Posted 21 October, 2016 • by Craig Sharp
As an MSP, you no doubt have attended one or more large IT conferences in the past few years. Vendors frequently hold events to promote their services and explain how they can add value to small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), but there are few events that are ‘vendor neutral’ and entirely focused on IT professionals, their specific interests or their personal and professional development.
After 20+ years of providing IT services to UK SMEs, I still benefit from attending events like CompTIA’s UK EMEACon16, which was held in London last week. Over the course of two days, I was able to network and learn from peers, as well as walk away with new insight on the direction of the technology industry as a whole. So what were some of the conference’s main takeaways?
For those unfamiliar with CompTIA, the non-profit trade association advances the global interests of IT professionals and IT channel organisations and enables them to be more successful with industry-leading IT certifications and IT business credentials, IT education, resources and the ability to connect with like-minded IT industry experts.
To this last point, it’s no exaggeration to say that CompTIA EMEACon is the largest single gathering of UK MSPs and IT professionals held each year. This year, there were around 50 vendors exhibiting in the main hall and around 200-300 attendees actively engaging in educational, vendor neutral sessions and channel discussions.
The first day concluded with an energising keynote from Founder, Owner and Chairman of 4J Studios, Chris van der Kuyl. Have you ever played Minecraft? His company, one of the UK’s most successful videogame developers, is responsible for the multi-million selling and multi-award winning game!
In his address, Chris shared his beliefs on how technology has changed the employment landscape. He explained that many formally educated programmers and coders now face increased competition from new “gorilla coders,” those who can search Google for code that does “X” and then mash-up that code with more which does “Y” and “Z.” “Who needs a degree in computer programming” says Chris, “when you can just search Google and make up code on the fly?”
The resulting program might not be the most elegant, but it works and that level of rapid prototyping allows ideas to come to market quickly. In fact, with speed being of the essence in today's increasingly competitive world of technology, we may see more of a shift from a "learn then implement" to a "learn as you go" approach to work. That’s how disruption starts, and that’s how you get new ideas like Uber launching and growing in a way never seen before - that’s both fascinating and scary for those who can’t keep up.
Author, consultant and entrepreneur, Charlie Hutton, offered another thought-provoking presentation, which focused on the burning issue so many MSPs and IT professionals voice: Marketing.
Charlie started off by advising all the IT professionals in the room to stop worrying about solely gaining website visitors or HITS, because HITS (as we all should know) is an acronym for How Idiots Track Success. Yes, you need to drive traffic to your website – and he shared how to use social media and online sources to do this – but that's the just the beginning. When a user lands on your home page, what are you doing to engage them? Are you answering their questions, addressing their business pain points, encouraging further activity on your site and capturing contact information? Charlie explained that you need to track how many HITS convert into leads. If people are coming to your website and you have no way of qualifying that traffic, you won't be able to judge the effectiveness of your site content.
What is considered effective Web activity? Many IT professionals mistakenly believe the only website conversion that matters is a purchase, but only including "Buy from Us" buttons alienates the rest of your visitors who may not be ready to purchase your solution yet. You need to break your website user experience down into a more nuanced range of possible outcomes to appeal to visitors at all stages of the buyer's journey. Charlie demonstrated simple, digestible and practical solutions for how to do this. For example, getting visitors to make "micro-commitments" by leaving their name and email address and offering them valuable content, such as a newsletter or eBook, is a great way to gain trust and build relationships online.
Overall, Charlie's presentation about inbound marketing and lead generation seemed to resonate with the MSPs in the room. For many of us, we generate the bulk of our business through referrals, so learning how to leverage our websites and content in building our sales pipelines was eye-opening!
Day two started with a fascinating session by award-winning journalist, broadcaster and author, Paul Mason. Paul talked about the new economics that information technology yields. He explained that the accepted capitalism model is mishapen by a world dominated by "information work." As such, this work can be difficult to fit into a standard tax model, which explains the results we have witnessed in recent years. Indeed, there has been limited tax paid by large multinational technological companies whose activities transcend national boundaries.
Paul suggested that "work" is the key to a postcapitalist future and in the MSP world, that’s the one commodity which is undervalued. By this I mean that many MSPs continue to "push tin" with the result that they see squeezed margins and lower income. Paul’s observations indicate that in the future, your business focus should be the "knowledge work" you complete as MSPs, not the tin you sell. In other words, your real value and sticking point with SMEs is your proactive IT service delivery, not hardware sales.
CompTIA EMEACon brings together the UK MSP and IT community which, in my opinion, is the single most valuable learning experience for attendees of the event.
Running a managed IT services business can be very lonely, especially for the owner who is often dealing with a wide variety of daily challenges. Being able to talk, and I mean really talk, to someone that fully understands the business pressures you face is very rare. So getting the chance to meet your industry contemporaries in a relaxed, collaborative setting allows you to chat, divulge and share tips of the trade not only in seminars and round table discussions, but also in after-hour meet-ups.
In my conversations with peers, I learned that MSP owners often fail to establish a partnership with their vendors. Many had tried to maintain control of their daily business operations and were unable to manage everything internally. Others didn't understand how vendors could act as their partner, support their efforts and fill that void. If this sounds like you, I urge you to consider these 10 red flags when evaluating or working with an IT management platform provider. Your vendors should support your business growth and scalability, not inhibit it. If you're not able to offload any time-consuming and labour-intensive work to your provider, you may consider making a switch.
All MSPs should look into attending industry events focused on personal and professional development, like CompTIA EMEACon. You get the opportunity to network with people running businesses like yours, encountering similar challenges and perhaps implementing different solutions worth applying in your own daily business processes.
If you’ve never heard of CompTIA, check them out and explore their extensive online library of educational resources.
I also insist you attend any of their upcoming events to keep your finger on the pulse of the IT channel. Who knows? Maybe it’ll be the best thing you do all year!
Craig Sharp is the founder of MSP Wingman based in Birmingham, UK. Retaining a stake in local MSP Abussi Ltd, Craig has a proven record in managing, growing and transitioning an MSP from break-fix, through VAR and into a true Managed Services Provider over the past 20+ years. Craig believes passionately that the key to IT / MSP business success is reducing the tech, and building business focused relationships. Additionally, Craig helps smaller IT / MSP businesses grow through targeted and innovative marketing approaches. Most importantly Craig has a passion to educate and inform. Follow Craig on Twitter @MSPWingman or #MSPWingman.