Unitrends rethinks channel philosophy with multi-tier program as part of higher margin strategy

Unitrends also promotes Clark Brown, who formerly managed their DMR relationships, to the channel chief role.

Clark Brown, vice president of channel sales, Unitrends

Backup and recovery vendor Unitrends has rethought its channel philosophy and expressed it in a fundamentally designed global partner program. The old program, which had a single tier and was created when Unitrends moved to a 100 per cent channel philosophy, was designed to show general appreciation for all partners who wanted to resell them. The new one reflects their maturity as a company, and is based on a multi-tier program designed to provide enhanced margin opportunities, as well as a more selective model towards partner engagement.

Unitrends sold entirely direct until 2013, when they introduced a channel component to their business, and then in 2015 decided to move to a 100 per cent channel model. The original channel program reflected that legacy.

“The flat program was deliberate because the channel chief at the time wanted to do something different as we moved to the new model,” said Dante Gordon, Unitrends’ senior director of channel marketing. “He wanted to appeal to all partners, whether small or large. If you had an interest in selling Unitrends, regardless of your size, we would value you equally. Today, there’s a recognition that some partners have a bigger impact on our business, and that there is a need to recognize and reward based on overall value and benefit.”

Kaseya acquired Unitrends two months ago, and while there may be a tendency to see the changes related to the acquisition, Gordon said that it is basically a coincidence.

“We started the changes before the acquisition, so it is more of a coincidence, but we do expect that the acquisition will create some opportunities for us to leverage,” Gordon said.

The core of the program was actually designed late last year, when a new channel chief was imported from another company, and the plan was to launch it then, but things didn’t go quite as planned.

“That channel chief departed the business quickly, and everything wound up being delayed,” Gordon said. “We paused until we got a new channel chief in place, because it didn’t make sense to go out the door with a new program, while replacing the channel chief. We then made some additional adjustments to the program, to get to what you see now.”

The new channel chief is Clark Brown, who had originally been brought in on the channel side to focus on DMRs, although he managed the channel more broadly than that in the past at Hexis Cyber Solutions. He managed DMR and OEM partners for three years at Sophos before that, and ran OEM business during eight year stints at both Symantec and Novell.

“We are being very selective with our partners with the new program,” Brown said. “We aren’t looking to be one of those vendors who have 20,000 partners [they have about 2000 today]. We aren’t looking for volume. We are looking for quality. We have big Large Account Resellers, and National Resellers, as well as more regional ones. The program’s goal is to put more margin back into their pockets.”

Gordon said that the new philosophy of the redesign emerged last year from listening to partners.

Dante Gordon, Unitrends’ senior director of channel marketing

“We spent a lot of time last year asking partners what was important to them in their relationships with a backup vendor,” he explained. “This is a very fragmented market, with a lot of vendors in it, so we wanted to know how to create a differentiated program that met what partners wanted. The ability to make money through gross margins was their number one priority. Some of our competitors had oversaturated the market for their resellers. Some told us that they were competing with 5-7 other resellers in their local area, and it eroded their margins. That message came through loud and clear. So we wanted to create an industry-leading margin opportunity. The second thing we were told was to make it easier to do business with us – by ensuring an absence of friction in the relationship, as well as enhancements to things like planning and executing marketing campaigns and getting information from our portal.”

The new program has a four-tier model {Platinum; Gold; Silver; Authorized], with the customary escalating margins, but Brown said that the new program’s margin benefits are deeper than that.

“We have a 50-50 program, where the partner brings us a competitor quote and gets 50 per cent margin on both hardware and software,’ he said.

The MDF program has also been completely restructured, from a formula based on a percentage of sales to a pool of funds allotted to specific funding requests from partners.

“This was Dante’s work,” Brown said. “MDF is usually 1-3 points of annual or quarterly sales. But when partners need money for MDF purposes, they need it on the front end , not the back end. Dante and his team created a pool based on requests from the partners, where the money will be allotted up front, even before sales take place.” Platinum and Gold partners are eligible for MDF.

The partner portal has also been completely redone.

“The prior portal was custom-built on Salesforce, and the partner feedback was that it was clumsy and hard to navigate,” Gordon said. “So we moved to a SaaS based Partner Relationship Management platform that’s easy to use – very slick and elegant. It provides access to all the tools and services that a partner needs. There is a new marketing section coming with preloaded multi-touch email campaigns – one around ransomware and the other around Disaster Recovery-as-a-Service. The partner just has to upload and execute. The partners’ customer list is also fully firewalled from Unitrends, so the partners don’t give up the contact list, which is a concern to some partners. We have no access to the information, which is how they want it.”

The system of distributing rewards and incents has also been changed.

“The old one had points for VISA rewards and redemptions, but the problem with this kind of program is that sometimes points didn’t get redeemed,” Gordon stated. “Now we pay cash for them, although partners have a lot of choice around this. They can even get cryptocurrency if they want that, and partners in Canada can get theirs in Canadian dollars. This all relates to that theme of making it easier to do business with us.”

A new sales certification rolled out last month and a new technical one is coming in July.

Two major changes have taken place from the program as it was designed last fall. The first was the ability, with the additional time, to roll in the added marketing self-service capabilities. The second was the ability to leverage the merger with Kaseya, which took place following the original program design.

“There are a lot of synergies with Kaseya,” Brown said. “Most of our business is medium to large enterprise, while much of the Kaseya business, with its MSP focus, is SMB. For Unitrends, the advantage is that this opens up a new channel for partners already doing MSP work with SMBs. As this marriage comes more fully together there will be a lot of opportunities for cross-pollination with both companies.”

Still, given the focus on value now in the Unitrends channel, they don’t plan to open it up to all the Kaseya MSPs.

“We are being selective even with the Kaseya channel,” Brown said. “We are only targeting 300-400 potential new partners there, and we see a couple hundred of our existing partners picking up the Kaseya solution set. This is not a ‘pray and spray’ campaign. We want truly value-added partners. So while we are expanding and are recruiting, it is very selective.”

Gold Partner benefits [Unitrends’ second tier, under the invite-only Platinum program] will be provided to the Kaseya partners who join the Unitrends program.

The underlying question of course, is what the future of the Unitrends partner program is under Kaseya.

“In the near term, we will keep the programs separate, but also take advantage of combined resources from R&D, from marketing, and even from PR,” Brown said.

“The profiles of Kaseya and Unitrends partners are different,” Gordon said. “We are looking at long term synergies, understanding that the needs of MSP are different from solution providers who buy hardware, software and services. We will be looking at opportunities that can benefit both Kaseya and Unitrends partners as they make sense.”

“Long term, there will be some morphing as more of our partners move to a hybrid model,” Brown indicated. “Today, Unitrends is more universal licenses and CAPEX. Over time – over the next 12-24 months – that is likely to become more blended.”