ConnectWise spends considerable time talking about community and IT Nation -- its term for empowered VARs and MSPs worldwide. But how exactly did a privately held, self-funded software company in Tampa, Fla., build one of the largest annual channel events plus international user groups across North America, Europe and Australia? The surprising answers involve lessons from a gray haired IBM veteran, Geico, General Mills, Kellogg's, Michelin, Novell... and even children's author Richard Scarry. Here's the inside story on ConnectWise's fanatical commitment to branding and community.
During a closed-door conversation with MSPmentor earlier this month, ConnectWise CEO Arnie Bellini and President David Bellini shifted from IT Nation news to the history of ConnectWise. Sure, most MSPs know ConnectWise pushed beyond an IT services company in Tampa to become a global business management software company. In many ways, the ConnectWise "community" has actually turned into a virtual sales team that promotes the company worldwide, asserted ConnectWise VP of Worldwide Sales Adam Slutskin, during a separate MSPmentor briefing.
Step 1: All in the FamilyStill, few people know how ConnectWise actually "built" its brand and a loyal community following.
The short -- but incomplete -- answer involves money. Some ConnectWise watchers think the company simply spends wads of cash on customers (labeled as partners) to build community. But that's a narrow-minded perspective. The far deeper story starts with a gray haired, former IBM salesman: Arnie and David Bellini's late father.
When ConnectWise launched 30 years ago, Arnie and David were in their early 20s. In order to look experienced, they'd pull their gray haired father into customer meetings. The elder Bellini didn't actually work for ConnectWise. But prospects on the other side of the table figured the young guns in the room must be smart if they had a seasoned executive -- the elder Bellini -- backing them.
"We learned marketing from dad; we learned how to present from him," recalls Arnie. "David and I both had financial backgrounds and we soon became very competitive on sales. If he could sell something I had to outdo him."
During the early years, Arnie and David each had a $20,000 per month gross margin quota. The entire business was in a single room, with Arnie and David using back-to-back desks in the same office. By 1996, the duo hired Linda Brotherton to head up ConnectWise's software push.
For its first decade of business or so, ConnectWise hired only one person per year. The big twist: The company didn't make a hire until all existing employees were 100 percent billable. "We stretched the rubber band as far as possible each time before making the next hire in those early years," said Arnie. He and David believe that high-octane work ethic scales to about 10 or 15 employees, but at some point thereafter the team needs to be working more reasonable hours.
Step 2: Have a SMaC Recipe for SuccessDuring the IT Nation conference, keynote speaker Jim Collins describe the need for all businesses to have a SMaC (specific, methodical and consistent ) recipe for success. Arnie Bellini followed up by sharing ConnectWise's SMaC recipe in the Tampa, Fla., IT services industry.
"SMaC is about discipline," said Arnie. "And I learned discipline from David." Indeed, while Arnie comes up with big-picture ideas, David typically provides the reality checks over and over again -- such as when ConnectWise decided to draw a line between its marketing and community budgets (see step 5 much further below).
ConnectWise's big-picture strategy ultimately involves a Pyramid of Success, which includes: (1) best practices based on 30 years of business in August; (2) software; (3) support; (4) education; (5) consulting; (6) community; (7) success. (Side note: I think I'm missing one layer of that pyramid... Any help, readers?)
Step 3: Observe Others, Then Do Even BetterToday, ConnectWise invests about $9 million annually in the IT Nation conference, consulting, education, user groups and other partner-led initiatives. The original idea for ConnectWise Partner Summit and IT Nation came from such events and organizations as US Connect, Novell and Ingram Micro VentureTech.
US Connect during the early 1990s was a Novell Platinum reseller group that involved roughly 24 companies. Novell at the time, led by industry pioneer Ray Noorda (pictured, left), was a master at community building. "We would band together for quarterly meetings, share best practices and gain some great recognition from the vendor community," recalls David Bellini. "We basically became channel advisors to many vendors," added Arnie.
At some point Arnie started thinking, "Let's do our version of the US Connect thing. All we need to do is get partners in the same room and the magic will happen." Years later, the idea for ConnectWise User Groups was eventually hatched. Similarly, the idea for ConnectWise Partner Summit and IT Nation came from attending Ingram Micro's VentureTech gatherings. "We will dare to do even better," Arnie recalls thinking to himself while crystallizing the concept.
Step 4: Bring Your Brands to LifeHave you ever noticed that ConnectWise's brand (and its sister company brands) are "alive?" Examples include:
- The ConnectWise owl
- The LabTech Software humanoid robot
- The Quosal Koala Bear
- Torchy, the mascot for IT Nation
Where did the original idea for living logos and brands come from? The answer involves Arnie Bellini's wife of 24 years, Lauren Bellini.
"The original inspiration for the ConnectWise Owl came from Lauren," said Arnie. "For 17 years she was asking me 'Why doesn't ConnectWise have its own Michelin Man? Where's Snap, Crackle and Pop? Where is your Pillsbury Doughboy?' "
Lauren Bellini was a marketing major back in college. She kept telling Arnie, "You have to have an enduring image that symbolizes the company. And it has to be something that truly has life. People love animals."
Arnie's reply: "No we don’t. IBM doesn’t. Microsoft doesn't. Why should we?"
Finally, Arnie relented -- linking ConnectWise's business knowledge to the owl image. It was an instant hit. More recently, LabTech worked to develop its robot logo. And during a business trip to Australia, Bellini presented Quosal's leadership with the Koala logo as a gift -- long before ConnectWise invested in Quosal.
"If Geico can have a gecko, Quosal can have a quoting Koala," quipped Arnie.
And what about Torchy, the logo for IT Nation? The inspiration, in some ways, came from children's author Richard Scarry, who used the same characters over and over again to draw readers into a picture-filled journey.
Step 5: Separate Community and Marketing BudgetsIn a truly unique move, ConnectWise took the unusual step to separate its community budget from its marketing budget. The move allows marketing to really focus on its ROI without worrying about community expenses that may otherwise seem unconventional. At the same time, Director of Community Jeannine Edwards and her team leverage a dedicated budget to build a fanatical following.
Look across the MSP software market and I doubt any other companies have drawn such a clear line between marketing and community expenses. Plus, the community investment has required a lengthy list of talented folks. For instance, the recent IT Nation event involved about 14 team members rallying to build a successful event:
- Owen Parry
- Jeannine Edwards
- Erinn Davis
- Jessica Kuch
- Andrea Caby
- Rochelle Reyes
- Corie Leaman
- Nathan Caldwell
- Amy Hodge
- Carlos Saldivar
- Kristin Tarpley
- Holly Soule
- Louie Cocchiola
- Kaela Keeley
Step 6: Integrate But Stay OpenSo where does ConnectWise go next? The company vows its APIs (application programming interfaces) will remain open to all software and technology partners. But there's no doubt more synergies between ConnectWise, LabTech and Quosal will emerge by January. At that time, a single sales team will represent all three of the software platforms, said Slutskin.
And in the meantime, each ConnectWise employee seems to be leveraging a SMaC recipe for success.