Powers Unfiltered

An entrepreneur’s journey into grid computing and partnering with Microsoft, by John Powers

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Microsoft Channel Builder — 30 months of futility and counting

October 22nd, 2007 · 3 Comments

As a vocal detractor of Microsoft’s Channel Builder, I feel I have to report anything positive that happens there, too (note that prior to this week I have never had anything even remotely good to report in my 2.5 year history of using this tragically misguided Microsoft tool). So I promise, buried in this long diatribe is at least one positive nugget. But you’ll have to dig.

For those who don’t know, Channel Builder is part of the Microsoft partner Web site (partner.microsoft.com), through which Microsoft partners can (theoretically) find one another and expand their business.

This is, of course, a great idea — facilitation of partner-to-partner relationships can be hugely beneficial to Microsoft and its partners — but the implementation is a train wreck. In my opinion, Channel Builder is the highest achievement of the Microsoft wing that believes you build communities by making databases more complex. I once described this philosophy as the belief that “if we get the E-R diagram just right, a community will emerge.”

More than two and a half years ago, like a good little Partner, I went on Channel Builder to fill out details about our solution, and to look for partners. I was amazed at the complexity and clumsiness of the application. Clearly, a huge amount of effort had gone into creating a giant database application here, yet the use cases supported were (to put it mildly) unclear. Sure, I had to re-enter everything I’d entered in multiple other places on partner.microsoft.com, but was used to that. But the process by which I was expected to associate my solution with Microsoft’s products and Microsoft’s view of the market was way too restrictive, the search tools were primitive, and the whole thing just smacked of command-and-control overengineering and underthinking.

I spent a while entering data, making selections from lists that did not adequately describe our product, nor our relationship with Microsoft, nor our desired relationship with other partners, and eventually I saved the profiles of our firm and solution. And nothing happened. For months. No leads, no questions, no contacts of any kind.

So I went back in a tweaked the profile, started an “opportunity,” and waited. Nothing. For months. And at various times I went back and tweaked it again, less and less frequently over the years, with exactly one nibble that never panned out. I must confess, I haven’t been back in there for a few months…

So it was with some surprise and bewilderment that I saw the following note in my inbox a few days ago, from “partnote@microsoft.com:”

Partner [name omitted] posted a response to your opportunity HPC, Grid Computing, Compute Cluster Server, CCS, .NET, SOA, Service Oriented Architecture, application scalability, high-performance computing, high-throughput computing on 10/15/2007 8:43 PM GMT. You may view the response thread in the opportunity details accessible via My Opportunities, or at My Responses page, section Responses Received.

Say what? That’s the whole note? No mention of Channel Builder, no signature, no link, no contact info, no hint as to where it comes from other than “partnote,” but I eventually remembered creating this “opportunity” and went fumbling around looking for Channel Builder on the Microsoft partner Web site. (And yes, the name I gave to my opportunity is a flagrant attempt to fool Channel Builder’s dismal search tools.)
Sure enough — there was a real live response from a real live partner prospect! I called him up, and we had a good conversation — we may very well have found a reseller in an interesting market niche. Cool! That’s just how I hoped this would work, when I started with Channel Builder 30 months back. (OK, actually I had hoped I’d see leads like this every week, but you get the idea.)

So — that’s one. One good experience in 30 months of futility. I’ll let you know if it turns out to be worth it!

So while I was in Channel Builder, I thought I’d refresh the information about our product. I hit “edit” and got a warning message — something about how fields had changed in the “new” profile for solutions, and I should expect to spend a few minutes if I continued. What the heck, let’s go.

Big mistake. The “new” profile places more restrictions on the number of items (such as Microsoft products, or vertical market segments) you can associate with your solution.

Our product, the Digipede Network, is grid computing software that integrates with multiple parts of the Microsoft technology stack. We touch all flavors of the OS since 2000 (32-bit and 64-bit, desktop and server); we integrate with Visual Studio; we integrate with Windows Compute Cluster Server; we incorporate and re-sell SQL Server; we speed up and scale out .Net applications; we provide application to Excel (2003 and 2007); we scale out Excel Services on Sharepoint; there’s more, but you get the idea. But try to check off all the corresponding boxes for those, and I get:

Please select a minimum of 1 product group and 1 product per group and a maximum of 3 product groups with 2 products per group except when products does not exist.


Oh, and we address multiple horizontal applications. But:

Please select minimum of 1 primary category and 1 secondary category and maximum of up to 2 primary and 5 secondary categories per group except when secondary categories does not exist.

Oh, also we have customers in multiple vertical industries. But:

Please select minimum of 1 primary category and 1 secondary category and maximum of up to 5 primary and 3 secondary categories per group except when secondary categories does not exist.

Oh, also we address customers in all three of Microsoft’s size categories, plus government and education. That’s five categories, but:

Please select up to 3 categories.

The old version had somewhat similar limits, but they either were not this restrictive or were not strictly enforced, because my old solution profile listed “too many” products, horizontal applications, vertical industries, and size categories for the new software.

OK, I’ll just keep the old profile — CANCEL.

Nope. Saved as draft. Now I have NO profile published.


I can finish in the new format, or just be left out of the catalog (tempting, given the lack of response…). So I made yet more compromises and inappropriate choices, and published the new, downgraded profile. As bad as this was a year or two or almost three ago, now it’s worse. Ridiculous.

And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

I went to the Worldwide Partner Conference in Minneapolis in 2005, and reported my early experiences to the ISV team and the Channel Builder team specifically. They smiled and nodded and said go try again, the Next Version (just released) is much better. Meanwhile, Alison Watson touted Channel Builder as another triumph of the Partner program, and urged everyone to get on and try it. Re-charged by the enthusiasm of the Microsoft team, I went back and tried it again, with the same (lack of) results.

I went to the Worldwide Partner Conference in Boston in 2006, and reported my experience to the ISV team (couldn’t find the Channel Builder team at this one…), and the response was quite different. There was a lot of uncomfortable shuffling about, and no coherent message this time — and while people were still talking about improements, there was decidedly less enthusiasm.

I went to the Worldwide Partner Conference in Denver in 2007, and had many productive meetings with Microsoft people in the partner and field organizations — many of them in fairly senior positions. Whenever I mentioned Channel Builder, the most common reaction was an embarrassed eye-roll followed by a furtive peak over the shoulder to see if anyone was listening. Then they described their experience with the product, using terms like “embarrassment,” “disbelief,” “disaster,” “life of its own,” and many less printable expressions.

And yes, I’ve read the TenDigits case study, showing the wonderful experiences that one partner (out of the 272657 supposedly enrolled in Channel Builder) has had with this product. And frankly, my conversations with others indicate that they’re an outlier. I talk with many Microsoft partners, and I’ve never spoken to one who had secured a single valuable channel relationship through Channel Builder, ever.

The solution is very clear to many of us outside of the Microsoft echo chamber — and even, apparently, many of those within. I say this as someone who has been on Channel Builder since 1.0, has been to in-person Channel Builder events, and who has to this day maintained a presence there, hoping against hope that something good will come of it:

Please, please, please give up.

Channel Builder was a noble experiment. Redeploy the vast resources that obviously went into this effort into something completely new.

And yes, I realize it’s easy to throw stones but harder to be constructive, so here are at least a few ideas on Channel Builder 3.0 (and the first idea is — don’t call it that!):

  • Create a 21st century social networking platform for partners. Model it on LinkedIn, or any other successful social networking solution.
  • Remove as many of the specious restrictions cited above as possible.
    • Fewer checkboxes, more tagging.
    • Fewer puzzling categories that map to Microsoft’s worldview, more free-form text entry opportunities with better search tools.
    • Remove all restrictions on the number of vertical markets or sub-markets addressed, all restrictions on the number Microsoft products or product areas linked to the solution, etc.
  • Facilitate free-form inter-partner communication (with wikis, link blogs, and so on).
  • Open up the idea of a “news” page or section to partner entries (there is ONE Microsoft-generated piece of news in 2007, matching the ONE article in 2006…).
  • Revive the in-person Channel Builder events organized by vertical (which were as great as the online tool is not-so-great).
  • Open up the concept of references and recommendations beyond customers only, to include partner-to-partner and even Microsoft-staff-to-partner references and recommendations.
  • Expand the options for how partners describe their solutions. Allow partner-generated content, and make it YouTube-simple to add such content — or at least facilitate and encourage links to multiple types of partner-generated content:
    • Podcasts
    • Videos
    • Demonstrations
    • Presentations
  • Go beyond partner-generated content, and send your evangelists out to find and report on great, interesting partners with Channel9-style reporting. Make the lawyers nervous by shamelessly publicizing the partners who are doing cool stuff and ignoring the ones who aren’t. Play favorites. Show bias.
  • Offer an award at the next Worldwide Partner Conference — maybe co-sponsored by the IAMCP — for the “most partner-friendly partner,” where partners can vote on who’s doing the best partner-to-partner work in the ecosystem.
  • Offer another award, again partner-driven, for “most partner-friendly product group at Microsoft.” Yeah, this one is fraught with peril (I can feel my arm being twisted for votes now…), but it could also be a great motivator for some of the groups that should poke their heads into the partner ecosystem a little more often…

Whew. OK, that’s a wrap. Starting tomorrow, I will be at the Worldwide ISV Partner Advisory Committee meetings at Microsoft, where I will doubtless get grief for this posting. But what does everyone else think? Am I on the right track? Or did I just miss a checkbox somewhere?

Tags: Partnering with Microsoft · Usability

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Deborah // Oct 23, 2007 at 5:08 pm

    A big huge ditto.

    We’ve received all of three inquiries this year: one bit of spam seeking “technical equity partners”, and two more from very lost and inexperienced computer users asking basic questions on how to download software.

    WRT ISVs, the partner group has run hot and cold over the last 5 years, and the last few years have felt a bit chilly. (or at least very inconsistent in execution).

  • 2 Peter // Oct 29, 2007 at 4:55 pm

    Another big ditto.

    The *only* inquiry we got was from an off-shore development outfit trying to sell us their services, precisely *zero* useful inquiries, obviously resulting in $0 revenue.

    I went through exactly the same “update to the new profile” experience, which took things from “really bad” to “really, disastrously, why-am-I-bothering bad”.

    We’re a Gold Certified, Managed ISV. No love at all from the MSPP team – thank goodness we connected with the Managed ISV team or we’d be out in the cold like most everyone else.

  • 3 john // Oct 29, 2007 at 9:57 pm

    Deborah, Peter —
    Thanks for the comments. Peter’s last comment (“thank goodness we connected with the Managed ISV team…”) mirrors my own experience very closely. Microsoft PEOPLE can be great, and if you can find a way to connect, you’re in for a good (or great) relationship. Microsoft’s Web presence, on the other hand, remains poor, and the partner-to-partner aspects of their Web presence remain embarrassingly poor.

    It is astonishing to me how many Microsoft people are still out there blindly touting Channel Builder as a “valuable resource” for partners. As the site currently stands, it is not a resource at all. It’s a time-sink. The IDEA is great, and Microsoft’s intentions here are good — but the Microsoft partner team needs to admit its mistakes, and invest in something better. My ideas are posted above — anybody else care to join in?

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