a yellow brick road leading to a sunny, promising alternate route.

Kriens ended the day with an off-the-cuff address--part invitation, part challenge--to the partners, asking them to engage with the company on all levels and challenging them to strive for true innovation and excellence in bringing more value-adds to customers. "We're the ones who are laser-focused on the safety and satisfaction of users; people don't like important problems solved casually," he says. "If you see us acting ineffectively, step in and tell us. We can't create a win for Juniper unless it's preceded by a win for you."

Bottom line, it's all about that laser focus. It's why Juniper could create a global channel program almost from scratch within nine months. It's why it moved from not even on the map in the eyes of some VARs to their most crucial vendor partner within a year. It's why it can entice respected industry veterans with no compelling reason to switch jobs to come to Sunnyvale and take a shot at doing something great. "It has been a very comfortable transition for me," says Grothjan, a well-respected fixture at Ingram Micro who relocated from Southern California to become Juniper's vice president of channels. "In looking at Juniper and where they're heading and knowing of Tushar's presence here, that all made it an easy decision for me."

That focus is why on that dreary Friday afternoon, at the tail end of a celebration lunch with the weekend just a few hours away and the go-cart racing rained out, after discussing whether to go bowling, maybe play pinball or do something else to prolong the festivities, the team came to a unanimous decision: They went back to work.

Birth of a Channel Company

2/04 Acquires NetScreen Technologies (completed 4/04)

3/04 NetScreen's partner program earns 5-star rating from VARBusiness

7/04 Hires Tushar Kothari, unveils J-Partner program

7/04 Kothari hires Bob Bruce

9/04 Begins training partners for J-Partner program

10/04 Formal J-Partner launch/road show

11/04 Kothari hires Donna Grothjan

12/04 Appoints Bob Dykes CFO and EVP, business operations

12/04 Kothari hires Carolyn Crandall

1/05 Launches J-Partner in EMEA region

2/05 Launches J-Partner in Asia Pacific region

3/05 Announces federal J-Partner program

3/05 Acquires Kagoor Networks (completed 5/05)

4/05 Acquires Peribit Networks and Redline Networks (Redline completed 5/05)

5/05 First annual J-Partner program; announces Service Affiliation and Enterprise Infranet programs

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