Channel Influencer Spotlight: How Rob Rae Built Up the Datto MSP Community

Datto's Rob Rae on communities, conversations and commonalities.

Kris Blackmon, Head of Channel Communities

September 14, 2018

9 Min Read
2018 Channel Influencer Awards

**Editor’s Note: This is part of a series spotlighting our Channel Partners/Channel Futures Channel Influencers of the Year, selected by our editorial team for innovation in the “new channel.” (Read our profiles of Comcast Business’ Craig Schlagbaum, Forrester’s Jay McBain,TPx’s Hilary Gadda, 8×8’s John DeLozier, Office Depot’s Janet Schijns and BitTitan’s Geeman Yip, as well as our Influencer of the Year, Microsoft’s Gavriella Schuster.**

When you meet Rob Rae, vice president of business development at backup and disaster recovery provider Datto, and a Channel Partners/Channel Futures Influencer of the Year, you’d never guess he spent the first 12 years of his career at a bank. Ironically, the charismatic channel leader realized he’d never find the kind of monetary success he was aiming for in finance, where he spent his days plugging away at other people’s investment portfolios and loan structures, so he cast his eyes toward sales. A former coworker hooked him up with a sales-management job at Compaq, and despite not knowing anything about IT, Rae found he had a knack for slinging hardware.

It was the turn of the century, and the IT world was changing fast. HP acquired Compaq, managed services were on the rise, and recurring revenue was on everyone’s minds. Rae was doing well at the tech giant, but it was slow going moving up the ladder of such a big corporation where coloring outside the lines wasn’t exactly encouraged. He wanted to help define the next curve of IT, not sell the same hardware for the same commissions to the same traditional channel. The industry was moving fast toward software, and Rae wanted in on the managed-services action.


Rob Rae

Rob Rae

In 2004, Rae moved to Level Platforms, a Canadian provider of remote monitoring and management (RMM) software. The new gig checked off many of his boxes. He was at a small software provider for a booming field, and he had a lot of freedom and flexibility that had been lacking at HP Compaq. It was a good time to get into the space. It was young, chaotic and full of opportunity, and Rae rode the managed-services wave at Level Platforms for the better part of a decade, helping to shape it into a company that reflected what would become the modern channel.

Rae was making the conference and trade-show circuit, and other vendors in the space, even those that dealt in non-competing technologies, looked on in frustration and envy as Level Platforms won award after award. One of those players was the young founder and CEO of a small backup and disaster recovery provider called Datto, Austin McChord.

In 2013, AVG joined the legion of larger companies snapping up small software manufacturers and bought out Level Platforms, presenting a prime opportunity for Rae to take a look at his career and see if there were any moves to be made. Long about that time, McCord called with an offer Rae couldn’t refuse: Come build communities at Datto. Five years later, Datto is owned by a private equity company, McChord runs one of the most dynamic and fast-growing players in the channel, and Rae’s built a robust, energetic worldwide partner community, one conversation at a time.

Now Is the Time

If you’re trying to find Rae at any industry conference, especially one sponsored by Datto, just look and listen. He’ll either be in the center of the biggest crowd generating the most belly laughs or in the corner of the hotel bar having a one-on-one conversation with an MSP. Rae likes to talk, which is a big part of why he’s such an engaging presence onstage. But he likes to listen more, not only because knowing what Datto’s partners are struggling with helps the company build a better channel program, but also because he’s genuinely interested in people over products.

“One of the things vendors aren’t very good at is that when they get an opportunity to talk to an MSP, it’s a ‘speeds and feeds’ dump on the technology. But that’s not what MSPs want or need,” says Rae. “These MSPs understand technology. They’ve been selling it a lot longer than we’ve been selling our technology.”

Rae doesn’t have to go talk to an MSP about what backup does. They get that. What they need help with is how to position it, how to sell it, how to make money with it and how to market it. Closing that gap is where he shines. He admits he doesn’t know how technology really works. What he does know is how to show MSPs how to make money selling it.

But it’s more than that, as anyone who’s sat down to have a conversation with Rae knows. He’s a genuinely likable fellow, ready to laugh and listen. It’s nigh on impossible to keep your guard too high around Rae, not because he’s such a great salesman, but because he really wants to get to know you.

“People make human decisions. As long as you’ve got technology that works, [who they’re going to buy from is] going to come down to who they like the most,” Rae explains. “You’d better be the nicest guy in the room.”

That’s hard to do in a company like Datto where just about everyone can be classified as nice — but Rae something extra. He knows he learns more from listening than speaking, and if he can get into a conversation with somebody and break down the barrier between “vendor” and “customer,” then he can learn what keeps Datto’s MSPs up at night. He has that conversation, he says, thousands of times a year with thousands of different MSPs from all over the globe, finding commonalities among their pain points and asking how he can help. Then he takes those back to his team at Datto and tasks them with finding a new idea, a new spin, a new tool that helps those partners have conversations with their end users.

Rae’s goal is to give MSPs the confidence and messaging to overcome sales objections, not through price-cutting or selling on technology, but by telling business stories that alleviate customers’ hesitations. The managed services market is growing by leaps and bounds, but that opportunity won’t last forever. He wants his partners to take a leap of faith in order to take advantage of that opportunity now.

“I’m actually out there telling MSPs right now to raise their prices. A lot of them are like, ‘You gotta to be s***tin’ me. People are telling me that I’m too expensive now, and you want me to raise my prices?’” Rae laughs. “Yeah, I am. Now is the time.”

Buzzwords, Doomsday Predictions and Other Annoying Conversations

From internet of things to cybersecurity to cloud-only solutions, the channel is filled with “now or never” predictions being shouted at partners from vendors, analysts and, yes, the media. It isn’t that these technologies don’t hold any promise, but it drives Rae crazy when they’re presented as opportunities that MSPs have to jump on right now or risk epic failure.

“When you tell a group of business owners their businesses are in trouble, that doesn’t help anything. [Those are] scare tactics and it sucks and you’re just creating ill-will. We’ve heard it over and over again,” Rae scoffs. “’Hardware is disappearing and we’re all going to go out of business. Support is disappearing, it’s all going to be outsourced to India, and we’re all going out of business. The cloud is coming, and Microsoft and Amazon are going to take over all of our customers. We’re all going out of business.’”

Yet the channel, he says, is a beast that just evolves. MSPs aren’t dinosaurs. They’re more like crocodiles. They keep evolving in order to stay on top of everything in the channel food chain. There will always be a need, especially in the SMB space, for IT support. It’s a matter of staying on top of it in a calm and strategic way, not panicking. The cloud has been around in some iteration for 40 years, the internet of things is both ambiguous and overstated, and don’t even get him started on “digital transformation.” What in the world has the channel been up to the last several decades if not supporting their customers through a process of digital transformation? There are no fads in the channel. There are just new technologies that require an evolution in the way partners look at IT and structure their businesses.

That’s not to say there aren’t new opportunities, and Rae says the biggest one is customer education around things like security, cloud and compliance. MSPs have to be able to explain the overarching value proposition of technology to their customers without getting into the weeds about it. When you buy a house, you don’t ask what type of screws were used to build it. You just want to know it will stand up in a storm.

“Datto’s been wildly successful, not just because of our product, but because of our go-to-market strategy. Every MSP needs to think about it from that perspective,” Rae explains. “It’s not the products in your tool belt. It’s how you actually fix whatever problem your end user has.” 

Rob Rae’s Greatest Hit

When Rae looks back at his career at Datto, his favorite moments aren’t landing big deals or traveling the world helping build global channels. True to form, it’s the moments where he’s helped people — not just Datto MSPs, but its employees, too. He’s been able to groom them and help them evolve in his own Rob-Rae way by coaching them on how to listen and training them on how to teach. He feels blessed that Datto has basically given him free rein to do whatever it is that he thinks needs to be done in whatever way he thinks it needs doing. It’s helped build Datto’s channel program into one of the fastest-growing and most dynamic in the industry and grow its people into highly successful players in their own right. 

“When I see my guys on stage collecting awards because of something they’ve done,” he says with pride, “When I see them getting recognized, for example, as one of the top women in the channel or a future leader of the channel — for me, those are my greatest moments.”

It’s this ethos that has made Rae one of the most influential people in the channel. He’s been recognized not only by Channel Partners/Channel Futures, but also individuals like Forrester’s Jay McBain as a mover and shaker that’s helped and continues to help guide the channel into each new iteration. It’s obvious to the industry, but not so much to Rae himself, who in truth is rather embarrassed by such accolades. He isn’t doing anything extra, he explains. He’s just being Rob Rae.

“There are s***ty salespeople everywhere, and they lie and they cheat and they steal to get deals done, and I’ve never done that,” he says with pride. “I just like people. I genuinely care about their success and them as human beings. As long as that sincerity is there, you’re never going to go wrong.”

About the Author(s)

Kris Blackmon

Head of Channel Communities, Zift Solutions

Kris Blackmon is head of channel communities at Zift Solutions. She previously worked as chief channel officer at JS Group, and as senior content director at Informa Tech and project director of the MSP 501er Community. Blackmon is chair of CompTIA's Channel Development Advisory Council and operates KB Consulting. You may follow her on LinkedIn and @zift on X.

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