Arnie Bellini on ConnectWise: ‘Never Saw How Big it Would Get’
Arnie Bellini was working as a technology consultant for Price Waterhouse in 1981, building out a practice area focused around the newly emergent personal computer.
“It was a miserable failure,” the co-founder and CEO of software vendor ConnectWise told MSPmentor recently.
Networks were still primitive and unreliable, prompting one his colleagues at the time to dub them “not-works.”
Price Waterhouse’s 1982 decision to pull the plug on the fledgling PC practice in many ways laid the groundwork for what would become one of the revolutionary brands in IT services.
Trying to keep those early networks operating was proving more trouble than it was worth to Price Waterhouse, and customers weren’t paying their bills.
“It led to them basically telling me ‘hey, look, you’re great at mainframes and mini-computers, we’re going to put you back on that,’” Bellini recalled. “I said ‘no, I can’t do it.’ I just saw the future right there.”
It was obvious to him that networks would soon come of age and not be “not-works.”
He was also convinced that PCs would empower small businesses to become much more productive.
“I was committed to that vision and that future, and I believed it was going to happen and so I quit,” Bellini said.
He won the blessing of Price Waterhouse to take the seven clients he had assembled and – along with his brother, David – set up his own shop: the Tampa-based solutions provider ConnectWise IT.
“That’s when we opened our doors,” Arnie Bellini said of the 1982 launch. “We started off with seven clients as our book of business.”
It was hardly overnight success, but 1985 became known as “the year of the network” and momentum eventually came.
“Five years into it, networks started working,” he said. “We started just implementing all kinds of networks in the Tampa Bay area and our business just started growing at 30 percent a year, sometimes 50 percent a year.”
‘Our lives completely changed’
As with most tales of rapid growth, it was great – and not so great.
The company had scaled to 10 employees and the demands of the business were beginning to overwhelm its owners.
“That’s when the stress and the fractures and the fissures started to show up,” Bellini said. “Our ability to coordinate, our ability to sort of manage the business and take control of the business was gone…It was just David and I. We were just working our butts off.”
They were using five different applications to run the business, among them: “Act!” for contact management, Microsoft Project for project management and “some little weird homegrown thing” for ticket management, the CEO said.
Scheduling was done on a big whiteboard.
“(We) somehow cobbled together five different apps to create invoices,” Bellini recalled. “It was total chaos.”
As the business grew, the inefficient operations were taking a real toll on the founders.
They were working long hours and weekends.
Family time was suffering.
Arnie Bellini was missing his son’s baseball games.
“It was 1987 when we started saying ‘this isn’t right,” he said. “We can’t survive this way. We certainly can’t grow.”
The founders decided that the answer to their operational woes was to implement more sophisticated technology.
“We looked around and we were looking for an application that was purpose-built for technology companies,” Bellini said, “one that brought everything together into one pane of glass.”
“We couldn’t find it,” he went on. “We decided to create it for ourselves.”
They knew exactly what they wanted in the solution, they just needed to find someone to build it.
“So I hired Linda Brotherton; she’s still with us today,” Bellini said. “She still runs the team that she’s always run, that created the solution.”
Linda had been a fellow technology consultant at Price Waterhouse.
“Linda was brilliant,” he said. “She just came over. I don’t know how or why. She just had faith in me, I guess, and she decided to come over and join this crazy band of people that were trying to change the world with technology.”
Even in those earliest versions, it was clear that ConnectWise was onto something.
“What was cool was, as soon as we put ConnectWise in, we started pumping 40 percent to the bottom line,” Bellini said. “Our lives completely changed.”
A dream come true
The early professional services automation (PSA) software enabled a sea change in the way the business was run.
Arnie Bellini and Brotherton in 2009
“It was just taking this mass chaos and putting us into control,” he said. “We built it to fit us perfectly. We knew exactly the specifications and what we needed, so that was easy.
“My working relationship with Linda made it super simple.”
“What we did, we actually iterated to the answer,” Bellini continued. “We weren’t trying to create a software solution that would resell. We were trying to create a software solution that would give us our lives back.
“And we knew it would allow us to scale.”
Brotherton moved full-time into the ConnectWise IT offices, where developing the tool became a top business priority.
“We were willing to invest a lot of money every year into making this dream come true,” Bellini said.
The research and development was self-funded.
“We organically funded it,” he explained. “We were making 40 percent to the bottom line so we had the means to fund it; we had that covered.
“We were just reinvesting. Instead of taking the money home, we were putting it right into the software because we knew that it was going to pay dividends to us.”
Word of the ConnectWise software began to spread among others in the IT services community.
“That was my ‘Eureka’ moment,” Bellini recalled. “They were very curious and I started getting them tapping me on the shoulder one-by-one saying ‘hey, man, can you give me a copy of that because I want to try it in my office.’ And so we started doing it.”
But the more widely the software was shared, the more questions flooded in from users.
“It became a business because it was like, whoa, we were getting phone calls: ‘Hey how do I do this? How do I do that?’” he explained. “And so we said…we better hire someone for support.”
Business excellence freak
The CEO described ConnectWise as an “accidental software company,” but the vendor’s success is hardly happenstance.
Bellini taught entrepreneurship as a teaching assistant, while earning his MBA.
Marketing the ConnectWise solution offered a unique intersecting of his passions.
“I’m a business excellence freak and always have been,” he said. “I’m also a big entrepreneurial freak…I learned deeply of the challenges that entrepreneurs have.”
In the three decades since the ConnectWise PSA hit the market, it’s changed a fair bit.
“Obviously it’s evolved,” Bellini said. “This is probably our…I’m going to guess that we’re on our 70th version of it.
“You want to compare Microsoft Word version 1.0 to what you’ve got today, it would be that same factor.”
For starters, the current ConnectWise – rich as it is in features and functionality – is still easier to use than the earliest versions.
“Way easier,” Bellini said. “And it connects to everything in the ecosystem… ConnectWise has a very, very large number of integration partners: 165 to be exact, and growing very quickly.
“It’s not just about what we do and the solutions that we provide, but it’s about all these integrations that we’ve made to so many other amazing solutions in the ecosystem.”
The market for IT services is only continuing to grow, which in turn should be good for ConnectWise, Bellini said.
“Technology is taking over everything,” he said. “So many companies are now becoming technology companies.
“I never foresaw, for instance, that we would be selling to audio/visual companies. They’re not technology companies. No, they weren’t 15 years ago, but today they are because everything is running over Ethernet cable connecting to the Internet… It’s all gone digital.”
Bellini said he’s humbled by what ConnectWise has come to mean to the solution provider ecosystem.
“I knew it was possible but I never saw how big it would get,” he said. “We basically pitched a tent on the top of a very small hill and that hill has become a mountain…it’s grown from right underneath us, organically.”
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