Conventional wisdom says VARs and MSPs are strong on technology, yet weak on business and marketing. But ConnectWise CEO Arnie Bellini sees a slightly different challenge facing most IT service providers: A need for leadership development. To address that challenge, Bellini says entrepreneurs and small business executives need to learn how to "fail fast," regroup, and continually move forward.
During an hour-long conversation with MSPmentor last week, Bellini mentioned a bunch of ConnectWise business milestones to me (more on that later). But most of our conversation focused on the broader IT channel, and the current performance of IT service providers. Back in November 2010, Bellini vowed to visit a range of VARs and MSPs to learn more about their businesses, priorities, best practices and areas of challenges.
"In the IT services market, you've got to be on your game every day," said Bellini. "It's not an easy industry. Other service professionals don't have a constant learning curve with new technologies to understand every day. The IT Nation faces that reality."
IT Nation is Bellini's catch-all phrase for VARs, MSPs, IT service providers and other organizations working within the channel to service and support SMB customers.
Where IT Service Providers Fall DownOutside of work, Bellini has been known to compete in the Iron Man competition. And he's currently training to swim the English Channel in mid-2012. During our call, he compared IT services providers to the Iron Man competition -- which has three legs: running, swimming and bicycling. By comparison, IT services providers need to focus on technology, business and leadership. And in most cases, leadership is the weakest part of the IT service provider's capabilities.
"I think big vendors like Microsoft and Cisco do a good job of empowering IT service providers with technology knowledge. It's our job at ConnectWise to give our partners business knowledge. And I think organizations like HTG Peer Groups, led by Arlin [Sorensen], are making people better on the leadership side."
HTG Peer Groups allows VARs and MSPs to meet privately while sharing best business practices. And Sorensen has also teamed up with a few folks to launch Heartland Technology Consultants -- which will focus on some of the leadership challenges Bellini mentioned.
Discovery ModeDuring recent trips to IT service providers, Bellini said he treated the visits like anthropology efforts. "You slowly solve the riddle -- the challenges facing each business -- through deeper research and finding commonality among your business partners," he said.
On the business front, Bellini said, ConnectWise is developing some AI (artificial intelligence) capabilities into its software to help partners systemize solutions to their daily business challenges.
Generally speaking, Bellini thinks IT service providers are more upbeat now compared to a year ago. "The economy clearly, to me, has turned around worldwide. You can see an upward momentum. Partners are busier and more profitable. I think Q1 2012 has generated a sigh of relief from IT Nation. We can all relax -- just a little bit -- in terms of have confidence in the economy improving."
Fail Fast, Adjust, Run ForwardStill, leadership remains one area where IT service providers can more more improvements.
"The key on all of it, it’s cliché, is truly understanding the concept of leadership," said Bellini. "It's absolutely about finding and attracting the very best people to work with you. If you really focus and mentor those people and do not micro manage them, you'll succeed. At heart I think entrepreneurs are micro managers. But you need to learn how to believe that others can do it as well as you -- or good enough. You’ll drive yourself crazy if you always think you can do it best."
Bellini is calling on IT service providers to "flip their philosophy, mentor people and let them make mistakes. Run fast. Fall flat on your face, then get up fast and run fast to a new goal. Failing fast is the mantra around here."
Fail fast is a familiar term in the business market. And Bellini is the second CEO to mention a "fail fast" mentality to me in recent years. Amy Katz (my business partner) and I had dinner with Digium CEO Danny Windham about two years ago, and he described how Digium -- the open source IP PBX promoter -- has a fail-fast DNA. The strategy is to get new concepts out to customers and partners quickly, see what sticks, make adjustments rapidly, and kill initiatives that don't catch on.
The IT Services ExampleNow imagine a VAR or MSP launching one new service each quarter, adjusting the service in month two of the quarter based on customer feedback, then killing or building onto the service in Q3.
Lead. Fail fast. Adjust regularly. That about sums up Bellini's mindset for IT Nation going forward.