If I Were Launching an MSP Today: 10 Steps to Consider

Joe Panettieri, Former Editorial Director

July 7, 2011

Generally speaking, I think most MSPmentor readers have been building their managed services businesses for five to 10 years. But what if you were building that business from scratch right now? Here are 10 steps to consider for startup MSPs — though the steps certainly apply to established MSPs that are looking to rethink their strategies for the second half of 2011.

1. Rethink Services: Take a look at ConnectWise CEO Arnie Bellini’s Modern Office blueprint. It’s not sexy. Instead it covers all the basics of IT services — everything from printer management to VoIP. Pieces of the strategy have floated around here and there for about five to seven years. But Bellini crystallized the discussion: Even as big cloud companies move into the SMB market there are dozens of IT services that VARs and MSPs can offer. Bellini made the point last year that VARs and MSPs should focus on help desk and vendor management:

I concede: At first I thought the advice was somewhat basic. Fast forward to the present and I’m starting to see the light. Seems like the best MSPs think of their help desk as an Apple Genius Bar — deliver superior customer experience and your customers will never leave you. Also, as a small business co-owner, I can see the value of vendor management. Our own Web integrator handles a range of vendor relationships for us — which allows us to focus on our core business: online media.

2. Rethink Pricing and Branding: At the recent Schnizzfest conference, TruMethods CEO Gary Pica told MSPs to offer…

  • One Comprehensive Solution: Stop promoting individual ingredients (patch management, remote monitoring, etc.) and instead sell chocolate cake (the total customer experience).

  • One Comprehensive Monthly Price: Stop offering line-item pricing for each ingredient, and instead offer a complete per-user, per-month price that covers everything. Of course you need to figure out your costs before setting a price, but the best MSPs charge more than $100 per user per month for all-in services.

  • A Firm Monthly Minimum: The best MSPs don’t accept business from super-small customers, and insist on monthly engagements that start at about $2,000 per business (roughly).

3. Rethink Cloud: At Schnizzfest, Pica told MSPs that they were over-complicating cloud discussions. He organized and prioritized cloud services into four simple categories for MSPs to pursue. And he reinforced his all-in pricing. Instead of charging a storage fee, a security fee, etc. — just charge a single flat fee (per user) for everything each month.

4. Rethink Devices and Bet the Business on Mobile: During meetings in Silicon Valley this week I’ve heard a consistent theme from Oracle and other major software companies: The big opportunity going forward is for channel partners to deliver a consistent user experience across all devices — desktops, notebooks, netbooks, tablets and smart phones. MSPs that master the mobility challenge are well positioned to profit for years to come.

Bonus: Start spending time at a local college campus. See and learn how students are using mobile devices and related applications.

5. Rethink Target Customers: Sure, focus on SMB. But at the same time pick three verticals to evaluate — perhaps health care, retail and financial services. Assign a specific person in your organization to own/research that vertical for three months. That dedicated person should:

  • Join an association focused on that vertical, and attend relevant meetings.

  • Meet with one target customer per week to learn more about pain points, legacy infrastructure and other information about the vertical.

  • Create a shortlist of horizontal solutions (PCs, networking, VoIP) that can be easily sold into the vertical.

  • Research a shortlist of vertical solutions that the target customers may need.

After the three months of research you should have enough info to evaluate which vertical is a potential long-term target for your business.

6. Rethink Ownership: Avoid the temptation to form a business with a partner who has skill sets that are largely similar to yours. Instead, go into business with peers who operate in different sandboxes — one person focusing on sales, the other on technology, another on financial management, etc. If your ownership team has entirely redundant skill sets you’re raising your monthly overhead without addressing weak spots in your business.

7. Rethink Debt and Lines of Credit: Develop lines of credit before you need them. Partner with vendors’ financing organizations before you need to. Check out the Channel Finance 25 for some potential financial partners.

8. Rethink Your Devices: Don’t spend outrageously on IT, but do carry the latest disruptive devices — tablets, Chromebooks, etc. Tell customers why or why you don’t like your latest device during meetings… Establish yourself as a thought leader on disruptive technologies that can either help or hurt your customers, then figure out how to monetize those learnings.

9. Rethink Talent: While you’re spending time time on local college campuses (see tip 4 bonus, above), be sure to partner up with colleges’ Career Development Centers to find potential interns and entry-level employees. Also, Always Be Interviewing — schedule one meeting per week with a person you’d like to potentially recruit to your company. Even if you don’t have positions open right now all that networking will pay dividends when you’re ready to hire.

10. Rethink Your Exit: Manage your company from Day 1 as if it was publicly held.

  • Track all of your key financial indicators closely — revenues, operating margins, profit margins, EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization), etc. Consider using an open book policy so that employees can get a feel why they need to help manage expenses while driving revenues.

  • Join a peer group organization to see how other MSPs manage their finances.

  • Standardize on PSA (professional services automation), RMM (remote monitoring and management), sales quoting and IT acquisition software to automate as much of your business as possible.

And most of all: Build your own assets. Instead of “reselling” or “brokering” the sale of third-party cloud services, figure out how to build your own branded services to generate monthly recurring revenue (MRR). Keep growing your MRR and profits and you’ll increase your company’s valuation. As your own brand and profits grow, potential suitors will likely seek you out.

In short: Your exit strategy should involve (1) building a highly valuable business rather than (2) focusing on a potential company sale before you’ve even booked your first customer.

What Did I Miss?

Which of the items above directly relate to your business? Which ones miss the mark? And what strategies did I completely overlook? I’m open to constructive criticism. Also, despite the headline I’ve got no plans to ever launch a managed services business because, frankly, I don’t have your skills. I offer the guidance above based on what I hear from a range of MSPs. I look forward to hearing how your business continues to evolve in 2011 and beyond.

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About the Author(s)

Joe Panettieri

Former Editorial Director, Nine Lives Media, a division of Penton Media

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