CompTIA Acquires MSP Partners: Here's the Impact

CompTIA Acquires MSP Partners: Here's the Impact

msp_partnersAfter several months of quiet discussions, CompTIA has acquired MSP Partners. The deal could have broad implications for managed services providers, vendors, VARs and rival associations like the MSPAlliance. But there's a bigger story here: CompTIA plans to connect the dots between managed service providers and end-customers. Here's why MSPs should care.

First, a little background. According to the official press release issued today:

"CompTIA, the leading trade association for the global information technology (IT) industry, and MSP Partners announced today that they will join forces, bringing together two leaders in education, events and research for the burgeoning global market for managed IT services. CompTIA said it has entered into an agreement to assume the operations of MSP Partners, subject to closing conditions."
I don't know the terms of the "closing conditions." But let's assume the deal gets done. Now, let's explore what the business combination potentially means to the following parties:
  1. CompTIA and MSP Partners
  2. MSPs, VARs and their end-customers
  3. The MSPAlliance
  4. Level Platforms (among MSP Partners's co-founders)

Two Voices, One Industry

In a prepared statement, CompTIA President and CEO Todd Thibodeaux states:
“CompTIA’s mission is to further the interests and growth of the IT industry. We’re fulfilling this mission by creating a series of robust vendor-neutral communities for the IT channel. The addition of MSP Partners to our managed services community positions us as the leading voice for managed services.”
Those six words -- "the leading voice for managed services" -- seem familiar. And they set the stage for a showdown with the MSPAlliance, which openly asserts:
"For nearly 10 years, the MSPAlliance has been the only unified voice for the managed services industry, and the only organization that promotes the highest level of professionalism, reliability and integrity."
Two separate, competing voices -- CompTIA and MSPAlliance -- making similar claims. This is going to get interesting.

Isn't It Ironic

In some ways, the CompTIA-MSP Partners deal involves touches of irony:
  • CompTIA is well-known for developing IT industry certifications such as A+ and Network+. But CompTIA didn't embrace early opportunities in the managed services market, leaving the door open for alternative educators -- including MSPAlliance, MSP University, MSP Services Network and a range of industry coaches, authors and pundits.
  • CompTIA's early managed services indecision, sources say, was one of the key factors that inspired multiple IT vendors to launch MSP Partners in 2007. MSP Partners' co-founders included Cisco Systems, Intel, Ingram Micro, Level Platforms and Microsoft.

The New Deal

CompTIA's Thibodeaux has been overhauling the association since joining as CEO in mid-2008. On the managed services front, CompTIA has launched a Managed Service Provider Executive Forum, MSP-oriented content at the annual Breakaway conference, and MSP Regional Workshops. Those seem to be steps in the right direction.

Meanwhile, MSP Partners has enjoyed substantial success. Since launching in 2007, MSP Partners has attracted 5,000 members and more than 40 sponsors, according to a prepared statement. And today, MSP Partners will host a virtual trade show involving much of the managed services industry.

Still, some IT vendors expressed competitive concerns about joining MSP Partners. The reason: Some critics alleged the organization was too closely associated with Level Platforms, the developer of remote monitoring and management software.

So, the CompTIA-MSP Partners deal essentially kills two birds with one stone:
  • By acquiring MSP Partners, CompTIA proves it's serious about managed services education
  • By shifting ownership to CompTIA, MSP Partners mitigates potential concerns about vendor influence over the organization
Also of note: Jim Hamilton, executive director of MSP Partners, is joining CompTIA and will lead the association's managed services community, including the MSP Partners program. That's another win for CompTIA. With Hamilton on board, CompTIA gains one of the best-known leaders in the managed services market. During a phone conversation this morning, Hamilton said it's "business as usual" in terms of his focus on serving and growing the MSP community. "But now, the business gets even better," he quipped.

MSPs, VARs and Your End Customers

As I indicated, there's a bigger story here. And it involves end customers.

For years, many VARs and MSPs have struggled to articulate the value of managed services to potential customers. Fact is, many end-customers -- including some CIOs -- don't understand the value of managed services, and related MSP accreditations and certifications.

The MSPAlliance has tried over the years to reach out to consumers (you'll find information at the bottom of this web page). But I don't sense that the effort has gained critical mass.

Now, consider the situation at CompTIA. Some outsiders think CompTIA is primarily a channel organization. But in reality, most of the people who earn CompTIA certifications work within end-user organizations.

Already, CompTIA is connecting the dots between managed services and those end-user organizations. For instance, CompTIA notes:
"A new CompTIA survey of end-user customers found that about half use a managed services provider for at least some of their IT-related activities. Among all end-users surveyed, nearly 30 percent expect their use of an MSP to increase in the next one to two years. Among MSPs surveyed, 90 percent of firms forecast an increase in their company’s managed services revenues over the next year."
VARs, MSPs and vendors could potentially benefit from CompTIA's end-user dialog. Already, MSP-oriented software providers like Autotask, N-able and Nimsoft are working with MSPs to target midmarket customers and internal corporate IT departments. Imagine if more of those end-customers understood the value of managed services before the VAR or MSP made their sales pitch. Corporate resistence to managed services would decline and MSP sales cycles would shorten.

The MSPAlliance: Healthy Competition

No doubt, the CompTIA-MSP Partners combo will compete with the MSPAlliance for the hearts and minds of managed service providers worldwide.

But let's keep things in perspective. In the IT world, some people run Windows. Others run MacOS. And a third camp runs both. I suspect the same will be true in the managed services market, where some folks will prefer education and networking with MSPAlliance, others will prefer CompTIA-MSP Partners, and some will leverage both.

The MSPAlliance positions itself as the largest, oldest organization focused purely on managed service providers. Members like Anexio and HEIT often tell me the MSPAlliance's member programs (particularly green IT and legal guidance for MSPs) are of high value. But there's that nagging challenge with accreditation: Until more end customers demand it, accreditation remains mostly industry jargon discussed within MSP circles.

I haven't had a chance to ask MSPAlliance President Charles Weaver for his reaction to the CompTIA-MSP Partners deal. The reason: Officially, news about the deal doesn't exist until it's announced at 10 a.m. eastern today. I plan to publish this blog entry right at 10 a.m., then I'll reach out to Weaver and other industry leaders for their reaction. (Update: Here are Weaver's thoughts.)

Growing Up Together

As CompTIA and MSP Partners strive to march forward together, it's important to note that the two organizations have maintained an extensive working relationship since MSP Partners launched in 2007.

But not all of the efforts have worked out as planned.
Still, CompTIA and MSP Partners have also enjoyed some strong victories together. The August 2009 CompTIA Breakaway conference attracted numerous MSPs, and MSP Partners had a strong presence at the event.

Under CEO Thibodeaux's leadership, CompTIA has positioned itself as the Switzerland of IT education, research and events. Even as CompTIA marches forward with MSP Partners, I think it's safe to assume that CompTIA will maintain healthy relationships with MSP University, MSP Services Network, IPED (the Institute for Partner Education and Development, owned by Everything Channel) and a range of media companies.

Old wounds between Everything Channel and CompTIA also seem to be healing -- though that's a long blog entry (or perhaps even a novel) for another day.

The Upside for Level Platforms

The CompTIA-MSP Partners deal also represents a major inflection point for Level Platforms.

By co-launching MSP Partners in 2007, Level Platforms' management team (particularly CEO Peter Sandiford and VP of Partner Development Dan Wensley) deserves credit for helping to rally vendors and channel leaders around the managed services movement. But sometimes being a leader can be painful. Some conspiracy theorists worried Level Platforms somehow controlled or unduly influenced MSP Partners' every move.

I certainly see both sides of the story: I think MSP Partners worked overtime to ensure the organization was vendor neutral. But on the other hand, critics accurately raised concerns about MSP Partners' offices being located in the halls of Level Platforms. The CompTIA-MSP Partners combo eliminates those concerns -- whether they were warranted or not.

Next Steps

Where do we go from here? Managed services education is a marathon, rather than a sprint. Whether you work with CompTIA-MSP Partners or MSPAlliance (or both), continue to take a long-term view of the market. And be thankful that multiple associations are competing to help you grow your business.

Some parting disclosures: MSPmentor does consulting work from time to time for CompTIA. We also have a media relationship with MSP Partners. Our editorial operations cover MSPAlliance news but we haven't done any joint work with that association.

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