The Power of Peer Groups: How One MSP Gives Back to the MSP Community

21 Feb The Power of Peer Groups: How One MSP Gives Back to the MSP Community

Editor’s Note: Nathan Austin, VP of Business Development at Mytech Partners, discusses his involvement with the HTG community and how the peer group has added tremendous value to the Mytech organization. Nathan also shares his experience leading the HTG program, Building a Sales Engine, where he coaches MSPs in theory and practical experience around creating a top notch sales organization.

Ted Hulsy:  Nate, welcome to today’s discussion.

Nathan Austin:  Hello Ted thanks.

Ted Hulsy:  Okay, so one thing we always do when we start out is we ask our guest to tell us a little bit about their MSP practice and their role in the history of the company and that sort of thing. So tell us a little bit about Mytech Partners.

Nathan Austin:   Alright, thanks Ted. A little start from history perspective, we started in 2000 and part of the business partners of Mytech met because we all lost our jobs at a Dotcom that went out of business. So that was a fun experience and 16 years later we’re all still working together, but I guess some key points along the lines is around 2006 we aligned with HTG from the standpoint of a peer group perspective and that’s really what started the transformation out business to really get serious and become students of our industry. And since then we now are an organization of around 85 staff. We have an office in the Twin Cities as Ted mentioned where we have around 60 staff, and then we have an office in Denver, Colorado from an acquisition that has around 25 staff. Our sales team has a couple sales managers, myself included is one of those, and 7 outside sales people, and 3 sales assistants, and a couple of other marketing folks. So that’s what our sales team looks like cause that’s the side of the business that I sit on. The rest are engineering and admin staff and I think in for the last several years we’ve been doing an acquisition a year. This is the – we’ve taken a – we’ve taken the year off from an acquisition perspective. So we’ve learned about – we’ve done a couple acquisitions in the Twin Cities and then the one in Denver, which was done a year and a half ago. So that’s part of our growth strategy. Our goal is to grow about half organic growth and half through acquisitions to be in 10 locations across the country in the NFL size cities in the next 7-10 years. So that’s a little bit of our history as well as our size and our goal, so anything else you can think of Ted that would be appropriate?

Ted Hulsy:  Well, sure I mean I think it’s interesting to kind of dig in a little bit on your experience with HTG. So, you guys have been in business for 16 years and you got involved with HTG in 2006. Explain a  little bit about what HTG is…And then you know share how Mytech Partners has changed because of getting involved with HTG.

Nathan Austin:   Yeah Ted, thank you. That’s actually a great point, in fact I think it plays into one of the reasons why you know we met, and why we are having this intervieq today, is I remember being approached by Arlin and it was actually the SonicWall Peak Performance Event back in 2006. Arlin Sorensen then approached and said, “Hey I’m looking to put together another group of peers to share best practices and financials, and all that kind of stuff and we had to pause because it seemed a little crazy.

Ted Hulsy: [laughs]

Nathan Austin:   And I remember thinking at the time that, “Why would I share that kind of information?” And even though the way I described it in the past is if there was a guide book, if there was a manual that was able to describe everything that we did, and how we did it, and why we did it; our “secret sauce” if you will, which that manual didn’t exist, but even if it did I would have never – I didn’t feel like sharing it back then. But I’ve learned over the last 10 years of working with HTG and peers that there’s significantly greater value in sharing that information and collaborating with peers and competitors than holding that information tightly to your chest. And so that – but that was what I’ve learned over the years cause we’ve benefited greatly and that was the significant difference. So that’s where HTG played a huge role. It helped us be students of business, learn things about doing a better job of financial management, certain metrics that are critical, metrics in our business, just collaborating with sales and marketing folks to see what can we do out there to help each other out. Even down to simple policies from an HR perspective that you might not have or job descriptions, or comp plans. I mean even things under that little – it was nice to be able to start with something often times with our peers, and then evolve it and make it our own. And everyone’s willing to share and it’s just a great experience.

Ted Hulsy:  Now from a kind of a practical perspective for maybe folks who don’t – who aren’t aware of what HTG does, can you just describe in a practical level what peers do once a quarter and what a peer group looks like?

Nathan Austin:   Yeah Ted no problem. So HTG is comprised of, I think there’s around 300 IT providers in the U.S., Europe, and Australia, and New Zealand areas that collaborate and that looks like a quarterly basis we get together for a couple of days, and part of that is we share our quarterly financials and we all subscribe to a financial benchmarking service called Service Leadership that aggregates all our data and it allows us to kind of compare team metrics side by side. And it’s a 2-day facilitated session where financials is a piece of what we review, but we also look at our business plans, our life plan, leadership plan, as well as just operation sales; any challenges that our businesses all face on a regular basis. So the collaboration with are peers in a smaller group setting is usually comprised of anywhere from 9-12 companies that actually do a much tighter sharing of that information, and then there are group content days where you know the entire organization is welcome to share and participate.

Ted Hulsy:  Now yeah on the group content days that’s – I mean I think that’s an area where you’ve shown a lot of leadership and then at that point we call in HTG a “go giver”. You know somebody who is always thinking about giving and sharing, and trying to help other people along their way and specifically you’ve done a lot of that in the sales area. Can you talk about what you’ve been doing with the building a sales engine program with HTG?

Nathan Austin:   Oh sure, you know Ted I think one of the, going back – a little context around that, is Mytech started with 4 business owners, and we still have 4 business owners today, and I think the reason why I mentioned that relative to that question is because I think that’s what enabled me in my role to focus on sales as opposed to all the other things that a business owner has to focus on. So, we decided – and actually HTG executed a SWOT with our organization back in 2007, 2008 timeframe and they said “Hey you guys should pick someone to lead the company, and the rest of you should just do your job, do your functional role.” And so basically ever since then I was one of the folks that they said “Okay, Nate sell.” And so through HTG I also met mentors along the lines that helped me out in honing my skills, so what that has led to I think maybe us, Mytech having by no means figured everything out, but having – being able to build a sales engine beyond where I think most and many of peers have not been able to do, and so part of HTG and “go giver” attitude that you learn through involving yourself in that organization as well as my personal feeling of the desire to give back because the only reason why I’m in a place where we’re at from a sales perspective is because of peers in HTG who also helped me and helped mentor me along the way.

So that brings us up to about a year ago where Lori Sorensen, Arlin’s daughter, was trying to figure ways in which we could really help the overall HTG community, and a colleague of mine, Steve Riat and I brainstormed about “Well maybe what we could really do is have a more practical session that’s quarter over quarter that is – that builds on itself and so that we can do workshops and get  – just get deeper,” because that’s one of the things that you’ll learn is 2 days a quarter you only spend maybe an hour or two on different topics and it’s not enough to really focus on all of the nuances and details that they go into building a sales engine as you asked you know specifically about that Ted. So that brainstorming session ended up creating a topic, content topic series this year called – we called it BASE or “Building A Sales Engine.” Lori came up with that, and each quarter we’ve been spending time digging into marketing and hiring sales people, sales compensation, how you manage, what are some of the process, how you build your pipeline; all that kind of stuff, and working directly with our peers to building some theory around it, but also getting deep and doing some workshops and helping people you know build out something. For example, like a sales funnel, and sales stages, and making sure that they’ve even got some of the basics in place.

Ted Hulsy:  And what do you, so this is happening on like the Wednesday Content Day. So the peer groups are meeting like Monday/Tuesday, or Thursday/Friday, and then on Wednesday you guys do an all day workshop. The BASE workshop is all day on Wednesday. What do you, when you meet a partner who’s having struggle in the sales arena; you know. What are some of the common challenges that those business owners have?

Nathan Austin:   That’s a great question Ted. First of all, we all, it’s amazing how we all struggle no matter, I think where we are, we all struggle with sales to some extent, but I think the biggest challenge that most, that seems ubiquitous across all small business organizations, especially in the IT space is that it’s the transition from as an owner. When you’re starting your organization you have to sell – that selling is just one of the hats you wear, and once you get to a point where you need to hire an additional sales person, transitioning from a owner led sales model to a non-owner led sales model, it’s – that’s probably the most significant challenge that we’ve seen and trying to overcome because the other challenge around that is because from a revenue perspective you know, hiring a sales person doesn’t net additional revenue two weeks or a month after you hire that person. It takes time for them to build a book of business and develop relationships, and establish new customers. So it takes a long time to recoup the revenue, but it’s a lot of upfront investments, and it’s just challenging because all the other owner hats don’t go away just because you hire a new sales person.

Ted Hulsy:  That’s great, but I guess isn’t it – doesn’t it sometimes seem that there’s also, I mean it’s clear that it is an investment, and it’s clear it takes time, and it is clear it needs to be part of a kind of intentional transition in the business from an owner who’s wearing every hat, but doesn’t it seem like there’s also kind of like a mental block with a lot of business owners? “Like this is one of the areas I don’t want to give up.”

Nathan Austin:   You know I think sometimes it is because oftentimes owners are, they have a certain particular way they like things done. That’s one of the reasons why they might have eventually got on their own to start their own business, and you know the concept I think you’re talking about is somewhat “letting go of the vine.” So they do need to let go of the vine a bit, but I think the other challenge that – even if they’ve overcome that mental block that you just described, which I think is definitely there, and understanding when is the right time, and “Am I going to feel comfortable, do I have the trust to let go of that vine,” but one of the biggest challenges is as an owner of the business you can go into a customer and you can speak at a business level because you have that experience yourself, and a new sales person coming in isn’t necessarily going to have that.

As an owner of a business and a customer says “Hey I’d really like to do this, but I want 10% off and I want it done 2 weeks from now.” You can make that happen because you can choose the price and you can go to your project team and say “Hey, you’re going to do this in 2 weeks.” Those are things that if a sales person without authority said those same things to your customer or prospect, there’s no way you’d let them do that, and the – often times ad hoc way in which a sales process is defined or really the lack thereof when you’re an owner because you can just do it the way whatever you want to do with it. It’s trying to create a process and a structure that will enable success of a new person coming on board. So that’s I think, the piece that is really sometimes the challenges that – and we assume as owners, and I do this, I still do this today, and I try not to, but we assume as owners that just because we’ve experienced it and it’s something that we’ve learned and we understand, that everyone else automatically has it just because they’re in a similar role. Like the business experience for example, and we just shouldn’t expect, underestimate the amount of time and effort that it really takes to gain that experience.

Ted Hulsy:  Yeah, so people definitely need to get to seasoned up. They need to also understand like culturally what’s acceptable or not in an organization, but I think you made a really good point. And I try to remind partners of this all the time that you know just like if you think about quoting, you know your products services, your manage services bundles, your discounting schemes; are all of those written down clearly defined, trainable to a new colleague? And then you know like can they be executed in your systems, in your CRM system, in your ConnectWise system, in your quoting tool, or whatever it is? And the challenge is it’s not a – it’s often you know not just you know, in the head of the business owner, it has never been written down and documented in all these other areas right. So it – you can’t really ever expect, you can’t even hire a sales superstar and have them step into a environment like that and succeed if all of the stuff, all of that knowledge and context, and policy is locked in the brain of the business owner only.

Nathan Austin:   Yeah you’re absolutely right, and that is like you mentioned, that’s on the sales side right, as far as understanding what are those products and what are the lines and parameters around those products, and how do you make sure you’re selling the right one, or recommending the right solution, but the same thing applies to very often when you’re as a smaller organization, and maybe you’re just venturing out to hire your first sales person, you’ve most likely experienced growth, and that growth also happens on the engineering side. So what used to be maybe you as the owner and one of your project lead engineers collaborating on a customer solution, and so you’ve got this mind mailed. You’re invested every step of the way before the customer agrees to the solution and buys the equipment and before you implement it, and so the engineer who’s doing the limitation was also the engineer that was involved in the sales process. And so, and then all those processes and expectations and what’s going to happen, what’s the scope of work look like, didn’t have to be written down because it was pretty much at the high level. It’s already in the heads of the two people, the sales and the engineering person, sometimes are the same person in real small organizations, but once you then expand to, you’ve got another engineer and another engineer, and another engineer you know we even found this that we used to have – we’ve gotten back to being able to do it.’

When we were smaller there was only two – it was basically 4 of us. We had 2 sales people, 2 engineers. And the 2 engineers they always executed the same IP scheme as other networks so that we knew – there was some certain standards and practices that we had in place that you know as we grew, and as we got to 10 engineers or 15 and 20 engineers and beyond, some of that got lost. We presumed that it was happening, but because it was never documented, never written down, never to find, it got lost in translation over the years, and so we’ve had to put a considerable amount of effort going back to redefining those details, retraining our team, and getting networks into alignment that’ll help us do a better job of serving our customers. So yeah, so you weren’t asking for a recommendation necessarily there, but one of the things that I would say I would do differently if I had to do it all over again would be to do a better job of that up front because it gets away from you quickly just over time. Each customer that goes by and each new person you bring on, something will get done differently if you don’t have it defined.

Ted Hulsy:  Right and talk a little bit about what the tool set looks like for you guys to you know make all that happen. So documentation, whether it’s on the engineering side, or on the sales side is vital, and software systems to support the workflows and the polices are also instrumental. What’s Mytech’s tool set look like to keep all that under control?

Nathan Austin:   It’s – you’re probably going to scare myself here Ted just because thinking about all the different tools that we actually invest in and choose to use, but so yeah we – to start on the front end of that, you know Quosal is our quoting engine. I guess the front end would be the prospecting side which is ConnectWise, and the CRM components and capabilities of ConnectWise. We use Quosal from our quoting tool perspective. We do use – this is a question that came up recently in HTG, we use DocuSign for agreement signatures. We don’t require DocuSign for like just project proposals, but for counter signature, and for legality we use DocuSign for agreements. Then over onto the service delivery side, we are using N-able for our RMM. We’re using Webroot for our AV. We’re using ScreenConnect for our remote access kind of capabilities. We’re using IT Glue for a documentation perspective. So it integrates with ConnectWise configurations, but it does a better job of storing documents to make them editable and usable. So we’re using IT Glue for that. Those are probably the big ones and  Quickbooks on the backend for our accounting program. So it’s probably the core tool set, but there is other little plug-ins that we have along the way too.

Ted Hulsy:  Great, great; great overview. So let’s kind of go back to the Building A Sales Engine program this year, you and Steve Riat, you guys are kind of heading into the Q4 program here. What would you say has been the biggest surprise this year as you guys have been kind of marching folks through this 4-quarter process?

Nathan Austin:   You know before we did the – we did a workshop on this last quarter on just helping – let’s get real practical and let’s start with a high level overview of what your sales funnel stages, which was really rough outline of your sales process, let’s start there.

Ted Hulsy:  Mm-hm.

Nathan Austin:   And so I ran that by a peer who is newer to HTG because I wanted to try and see how can we make sure that we’re connecting with the newer members as well. And one of the things that he mentioned, which I’ve already touched on in this session, but he mentioned “One of the things that always confuse me, especially now that I’ve been in HTG” – he been in HTG almost a year now, “Is why are people sharing?” He just couldn’t, like it was the same feeling I had when I first started HTG, but you know being in HTG for – and participating for 10 years, I forgot some of the basics that “What’s our motivation, why are we even doing this?” And so realizing that there’s you know let’s start there, and so we wanted to share kind of our story of why are we doing this and what’s the impact. That was kind of a big surprise for me realizing that that’s just you know a place that I didn’t even think about starting as far as acknowledging “Well, why are we even choosing to invest our time in helping and working on this kind of content?” So that was one.

The other one that when it comes to the actual Building A Sales Engine content is really getting back to basics. Is that you know with the different organizations that we’ve worked with and over the years, is there – it gets down in so many different ways. You know people choosing to use some of the basics of the CRM components. Like actually using opportunities, actually using activities. Using a quoting system to standardize on their quotes as opposed to an Excel spreadsheet, being able to have any visibility to the quotes that are out there cause if you’re not using – if you’re not using a quoting tool that integrates with your CRM like connect-Y’s, guess what, you probably don’t have good visibility to the projects and the quotes dribbling out the door. So and – so it’s really some of the most basic things that the tools are there, and most of the partners have actually invested in the tools. They already own the tools.

Ted Hulsy:  Right.

Nathan Austin:   They’re just not using them. So and I think it’s some of the fear around that it’s hard, and it takes effort without a doubt, but some of the tools are really well fit to our – to the IT business, and they’re there to be used. And I think it’s sometimes just using the tools to your advantage.

Ted Hulsy:  Right and I guess I think the thing that you can never underestimate is that just the experiences that people have had are very diverse…. And a lot of them you know I mean if you just think about the concept of an opportunity. To somebody who’s maybe been doing sales for 10 years that concept and how it lives, and it gets managed in a CRM tool is very natural…But if you’ve been kind of you know doing quotes out of Excel and you know managing your CRM from your Outlook inbox for the past couple of years, and the first couple of years as a business owner, the whole concept of an opportunity and pipeline stages and that sort of thing is probably not you know that obvious, or intuitively obvious you know so that’s definitely an area where you – it definitely help to keep things simple and to revisit the fundamentals you know, but then probably the other thing – probably another challenge and how do you guys deal with this, I mean you probably have kind of a diverse audience in the room. How do you deal with that from a coaching and education perspective?

Nathan Austin:   Yeah that’s a great point Ted, and I think that’s also been one of the bigger challenges is that there’s some people – everyone’s in a different place right. Some people have a larger sales organization and some people are just trying to you know figure out how to hire their first sales person. So it is a little difficult to try and speak to that wide set. So I think that’s one of the reasons why we have also tried to vary it and have like for instance, this last quarter the first hour of the content is we did kind of a workshop. There’s a very specific workshop around – “I want everyone who chooses to join us during this session to leave with their sales funnel outlined.” So like, right so they’re going to actually leave. They’re going to have done the work and done the effort in the room. If that’s something that you’ve already got figured out, then don’t join us, and join us for the second part, which is going to be more theory and more of a macro higher level engagement kind of overview.

So that’s where we’ve tried to kind of break it down for those that are maybe less mature in their sales team structure at the moment, but still trying to hopefully apply to others. The other thing that I think that we learned this last quarter in particular that – you didn’t ask this question, but I feel that it’s something we’re going to work to build into next quarters content is, is actually having some, kind of some dialogue or mock kind of discussions as it might be a real customer prospect kind of a sales person to prospect engagement so that we can kind of play through some of those different scenarios that people run across on a regular basis, and how do you address them, how do you work through? That was one of the feedback – some of the feedback we got on this last session that was the most valuable.

So I think that also is trying to take it to more – take some of the theory, but also you know have some dialogue around, try and do like a mock discussion around it; role play if you will. I think that was the word I was looking for to help kind of take it home, as well as in you know sharing on any documentation and evidence that we have. So yeah I think those have been some of the challenges and opportunities to the Building A Sales Engine, but I also wanted to comment on the you know if you’re a owner, and you were the only sales person, and you’re using Outlook notes or reminders to manage your activities, and if you’re just using Excel spreadsheet, well if you’re the only person selling and that works, that’s okay, right, but the problem becomes is that’s not a scalable option. It’s not – as you need to grow as a leader and a manager there’s certain visibility you need to have, and tracking some individual Outlook reminders and Excel spreadsheet quotes is not going to really provide you the visibility that you want.
So it’s not just trying to say, “Hey use the CRM for the sake of using a CRM.” It’s that these are the tools that are simple to use that are built into the tools that you probably have already paid for that you can use to help you really grow and manage your business, and get better visibility from a – you know for new sales people that you hire, so….

Ted Hulsy:  Yeah and I think, I mean I think what you guys are doing in terms of having role play and having workshop oriented, like kind of breakouts where you get people busy is actually, it’s so critical because I mean it’s so easy to fall into kind of just being like the – when you’re at a seminar or something just listening…

Nathan Austin:   Right.

Ted Hulsy:  It’s easy to sit there and listen and take notes, but to actually have to like turn to the person next to you and actually then you know, share your own pipeline strategy and process today, and then say “Well, actually we don’t have one. Let’s work on it together.” That’s extremely valuable and it really gets people engaged, but I would say probably the next big challenge is okay, they leave with this written document…this two pager or whatever, and then the next big challenge is kind of follow-through because for many…it’s either – it’s kind of either recommitting to something they thought about, or maybe devising it for the first time, or kind of discovering or writing down something they were already doing, but then there’s a little follow-through piece; how are you guys kind of tackling kind of accountability of follow-through with the BASE process?

Nathan Austin:   That is a great question you know, and I think that’s speaking to your last question about “What do you think some of the challenges have been?” I think that’s it, right, is that we all have so many different challenges that we’re facing, is how do you prioritize them and actually execute on them to get them done, right, and make incremental progress, or and also trying to with – there’s about 100 people in the room this last quarter when we were talking about this, and each one of them are in a different place in maturity and evolution, and how do we know what the next step is for each one of them individually. And that’s I think, like one of the things we’re trying to figure out is what does next year look like? And I think that you know whatever it does like, we’re trying to figure that out as we speak. It needs to have some component along those lines. Is how do we try and make it relevant, and how do we hold people accountable to whatever is for them that they need to do right?

Ted Hulsy:  Right.

Nathan Austin:   And how can we maybe measure that and track that, and be intentional about helping them with it. So I kind of answered your question with a question…

Ted Hulsy:  [laughs] We’re working on it.

Nathan Austin:   But, right we’re working on it cause it’s – I think that’s the biggest challenge and, but you know I think our entire industry faces this challenge and the unfortunately to the demise of our ability to truly as an industry, have the impact that I believe we can on a small business world right. I mean these are the people that pay the most jobs and pay the most taxes, and support the most families, and probably give back more to their communities and all those things. And I think we’re uniquely positioned, especially if we can do a better job of sales and actually mean – which means in sales it’s helping our customers solve problems, and putting solutions in place that actually help them be better businesses. We’re in a position to really have a big – great impact on the community and I think, so that’s part of my mission I think relative to doing this, and but therein lies the challenges. How we as an industry be better and hold ourselves more accountable so that we can have a greater impact collectively?

Ted Hulsy:  Now I guess kind of maybe a final topic just to dig in there. I mean I think one of the things that HTG is thinking of doing in the near future is to put together kind of a sales leader peer group you know so companies…that are already involved with HTG where you have somebody whose maybe a new sales manager or maybe even a season sales manager, but they would join a peer group themselves. Are you kind of dialed into that whole conversation and how’s that – do you think that’s going to work out, how’s – what’s your view on that?

Nathan Austin:   Yeah, I think it’ll work out because HTG has done this on the service side as well. I think one of the challenges is that there are more organizations who have a larger service team and thus have more mature service managers, and so that came first quite frankly, but following that same model I absolutely believe that having a sales leadership or sales management peer group, and what will help. And again, and HTG has done a great job of facilitating those and really bringing in great experts that have experience in the industry doing it. I’m not referring to myself, I’m referring to you know some of their facilitators and the people – the leaders of HTG, the coaches of HTG have a lot of experience, and they’re the ones that are really helping drive content and pull people together. So it’ll work, it just is – I think it’s just taking a little longer on the sales side because again, most of the organizations or a lot of the organizations are really trying to figure out how to hire their first sales person, or get beyond owner led to non-owner led sales, and in order to have sales manager you got to be a little bit there or beyond, so…It’s been that kind of challenge.

Ted Hulsy:  Yeah, it’s definitely a smaller pool, but it could be definitely – a pretty elite group of companies trying to get to the next level for sure.

Nathan Austin:   Yeah, without a doubt; yeah.

Ted Hulsy:  Okay, well with that we’re just about out of time here, and I just want to first thank you for everything you’ve been doing for the MSB community at large with you know being involved with the BASE program, and being a leader in HTG and a “go giver”. So just congratulations on all the great work you’re doing there.

Nathan Austin:   Thanks Ted it’s a – I have to thank everyone else, part of HTG that’s just you know been there before, and like I said, I feel like this is partly an obligation to give back based on all the benefit and value that I’ve received from peers and mentors, and I’ll have to also in turn I appreciate the commitment that you’ve had to HTG as you – I know you’re on the vendor peer group there, and I know you’re a big advocate for the MSB community as well. So that’s much appreciated from my perspective.

Ted Hulsy:  Well, great, and thank you for that, and thanks for taking the time to be interviewed by me today. Take care.

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