SMB Nation Blog

SMB Nation has been serving the Bainbridge Island area since 2001, providing IT Support such as technical helpdesk support, computer support, and consulting to small and medium-sized businesses.

Overcoming the Challenges of Starting a Business

Every entrepreneur faces challenges which need to be dealt with persistently and regularly, though few would disagree such difficulties are more prevalent than when you are starting your business.

Sage collaborated with business owners and entrepreneurial support groups to Start up Challenge 1understand the common trials new leaders face, offering guidance to give you the best opportunity when starting your enterprise.

Marketing & Costing

Every new business marketing strategy should begin by examining its competition. If they are successful, find out where they are advertising and how. Use their same marketing techniques to give your own business a jump-start.

Once customers are visiting your store or website, if they are not making purchases, don’t adjust your prices. If you think they are fair, others will, too.

Instead, it is likely they aren’t convinced by your business. Ensure your website is modern-looking and using high-quality images, advertise your most high-end clients by publishing testimonies or getting permission to feature their logos, and offer incentives, like discounted prices.

Customer Contact Information

Most websites feature pop-ups which invite users to sign up to the business’ e-mail campaign so they can stay updated, though it may surprise you that the most effective place for this link is actually on the About page; Blog Tyrant noticed it’s the same customers that are interested in learning about your business that want to know more later, too.

This process can be a little trickier for brick-and-mortar stores, but instead of just asking purchasers to leave their contact information at the till, you can increase the number of sign-ups and purchasers in one go by placing your sign-up forms throughout the store alongside purchase incentives.

Admin

As much as every entrepreneur wants to focus on generating income, every business has to deal with administration. Fortunately, the digital age is making this easier than ever.

From hiring an online virtual assistant who can help you from anywhere in the world, to utilising smart applications, which can do anything from managing your business’ finances to enabling small teams to collaborate and share files, cloud-technology is reducing the time business owners need to dedicate themselves to repetitive and mundane tasks.

Relevant Technology

From AI applications and social media trends, to building responsive websites, technology is changing quickly. Even after following all the best-practice guidance available, one new piece of technology can be enough to cast your enterprise into obscurity.

Thus, it is essential to try and stay on top of the latest trends and innovations which might be relevant to your business strategies. Task your employees with each tracking a key technological area and meet for monthly updates. Alternatively, listen to business-technology podcasts in your free time or hire a virtual assistant to provide you with reports.

Of course, these are only the most common challenges business leaders confront when starting a venture, but the underlying lessons can apply to the majority of issues. Use your competitors’ strategies to break into their customer base, entice customers with attractive displays and incentives, and stay up-to-date on relevant technology that can improve customer experience and make your job easier.

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Cloud Computing Security: How the Cloud keeps your Data Secure

It's your critical business data, secure It.

The most important part of a computer isn't the processor or RAM, it's the data.

Pictures, email, documents, records, files, passwords, it's all data. Keeping it safe is paramount in today's world.

For data security, it's hard to beat the cloud.

What Is The Cloud?

In simple terms, the cloud consists of computer servers maintained by an entity or cloud security 1company with an Internet connection in a secure location. With massive and multiple hard drives, they store and provide access to data.

For anyone with an Internet connection (via home Internet or cellular service), there is access to that data. For example, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, and Dropbox.

Advantages of Cloud Computing

Most people don't like keeping their own "things" in someone else's location. Data is no different. Who wants someone else holding their data? But there are advantages to using a cloud server for data, especially essential data.

Professional Management of Your Data

For those not in the field of IT, it's doubtful that we employ best practices for data safekeeping. Most of the data on our computers is stored in files without encryption and in directories easily located. Access to our computers is access to just about everything about us, including bank accounts, online accounts, friends, and relatives. It makes sense to put precious data in the hands of companies dedicated explicitly to securing it.

Constant, Secure Backup Off Premises

Most people don't think about data backup, but that doesn't make it any less important. Wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods do happen, and after a disaster has occurred is the wrong time to think about disaster recovery of your valuable data.

Cloud-stored data is not just "out there;" it's securely stored and backed up consistently.

Redundancy Means Reliability

Cloud storage is more than a single server. Most individuals, and even small businesses, store data in one location. Not the cloud.

A cloud service using best practices stores redundant data in at least two locations so that even if one location is inaccessible for some reason, your data is still safe.

Failure is Not an Option -- It's Inevitable

According to a 2013 article showing some extensive testing, 1 in 5 hard drives will fail within three years, and 1 out of 2 will fail within five years.

Randomly, there is a 1 in 8 chance that your hard drive will fail. That means anything you store locally is more likely to be lost within five years than not. Again, after the disaster occurs is no time to start worrying about data backup.

Spyware, Viruses, and Ransomware, Oh My!

For large companies (like Equifax, Target, Home Depot, etc.), hacking is the primary threat to data. For the rest of us, malware is our most significant threat, and especially ransomware as it threatens to lock or delete our data.

There are many methods for preventing ransomware, but the only failsafe way to preventing threats to your data is to have your data beyond threat.

A data backup, away from an infected computer, means that even if your computer gets infected, your data is safe and can be recovered. Threat neutralized.

Your Own DaVinci Code

During World War II the Nazis used the "Enigma machine" to send coded messages. Cloud data storage has its enigma machine for data, encryption.

Your connection to cloud data is only sent over secure connections using, in most cases, 128-bit or 256-bit encryption. How secure is that? A secure password using 128-bit, it would take more than 1 billion years to crack, even for a government agency. Next, to the PIN or weak password on a local computer, the difference in security is immeasurable.

Make it Rain! Or Maybe Just "Cloud"y

Moving data to the cloud is often a simple process, but it comes with a lot of considerations. Among those factors is choosing the provider. However, there are many more that you need to pay attention to as well.

Choosing Data

What data do you want in the cloud? Files, folders, or maybe even an entire image of the computer (files and operating system) can be backed up. And consider space too.

Pictures, video, data, and audio files can reach gigabytes of data in a hurry. If there is a business at stake as well, all of those files need to be securely stored in the cloud. Disaster recovery for business, no matter the size, is no small matter.

Cloud Pricing

Depending on what you send to the cloud, there may be a cost associated with it.

Free services are for personal use, not large companies. Often only offer limited space (under 20GB), which may hold your most essential files, but it certainly won't hold everything. The cost will increase the more you store and if you want several versions of it.

Don't sell yourself short to save a buck. Multiple backups (for file recovery) are worth it with a data center that specializes in cloud backup solutions..

To the Cloud...and Back

Don't forget your speed. Sending 300 gigabytes of data to the cloud, and retrieving it, can take a long time. Continual updates are also something to keep in mind.

Cloud backup needs a fast, reliable connection. You never know when you're going to need what you have or are sending to the cloud, so eliminating risk must be part of your consideration.

It's About the Security of Your Data

If your data is important at all, it needs to be secure.

Computer theft, computer failures, malware, natural disasters, and other problems make local data storage a risky business.

The cloud is, by far, the more reliable and secure data storage location for what matters to you most, your data.

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Look Back: Partner to Partner Motion

Reflecting back on the recent Continuum Navigate conference (October 2017, Las Vegas), what has stuck with me is how community is still alive. As Mark Twain famously said “…reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” I offer two use cases to demonstrate how partners are speaking to partners: one was a speaker and another was an interview.

Josh Weiss (president and founder, L.A. Creative Tech). Weiss delivered “Strategic Thinking: vCIO and Consulting Services for Growth” to a handsome audience where he emphasized the opportunity to enhance MSP offerings by providing strategic consulting and holistic solutions that can scale productivity for clients. In short, Weiss spoke towards thinking outside the server box. It’s a popular speaker’s paradigm as the stark reality of being a “percentage of recurring revenue” sales agent for Microsoft’s Office 365 solution has quickly proven to be an unsustainable business model.

“We’re at a time where business strategy and technology strategy have converged.” Weiss started. “There really is a need to understand how technology is inseparable from business strategy. A former General Electric CEO said at a recent technology conference, ‘IT Pros need to stop being so passive…the role of technology is THE most important function inside a company’ and I believe it.”

joshweisspic2

Figure 1: Weiss speaking at the recent Continuum Navigate conference in Las Vegas.

Weiss went on to deliver three main points in his speech supporting the above opening.

  • Create and sell productized vCIO services that will add value to your current portfolio. Take away real service wireframe overviews you can start delivering straight away.
  • Think strategically in order to provide creative solutions and tools that give you a competitive edge. Weiss shared an example of a cost of downtime ROI calculator (several SMB MSP ISVs offer this) where you can show a business is losing something like $10,000/hour when the IT infrastructure is “down.” One caveat – I challenged Weiss about the downtime calculator with respect to recapturing the downtime. That is, if Firm A is down for an hour, can said hour of productivity be recaptured over the course of a year (say 2000+ business hours). It spurred a good audience conversation and one expert shared that, regardless of the ROI downtime calculator is that “we’re talking” as in talking business matters with the client.
  • Most important - talk business instead of tech; one of the essential requirements to shift from technician to consultant.

One highlight was how Weiss involved the audience. I drew the short straw and was summoned to the stage (as a small business owner) to participate in a quick exercise with Raj Goel of Brainlink International (acting as the MSP) who asked me “Harry – what things would you like to do less of and would make you happier?” I offered that less time focused on operations and more time focused on business development. Goel asked what is business development to me. The answer is easy: attending conferences, social events at night, and external business meetings. Goel suggested that I needed to read “The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich” by Timothy Ferriss. Not only have I read the book, tolerating a large Ferriss ego between the pages, but I’ve used his methodology in running SMB Nation to free up my time to make outside portfolio investments beyond the SMB MSP tech space, but that’s for another day entirely.

James Harris (President at Xlingshot). Leading by example, Continuum suggested I speak 1:1 with one of its partners. He’s focused on verticals such as not-for-profits. We had a non-agenda, open dialog with no scripted talking points. Harris emphasized his use of Continuum has allowed him to have a high utilization rate. “Use the tool; not babysit the tool” Harris said. a first-time attendee running a 15+ year old MSP practice, Harris shared that he’s used the RMM solutions from Continuum for just over three years.

Community involvement. Harris participates in the MSP community via HTG and ASCII. “I see a lot of benefit from it.” Digging deeper, I discovered Harris is a big participant in the former Microsoft Community Connections (MCC) program with speaking engagements at the Colorado CPA society, etc. Harris has enthusiastically attended the Denver Tech Expo that is promoted by Platte River Networks (another Denver MSP) and it’s go getter David DeCamillis. In other industries those two might consider themselves competitors (which I guess they technically are) but the SMB MSP community still has cooperative mojo and thus my blog theme of partner to partner.

Bottom-line: I concluded that Harris has grown his thriving practice with a commitment to ethics (a lost art). “At Xlingshot, we believe in fair and honest business practices.” Harris concluded.

PS - I have another SolarWinds missive HERE where I interview SMB friend and now SolarWindws executive Greg Lissy!

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Datto/Autotask Merger: Sophisticated Investors Only

In late October, fellow MSP blogger Joe Panettieri broke the story, in advance of the public announcement, that there was a merger between Datto and Autotask. I’ll briefly review the multiple transactions that made this happen. It’s surprisingly sophisticated. This almost reads like a Russian spy novel with all the players LOL. Let’s start by following the money and then I’ll offer some community comments.

2004-2014
Autotask raises at least $10M in four funding rounds (see Figure 1)

autotaskfunding

Figure 1: Autotask started taking the money in 2004.

2014
Autotask acquired for $99M by Vista Equity Partners.

2015
Datto completes a funding journey that started in 2013 and ended in 2015 raising $100M. At the time I wrote of Datto being a “unicorn” as it claimed the $100m stake resulted in a ten percent share and a market valuation of $1B.

dattofunding

Figure 2: Datto’s funding rounds.

2017
June/July: I circled back into the Datto orbit by attending the DattoCon conference in Denver in June 2017. In this blog at the time, I opine that the “E” (‘exit”) word has to enter the Datto lexicon because private equity money is not patient money and has to be put to work. I further drill down into the mind of Austin McChord, Datto CEO in a 1:1 interview HERE in early July at the Datto HQ in Norwalk.

austinandharry

Figure 3: Harry’s 1:1 with Datto CEO Austin McChord where M&A thoughts surface.

October: Here’s where things speed up. Vista Equity Partners acquires Datto. Then it merged Datto and Autotask together. In reality, this amalgamation results in a relationship hierarchy. If it were the wild world of Craigslist personal ads, this hook-up would have Datto as the “Dom” and Autotask as the “Sub.” Of course financial terms weren’t disclosed LOL.

Analysis
The merger makes sense in the mature and contracting SMB technology sector. Cloud has squeezed out the value chain many old timey server-side Big Iron fellas remember well. Consolidation is a natural act. The hierarchy with Datto on top (McChord becomes CEO and Autotask’s Mark Cattini will exit) makes sense as I believe Autotask took the smaller SMB MSPs in the beloved SMB Nation community for granted like Clinton viewed traditional core Democratic constituencies in the 2016 presidential election a year ago. It felt like the past few years Autotask courted its big donors ignoring the working class man (this isn’t just my opinion but that of other bloggers and community members – in a recent outreach by myself to the SBS group on Facebook concerning this merger, the responses were a resounding “Meh” reflecting Autotask had lost mindshare in the SMB Nation community. )

So when I had a 1:1 with Datto CMO Peter Rawlinson last week while I was literally on Wall Street (see Figure 4) and Rawlinson was in the Datto HQ in Norwalk, CT, I zeroed on the conflation of the Datto and Autotask partner communities and what that means for our “Joe the ‘puter guys” getting a love tap in the yet to be renamed combined company.

girlandbull

Figure 4: How fitting to be on Wall Street for my chat with Rawlinson.

“Now with a combined partner base of over 13,000 SMB MSPs, we are absolutely making a commitment the smaller MSP and the SMB Nation audience persona.” Rawlinson emphasized. He went to round out the context of the merger. “This is a merger for growth, not cost cutting.” Warning: ten dollar word ahead. What Rawlinson is suggesting is that this merger is accretive which is a fancy way of saying 1+1 =3. My conversation with Rawlinson ended with a couple of unknowns: the new brand name and whether there will be an HQ1 (Norwalk, CT) and/or HQ2 (Albany, NY).

Dilutive v Accretive

My big question moving forward is whether the product overlap will effectively result in portfolio dilution and partner contraction. Other wiser minds in the SMB media have minimized the product overlap so in this sense the merger works. But what about ConnectWise partners that use Datto or Autotask partners that use a different BDR solution such as efolder? I’ll monitor the potential MSP partner churn-and-burn rate from this merger over the next year and report back. [If you’d like insights into the Datto product road map, watch my vid interview with Datto VP, Networking John Tippett here.]

Competition
Michael George (CEO, Continuum), who I’d offer lives life out loud, didn’t lack words about the Datto/Autotask merger. “Consolidation of this nature should come as no surprise to anyone in the MSP market. Standalone vendors are finding it increasingly difficult to compete as MSPs move to the few key providers that matter most to them. Today’s news should galvanize MSPs to focus on one or two key platforms, rather than trying to price-optimize with standalone independent vendors.” George said.

“Today’s merger brings together two critical categories in the channel: RMM and BDR. That’s a clear signal that a unified approach to these services is in demand from MSPs, and that’s why Continuum offers partners these solutions as the cornerstone of our platform.” George commented. “But, to stay relevant over the next three to five years, the next major play is security. We anticipate that the next market consolidation will come as MSPs look to acquire the tools and services to secure their clients amid today’s heightened threat landscape. That’s where we’re already moving with our new security offering launched this month, and we can expect that standalone vendors will begin to beef up their capabilities to meet that demand, and MSPs will take notice.” If you’d like to read my recent 1:1 interview with George, look HERE.

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All Hands on Deck! Small Business Saturday Nov. 25th

It’s the bestest holiday most folks in our SMB MSP space have never heard of. You’d be amazed how, over the years, we’ve carried the Small Business Saturday flag – an event held right after “Black Friday” (the over-the-top retail shopping day), but the MSP mindshare is lacking. You can review our past coverage here and here.

History
Over ten years ago, American Express created Small Business Saturday to promote “Buy Local” and “Shop Small” as well as increase the use of American Express card transactions (of course). I’ve argued this special day, sandwiched between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, should be placed in a not-for-profit in order to grow the participation base and offer increased legitimacy. Great idea with props to American Express but, again, I think it should be an “open” holiday. I love the concept but hate the fact so many SMB MSPs (a) haven’t heard of it and (b) don’t participate is shocking. So here is my plan to change that right here, right now. This unofficial holiday is supported in the US and UK.

Small Business Saturday Signup Procedure
It’s been said the odds of winning the lottery are dramatically improved if you buy a Lotto ticket. Same with Small Business Saturday – you gotta sign-up to play in this reindeer game. This is business development folks!
Here is the participation procedure:

 

  1. Sign up here.
  2. Click Get Involved in the upper right.
  3.  Make the decision with respect to how you want to participate

a. Small Business Owners. Select this if you’d like to have your SMB MSP entity fully participate in Small Business Saturday. This makes sense for anyone in our SMB Nation crowd. For example, if you have a retail store front at street-level and want to proudly display your participation via the extensive display collateral (more on that in a moment), this is the option for you. But perhaps you are in snazzy office space that doesn’t have street-level exposure. You can still select this option and, I’d offer, hold an open house with bagels and coffee for your SMB clients on Saturday morning before they go out to shop local. I’ve selected this option for SMB Nation (More on that at the end of the blog). 

b. Neighborhood Champions. This “cheerleader” role is another option for SMB MSPs. Signup with this option and then go to one of your small business clients and consider a pop-up with Small Business Saturday branding/information. It’s your way of giving back to the community that has given so much to you (file this away in living theology). 

c. Shoppers. Well this option is for EVERYONE. We can all shop local on Small Business Saturday. Hint: a pint of dark stout at your local pub counts!

4. Assuming you selected Small Business Owners, select the Create Materials button on the next page.

5. On the We need just a few details page, answer fields related to your business name, what customers love, type of marketing materials (Social media, Online, Physical location), whether you want some materials in Spanish and whether your business accepts American Express cards. Click Continue. See Figure 1 below.

 

fig1 sbs setup2

Figure 1: You must provide basic information to create the marketing Bill of Materials (BOM).

6. On the Okay where can we send your materials page, you will provide information to complete the following fields: First Name, Last Name, Email, Confirm Email and Zip Code (Optional). Agree and select the Terms of Participation checkbox and click Download.

7. A *zip file titled “CustomMaterials” will be download. Read on to discover how to use this good stuff!

The Good Stuff!
I’m impressed how the download resulted in marketing collateral for the following uses:

  1.  Social Networks: Banner ads of different sizes promoting your participation in Small Business Saturday. In Figure 2, observe art customized for your business.
  2.  Store: Posters (one shown in Figure 3), “Save the Date” cards, an offer sheet, etc. for in-store use.
  3.  Website: Several art graphics are provided for your website and email. Observe the banner in Figure 4.

fig2

Figure 2: Digital art customized for you for use in your social networks.

fig3

Figure 3: Full-size poster for a window display.

Fig4

Figure 4: Customized web banner.

Keep It Simple!
Now that we got our geek on with the above procedures, it’s time to remember a few simple Small Business Saturday points as shared by Melanie Gass, host of the popular Expand with Tech podcast. Recently she held a show dedicated to Small Business Saturday HERE that is required listening. When I spoke with Melanie, she offered these important points:

  1. It's free!
  2. You need to take AMEX cards to list your website in the Small Business Saturday directory
  3. The Small Business Saturday marketing materials are free and offered in 2 flavors...plain and tailored with your business Info as you outlined
  4. Neighborhood champions “status” are available for MSPs to hop onto, and even donate a raffle prize for visibility!
  5.  If MSPs have a newsletter, there is the opportunity to socialize Small Business Saturday, evangelize it!

Next Steps

If you aren’t sold yet on your participation in Small Business Saturday, there isn’t much more I can do. However, keep your eye on my Facebook page on Small Business Saturday as I’ll be loudly leading the parade include using the Facebook Live broadcast feature. And guess what? Jenny Hallmark and a surprise guest will be joining me on Main Street (Winslow Way) on Bainbridge Island. Join us!

PS – Humor ahead. Small Business Saturday is called “SBS” (#TrueThat) which of course was the acronym for Small Business Server.

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