Community Catch-Up: An Interview with Amy Hodge, Senior Director of Community for ConnectWise

22 Mar Community Catch-Up: An Interview with Amy Hodge, Senior Director of Community for ConnectWise

Editor’s Note: “There go my people, I must follow them for I am their leader” – Mahatma Ghandi. Amy Hodge, Senior Director of Community for ConnectWise, uses these words to guide her vision of community as a leader of the ConnectWise team. Amy shares her philosophy for bringing value to their MSP partners by creating varied resources to ensure their success. Amy also shares some of the exciting things her team has in store for IT Nation 2016.

Ted Hulsy:  Today I’m joined by Senior Director of Community at ConnectWise, Amy Hodge.  Amy, welcome!

Amy Hodge:  Thanks Ted, it’s great to be here.

Ted Hulsy:  Okay.  Well, we’ve known each other quite a long time and everybody kind of knows ConnectWise pretty well, but tell me a little bit about your role at ConnectWise and what you guys are doing in community.

Amy Hodge:  So very simply, my team and myself are responsible for our tribe, our community.  The partners will buy the software and essentially then we see them as part of the family.  We seem them as part of the community and our job is to find out what they need and bring them all of the education and all of the peer accountability and different ways for them to connect with each other so that they can really be super effective and super successful in their business.

Ted Hulsy:  And when you look out in the marketplace today, whether it’s RMM or PSA, remote monitoring and management or professional services automation software, and you look at kind of the competitive landscape, what do you feel like ConnectWise is doing that’s kind of unique in the area of community?

Amy Hodge:  In the area of community, I think that we always lead with those face-to-face events and the ways that our partners can interact with one another.  I think that a lot of our competitors have tried to create a similar experience, but for whatever reason we’ve been able to really harness that power and our partners keep coming back to connect with one another.  So, we’re not afraid to invest.  That’s one that that I will say.  We’re not afraid to invest the cost that it takes to bring those face-to-face meetings out into the region, out into the communities, and I think it’s really paying off because our partners are getting together and they’re holding each other accountable, and they’re really, really growing together in the industry.

Ted Hulsy:  And tell me about, you know…  I’ve watched all the time all the great things you guys do with things like user groups and the ConnectWise University and sort of thing, but talk to me about accountability and peer accountability.  Where does that play in?

Amy Hodge:  It plays actually wherever the partners sort of want to play and wherever they want to interact.  One of the bits of feedback that we’ve gotten over the past couple of years, I think, especially from IT Nation and Automation Nation, are, you know, “Hey, the most value that I get out of being at these events are really talking to my peers and understanding how I can learn from what they’re doing and then how they can in turn learn from what I’m doing.”  So, we’re trying to get a lot more of that going.  So this year, for instance at IT Nation, we’re creating more and more networking opportunities.  So, wherever they want to dig in, to whatever extent they want to dig in.  If they want to have that peer accountability there’s a ton of peer groups.  Of course there’s HTG that we’re tightly connected to, but really we’re just trying to provide the opportunity.  You can’t really, you know, sort of force somebody to be in an accountability-type relationship, but to the extent that we can facilitate those interactions, that’s where we see our role is.  It’s just sort of getting them together.

Ted Hulsy:  So you can create the context where partners can get together and learn and share with each other, but you also, I guess, because you guys are kind of like marquee sponsor of a lot of these different peer-to-peer organizations like HTG, you’re facilitating that I guess.

Amy Hodge:  Yeah, exactly.  And, you know, we believe in it.  We think it’s so important and that’s why we do invest and that’s why we do facilitate, and we are involved in HTG and we continue to encourage our partners to join HTG or a peer group similar in that similar fashion because it’s so, so important.  And then in, you know, if a peer group or in that level accountability is not for them, we want them to still connect because there’s still value in some way to connect with like-minded individuals around sort of the similar topic of business and IT.

Ted Hulsy:  So let’s talk a little bit…  Let’s dig a little deeper into the peer groups.  You know, a question that people often ask me, especially with HTG is, you know, how has eFolder’s engagement evolved at HTG?  How would you answer that question for ConnectWise?

Amy Hodge:  Wow, that’s a good question.  We’ve been involved, I think, for a very, very long time.  At least for the extent of the time that I’ve been here, but what I see lately is I see that these…  In particular with HTG, the partners are looking for something a little bit more than a vendor relationship, right?  They want…  They have that interaction so that they’re learning from their peers, but I think they recognize that there’s a lot that they can learn from the vendors, or I should say their vendor partners, right?  And you know, the difference between a vendor and a vendor partner, right?  So, we’re really taking that charge seriously, I think.  Is that we’ve seen that evolution and we’ve seen that a lot of the, especially the HTG partners, need more than just a vendor.  They’re looking for a vendor partner and we’re sort of stepping up our game, so to speak, and we’re making sure that we bring our top leaders to interact with these peer group numbers and really just let them know sort of the value and how much they mean to use, but also bringing them unique learning opportunities.  I know that we’ve recently talked to them a little bit about how we do sales, right?  And I know we’re not necessarily an IT solution provider in MSP, but I think there’s still value in learning from each other really in the IT sales arena.  They can learn from us, as well as us from them.

Ted Hulsy:  Yeah.  I mean I think it’s…  I think in my experience it’s always a little dangerous to, you know, use your vendor experience as a way to kind of educate…And train partners because sometimes there’s kind of like a little bit of a push back and like, “Hey, you have a lot more resources.  You’ve got all the, you know, bigger ballot sheet.  You know, how realistic is this for me,”…

Amy Hodge:  Uh huh.

Ted Hulsy:  …But I think the interesting thing with ConnectWise is as you guys are certainly now, I mean, far and away a huge industry leader, but there was a time when the company was a lot smaller.  There was a time when the company grew out of humbler origins.  You guys were in fact and MSP in the Tampa market and then you built a huge software company out of that.  So there are, you know, the leadership team and folks have been there a long time, that there are a lot of experiences from the back in the early days.

Amy Hodge:  Oh, yeah.  Absolutely.  And you know, I think some folks could argue that, you know, growing a sales pipeline there are some sort of general concepts and general things that you can learn, and just sort of those things that you need to do.  I guess, like Jim Collins would call it like your 20 mile march, right?  So, there are certain things that you do in sales or in marketing that can sort of transcend a lot of different types of business and so, since we have grown up and that since we’re a little bit larger and we have a larger sort of a sales organization, we can share that with the partners.  Like these are the things that we do to hold our salespeople accountable and things like that.  So, I think it’s really translated well.

Ted Hulsy:  Execution is the big deal though on sales when you look at struggles partners are having with sales.  What’s your kind of point of view on why partners have such a hard time kind of cracking the code on the sales topic?

Amy Hodge:  Oh my goodness.  That is a topic that we always…  I think it always comes up.  Cracking the code.  There is no code.  I think it really is a 20 mile march.  I think it really is…  I think in some cases it’s talent, it’s finding the right people and the right mix of talent.  I don’t think there’s any specific formula, but what I find is there’s a type of salesperson that works well a type business owner.  So, if you have a salesperson who is really, really aggressive and sort of a lone wolf and out there on their own, then the business owner has got to be sort of hands-off, but sometimes I see some of our partner business owners who want to be a little bit more hands-on and therefore then that type of a personality of a salesperson doesn’t really work for them.  So, it does come back to a little bit of chemistry.  Finding the right rhythm of a sales, I guess, talent in your organization and the right cadence of lead flow, and how are you going to interact with that person.  So, I feel like it goes back a little bit to just personalities.  Maybe there’s no real secret sauce there.

Ted Hulsy:  Yeah, I mean it’s…  There’s no…  Definitely no silver bullet, but I think it’s important for the business owners to realize their own DNA and to be somewhat self-reflective of, you know, where they came from, where they’re going, what they’re comfortable with, but I think that’s a really good point.  I mean, we just…  I think we just had a session, I think maybe even our last session and our guest was talking about how really formalizing their sales process and actually bringing in some outside kind of candidate profiling and aptitude testing and personality testing was the critical thing to go from winging it on the hiring process to really finding somebody who was a fit for what they were looking for. But I think your point is well taken that the business owner also needs to figure out, like it’s not just the aptitude testing and whether they have the right sales personality, it’s do they have a personality style that’s going to mesh with the management style of the business owner.

Amy Hodge:  Yeah, exactly.  And their customers.  You know, if you have a small mom and pop who has customers that are used to getting in touch with anyone at any time and you have a salesperson who is maybe not necessarily inclined to be that available, then you have to take that into consideration as well.  Just little personality things, I think, can really make…  Sort of make or break a sales relationship or a sales organization.

Ted Hulsy:  Okay.  Well, great.  Let’s change gears a little bit.  I think from what I’ve heard IT Nation 2016 is sold out, so we’re not going to be driving any new registrants for the event for you, on today’s podcast, but tell us what’s in store for IT Nation this year.

Amy Hodge:  Oh, boy.  We are in the thick of it, that’s for sure.  This year the theme is breakthrough.  So, it’s all about how to breakthrough in your business.  I think that means a lot of things to a lot of different partners.  Sometimes it’s a breakthrough in profitability, sometimes it’s getting beyond a certain threshold or certain mile marker that they have set for themselves in customer count or in revenue, top line revenue or…  There’s a number of different breakthroughs, but it’s all about trying to get you there.  So, that’s really cool.  We’re really excited about that.  We’re welcoming Keith McFarland, who is author of the book Breakthrough.  He has another book out called Bounce.  Arnie’s got some really cool new, I guess, new announcements that he’s going to make from mainstage, so we’re just putting the final touches on all of those.  We have a really fun party planned.  Of course, you know, we are sort of known for our parties, I guess.

Ted Hulsy:  [Laugher]

Amy Hodge:  In a good way, I hope.  So, we’re going to Universal, to the Marvel Superhero Island at Universal, which should be fun.  But mostly, like I mentioned earlier, we’re really excited about these new networking sessions and we’re just trying to drive throughout the agenda, right?  Yeah, I guess you can sort of network at a party or, you know, at the bar, but sometimes they want…  Partners want to sit down and have like a concerted…  Make a concerted effort to have a conversation around a specific topic and we’re just trying to really facilitate those.  So, in addition to the 180 or 190 different breakout sessions, we’re also going to have these networking opportunities and networking session where the partners can just come together and have a discussion with somebody who is like-minded and who has an interest in talking about the same thing, the same burning question that might be on their mind.

Ted Hulsy:  Now is this a new format for this year?

Amy Hodge:  Yeah.

Ted Hulsy:  This networking format?

Amy Hodge:  Yeah, it is.  We’re really excited about it.  It’s new.  It’s sort of like this podcast.  It’s sort of a little bit unscripted.  We’re going to put out some topics.  We are going to have some colleagues and partners sort of stationed in these areas so that they can facilitate a conversation, but by no means are they driving the conversation, right?  They’re just sort there to facilitate it.  They’re just to ask certain questions and prompt the conversation to get going, but that’s something that we’re really sort of responding to feedback that we’ve gotten on the survey over the past couple of years.

Ted Hulsy:  Okay, well great.  And just give us a kind of a breakdown if you would on kind of the top line metrics.  I mean, how big is the event going to be?  I mean if memory serves me, every year you guys notch it up another rung on the ladder, so how big is the event going to be this year?

Amy Hodge:  Yeah.  So, we’re expecting around 3,400 to 3,500 attendees.  So, that includes 110 sponsor companies, which I think is about 400 people or so, but 110 sponsor companies in the Solutions Pavilion.  We’ll have, obviously, staff and…  Let me think.  I think close to 2,500 partner attendees.  So, those are MSP businesses just like partners, just like whoever’s listening who are coming together for this three day sabbatical to learn from one another, 180 breakout sessions.  That’s our standard format.  We also have opened up some more labs.  So, I know that everybody is interested in the hands-on labs.  Sometimes it’s hard to break away from your day-to-day and go to conferences like this, but when you can also get some hands-on learning, then we think it just sort of ups the notch of the value on the value scale here.  So, we’re really excited about more and more of those workshops and hands-on labs, and just more of everything it seems like.

Ted Hulsy:  Well, we are a very enthusiastic sponsor of the event and…

Amy Hodge:  That’s right.

Ted Hulsy:  …So the eFolder team is gearing up.  It’s always our biggest trade show sponsorship and event for us every year.  Let’s look out to 2017… What’s the next frontier for community?  What are the big challenges you want to try to tackle in the next year?

Amy Hodge:  You know, everybody knows sort of we’ve come together as one company so to speak.  So, for a very long time we were operating as four separate companies and what that meant for my team, in particular, was we were sort of managing four very distinct communities of partners who had different personality types and such, and now is where you bring the company together.  One of our challenges is how do we now meet the needs of this larger community and, you know, if we’re going to scale, we’re going to have sort of become much more effective, I think, at the different services and the different networking opportunities and the different community initiatives that we bring out there.  So, what that means to us is, you know, we’re relooking at our user groups.  Now our community is much, much larger.  What does a user group mean to say a Labtech partner that is different than a user group meant to ConnectWise partner?  Is it the same?  How can we sort of combine that or should we not combine it?  And should we have separate user groups for the different product line?  So, a lot of those questions are sort of floating around in our heads.  We’re having a lot of strategy sessions to try to figure this out, talking to a lot of partners to see what their perception is, but really how do we bring this community together to get the most, I guess so that our partners can experience more than ever, what they get in a community because it’s so much larger now.  But, of course, you know, there’s all the complexities of bringing something like that big together, but…  That’s the biggest thing is really how do we bring this together and how do we then turn around and deliver the things that this larger community needs?

Ted Hulsy:  And let’s…  I mean, let’s dig in there a little bit more.  So, what are some just kind of high level observations you can make about the style of community that say ConnectWise to Labtech to Quosal to ScreenConnect…  I mean, what are the differences in terms of the audiences or the people who would be engaged with those different communities historically?

Amy Hodge:  Uh huh, uh huh.  I think that some of the folks who have been really engaged on the Labtech side tend to be very technical.  They tend to be really, really interested in education, sort of that hands-on education.  On the ConnectWise side, actually it’s been business owners.  People who are looking to grow their business.  People who have their eye on something a little bit different, right?  So, if you’re working day in and day out…  In Labtech, you might be someone who is more of technical person, maybe an engineer, and they love to connect online.  And so, that’s something that we’re looking to maybe fan the flame there.  We’ve got a great online community in Labtech Geeks, so maybe we start to fan that, right?  And to really get that going a little bit more.   But on the ConnectWise side, it’s more business owners.  It’s more having those conversations and holding people accountable at the business level.  So, that’s something that’s super unique.  And in the Quosal community it’s sort of very broad because of the nature of the solution.  You know, there’s a lot of different industries that need quoting, right?  And that need proposals, so that’s unique also in going into the Quosal community and seeing just such a broad range of just industries and businesses.  So, we’re digging in a little bit there also.  ScreenConnect’s another one that’s a little bit more online than face-to-face.  So, we’re just really excited about, you know, the opportunities to connect with the partners in, I guess wherever they are I would say.

Ted Hulsy:  What are some of the synergies that a partner organization gets from using, you know, multiple ConnectWise products today?

Amy Hodge:  Synergies…  I would say, obviously aside from the product, type of…  You know, obviously there’s going to be better integrations with all the products, but one of the things that I think the business units have done a really good job of…  So, we have a partner innovation network.  We have a pin group for ConnectWise and Labtech, and I know there are plans to spin one up on Quosal, so if you really wanted to be involved in sort of the direction of the product and really making your voice be heard, I think that ConnectWise has really facilitated that.  So, not only do you get these products that, you know, naturally more connect just by sheer fact, you know, that they’re under the same roof so to speak, but now you can engage with all of the product teams who are also now engaged and I think it’s going to give somebody a richer experience with the products and actually letting their voice be heard across all of these major products that they use in their business.  So, that’s one thing that’s cool.  That all of the, I guess development teams and product management teams, are coming together and they’re doing the same sort of things to reach out to the partner community and get the feedback needed to drive the business, and then there’s a lot of really neat interconnections that are going on there.

Ted Hulsy:  Okay.  I think this morning while I was talking with a MSP partner, prepping for our upcoming HTG lunch-and-learn…And we were talking about, you know, partner councils and client councils, and there’s a lot of partners who want take what they want to do community…with their own client base and I think this is an area that’s pretty immature, I would say, in most MSP business.  I mean I think the ones that are getting larger, that might have 40 or 50 or 60 employees, you kind of have enough critical mass, but if you were to just kind of take say…  Let’s say take like a typical HTG partner, so somebody who’s got 15 to 20 employees, and they said, “Look, I’m on a partner council.  I love it with a couple of my vendors.  I love giving feedback.  I wish I could facilitate community with my own clients.”  What advice would you give?

Amy Hodge:  Uh huh.

Ted Hulsy:  I mean, what battles should a business owner go pick in terms of starting to facilitate community with your own client base?

Amy Hodge:  Oh, that’s awesome.  That’s a great question.  And I would love to see all partners sort of get involved in this because that really is the way to impact your client’s business, is to make sure that they’re in a community that will help them get better.  The very first thing I would say is you got to just start listening.  You got to talk to your partner.  You got to talk to your customers, figure out where there pains are, and just start…  In my mind I see it sort of like this, “Hey, I’m starting to connect people, right?”  We always talk about introducing people and connect people.  So, think of it like that way to start.  Just really digging in, getting to know your clients, and then figuring out ways to connect them.  There’s all sorts of ideas.  Oh, gosh.  I wish I would have brought my little…  I have all sorts of ideas that I’ve written down before from creating…  You know, you can do lunch-and-learns and stuff like that, but what if you created some sort of a loyalty program.  Everybody can always get behind philanthropy, that’s another good one, right?  If you start doing these philanthropy activities out in the community and your businesses…  Maybe it’s businesses who are in the community who have a similar interest, a similar passion, right?  They can all bond together and get behind community.  It doesn’t necessarily always have to come back to you as far as revenue goes, you don’t necessarily…  I love loyalty programs, but it doesn’t always have to be sort of a, “you have to pay to get to this level.”  Those sorts of programs can work in some larger partner organizations, but just getting behind philanthropy, connecting people, but I think it really starts with just listening.  The deepest human need that anyone has is to connect with other human beings and I think that we need to start really figuring out who these people want to connect, and then it’s not necessarily about holding up a sign and saying, “Hey, I’m over here.  Come over here and connect, and be in my community.”  That’s not what it is.  Usually there’s a community that’s already out there.  Usually your customers are already in a community and what you want to do is you want to come along side them, wherever that community is and whatever their doing, and you want to feed that community and you want to bring resources to that community.  It’s not an if you build it, they will come mentality, it’s more of you got to listen and you got to go to wherever they’re already in community, knowing that their need is to connect, and so they’re already likely looking for ways to connect.  Does that make sense?

Ted Hulsy:  Absolutely.

Amy Hodge:  Did I get a little philosophical there?

Ted Hulsy:  No, it’s okay.  You and I have talked about this some of this before and you’ve got a quote that I’d love you to share from…

Amy Hodge:  Yes.  It’s my…  Mahatma Gandhi said, “There go my people, I must follow them for I am their leader.”  And that really sort of in a nutshell puts, I guess, my perspective of community.  It’s about, “Hey, I’m going to where my people are.  I’m their leader, but I’m going to where they are.”

Ted Hulsy:  Right.  And so on a practical level, I mean I love the philosophy and I bring it up because you’ve shared that with me before…and it was very impactful for me to think about what we’re trying to do with the eFolder partner community.  But the community already exists…and so for a MSP to think about it, if you serve dentists or you serve small businesses in Topeka, Kansas, whatever it is, that community exists out there already. And the question is, are you finding ways to empower it, facilitate it, embellish it, give it resources, give it contexts where people can come and connect with each other and get education and learn?  I think that’s the…  I love the idea because I think a lot of business owners struggle with the concept of, “Well, how could I ever create something like IT Nation?”  Well, don’t start at that end of the spectrum.

Amy Hodge:  Uh huh.  No, don’t start there.

Ted Hulsy:  Don’t start there.  Start at the other end of the spectrum and realize that your clients are already in a local community. They’re dentists.  They’re dentists in Kansas. And those dentists have business challenges of all kinds, shapes and sizes, and you have an intimate understanding of how those businesses challenges intersect with technology…and you as a MSP business owner and your team are uniquely positioned to help create, you know, connect those dentists together so that they can learn and leverage technology in a better sort of way, for example.

Amy Hodge:  Yep.

Ted Hulsy:  And that’s where there’s a ton of…  You don’t need to build it, it already exists, but are you intentionally facilitating it?  And are you thinking about the ways that that can be a pillar to your business. In terms of loyalty, in terms of effectiveness of your clients and what not.

Amy Hodge:  Oh, yeah.  Absolutely.  There’s this great book, if anybody’s interested.  Have you ever read it?  Called the Membership Economy.

Ted Hulsy:  I haven’t, I haven’t.

Amy Hodge:  That actually speaks to, I think, a lot of different types of businesses, but it’s…  It goes along the same lines like we were talking about right now, where it’s not necessarily…  You’re not looking to create sort of a customer relationship, you really want people to buy into your, and I’m using quotes with my fingers, “buy into your business and become a member.”  Because when you’re a member, it’s more about, you know, I have a vested interest and I am sometimes, you know, I see this as an ownership.  Like, I’m a part owner in this initiative.  So, when you start to create ways for your clients to become members and not just customers, I think that’s when the loyalty is really, really built.  You don’t have those conversations around price so much because there’s so much more value.  They’re a member of your community.  They’re a member of your business really.

Ted Hulsy:  And they’re invested in your success.

Amy Hodge:  Exactly.

Ted Hulsy:  And so the conversation is completely different when somebody is a member or a stake holder in what you’re trying to accomplish.

Amy Hodge:  Uh huh.  Oh, absolutely 100%.

Ted Hulsy:  Well, we are a member and a stakeholder in working with ConnectWise to build up the IT Nation and we’re really looking forward to, you know, helping you guys put on a great event together with the other 110 other vendor sponsors as well.

Amy Hodge:  Yeah. [Laughter]  You guys always stand out though, I’ll tell you that.  I know you guys always stand out.

Ted Hulsy:  [Laughter] We’ll we’ve got some cool stuff in store, but we’re really looking forward to it and I really appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to share some of this wisdom and insights about facilitating community today.

Amy Hodge:  Well, thank you.  We can’t wait to see you in November and thanks for having me.  This was really fun, Ted.  I really enjoyed it.

Ted Hulsy:  Okay.  Well, thanks Amy for joining me today.

Amy Hodge:  Thanks so much, Ted.