CMS Partnerships Revisited: Badge Collectors and Dragon Slayers

By Deane Barker

The drumbeat for integration partners from CMS vendors gets louder and louder all the time. As content management moves more toward the platform end of the product-platform continuum, integrators become more and more important. Vendors need integrators who work with – and sell – their systems.

We talked about this three years ago in The Why and How of CMS Vendor Partnerships. If you’re not familiar with the concept of being a CMS vendor partner, go read that post first.

Back then, Blend was a partner of Episerver, eZ publish, and Ektron. We’ve since dropped Ektron (and transitioned all our Ektron installs to Episerver).

This is a nice fit for us since we have one on both LAMP and .Net stacks. We also do a fair amount of WordPress and an increasing amount of Umbraco, so with these four systems, we have nice coverage between open source and commercial systems, across both platforms.

Just recently, however, we found a two-pronged hole in our CMS vendor coverage – we have nothing on the Java stack, and no decoupled solution. (If you need a primer on decoupled content management, see Decoupled Content Management 101.) To fill this hole, we’ve embarked on our first project with TerminalFour, which is both Java and decoupled, and will likely be our fifth “core” CMS.

All the systems we currently partner with have different positions in the market, and do different things. We fit them into different situations based on client need. They all have a distinct role for us.

Given that we just initiated another partnership while being pitched by a lot of companies, I got to wondering where we put that decision point – what makes us willing to partner with one system, but not another? I decline vendor partnerships all the time, but just agreed to one recently. Why?

I think I’ve figured it out, and I’ll explain with an example –

We have been pitched quite a bit by System X. They’re trying to break into the North American market and they first made contact with us a couple of years ago. They’re very nice guys, and I talk to them every couple of months and see them at conferences. At one point, I had them demo their system – it was very competent, and seems like a solid technology platform. I genuinely predict they’ll achieve some level of success in North America.

Wonderful – there’s no reason not to partner with them, right? Hang on – it’s not that simple.

System X is a .Net system that looks a lot like Episerver. It’s priced a lot like Episerver too (I think it may be a bit cheaper, but it’s pretty close). This system didn’t look any less competent than Episerver, but it didn’t look any more competent either. In the end, there’s a ton of overlap between the two.

The thing is, when you’re selling CMS to someone, you have to select which system you lead with. What system do you run through the door with, guns blazing, and say “Mr. Prospect, this is the CMS for you!” For us, this is one of our “core four” (likely soon to be five), depending on the situation.

Now, if we signed on with System X, then I have huge overlap between Episerver and System X, and how do I decide which one to lead with? There’s not a lot of difference between the two systems, so I’m going to go with the one with a better history in North America, more people on the ground, and more localized expertise.

Translation: I am never going to pitch System X over Episerver. There’s just so little difference between the two that I would never be in a situation where there’s a differentiator that makes System X the clear choice, so I’m always going to go with the system I have history with.

(Would this be different if I became a partner with System X first? Yes, probably in this case because System X is so close to Episerver. But, alas, that’s not how it worked out.)

If we’ve established that I’m never going to proactively pitch System X, then what is the only other way I’m going to get into a deal with System X? If they bring the deal to me. System X may have a prospect on the line who needs an integrator, so they’ll contact me as their partner to swoop in and make the sale.

Why not do this? Free business, right? Just sit around and respond to the deals they bring you! It’s genius!

Well, maybe for some, but I don’t love it. When you do this, you become what I call a “Badge Collector.” This is an integrator who signs on with any vendor in the hopes of collecting a deal along the way. They cast a wide net, and they’ll take any deal that any vendor brings them.

Problem is, the deals aren’t that consistent. Vendors can be good at bringing business – Ektron was great at it in their heyday (which has probably passed), and Episerver is pretty good at it too. But still, only about 25% of deals at Blend are deals that originated with the vendors. And if this is the only way I’m doing a deal with System X (along deals with six other systems), then I’m not going to be doing a lot of deals with it.

But who cares? Even one deal is one more than I had before, right? Well, yes, but you’ve done something else in the process – you’ve expanded your technology footprint. You now have another system you have to maintain competence in. Another system which drains your collective skillset.

Bottom line: you can only be really good with so many systems. You can’t be an expert in every CMS. If you try, you’ll just become middling with a some of them, and crappy with most.

Blend is really good with Episerver and eZ publish. With both, we’re one of the most accomplished integrators on the North American landmass, and we’re very proud of this. We are what we like to call, “Dragon Slayers.”

We’ve gotten this good because we’ve managed our technology footprint carefully. We don’t just integrate anything. We integrate select systems, with which we’ve developed a very high competency, and which fill a distinct technology niche for us and our clients.

I’ve realized that there’s always been an a tacit rule at Blend that has worked pretty well for us – we will be experts with as few systems as we can get away with.

I don’t ever want Blend to become a Badge Collector. I want us to remain Dragon Slayers. When we partner with a CMS vendor, we do it because we believe in the company and their product fills a niche for us. We commit totally – we evangelize that platform, we develop our process around it, we accumulate code and solutions for it, and we get to the point where we can rightfully say we’re one of the best integrators around for that platform.

More importantly, we get to the point where I can stand up and say “Mr. Prospect, this is the CMS for you!” and feel good about it.

In doing this, I like to think I’m being honest with other vendors. I don’t want to sign on as a partner for a CMS that we’re not willing to thrown down for. If I can’t say that Blend will slay dragons with your CMS, then I’m going to respectfully pass on a partnership and let you go find someone who will.

We’ll both be better for it in the long run.

This is item #81 in a sequence of 356 items.

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