The Vanguard That Is Valiant, New York’s “Techno Plumber”

After Apple unveiled the iPod, iTunes store and iPhone, the company lifted itself from the financial canvas and went on to become the world’s richest businesses. There was so much money floating around the Apple ecosystem a decade ago that scores of third-party companies got in on the action.


April 28, 2016

19 Min Read
The Vanguard That Is Valiant, New York’s “Techno Plumber”

After Apple unveiled the iPod, iTunes store and iPhone, the company lifted itself from the financial canvas and went on to become the world’s richest businesses. There was so much money floating around the Apple ecosystem a decade ago that scores of third-party companies got in on the action.

One of those was Valiant Technology. For a few years in the 2000s, the company ran one of New York’s more successful Macintosh repair shops. Then Apple opened its third, and then fourth and eventually fifth retail store in the Big Apple. Not long after, Valiant CEO Thomas Clancy recognized that the independent market for repairing Macs was going to go the way of the 3.5-inch floppy drive. So he decided to shutter his company’s Macintosh repair center and focus on professional support services instead.

The decision proved to be prescient.

Computer repair, even for Apple, has became a dog-meat business. But providing IT support to ad agencies, artists, architects, fashion designers and more in and around New York City where Valiant is based? This turned to turned out to be a bold move. Consider the midtown address on 7th Avenue where Valiant resides today. It’s a 24-story building with five businesses, on average, per floor. That’s as many customer prospects as in many medium-sized towns. And New York City? It has hundreds of such buildings with businesses, non-profits and other entities just waiting for Clancy to come knocking, which he did, nonstop, for two whole years.

Since ditching computer repair and embracing managed services, Valiant’s revenue flow has become more predictable. That has made staffing easier. Same with real estate planning and facilities management. While Valiant still provides time and materials contracts to some longtime accounts or under-capitalized startups—it won’t turn down a four-person non-profit whose mission Clancy employees believe in—Valiant has fully embraced managed services.

Today, the company is one of New York’s most progressive MSPs. Valiant literally is taking Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, as the song goes, at least as far as creative types are concerned. Valiant’s value proposition is simple: It caters to the technology needs that customers would rather hand over to someone else. This includes their software upgrades, password protection, regulatory compliance, data security and backup needs just to name a few.

While a talented artist himself, Clancy is perfectly happy to be the “techno plumber” to thousands of fellow creative types in New York and beyond. So are his merry band of technicians, hipsters, musicians and comic book enthusiasts, who collectively inhabit a mid-town office festooned with comic books, guitars and video game collectibles.

Some day, they hope to open an office in West Hollywood or Santa Monica where kindred spirits can be found. Until then, they’ll keep doing what they do in New York, which is building a sustainable business that may not always please vendors but almost always wows customers.

The new vanguard of the MSP market? Read for yourself as Clancy, in his own words, explains why Valiant is rising.

MSPmentor: So tell us about Valiant and your background. Who are your core customers?

Thomas Clancy: Our core customer is what we call the creative industry, [people in] advertising, fashion design, television, art and architecture. I spent 20 years as a professional drummer for a lot of different bands, doing recording and touring. I studied to be an animator and went to a specialized art school here in New York. I spent half of my time doing figure drawing, photography and all that. Unfortunately for my art career, the Quadra Power Mac really started to be a thing when I was in my senior year. Then, the digital world started to come along. I just wasn’t tooled up for [making art with computers] but I was good at fixing them. [Laughs] So I just got better and better at fixing them as my art skills petered out. And the bands I was in never made any real money. But when the guitar player would strum and nothing would come out, I’d be the one who would dive across the stage and plug the cable in. I’ve always been sort of that support crew for artists. So when I started Valiant, it made sense to keep that attitude, that vibe. I like to think of myself as a drummer behind those lead singers… I’m not Freddie Mercury; I’d rather enable Freddie Mercury to sing.

MSPmentor: Some of those customers are very tech savvy and some of them are not so tech savvy. What kind of services do you provide for those very different types of customers? What about the customers who are very self-service oriented? What do they ask you to do as an MSP?

Clancy: They look for us to do the nuts and bolts, the un-sexy aspects of what they do. We work with some organizations under NDA that are quite literally developing the next generation smartphone app. They’re good at that and that’s what they want to focus on. That’s what they pay their people top dollar to do. They really don’t need to deal with “herding” the cloud or organizing backups. We try to organize their disaster recovery plan and secure their firewall. They don’t want to deal with that stuff. They need to focus on pure right-brain stuff. And when it comes down to sitting down and filling out paperwork for the venture capitalist who wants to determine that all of their code bases are in escrow properly and not sitting in an unsecured GitHub account or whatever, they don’t want to deal with it. They trust us to deal with it and we’re very, very happy to take that [responsibility].

MSPmentor: What about customers who have no idea to how to provision all these services for themselves?

Clancy: We consider ourselves—and market ourselves—as a whole IT department. We have on premise resources sitting at a help desk 40 hours a week, covering a customer’s site, doing everything from opening up the server room in the morning and checking the tapes and all that and turning out the lights at night and everything that happens in between. They’ll land at their guy’s helpdesk but they’ll escalate up to us. We have a network guy and a server guy and three more desktop guys that are here so that when we need to do a rollout for 50 workstations it isn’t one guy doing it over the course of six weeks. We can get [things] done in a weekend. And it’s just done because we have the staff. We are a team of 27 and many of our customers are actually smaller than us. But we are a very, very big IT appendage for those customers. So when they say they want to develop an app that does “X,” I can actually understand what they are talking about. I understand the infrastructure requirements that they are going to have. I can provision their Amazon or Azure workspace environment to be ready to go and I grow and scale with them. And when their app gets name-dropped on Oprah, we make sure the server doesn’t fall over, which we have had to do. They don’t want to deal with anything once they hit “save.”

In our world you can make a lot money doing one of two things: You can make the product everybody wants to get their greasy hands on, or you can do the unsexy nuts and bolts sort of things that makes it work. I want to do the unsexy work. We are “techno plumbers” and we are very happy to do the work. We also operate one layer above that as “techno infrastructure architects.” But both are good places to be.


MSPmentor: How has the business changed in the last 24 months?

Clancy: [Business has been] considerably better for us. We’re a heck of a lot bigger and a heck of a lot more profitable; those things go hand-in-glove, thankfully. I think that there are certain spheres that you can grow into. We had spent just enough time in which we were a little bit too busy to remain small, lean and mean, but we weren’t necessarily big enough to support a larger staff. So we had no choice but to staff up and to make sure that we were delivering great service. But the profit margin was razor thin. So I really focused in the last 24 months on a hardcore sales bend. I had two years where I did nothing but sales in this organization. I let operations be run by the crew. I gave my services director carte blanche for hiring and firing. I gave my operations manager a budget to keep the office clean and neat and to make sure the office cleaning lady came in. I focused on sales. I did all of the different trade show tours to try and get an understanding of what the latest was with the vendors and I had an inside sales person sitting and dialing, banging on the phones making a couple thousand sales calls a month. I did five appointments a week, seven appointments a week, eight appointments a week during which I just visited customers. I was just washing hair and changing minds, trying to get people to come and join Valiant.

During this period, I doubled our recurring revenue. In fact, one of the happiest days of my career came a couple of months ago when the payroll was met on the first of the month. So the rest of the month was just pursuing profit. That was a big change for us, the hardcore focus on sales.

In the last three to four months, we’ve had a little bit of indigestion. So I’ve slowed my sales efforts down and gone back to dressing down and being a support member of the crew here. I’ve made modifications to [the office.] We put in a bar. A bookshelf. Turntables. I wanted a place we where could relax at the end of the day and be us. As you can see (he points to technicians sitting at rows of desks outside the conference room window) we are busy.

MSPmentor: The focus on sales… did that come naturally for you?

Clancy: I would say I have the gift of the gab. The sales coach that I worked with, Bob Heiss, is a Sandler sales trainer. The first step of that sales training, which was done years ago, was a personality profile. He slapped his head and said, “Wow, you are really terrible at sales because you have a desperate need for approval, hate being told ‘no,’ and don’t like to be argued with.” All the things that I was supposed to not let affect me I was awful at. And I’m still kind of awful at that stuff. But I’ve gotten a hell of a lot better at controlling a conversation, if not controlling my emotions. So I’m able to do a pitch and be okay if it died and didn’t go anywhere.

MSPmentor: What did you find that resonates with customers?

Clancy: A niche or vertical market focus. Every time we talked with a potential customer, they would say “our IT provider doesn’t know anything about Macs,” or “we’re the only ad agency that he has worked with,” or “they keep recommending a backup solution that can only cover 3 terabytes of data but one of our photo shoots is 3 terabytes,” etc. They want us to know their business, their technology and their industry challenges and everyday realities. Having a niche focus is what makes a difference. When I am talking to a PR firm that is fashion-oriented, it means something when I tell them our team doesn’t take vacations during fashion week. They are surprised. The say, “Oh, you actually know when fashion week is? Our current IT guy has no idea what fashion week is let alone when.” Not only do we know when it is but we promise to dress better than we do at the office. [Laughs]

MSPmentor: Let’s talk about the cloud. What do you consider cloud and what do you not consider cloud? How does it differ today from managed services?

Clancy: Well, managed services is all about a way of engaging customers. The cloud is just a tool for getting work done. But it’s not in and of itself a solution. It’s a hammer, in other words. A hammer is not a house, but a hammer can help you make a house. Similarly, the cloud is not your house; it’s the tool that will help you make it. It will make your business better if you use it correctly. But a managed service provider is the company that will make sure your cloud is the right cloud for you. We make sure your data is safe. We make sure your data and apps are delivered in a smart, functional and secured way.

MSPmentor: Has the cloud enhanced your business or threatened it? Do customers need you more or less as a result of the cloud?

Clancy: We’re very, very happy with what the cloud has done for our business in that it has allowed us to elevate our conversation [with customers.] I can see the cloud being a really dramatic threat to a company that made their bones selling Exchange servers or selling on premise hard disks. I could see the cloud be a really tremendous threat to the manufacturers of these products, as well as the companies that wanted to be in the deep pocket of these manufacturers—so much that they might as well be wearing the polo shirt of these companies. I always thought that was a mistake. I never wore an Apple T-shirt because I’m not an Apple fan. It’s a tool. I can’t be pro hammer or pro screw driver any more than I can be pro Chevy or pro Ford. They are tools. Some people get emotional about these things, but I don’t. I was never particularly a big Mets fan or Yankees fan or Rangers fan or Islanders fan. Why do I care? It’s entertainment. I’m not going to get my heart wrapped up in that.

For me the cloud meant, “Okay, I guess this means I won’t be selling Exchange Server, so I don’t need that skillset.” As a result, that stopped being a skillset that I valued when I went looking for a new employee. So the person I imagine that is threatened by the cloud is the person whose skills are managing on-premise Exchange Servers. That guy is threatened. I own a tech service business. I’m not threatened by the cloud. I just recognize I need guys who understand business intelligence, networking, etc. The people who are threatened are the smaller, sole proprietor, man-with-a-bag trunk slammers who made their bones implementing desktops for people. That’s because these days things out of the box are largely ready to roll. I don’t need to pay you $500 to set up my computer. That’s absurd. What I need from you, Mr. IT guy, is to make sure that I get the right computer, the right SSD and to make sure I have enough RAM in there. Above that, I need someone who can then talk about our line-of-business application.

Real, consultative business intelligence is where we want to be. And the cloud is driving that by eliminating a lot of the low-hanging “BS” tech issues that existed before.

MSPmentor: You’re very candid about vendors. But are you close to any?

Clancy: I’d say we do have a very close relationship with Microsoft. We are in their SMB Champions program and we are working very hard to expand and improve our competencies with them. My Dell/SonicWall relationship is very important to me. That’s a core part of our security delivery business. But to say that we have tight vendor relationships would be inaccurate because I think I frustrate the never-ending hell out of my vendors because the last thing I ever personally want to do is fill out an Excel spreadsheet to explain to them my next quarter projections. I don’t owe that to them. I tell them frequently: “I don’t take your money; I don’t wear your polo shirt; I don’t work for you. I work for Valiant.”

MSPmentor: Shifting gears. Internet of Things: You see yourself dabbling in that anytime soon?

Clancy: I’d love to say “sure,” but I must confess I really don’t get it. If I put a sensor in a basketball and now I can throw the ball and determine how the arc of my basketball is going… I don’t get it. I’m seeing with Nest and Dropcam things that look awfully unappealing. To be engaged heavily in the Internet of Things such as dropping $400 on a thermostat, and then be at risk because Google decides to pull the plug on a product, which Google did…? (Editor’s note: In early April, Google announced that it will remotely turn-off all Revolv home automation hubs in use.)

They didn’t just say “we are no longer supporting these devices.” They said “we are turning them off.” They “bricked” them. People spent $700-$800 on these units and they just got them revoked. Ultimately, this is a battle of “if you cannot hack it, you don’t own it.” “If you can’t break it, you don’t ever own it.” Nobody [in this world] is selling you hardware or software, they are licensing you software and hardware. With software we can wrap our head around that; it’s a virtual engagement. Take Office 365. If I don’t pay, I don’t get my mail. But when something is a physical computer on my desk or a widget on my wall, you cannot just turn that off; I physically own it! But now IoT vendors are saying, “Well no, licensing is licensing. And you can kiss my ass.”

…So this Internet of Things: I can see it being kind of neat. But I can also see it as an awfully egregious way to hook up a vacuum to your wallet… Call me a hippie.

MSPmentor: What are you going to be doing in two years that you aren’t doing today?

Clancy: Heroin? [laughs] I don’t know. My hope is that we are doing more work in the business intelligence space. We are really just getting started with that now. We are taking time-sheet data, making wireless access-point heat maps, etc., so that we can help our customers who have retail locations analyze where people are standing and flowing through their stores. That’s the sort of thing that’s being promised right now, and we are really beginning to sink our teeth into because we recognize that that’s a pure technical challenge that will ultimately [lead] to a business consultative outcome. We are going to do a heck of a lot more interpretation of the data that we are gathering today.

MSPmentor: You talking about going much further than giving them insights on their systems data that you collect. Your talking about putting business data to use, right?

Clancy: That’s our goal. That’s really where we want to start delivering value. Not only will we set up your infrastructure, we will use that setup to give you insight into how we can help you improve your business beyond what we have done today… I think that the successful businesses of the future are going to be ones that recognize that IT is not a department but [something] that is core to every department, and, in fact, is the business.

I had a customer once a long time ago who was a furniture designer say, “I don’t design furniture. I’m in the customer service business. I just happen to make chairs.” To me that makes a lot of sense. People want comfort; they don’t want chairs. So he’s in the comfort business. He gives people a great experience when they put their butts into his chairs. I think in the future that technology is going to be the core aspect of every business. The businesses that are going to succeed, like Tesla, are leading with tech. Every department will be tech… Everyone participates in IT, either destructively or productively. Our goal is to try to get our customers to participate as productively as we possibly can by showing them what they can do.

MSPmentor: Let’s wrap up on your culture. Tell us about it.

Clancy: Our culture here is one of great unity. The way we approach our hiring practice is to determine if people are human first and have a life outside of tech. The first two-or-three interviews that go on here are not technical at all. I’m not interested in what your resume says, where you went to school except to see if I went there too so we can bond about the quad. I don’t care about what [vendor certifications] you have right now. What I really care about is “are you a person?” That to me is really important because engineers that have that stereotypical engineer, geek way are the ones that don’t necessarily have a life outside of technology. And they take their technology recommendations, decisions, plans very personally because that is their life. My guys have a life. They say, “ hey mister customer, you need more storage space and here’s why.” If the customer says “no,” my engineers aren’t going to rend their garments and say, “this person is the worst, they’re so stupid, etc.” They are just going to say “okie dokey” and be very happy to go back to their life and play video games with us, play guitar, collect comic books or go home to their girlfriend or go to church or whatever it might be. They have a life. Their ego is not wrapped up in their recommendations. They are presenting what they think is best and the customer makes the decision.

MSPmentor: There seems to be a curated sort of way here. The bar, the turntables, the comic books, etc.

Clancy: Don’t mistake that for uniformity. I have a Seventh Day Adventist that doesn’t swear, drink or eat meat sitting next to the lead singer in a black metal band who has an upside down cross tattooed on his forearm. And they work actually very closely together on projects and they treat each other with great respect cause it doesn’t matter that they come from completely different walks of life and have completely different outlooks on it because [their] egos aren’t wrapped up in the technology. You treat me with respect, I treat you with respect. Let’s just go about our business and do our job. That’s how we do it.

MSPmentor: If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?

Clancy: If I won the Powerball, I’d probably open a recording studio. I used to work in a recording studio a lot. I would do work at Electric Lady Studios and The Hit Factory. I was [in studio] when Michael Jackson was recording one of his last records. He had an entire floor cleared off. When he was coming into the building they made all the other studios close their doors. Paul Simon was there once at the same time and said, “What the hell? Why don’t you guys treat me like that?” And they said, “you’re not Michael Jackson.”

Be sure to check out five lessons we’ve learned from Thomas Clancy on our sister site, The VAR Guy.

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