CRN Exclusive: New SonicWall CEO On The Dell Spinout Deal, New Tech Investments And Driving A Pure Channel Sales Model

The Next Era Begins Now

As SonicWall officially completes its spinout from Dell, the now independent security vendor has brought in long-time security industry and channel veteran Bill Conner as CEO. In an exclusive interview with CRN, Conner talked about why he decided to join SonicWall, where he hopes to take the company and what partners can expect as he drives a 100 percent channel sales model. The good news? Conner said he believes SonicWall is better positioned than ever with investments in technology, the channel and its executive lineup. Take a look at what he had to say and what to expect from the new SonicWall CEO.

Why did you decide to come to SonicWall?

I'm really excited and frankly just honored and privileged to come to the new SonicWall. I've known the company a while - we were both in the Thoma Bravo portfolio when Entrust was there. We were their first security play before SonicWall came in. Clearly I've known the company in the security space … They are a market leader in the space. When you’ve been in security and networking as long as I have, it’s a great fit for what's going on in the security world and in the real world. I love the leadership team here, I love the product and I love the space. I'm really excite to be able to come in and work with the team and take the next era of this company where we need to go to.

Coming in from the outside, how do you feel SonicWall is positioned in the market as it officially becomes independent?

As you know, it's a cyber arms race and in this area the disadvantaged people are small and medium business or the large distributed networks. That is this company's sweet spot. We will stay focused on that area … It's all about channel. The good thing is Dell in the last year brought in [Channel Chief] Steve [Pataky] and [VP of Marketing and Product Management] Patrick [Sweeney]. From a sales and marketing perspective, they had the opportunity to start this journey nine months back. It's back to the future in some ways, but it's a new and improved way in some ways. We will be going back exclusively to channel. We will clearly still keep some direct-touch resources in the market for mid-tier and those large distributed networks but they will fulfill through channel. That is the change. We will keep Dell as a partner, both as a channel partner and as an ingredient technology into Dell Direct. That will continue. We're excited about where we are going to take the product and a few of those things in the next wave or the next era of SonicWall.

What is the benefit of bringing in a new CEO at this point in the process?

If you think of this team, I'm kind of the new guy coming in fresh in the relay. We're ready to move to the next piece. These guys have been, they're running the marathon and they are probably at the 20-mile point. They're hitting that wall and thank God they are excited about what is on the other side. They have just done an incredible job. Steve [Pataky] (pictured) has done a fantastic job closing a wonderful quarter that has a lot of momentum … The channels like that we are coming back to them in this new way. You look at what Patrick [Sweeney] has had to do from a marketing standpoint to get all the tools and capabilities build. And then the product guys starting this direction I've articulated and some of that is coming out. They've gone 20 miles and we will get through this next thing and catch our breath, and then here we go for our next marathon.

What areas of SonicWall will you focus on growing?

Some of a couple of the key areas that you will see us focus on from Day 1: You've clearly seen how in the past year the team has focused on next generation firewall features. I think Capture is a really good example of that. You can count on us to continue the focus on innovation in that category of firewalls or next generation capabilities and looking at that in terms of where we want to go with that and take that as this market increases … The second area that really will get a lot of attention, and you can see some of it already coming out, is around the cloud-based GMS capabilities. We really feel strongly around the management of policies and procedures and making that cloud based. We will really focus on the cloud enablement of those APIs and the UI, UX in that area and how to take leadership for that and extend that, not just for the end users that have multiple sites or distributed networks, but also for the MSPs as they look at how they can bring additional value to the market around that capability …

What other areas will you prioritize investment around?

The third area is getting back to basics. This industry is already led by performance and SonicWall's leadership has always been its ability to pick next generation hardware and OSes that give it best-in-class performance better than anybody … Stay tuned on that – we will be focusing on what I will call the "under the cover" items that keep us on the technical prowess but also take advantage of the market leadership there again. Then, certainly we do focus a lot on endpoint capability. We will have a good mobile product, with a next generation of that coming in the not too far distant future that will really start to address mobile in a new way for the industry. We are excited about that, so stay tuned. We will continue, especially when you look at what's happened over the past couple of weeks with the Internet of Things, with how we can take advantage of our whole grid network and threat research capabilities to look at IoT devices and take advantage of our common capability, SonicOS, and features to look at that from the markets we serve.

SonicWall will be 100 percent channel when it becomes independent – talk about that.

As you've seen and heard from our channel partners, the last nine months have improved dramatically on support and in our client services. We intend to really focus on that area. It is equally important, especially in small and medium business and in channels … that we have current day support tools for videos and email and social and facts and all kinds of capability around that. We will turn up the pace in innovation of that customer support for our clients and for our partners and how we deliver that.

How does being a standalone company benefit you in those investments around technology and the channel?

I think one of the things we can now get back to being standalone is a faster and quicker innovation cycle. I think that’s one the areas that when you're in big companies, that bring you something positive and something negative. In the security software space, innovation and speed is critical. I think we will see that category of SonicWall return to the leadership pace of speed and innovation that we used to be at.

What are the concrete steps you will take to put those investments around technology and the channel in place?

The channel part starts with the SecureFirst program that we're launching. That will include investments in training of our resources, managing deal registration, and all the things that we've done but it's been done in a different context than a channel-exclusive way. That's an investment of people, process and technology. If you look at the features and the product stuff, that is a focus on priorities relative to engineering and product management teams and that will start with resources and prioritization … Some will take longer lead times, like next-generation hardware and some of the SonicOS pieces, and others will be on a shorter innovation curve, like Capture and the cloud GMS and some of those pieces. Then, on customer support there will be some of that improvement and that is a journey. Some of that we've seen an improvement over the past nine months. We hope to pick up the pace on some of that innovation and changes. That is yes an investment, but it is also doing things a bit differently than we have in the past.

How much of this vision is executing on what was in place and how much is coming from you as the new CEO?

The beautiful thing and why I wanted to come here is SonicWall has had fantastic leadership and talent. It always starts with that. They have that and they have wonderful technology capabilities. In the last nine months they have been able to get Steve [Pataky] in here and get the services going and start to re-ramp the engine. What I bring to the table is a deep understanding of security and networks and a deep appreciation for channels. My thing will be to embed the team, augment some of the team we have with innovation and other team members, and then really just drive the focus and the rhythm of the company that exists today.

After the close goes through, what is the role PE will have?

The good news is with Elliott Management and with Francisco Partners, especially with Francisco, they have other investments in the space. They are technology rich. They both have deep pockets. They understand the space and see alignment between myself and SonicWall right out of the gate. They understand this, they are very supportive of this asset and the plans that we have put forward, or I have put forward with the team, and I don’t think they will be anything other than supportive with the investments as well as with us running our business the way we have outlined it. And, believe me they've seen the plan.

In this market, what you really want from private equity … They are looking for market leadership and financial performance and management … but we are here to run the business, make it perform and make it a market leader. That is what this asset knows how to do.

Can you break down the timeline of when partners can expect to see all these changes?

SecureFirst will be a short cycle, but it will also be a long process. It is launched and now every day we have to get the tools and technology and processes behind that and communicate that with our partners. Support – that is a couple of year initiative, but every week and month we will make gains against that. Then, when you take GMS and some of the features will be much faster in the market versus next-generation hardware and some of the SonicOS and next-generation capabilities. Those are 18-month to two-year roadmaps. I think you have some things that are longer term, some things that are short term, and I think that's the good thing this company found the balance in before … That will, frankly, be a journey to get the team back to what it has done so well in the past.

How much of these changes are possible because you're a standalone company?

I look macroscopically. Security software, for sure, is a right RPM business and the bigger you get the harder it is to keep pace because if you try to do too many things it just gets very, very hard to maintain speed. If you look at then putting hardware and other sectors into it, then your whole business model starts to change from: 'Are you a direct sales company or are you a channel sales company?' If you are in-between those, you better be very good at both and know how to segment that. I think a lot of people go after a market and a product and think that's it, but when it comes to how you sell it and how you service it that's a different business piece. I think, especially in the security space, that is an area that a lot of people are struggling with as security starts to permeate every part of every business, from infrastructure, to software, to applications, to the web. It's tough to build security in across for big companies and even some small ones.

What about SonicWall's vertical markets? How will that change here?

We will continue to focus in on the government, education, retail, healthcare, K-12 and large distributed networks that we've been in. We know what we're very good at and we will stay with that. That will be the only other thing. It's not a change, but again focusing on our strengths.