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Everything I know about the Partner Channel I learned from Paul Revere

by Jay McBain

There is a very important chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point that applies to the channel.

In the “Law of the Few”, he explains that a very select group of people are responsible for the “tipping” of almost all social epidemics. These three unique groups of people are special for their incredible abilities to communicate, teach, and persuade.

Gladwell illustrates the story with Paul Revere and the Midnight Ride. Revere was possibly the best connected person in Boston on April 18, 1775. When he was alerted to the impending British attack on the armory at Concord, he successfully alerted and armed much of the Boston countryside.

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Most American youngsters are not taught that two other riders took off that night – William Dawes and Samuel Prescott. Revere was far more effective in delivering his message. In any given town, Revere would know the right doors to knock on, the right people to talk to, and the right message to convey. Dawes and Prescott, on the other hand, had very little knowledge of these towns, and were not particularly effective communicators, making their warnings largely ignored.

Paul Revere’s vast web of acquaintances allowed him to spread the word that the British would soon attack, but he also relied on his knowledge of the current situation, a trait not typically associated with connectors. These two traits made Paul Revere an extraordinary man: he had the communication skills of a connector, and the knowledge of a maven.

Now, back to the channel and my personal story.

I moved to the U.S. in April of 2009 with very little knowledge of the U.S. IT landscape. For 15 years, I was working for IBM and Lenovo and focused exclusively on the Canadian market. I spent my first couple of months playing the role of a maven.

I collected all 16 channel magazines at the time, dozens of tradeshows, associations, peer groups, bloggers and activity on social media and created a master spreadsheet. Every time I came across a keynote speaker, top industry list, writer, board member, trainer, community leader, or vendor/distributor executive, I would write their name, company and title down along with one check-mark. If I came across them again, another check-mark was given.

After a couple of months, the spreadsheet had grown to 895 names with thousands of check-marks. I figured that I was 80% complete in understanding the who’s-who of the North American channel. When I sorted the list by number of check-marks, there was an interesting cut-off at about 100 names.

My hypothesis was that connectors and influencers would be omnipresent in the industry – showing up at different shows, articles, press releases, top industry lists, communities, radio shows, and so on. And I was right.

Could it be that an industry with over 160,000 channel partners, tens of thousands of vendors and millions of people working that it all boils down to 100 super-connectors?

Yes.

By the summer of 2009 I was officially a road warrior. I traveled to 40 different shows and lived out of a suitcase for weeks on end. I would do my best to target top 100 players at each show and work to make their acquaintance. Because they are connectors and social networking is their specialty, this was easier than I had thought. I spent countless hours at the hotel lobby bar listening to these individuals talk about themselves and decades spent getting to where they are.

The fact that I don’t drink came in handy as I tried to memorize everything and would race up to my room and further update the spreadsheet. Connectors NEED to be in the know and spend a lot of time keeping track of the other top 100 connectors. This made my job easier.

It also allowed me to knock names off the list. If you work for a big company with tons of resources, getting keynote slots, guest blogs and industry activity can definitely be bought. Hanging around this crowd made it easy to know who “earned” their stripes and who purchased them.

One thing that surprised me was the inability to tell a connector by job title. I originally thought that they would all be successful Senior VPs or CEOs – but that was wrong. A few of them make money as peer or community leaders but that was the exception not the rule. One is a farmer from the Midwest. Some were even unemployed!

Two important things happened after meeting many of the Top 100 connectors:

1. Endorsements

Connectors are some of the most trusted voices in the industry. Many of them have loyal followings of over 1,000 people who look to them for advice and guidance. A few of the key endorsements that Lenovo gained added tens of millions of dollars to the bottom line – and continue today.

I counted 30 endorsements in the first 12 months. Some happened on stage at shows, some in magazines and blogs, and even some on podcasts. We tracked every partner sign-up and could see the rapid word-of-mouth growth of our program and revenue.

2. Personal Celebrity

An interesting side effect of engaging (and adding value) to connectors is that other connectors take notice quickly. Remember, connectors need to know what is going on! I didn’t need to seek out all 100 people – after the first dozen or so, many of them started seeking me out at shows and over the phone.

I was strictly a maven – trying to understand how the industry worked and making up for the time I didn’t spend working in the country. I learned that by associating with the connectors, I was inadvertently earning that title for myself as well.

The recognition for that started shortly after:

– Named Top 40 Under Forty by the Business Review
– Named #19 Newsmaker of the Year – ITBusiness & CDN Magazine
– Named Top 20 Global Channel Thought Leaders by ChannelPro Magazine & EH Publishing
– Named Top 50 Global Channel Influencers by The VAR Guy & Penton Media
– Named Top 100 Global Technology Thought Leaders by Vertical Systems Reseller Magazine
– Named Top 150 SMB Influencers in the world by SMB Nation and SMB Technology Network
– Named Top 250 Managed Services Executive in the world by MSPMentor
– Never Stop Marketing Award by SmartBrief
– Winner of ASCII Cup as top vendor, voted on by Channel community

While it is nice to be patted on the back – I didn’t (and still don’t) deserve the recognition. Getting on these lists had a positive effect of drawing others to me which created a self-propelled cycle.

As an interesting side-note, a good maven will look to validate their theories. Perhaps the IT industry was somehow different than everything else and this was not repeatable?

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I tested the theory again in Raleigh, N.C. I wrote down the names of politicians, police chiefs, media, charity leaders and looked at the local events, magazines and newspapers that reported on them. After only 18 months of living there, I was able to drill down to the 100 people that make that city go around. Again, with 1,214,516 people living there, it all came down to a magic connector list of 100.

I have told this story a number of times – to vendors looking to break into the partner channel or an individual that wants to make a difference quickly. It starts with a plan, followed by some long nights of research and then ends with digging in and making things happen.

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