CRN Exclusive: Fortinet CEO Sounds Off On CMO Exit, Talks Future Marketing Vision And Product Strategy

A Company In Transition

Last week, Fortinet partners were rocked by the news that the company's new Chief Marketing Officer, Holly Rollo, had resigned after only about seven months in the role. Partners had been thrilled with the appointment of Rollo in September, and now worry that her departure might put the company's long-awaited marketing strategy in jeopardy.

However, Fortinet CEO Ken Xie told CRN Monday that the network security vendor is more committed than ever to its investments in sales and marketing. Those investments will provide the most growth for the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based vendor and its partners, investments which he said are already starting to show a return on investment.

Take a look at what Xie had to say about the company's marketing strategy and what partners can expect to see in the months to come.

What is your message to partners concerned about CMO Holly Rollo's departure?

There is always going to be some changing in the chain, but that is because the way we are growing is very fast. We [are committed] to keeping the investment in marketing and sales … and at the same time leveraging the strong, differentiated product that we have, and the channel, the partners and support. That's where we will keep investing. ... At the same time, we want to keep building the best product and building [an] even stronger, healthy ecosystem with the partner. That's the fabric message that we started promoting.

Talk about some of the reasons why Fortinet has put such a big emphasis on marketing over the past year.

I think the feedback from our customers and partners was always that we have the best product, from [a] performance and function and security [perspective]. That's where we feel that we have the biggest solutions base, with 2.3 million units globally. … That is a huge base. There's a lot of strong feedback about our products and technology. If you invest in the marketing and sales, that will help accelerate the growth.

As a result, if you look at the growth that we had last year, compared to three years ago in 2013, our sales growth was 37 percent. That's about three times the growth rate that we had in 2013. That's where we see the results of the investment in marketing and sales. It can be quite a positive and dramatic change. That's where we feel that we're helping the partner and helping the customer with this investment.

How much has Fortinet increased its investment in marketing?

The investment that we've made in the marketing and sales is about three times compared to three years ago, both on the dollar and on the headcount. That's where, as a company policy, we will continue to invest because the results show. We want to commit and continue to invest in marketing and sales.

Do you have an example of that?

We will have a transformational website change. There is an investment in the infrastructure and in the team. We started building a large lead generation engine, with both the team people and the infrastructure, the website and the partner portal. That's a true testament to the fact that we are helping the channel drive additional leads and additional business. … Security is different than some other IT. The channel partner is very important because they are local and because also the management cost is very high compared with other IT infrastructure. You have to be heavily working with the channel partner to provide the best support.

That growth in investment is both through partners and through the company in general?

We are a channel company. Our sales go through the channel, and that's why the investment in both in the partner and the channel is very important. The growth rate in the last few quarters and few years, it's about three times the market growth. That's where we keep on gaining share, and also the partner and the channel benefit a lot from this investment. We want to continue that investment and give them the best support.

What sort of messaging are you trying to get out there about the Fortinet brand and products?

We see the security marketing moving fast and it is also very dynamic. We position with what we call the "Secure Fabric," basically working with the partner and the channel to bring the total secure solution to the customer. The fabric really covers a quite broad area, from the cloud side, the data center and then some applications … then the center is really the network security. There is also Wi-Fi and security to be managed together, as well as some endpoint and IoT. ... We want to build a fabric ecosystem with our channel partners all working together.

We started doing a lot of marketing events, a lot of training and a lot of other things to go to market together. … Customers see a lot of benefit in working together with the whole security fabric to help the customer provide the best security infrastructure. That is the commitment.

What part of that messaging was missing?

The fabric really has all the channel partners working together. … This is new for this year. We have not had our fabric message before. Last year we started to promote our internal segmentation firewall. In the security of the past, how we get security to the border and external policies are different. But, we saw with mobile devices, BYOD and agent-based [technologies], that this type of border security is no longer in effect. That's why we see internal segmentation firewalls as very important. … [And] now we see the fabric is very important, not only internally to be secure, but with the rest of the ecosystem with incident response and how to work with the cloud partners. … That's where we see the message changing. Every day there is a new twist.

What's your vision for what the next evolution of the Fortinet portfolio will be?

There is a lot of mobile devices compared with a few years ago and with IoT. The security border will be blurred and there will no longer be a clear border, which can be externally secured. … That's where we think it is important to the way that we see the secure fabric and the segmentation – it's changing the traditional way that people secure the border and then internal technologies trust it. We will also work with partners and different technology to make this fabric and segmentation important. This relates to the traditional way to deploy security. It is no longer the best solution. The machine needs to know what is normal and what is abnormal in real time. … It's a quicker response to the customer need and demand with mobile devices, IoT and the cloud. That's where we feel the fabric is the best message. No longer can you have a single technology product to do security – it has to be working together in a fabric and also secure internally where the data source is. We see that security space changing.

How far along is Fortinet to turn that portfolio vision into reality?

We are already developing the product. That will come out pretty soon. When I founded Fortinet 16 years ago … even with a multiple point solution, it was a single platform and a single system. … Now, you're seeing some of those things merge together and areas are merging together, like ATP and sandboxing are merging with firewall. Other areas of security are starting to integrate together now. At the same time, the cloud is starting to change things a lot. The mobile device and IoT is coming. … It can be quite dynamically changing [market]. With the cloud and mobile devices, the border no longer exists.

A lot of the channel partners, they see their value because they're most close to the customers and see their need and ultimately respond to the customers' requests. That's very important, not only for the enterprise customers but also the SMB branch offices. They have the same concern. How to support them better is very important.

How do partners best take advantage of this vision and maximize their relationship with Fortinet?

We commit to investing more in the infrastructure and supporting the partner, including the partner portal, the channel program and the lead generation. There is also the commitment to investing more into the marketing itself, both on the headcount side and on the dollar side. We definitely want to keep investing more. ... On the other side, we also want to work with the partner and the customer to see what their request is, quickly respond to their need and work together. That is the fabric message. The ecosystem working together is really important. We really want to promote the fabric and the ecosystem together, which we think is a win-win situation for both Fortinet and the partner.

How does this position elevate the Fortinet brand in the marketplace and turn into revenue gains and market-share gains down the road?

Definitely branding, lead generation and positioning are working together. We're starting to invest in more branding and helping the customer and also the partner understand better. In the past, we were definitely [heavier] on technology and now … the brand is starting to see a quick ramp up. We have the customer base and among our customers using the product, they really like using the product but in the past we were not an open door. Now, the branding and the marketing is starting to help a lot.

Anything else partners should know about what's going on at Fortinet?

We want to build the best network security company, not only from the product side but with channel partners, customers and working with the employees and team. We want the best in all of those areas. That's where we feel investing in the partner, the customer, and also the marketing and sales programs is quite important. We are seeing results on the return on investment in marketing. We see the investments in the market results. That's also helping keep the company as the best in the network security space.