Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Smartest Blogs on the Internet

In the world of technical consulting, there are two sides of the office: Those who deliver technical solutions and those who figure out where the business is going and how to get there.

Michael Gerber (The E-Myth Revisited) labels these as "working in the business" vs. "working on the business."

In the smallest I.T. consulting firms, these are the same people. In a one person shop, the owner simply does everything. But with just a little growth, the division emerges quickly.

I believe both sides of the office need to read material directed to both sides. Technicians need to understand the business side of business. And owners and strategists need to keep connected with the technology.

To that end, let me recommend two blogs that are absolute must-read material for both sides of the office.

For the technical tips, tricks, updates, and just plain useful information, you need Susan Bradley's Blog (http://msmvps.com/blogs/bradley/default.aspx).

Susan's blog is filled with no-apologies technical stuff about 80% of the time (and no apologies other stuff the other 20%). It really is must-read material. Many consultants in the small biz space go to Susan's blog first when they're looking for a solution. A quick search brings up only the information related to this space. After that you can check out technet.

On the business side of your business, you need Vlad Mazek's Blog (http://www.vladville.com).

You may not agree with everything he says, or the way it's presented, but for an analysis of the business you're in, Vladville is the smartest blog on the internet. Just look over his posts for the last week! In fact, this entire post was inspired by his article on Arthur Miller and the Death of an SMB Tech Salesman.

My complete reaction to that post this morning was "Damn this is good. Thank God someone's thinking about this stuff."

I suspect that these two blogs are particularly useful because neither author is exactly in our space. Neither of them is a consultant with a shop on the corner. Both of them interact with SMB consultants and clients all the time. So they get to see us in a little different light.

I read about ten blogs consistently and check out another half dozen from time to time. No one can keep up with everything, and I'm sure I'm missing some great stuff. But to keep the two sides of my brain tuned up at all times, I keep up on Susan and Vlad.

You should, too.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

End of year sale

Lana -- our most excellent Commander of Shipping -- has declared a sale!

We have tallied up the damaged goods.

We got all of our books back from various distributors.

A few of the damaged books have a hole drilled in them so they can be bolted to a table (or something like that). Others have "Demo" written across the front cover. A few are merely scuffed from shipping to and fro.

All books are 100% usable. Insides are good. All include their CDs.

These are a spectacular deal right now, while supplies last.

The last time we did this, it lasted only four days. Here's what we have:

- The Network Documentation Workbook -- our biggest seller -- only $49.95
- While damaged supplies last.

- Service Agreements for SMB Consultants -- only $29.95
- While damaged supplies last.

Order now. When these are gone, they're gone. And then we're back to the full-price books that remain.

-----

If you've ever considered buying The Network Documentation Workbook or Service Agreements for SMB Consultants, this is your chance.

Check it out at http://www.greatlittlebook.com/products.htm.

or you can just click here:

Network Documentation Workbook $49.95
http://www.webmarketingmagic.com/app/netcart.asp?MerchantID=75012&ProductID=3888519

Service Agreements for SMB Consultants $29.95
http://www.webmarketingmagic.com/app/netcart.asp?MerchantID=75012&ProductID=3940849

Saturday, December 22, 2007

End of Year Finances - Pt 2

If you haven't read the first post on end of year finances, do so here: http://smallbizthoughts.blogspot.com/2007/12/end-of-year-finances-pt-1_19.html.

In that exercise you ran a standard QuickBooks profit and loss statement and had lots of fun.

You also built an excel spreadsheet so you can track expenses month after month, year after year.

And now, at last, you know whether you make money in your business. I hope it's good news.

Now we're going to run some tasty reports so you can see more of the details of what your business does.

1. Largest Months

Let's start with Monthly Sales.

Remember that sales are not profit.

Create a report every month that lists the twelve largest months' sales in the company's history. Update this every month once you've settled the previous month's finances. Sort the list from highest sales to lowest. This is very simple. For Example:

November 2007 = $ 10,000
October 2007 = $ 9,500
May 2007 = $ 9,000
September 2007 = $ 8,500
July 2007 = $ 8,000
August 2007 = $ 7,500
January 2007 = $ 7,000
December 2006 = $ 6,500
June 2007 = $ 6,000
May 2006 = $ 5,500
April 2005 = $ 5,000
May 2007 = $ 4,500

As you can see, these are not simply the last twelve months in reverse chronological order. You've got a few real oldies there. With luck, most of these are from the previous year. But reality it what it is.


2. Most Profitable Months

Next we'll look at the juicy stuff. If you created the excel spreadsheet from the previous post, then you have "the bottom line" at your fingertips. That is, you can give the final profit (or loss) for each month.

Note, please, that the largest sales months are not the same as the most profitable months.

If you want to distribute this to your staff, you don't have to give specific dollar amounts. But you should keep track of this.

Make a habit of listening to the financial news networks. You'll notice over time that the most desirable companies make more profit every quarter and pay a higher dividend each quarter.

Try to emulate this.

Focus on the profit and you'll be more profitable.

Focus on the bottom line and you'll improve the bottom line.


3. The Largest Customers

Finally, create a report of the largest clients you have.

We're often deceived because the loudest, neediest clients trick us into believing that they are our most important clients. And we confuse that with profit.

Here's a report that will open your eyes every time your run it. It has two parts.

First, list the ten largest clients based on sales for the last twelve months. List the percent of total sales for each client. Because you list percentages and not dollar amounts, this is a report you can distribute to your employees.

Example:

Client A = 12.0%
Client B = 10.1%
Client C = 9.2%
Client D = 8.3%
Client E = 7.4%
Client F = 6.5%
Client G = 5.6%
Client H = 4.7%
Client I = 3.8%
Client J = 2.9%

Total = 70.5% of all sales.

Note: It is not unusual for you to find that 50-75% of your sales come from your top ten clients. Of course, the larger your business is, the smaller will this total be.

Second, run the same report for the five largest clients based on sales for the last three months. List the percent of total sales for each client.

Example:

Client A = 10.0%
Client C = 10.1%
Client X = 9.2%
Client D = 8.3%
Client B = 7.4%

Note that the order of clients for the last three months is not the same as for the last twelve months. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, any client can be in the top 5 at any time. The quarter your smallest client buys a new server and five office license, they can spend $10,000 and shoot to the top. The 12-month figures change more slowly. If you were to lose your largest client (gasp), it would take 1-2 months for them to disappear from the stop spot. And it might take 10 months for them to drop off the top ten list!

-----

At first, these numbers might not make a great deal of sense. But if you run these numbers every month, you can't help but look at them. Among the gems, you are likely to find:

- There are clients who move onto and off of the "largest client" list.

- There are clients who stay on this list for years.

- There are "sleeper" clients that no one on your staff can guess. But there they are, quietly contributing to the bottom line while other clients bluster away but don't contribute much.

-----

An inconvenient truth:

Most sole proprietors could drop every single client outside of their top ten and see only a microscopic change in revenue. They would also see a noticable decrease in expenses. In other words, they'd make more profit.

But almost no one does this.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

End of Year Finances - Pt 1

As the year winds down, it's a great time to look at how you keep track of your business. I mean financial track.

Ugh! I hear it echoing across the hills and valleys. "I don't like finances. I don't do finances. I just want to be a consultant."

Fine. Are your over that yet? Well, you need to be. And the reason is very simple.

Go buy any Brian Tracy book or CD and you'll be exposed to this little bit of advice: What gets measured gets done.

Let me add my own mantra: You're going to get better at whatever you put your attention to.

The world doesn't care whether you like finances or avoid finances. If you don't keep track of it, you don't know whether your busines is moving in the right direction. Are you making more money than last year, or less? How does your year look month to month to month?

If you know and use QuickBooks, I hope you'll find an idea or two here. If you don't know QB, start today. A few tips:

First, work with an accountant or enrolled agent. Pay them to help you set up the right accounts and items that make sense for your business.

Second, Plan to go over this every month. If possible, meet with your accountant or enrolled agent every few months to make sure you're on the right track.

This is a tool: use it and it will help you!!!

More comments to follow. For now, look through the elements you'll find on most consultants' spreadsheets:

-----

Create an Excel Spreadsheet. Here's your first column. It should be followed by columns for each month of the year.

Item  

Revenue

    Hardware
    Materials
    Software
     Goods Subtotal

    Labor Tech Sup
    Managed Services
      HaaS
    Hosted services
    Other / Misc
      Total Revenue
    YTD


Expenses

    COG Hardware (COG = Cost of Goods Sold)
    COG Materials
    COG Software
      COGs Subtotal

    COG Remote SW e.g., Kaseya or Zenith
    COG Service to Sell e.g., OWN
    HaaS Depreciation

    Payroll - Total

    Item January February

    Advertising
    Bank Charges
    Computer Services
    Dues and subs
    Employee Expenses e.g., Mileage
    Employee Medical
    Equipment
    Facilities
    Insurance E&O / Liability
    - Insurance Property
    - Insurance W.C.
    Office Supplies
    Postage/Ship
    Professional fees
    - Accounting
    - PSA system e.g., Autotask
    - Legal
    Rent
    Taxes misc
    Telephone
    Training
    Travel
    Write Off
    Other


Total Expenses
YTD

Profit
YTD

-----

That means you enter the information from QuickBooks into Excel. That way you can create charts, graphs, etc.

At the far right, add up the totals for the year for each row.

If you have an item that is just microscopic, drop it. For example, I have an entry in QB called Tools. But tools (screwdrivers, pocket knives) is such a tiny percentage of the total that I don't put it on the excel spreadsheet. It goes in the "other" category. Similarly, if something grows to the point where it does represent a significant percent of the total, you should add it to the spreadsheet.

I've added some subtotal categories for Cost of Goods and the related sales of goods. This allows me to break down the big categories into:

- Revenue from goods sold
- Revenue from services sold

- Cost of goods sold
- Cost of Labor

- Cost of everything else (Assuming hardware, software, and labor are all sold at a price higher than you pay, this is your real cost of operations -- the nut that has to be cracked every month).

This seems simplistic, but most consultants don't think about it until forced to:

You can make money on every single thing you sell and still lose money overall.

How? Let's say you make a profit of $1,000 on hardware, software, and materials. And you make a profit of $2,000 on labor. Rent is 1,500. and all other expenses are $2,000. You just lost $500. Do that for twelve months and you've lost $6,000.

You can't just look at each job and make each job profitable.

-----
Someone who does this for a living, like Susan, might argue with some specifics here and there. But the important message is very straight forward: pay attention to finances and the bottom line and you'll be more profitable in 2008!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Have a Ducky Christmas

Got a special gift from Paige (of the Microsoft Small Business Specialist Community Advisory Group).

Added a little Nativity Scene from the office.

Voila.



Enough chocolate for everyone!

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

There's Professionalism and Professionalism and Professionalism

I can't spill the details, but I am reading through some materials in a court case for a large client. The questions put to me are about the standards in the industry. In particular, what are the professional standards in our industry?

Maybe it's a coincidence that they chose me to talk about this. But it turns out to be one of my pet peeves (oh, you hadn't guessed?).

There are layers of competence.

The classic layers are:

Unconscious Incompetence
- (you don't even know what you don't know)

Conscious Incompetence
- (you are aware of what you don't know)

Consciously Competent
- (you know what you know and what you don't know)

Unconsciously Competent
- (you know this so well you can do it in your sleep)

I'm not sure where this originated. After I first read it, I looked for sources. I can find this discussion a lot, but not sure who to credit with the original formulation.

Anyway, there are obviously many steps missing in that process. Here are some that are relevant to our business:

Safe Zone One:
- Incompetent and not interested (with luck, this is a client!)

Danger Zone One:
- Incompetent and interested (least dangerous)
- Incompetent and think you're competent
- Incompetent and think you're really good (most dangerous)

Beginner:
- Competent enough to convince someone to hand you a check
- Competent enough to fix the same problem twice
- Competent enough to realize you need to know more

Early Professional:
- Realize there are areas of competence and incompetence
- Define areas of competence and capitalize on them
- Begin to safely expand areas of competence (one job at a time)

Danger Zone Two:
- Take on any job no matter the level of competence
- Present yourself as an expert in areas you don't remotely understand
- Actively deceive people about your abilities and facilities

Professional:
- Completely aware of areas of competence and incompetence (focus on areas of competence)
- Invest in moving up to the next level (books, training, conferences, pro groups, etc.)
- Standardize procedures and take pride in doing things "the right way"

Seasoned Professional:
- Only work in areas of competence
- Gain competence where needed (and only sell once competent)
- "Live" in a world where competence and high standards are simply assumed to be part of what you do

Danger Zone Three:
- Very competent in some areas, but unethical in business practices
- Actively deceive clients and non-clients (e.g., take money and don't deliver service)
- Unwilling to admit areas of incompetence, and willing to accept money for any job

Note, please, that this is not a nice, linear progression. Somewhere along the line, people choose to be good (professional) or evil (danger zone). Unfortunately, you can't tell good and evil at a glance. That comes with experience over time.

Let's just look at the good (professional) track. Here your basic progression is

Danger Zone One
Beginner
Early Professional
Professional
Seasoned Professional

There's plenty of discussion about where the SMB community fits on some "competence scale." I often use the line that some technicians got into this business because they know more about computers than anyone they know. For most people, that's not very much knowledge. This danger zone isn't evil unless they choose to stay there.

The SMB space has more than it's share of Beginners and Early Professionals. That's the nature of the beast. After all:
1) The barriers to entry are low
2) As people move up the professional scale, they leave smaller (easier) jobs behind
3) Beginners are willing to work for less and many SMB clients aren't willing to pay for competence and professionalism

The Really Good News is that professionalism in the SMB space has expanded dramatically in the last few years. With books by Harry Brelsford, Beatrice Mulzer, Janet Ruhl, Erick Simpson, Eriq Neale, and others, we actually talk about this stuff! Then you add the rantings of Vlad Mazek, Chris Rue, Jeff Middleton, Susan Bradley, and dozens of others. If you look at the SMB blogs, web sites, news groups, and boards, it's awesome how much we discuss professionalism and the right way of doing things.

So while we'll always be overloaded with Beginners and Early Professionals, our space is finally reaching the point where we are professionals. We have professional associations (ICCA, SMBTN, Mobi, IAMCP, ASCII, etc.). From time to time we even discuss licensing boards and the "next" step in professionalism.

From time to time I lament the fact that there's so much un-professionalism in our space. I need also to celebrate the fact that we have so much professionalism.

And we're heading in the right direction.

2008 will be a great year.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Holiday Thank You to the Community

Sometimes business is buiness. And sometimes friendship is friendship. And when we're lucky, we do business with people we like.

Today was a weird day. I did a bunch of things I don't normally do, didn't make any money, and had a great time.

It started with a great sales event at the local Microsoft office with Suzanne Lavine, the ultimate CPAM Goddess of of Microsoft. Tom and all the others wish they could do what Suzanne does.

That was interrupted by a call with Harry B, who was in more of a chatty mood than I was because I had to get back to the sales event.

Harry Agreed to let us distribute his current SMB Nation books through SMBbooks.com, and to let us distribute his new books as they are released over the next 6-8 months. Great news for us (and you).

So I apologized to Suzanne, who asks about SMB Nation. We side track everyone for awhile. That leads to a general discussion of attending events. Everyone agrees that networking opportunities are the greatest.

Someone asks whether I get any value from events like SMB Nation, SMBTN Summit, or SBS Migration.

And having just finished watching every minute of Rome, I slip into an oration.

Community events allow me to make contacts with people I rarely see. Real contacts. Sit down and share a meal contacts.

Truth be told, I can call Vlad Mazek, Jeff Middleton, Erick Simpson, or Amy Luby anytime. But I don't.

But one way or another I manage to connect with these fine people in person 1-2 times a year "in real life." And that means in real life at conferences or seminars.

I first met each of these people face to face at some seminar. There are many more people I only know because of communications via blogs or yahoo groups. Some people live in far-off continents. Some helped me when I needed something.

So I got into a meloncholy mood.

I checked my email. A smart-ass comment from a friend about a blog post.

It's great to be part of a community.

Then I scurried off to Macaroni Grill for the last SBS User Group "meeting" of the year. Twenty people showed up, including Suzanne. Raymond drove 1.5 hours to get here. I always appreciate that. We had a great meal, did a gift exchange. Thanks to Jonathan for organizing all of this.

The gift exchange was organized by Janet.

You may have seen Janet at SMB Nation even if you haven't met her personally. She's a fifth level vegan: She won't eat anything that castes a shadow. I sat next to Brad, one of my favorite people in the world.

-----

And when I wondered home, I'd spent seven hours with people in the SMB community, talking about people in the SMB community, about "stuff" in the SMB community.

And as Christmas approaches, I am truly grateful for the SMB community.

Talking to folks at dinner tonight was very much like a family reunion. Brad asked about the client where he'd helped me rewire 65 workstations in one day; Jonathan quietly accepted thanks for organizing everything; Bob sat at the head of the table and played the father figure; Mark played up his gag gift like a master; and Denny introduced his fiance with pride.

Jeff summed it up: As small businesses, we don't really have company Holiday parties. This is our Christmas party.

True enough.

My enjoyment of the evening really has nothing to do with business: It has to do with choosing to spend time with people I enjoy. I am eternally grateful to the community for being a community and for allowing me to participate.

As I retire for the night, I wish you all a wonderful holiday season and a spectacular new year.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Zenith vs. Microsoft

Disclaimer: As always, this is just my very biased opinion. Take what you like and leave the rest.

When I say "Tech support from India" most partners have an actual physical reaction. Their ears turn red. Their jaws clench. You can see that their blood pressure is going up. And immediately they start ranting about how horrible Microsoft's tech support is in India.

Now, truth be told, the support on the server 2003 and SQL lines is excellent. But since most SMB consultants get funneled to the SBS support line, they only get to talk to incompetent technicians. Once in awhile they find someone good. But unless their call is escalated, support pretty much sucks. As a result, the majority of their only experience with Indian tech support is with terrible tech support.

But we don't call Microsoft any more. We call Zenith Infotech.

[Please see This Post and This Post.]

Today's topic: How does Zenith compare to Microsoft?

First, Why are we comparing Zenith and Microsoft?

Zenith provides managed service delivery tools, remote monitoring, patch management, scripting, and live human back office support.

The only real overlap with Microsoft is when we call for higher-level support for a server.

[Note:
Microsoft has patch management systems with SCE and MOM and WSUS, but we only rarely use these. For the SMB space, these add more labor than they remove. So that's why we don't discuss it in this comparison. Too labor intensive compared to the other tools.]

Second, Competence.

I know I sound like an old song here, but our experience is that we have plenty of high-level support in-house. We only call for additional support when we've had more than one over-certified, over-qualified technician come to a dead end. It happens.

So, when we call any tech support, we expect to talk to someone who knows more than we do about a product. That's true for firewalls, spam filters, accounting systems, servers, operating systems, etc. Everything. And when we get an intro-level tech whose only real job is to answer the phone and ask us to hold while he gets someone at the next level, we're very patient with that.

Our experience with Microsoft is that the first people who answer the phone on the SBS line are untrained, unprofessional, and incompetent. They are unwilling to escalate unless you raise a stink. They break things. They don't follow their own rules.

There are plenty of good technicians on the SBS support line, including the guys in India. But Microsoft has no effective triage system, and no effective escalation system. So you waste hours talking to someone what can't help and wants to go through the Internet Connection Wizard again and again.

Zenith is exactly the opposite. It didn't take very long at all before we realized that every single job we assigned to them got done quickly and competently. They don't just fix a problem and close a ticket: They give us details about how they did it, and they include KB article references.

Sometimes, we don't ask them to fix the problem, but just do the research so we can fix it. Again, always competent. Always professional.

One of the amazing things that we've experienced with Zenith is that we absolutely trust that they can just fix the problem.

Third, Price.

As a certified partner, we get a package of "free" incidents with Microsoft. In addition, "Server Down" calls are free. The result is that Microsoft has created their own nightmare. People who shouldn't be in this business, people who haven't done any research, and generally incompetent people call for help. They haven't read a book or even done one search on technet.

Those people are clogging the line when you (the competent technician) call Microsoft. So 90% of the calls can be solved with a recommendation to buy CALs or run the internet connection wizard.

It's "free" only in the sense that you pay with endless hours of your time.

Think of it this way: Whatever you charge by the hour, that's what you're really paying to sit on the phone with Microsoft. You're explaining SBS to someone who was trained on Server2003 instead of billing another client at $120/hr.

Zenith has a pretty basic free structure. It's about $37 per month to manage a server, and $37 per hour to provide labor. The monthly fee is a great bargain. The hourly rate is a bit high. But it's not horrible. Remember, your in-house tech collects a paycheck and doesn't provide income while she's in training, in meetings, at the water cooler, etc. So a $20/hr technician costs more like $30 with insurance, taxes, benefits, etc. and is not 100% billable. So maybe $37 as a contract rate is very reasonable.

Zenith asks you to put down a deposit and then chip away at it. This has worked very smoothly for us.

Microsoft does offer a high-end support option. It is about $6,500 and covers calls regarding one product. So you can get right through to the excellent tech support in Texas. It's a bit pricey

For $6,500 at Zenith I can get total support for ten servers for a year AND buy more than 50 hours of top-notch service.

Fourth, Privacy and Confidentiality.

This is very simple. Microsoft has no privacy policy regarding calls to PSS (CSS).

Zenith has a written privacy and non-disclosure policy regarding their access to your operations and procedures, and to your clients' data.

I asked my contact at PSS for their privacy policy and he sent me one related to using the Microsoft web site. When I pointed this out and asked what our privacy rights are regarding calls to PSS, his only response was

"I'd have to defer you to our legal department as I do not have that information."

When I asked how to get ahold of the legal department, all I got was the question

"Have you retained a lawyer?"

I've asked my PAM and the partner desk. No one (including PSS) can come up with a privacy policy for PSS calls.

Who cares? Well, we do, for one. Awhile back I irritated a few people with This Post. Someone, a contractor for Microsoft who actually helped identify himself, posted some very inappropriate things about my company and employees on the Internet, including specific notes from calls made to PSS.

Microsoft won't say whether they've done anything to address the issue.

But they have since made it very clear to me that they have no privacy policy regarding calls to PSS.

If you call Microsoft, you have no guarantees that the details of your call will not be used in any way that any Microsoft employee or contractor sees fit. This goes for your clients' data as well.

I did learn that employees and contractors need to sign non-disclosure agreements, but that didn't do us any good while the details of our PSS calls were posted on the Internet.

I sign non-disclosure agreements with all my clients. If Microsoft can post PSS call information on the Internet, then my client NDA is worthless. My NDA is only meaningful if I work with partners who have meaningful privacy policies in place.

With luck, the Microsoft Lawyers are banging away trying to produce a privacy policy for PSS calls. In the meantime . . .

Bottom Line

Our primary reason for signing up with Zenith was to solve the problem of dealing with the horrible tech support at Microsoft. We have put procedures in place that prevent them from breaking things, but these are imperfect. And we were will wasting hours and hours dealing with their "system" and not fixing problems.

Zenith has fixed our problems.

The most frustrating part about supporting SBS has simply gone away. We get excellent, competent, timely support. And we don't have to call the Microsoft SBS line in India.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Feed Burning

We're tweaking the feed again.

Apparently some people haven't seen this blog in awhile due to a recent change.

So we're going to move to Feedburner.

The new feed is through Feedburder:

http://feeds.feedburner.com/SmallBizThoughtsByKarlPalachuk.

Please point news readers, aggregators, and various other things to that address.

Thank you for your patience.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Zenith vs. Kaseya

Disclaimer: As always, this is just my very biased opinion. Take all the bits you like and leave the rest. :-)

In the last post I talked about our general experience with Zenith. The two natural comparisons that arise are:

1) How does Zenith compare to Kaseya?

2) How does Zenith compare to Microsoft?

Of course these are very different roles. So we'll do apples to apples and oranges to oranges.

First Z and K. Next time Z and M.

Zenith vs. Kaseya

The basic roles as we use them:
- Zenith provides remote monitoring of servers.
- Kaseya provides remote monitoring of servers and workstations.
- We use Kaseya for scripting specific jobs across multiple clients.
- Zenith does remote labor on client machines.
- Zenith does troubleshooting and will fix items once we authorize it.

Customer Service:
- Kaseya has eliminated free training. So it's sink or swim, or pay for learning to use their tool. This was not the case when we first signed up.
- Overall, Kaseya is one of the most arrogant vendors we've ever dealt with. They have a real "You need us more than we need you" attitude.
- Zenith provides free training, extensive documentation, as well as ample marketing material, sample contracts, etc.
- Zenith's customer service is excellent in every regard. Sometimes it is a bit slow to get a response by email, but then you get three responses at once because they always cc each other.

Pricing:
- We bought Kaseya licenses through the ASCII group (www.ascii.com), so we got a discount. Don't know what the current price is. Talk to your rep because pricing is based entirely on their mood and your attitude.
- Zenith is $37 per server per month, last I checked. I think it's about $7 per desktop per month.

Kaseya is not as expensive as you think.

Everyone phreaks out because someone paid $30,000 for 250 licenses.

OK. Think about that. That's $120/license. Over three years, that's still $120/license. So that's $3 per month per license.

Even if you paid $150 per license, that's less than $5 per month for the first three years.

And it gets cheaper after that because you're just paying for maintenance.

Kaseya is the most affordable remote monitoring, patch management, and remote support tool available.


Backend Support:
- Zenith built their business on having a backend support system.
- Kaseya has recently added this option.

Our bias, when we first bought Kaseya, was to buy the best. Kaseya was the best. Their product was complete while everyone else was playing catch-up. Now Kaseya is playing catch-up to Zenith on the back office feature.

Our future:
Who knows what the future holds, but right now we expect to turn over more jobs to Zenith.

We rely on Kaseya for remote monitoring and patch management because we own the server and control the entire process. We rely on Zenith for regular maintenance, solving interesting problems, and doing chores across a group of servers.

We put both Zenith and Kaseya on servers and Kaseya only the desktops. Why? Because the service we need on desktops is extremely basic, Kaseya does everything we need, and Kaseya's cheaper.

-----

Final analysis.

I sure hope you weren't looking to make a quick decision based on my observations.

This is obviously a mixed review.

If I could change one thing about Zenith it would be the price. But I can't really ask that because I see it as a service with people behind it. And that being the case, I don't know how they do it so cheaply.

If I could change one thing about Kaseya it would be their attitude. Their sales incentives encourage sales people to rip consultants off for thousands of licenses before they've signed a single service agreement. Support and customer service take this level of love and carry it along in everything they do.

The final analysis is this: Do both! Figure out how to make money using these tools, and use each to it's fullest advantage.

Why not?

Buy 100 licenses of Kaseya on payment terms. Go through ASCII or someone else to get the best price. Use it, use it, use it. Then slap down a deposit with Zenith and figure out all the things they can do to make your work go away. After you've got them both doing as much as they can, fine tune.

If we absolutely had to do one today? Tough call. It would be a long debate. But I think the nod would go to Zenith because of their proven ability to do the labor side. And that, ultimately, reduces our costs.

-----

Next up: Zenith vs. Microsoft

:-)

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Indian Tech Support Kicks Booty

Way back at SMB Nation East I had the pleasure of spending some time with both Arlin Sorensen and Erick Simpson. Here are three simple rules for life:

Thing one: If Arlin Sorensen gives you advice, take it.

Thing two: If Erick Simpson gives you advice, take it.

Thing three: If both Arlin and Erick give you the same advice, do it as quickly as you can.

-----

One of the business-changing decisions that came out of that conference was the decision to add Zenith Infotech to our managed services offering. Both Arlin and Erick use it. Arlin's company was in the same boat as us: using Kaseya but ready for more.

And, as I have publicly discussed my addition of this tool, it is only right that I give you a report on how it's going.

In a word: Awesome.

Please note: I'm a real fan of taking a tool and using for our purposes, whether that's what the vendor intends or not.

Here's what we've found with Zenith:


  • Excellent to work with. We have definite ideas about how we want things done. They are willing to do it our way and have never charged us extra for figuring out our procedures.

  • Humans are better than machines. Duh. Kaseya is a great product, but it can't quickly look through log files, run a network trace, research KB articles, and figure out what the problem is.

  • We have virtually eliminated daily monitoring. One of the key components of managed services is to monitor machines and make sure all the services are up, machines are not running out of disc space, etc.

    Between Zenith and Kaseya, all of this is taken care of. If a monitor goes off, one of them will generate a service request. If something just isn't right (e.g., backup takes too long) Zenith will open a service request. The only thing we do now is to manually check the backup on two servers because those two clients do not want technicians other that us accessing their machines.

  • We have virtually eliminated "monthly maintenance." One of the core components of our business for the last 12+ years has been monthly maintenance. See The 68-point checklist. Once daily monitoring is done, much of the old monthly maintenance checklist is done. Now, Zenith handles all the pieces that take a human to do. The only thing left for us is to call each client and step through putting in the right tapes so we can verify the backup each month and send tapes to permanent offsite storage.

  • Special projects are a breeze. When we have a particularly difficult chore, we turn it over to Zenith. For example, if Symantec Anti-Virus is not working, won't uninstall to reinstall, and the job will be drawn out with a few reboots, we assign it to Zenith. They do the job over the weekend or at night.

  • When we just need more labor. Sometimes we get slammed. Handing a job off to Zenith means it just gets done. Our guys can work on something else.

  • Their reporting is excellent. Even when they just go in to fix a little problem, their tech notes say exactly what they did, which KB articles are relevant, and how they verified the fix.


We have three kinds of tasks we hand to Zenith:

1) Monitor

2) Troubleshoot (look but don't make changes)

3) Fix and repair

Where we draw the line on duties is not exactly where Zenith draws the line. Here's what I mean. From their perspective, actions that are "maintenance" of the system are included in the flat monthly fee. Actions that are above and beyond maintenance are billed to us at an hourly rate.

So, monitoring is always included. Some troubleshooting is included. Some fix and repair is included.

We manage our budget by making sure we know when we're paying extra. And they are excellent at communicating about this.

Working with the people.

One of our biggest concerns, of course, was the language and culture issue. A few notes.

First, Zenith allows their technicians to use their real names. There are no technicians in India named Jeff or Stan.

Second, we deal with our primary contact in the U.S. for almost everything. From time to time we work with technicians in India directly. We have been very pleased with this.

Third, our clients only ever work with us. Our clients never interact with Zenith directly.

Communications has always been excellent, although a little patience and a sense of humor go a long way. Our favorite incident involved having Zenith do the first half of a job and then turn it back to us for the second half. The technician concluded his notes by writing: "Please do the needful thing." We knew exactly what he meant.

The Bottom Line is the Bottom Line

We have Zenith installed and monitoring almost every client server. We estimate they they provide about 50-75 hours of "billable" labor (meaning time on task), which translates into about 75-100 hours we would have to pay a technician each month.

That's a half-time technician.

Next up: I'll give a few thoughts on Zenith vs. Kaseya and Zenith vs. Microsoft.

Questions welcome.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

It Begins . . . SMB Books Adventure

After being head-down working on web sites and back-end processes, I'm coming up for air.

I have a vision of the future. It involves you.

Here's the multi-step process:

1) We have launched a new web site called www.SMBBooks.com. It's just a baby right now, but we have plans to grow very soon.

2) SMB Books will sells books and a lot more. Audio CDs, white papers, and whatever we can find that's interesting and useful to the SMB Consulting Community.

3) SMB Books will sell everything at 10% off (or better) every day. So that $60 book will cost you no more the $54.

4) You can earn money by joining our affiliate program. Put our link on your site. When visitors click from you to us, you will earn 10% of what they spend. Compare that to just about any book-related affiliate program! For more information, see our sister-site at www.smb-books.com.

5) We are soliciting White Papers and other materials that may be of interest to the wider SMB Consulting community. A white paper is a short (15-25 pages, generally) paper that explores a specific topic. It might be a how-to on a certain technology, a best practice recommendation, or whatever you think may be useful to the community. White papers don't sell for much, but they can help you make a little money while helping your fellow SBSers.

6) We have an editorial board (see http://www.smb-books.com/Vendor/EditorialBoard.htm) who will review submissions and help us determine whether they are something the wider community would benefit from.

So, here are the calls to action:

First, please go check out www.SMBBooks.com and www.smb-books.com.

Second, put up a link today and start earning money.

Third, if you have a white paper, or some other product that is useful to the SMB community, please contact me through the www.smb-books.com web site.

Our long term plan is to expand our offerings, focus very clearly on the SMB Consulting space, and to become a real resource for the community. With audio programs and white papers, I think we can really build a resource for the entire SMB Consulting community.

Won't you please join me?

Madison Would Be Amazed

My favorite political philosopher is James Madison. In addition to being a U.S. President, Madison is known as the "Father of the [U.S.] Constitution." His most famous writings are in The Federalist Papers, a series of articles written in support of the proposed constitution while it was being debated in the states.

And perhaps the greatest Federalist Papers are #10 and #51, a discussion of "factions." Factions are groups who act in their own best interest, often without regard to the interests of the community as a whole.

The basic gist is this:

- Selfish factions can destroy a community (from small communities to great nations).

- Protection from these factions comes in one of two forms.

1) Prevent the factions from meeting. Thus they cannot implement their plans. This is not a practical answer in a free society.

2) Create so many factions that no one faction can win all the time. Thus groups need to compromise in order to win, and different coalitions win each time.

In 1787, this philosophy resulted in a complex governing system in which many, many groups were represented in government.

Here are a few thoughts on the modern view of Madison's philosophy.

First, The Internet is the most democratizing power in the modern era. The two greatest democratizing forces have always been capitalism (trade) and communications. When people trade with one another, they manage to overcome their differences and learn to compromise.

Communications has been a tool that has divided the classes for all of human history. The printing press coincided with major advances in democracy. And with each new medium -- telegraph, telephone, radio, television, the Internet -- communication became easier.

The easier, cheaper, and more universal communication is, the more it supports a widening democracy. You can see, therefore, how the Internet has become the "ultimate" tool for increasing equalities among people.

And what's the connection?

It's simple, really. People want to communicate with others who have similar interests. With the internet, we can easily and quickly create communities to discuss politics, our ailments, our hobbies. No matter what groups you find yourself in, you'll find a friend on the internet.

Just look at all the "Other Links" sections on all the blogs and web sites you frequent. Even within one primary community, we have plenty of sub-communities that connect us to whole other worlds on the Internet.

So, to Madison's first option, the modern world has given a definitive answer. You can never stop people from finding other people who have the same interests. In fact, we are experiencing an explosion of tools that allow us to find each other.

But Madison's second option is even more powerful today than ever before. The communication explosion has brought out every group imaginable. In an absolute sense, there are groups communicating today on the Internet that could never have found each other ever before in human history.

The result: a massive increase in the number of groups working to be heard. At the local, national, and international level. They're organizing into small groups, coalitions of groups, and large groups. They're holding conferences, feeling their power, and finding ways to make a difference and get their share.

Do you want a good example? Look at the evolution of our own space: http://smallbizthoughts.blogspot.com/2007/11/explosion-of-communities.html.

And set aside some quiet time to think about this: What are your "connected" clients up to? Are they involved in a similar expansion of groups within their own business community? Are they more and more connected every week into a growing community? If so, how will this affect their business and yours?

I don't know.

But I know how you can find out:

Ask them.

Become that trusted advisor.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Cox on Marketing

One of my favorite "philosophers" of business is Coleman Cox. If you look at almost any collection of quotes, you'll find quotes by Coleman Cox, generally about sales and business.

Most people like to quote his one-and two-line quips. Here's a great longer quote from Just Plain Talk:


    When a man is "all run down" and needs building up he calls in a doctor for advice, and medicine that will put him right. He does not dispute the doctor's diagnosis of his case, or rewrite the prescription to suit himself. How different it is when his buisness is "run down" and needs building up. He calls in an advertising man whose business is to stimulate, and build up a run down business. He rewrites the advertising man's "prescriptions" as fast as they are handed to him, changes the size of doses and time of giving to suit himself, and then puts all the blame on the advertising man if the business does not show immediate improvement. Yes, the advertising business is the only business in the world every man "knows"--or thinks he knows.


Isn't it true? You can buy books by Erick Simpson and Matt Makowicz, or a program from Robin Robins. But what do you do?

You start by putting on your "Let's do it my way" filter.

You are seeking advice because your way needs improvement. So why are you stripping out bits and pieces of their advice so that the action plan looks more like what you've already been doing?

Reason One: You're most comfortable with what you've done in the past. True. But that got you here and you want to move on. Doing more of the same is going to get you more of the same.

Reason Two: You say "My customers wouldn't go for that." Sorry: B.S. meter is now off the scale. Until you test your prospects, ask your prospects, and test the system, you don't know. When you're consistently given the same advice, maybe it's time to listen to it instead of assuming it won't work. See http://smallbizthoughts.blogspot.com/2007/06/product-development-lessons-from-mvp.html.

Reason Three: It costs too much money. Finding the right list costs money. Doing a mailing of 3-4 pages and repeating it 3-4 times costs money. It can costs a couple thousand dollars. What if you don't get any response?

Reality check: In order to save money and play it safe, you are very tempted to go cheap on the list, do a 1-2 page letter, and only repeat it once. What have you done? You've mailed to the wrong people with a watered down message, and you haven't reinforced it.

But at least you get to blame your advisors! After all, "their" program didn't work.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Don't Futz with Your Business

My dear sainted mother used to use the word "futz" a lot. Here are a few uses for the word:

- Quit futzing around.
- Don't futz with that.

To futz is to play with something or meddle with it when you should be leaving it alone. For example, when you're making something, there comes a time when you glue it in place and then you have to just sit and wait.

If you futz with it, for example by moving a part to see if the glue is dry, you're likely to reduce the quality of the final product. It's not that you will ruin the craft, but maybe that one piece will just never go back to exactly where it was supposed to be.

Another example is when you plant seeds. You wait and wait, but no plant appears. When one day there's a little crack in the soil, you want to chip it out to help the plant break through. That's futzing. The plant will be just fine without your futzing.

We futz because we're eager to see the fruits of our labor. We've put something together and we want to see if it works the way it's supposed to.

Very often, we futz too much with our businesses. We put a new process in place -- maybe HaaS or managed services. That's a big, major change.

Once you make a change like that, it is very tempting to futz with it.

In other words, you don't give the new program a chance before you start making little changes here and there. You find yourself constantly checking up on it. Playing a little here, playing a little there.

Stop futzing.

If you've thought through your plan, you have a good plan, and it's all in place, then leave it alone for awhile. Let the plan work. Take notes, collect them, and do some revisions after a period of time.

In the meantime, put all that excitement and nervous energy into the next project.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Evil Plan: How to kill the most successful product in history

Recently, both Vlad (www.vladville.com) and Mark (http://sbsc.techcareteam.com/) have been blogging about Microsoft's misstep regarding hosted (non-)services and Comcast.

Here's my speculation about what's going on in the background:

Nestled deep in the dark woods of Washington state, in a cold and forbidding building at the top of a mountain, you'll find the home of the Microsoft Department of Scheming (DOS).

And in the Department of Scheming there is large office with tall, steel windows. There you will find a man dressed all in black, in a large captain's chair, petting a cat. He is chuckling to himself. Because, in addition to being the Vice President of Scheming, he is also a mole placed inside of Microsoft by a coalition that plans to destroy Microsoft from the inside.

This coalition consists of Google (the founding organization), Linux, Open Source, and Yahoo. Together they are known as GLOSY.

The logic behind their plan goes like this:

1) Microsoft Office, as it exists today, is an unstoppable force.

Office is not successful because of it's feature set. Wordpad does 98% of what 98% of the population will ever need to do with word processing. Wordperfect and Open Office do 100% of what 99.9% of the population will ever do with office products. Even Google Docs and Spreadsheets does a pretty good job.

So why are businesses willing to pay $400 or $500 for a copy of Microsoft Office? Because MS owns the mind share. Everyone uses MS Office. The only worries are about compatibility. The only concerns are about exchanging documents with ease.

Having another brand that's "compatible" isn't the same. MS Office just is the standard and it just works.

2) For competition to gain a significant share of this market, Microsoft will have to open the door to competition. There are really only two ways to do this. First, they can adopt a file format that is easily opened by any program and saved seamlessly. If business owners can be convinced that any office system can open any file from any other office system, then Microsoft's dominance can be assailed.

Action Item: Get Microsoft to move to .xml file formats.

Second, if biz owners can be convinced that they don't need to "buy" the software, then they can use it on a month-to-month basis and always have the latest features. If this mindset prevails, it will be easy to provide cheaper alternatives that "just work." One month, a business owner will use a non-Microsoft product and it will just work. If the coalition is good at marketing, business owners won't even know that they're not using a Microsoft product. Once this happens, it's a commodity market.

Action Item: Get Microsoft to offer office products over the internet for a subscription fee.

3) The greatest challenge to making all of this happen over the internet is the realiability of the internet connection. The second greatest challenge is to provide adequate customer support during the important transition phase. For Microsoft's online software service to work, they need to choose the right partner. GLOSY must do whatever is necessary to make sure Microsoft chooses poorly here.

Action Item: Get Microsoft to partner with an unreliable cable company whose customer service reputation is among the worst in modern memory.

4) Changing the business owners' mindset will take time. Years. They will need to see a variety of examples where online document handling works. Once they use Wordpress (whether they know it or not) and other online editing tools, their mindset will begin to shift. The explosion of blogging should help considerably on this front.

The industry must go through a period of confusion. At the end of it, business owners will go to a web site, edit a document, send it to a colleague, and never know what program they used.

Time and confusion can only be had if Microsoft agrees to the action items above. These will result in a 1- or 2-year period in which customers won't "get" what's happening to them, Microsoft's delivery will suck out loud, and the GLOSY community will be able to go through at least two generations of products.

By the time Microsoft figures out how to deliver their products in sufficient quantity and quality to deserve a piece of this market, they will no longer dominate the market.

5) Next item: Get Dell of offer the following choice.
- Pick an office product
- -> 100% Microsoft-compatible GLOSY docs = $10
- -> Genuine Microsoft Office Professional = $400

- - - -

The man with the cat walks to the window and gazes out. He chuckles to himself. He won't stop until Microsoft is worth a Million Dollars!

- - - -

Why is Microsoft playing someone else's game when they don't need to?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sale's Over

Sorry it didn't last long. The big damaged goods sale on The Network Documentation Workbook only lasted four days.

I guess there's a pent up demand for either 1) that book, or 2) half-price books.

Anyway, just wanted to get the word out that the sale's over. So, if you paused, you know for next time!

Thanks, all.

-----

If you're looking for great Christmas gifts for all of your employees and clients, check out Relax Focus Succeed(R) -- A Guide to Balancing Your Personal and professional Lives and Becoming More Successful in Both.

Only $19.95 from now til December 31st.

And we have discounts available:

Buy 5 or more, receive 10% off
Buy 10 or more, receive 20% off
Buy 100 or more, receive 30% off

Orders of 500 or more must be placed by December 5th to be delivered in time for Christmas.

Check it out at http://www.relaxfocussucceed.com.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Fix This Feed's Dates in Outlook

From time to time someone mentions that the Blogger feed for this site puts the same date on every post, so posts are not viewed in reverse chronological order.

This has been a known issue for some time.

Well, Thomas Wie engaged me regarding this topic over the weekend. So I poked around and found the fix.

First, get rid of the old Atom/xml feed.

Second, use this feed:

http://smallbizthoughts.blogspot.com/feeds/posts/default?alt=rss

which forces RSS, which is what Outlook uses.

Thanks, Thomas.

Feedback welcome.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Right Way Wrong Way

Here's a bit of philosophy for you:





I was filing through some pictures from a recent trip and came across this sign from the California woods.

I was going to point out some brilliant and witty observations about doing the right thing and how it can become the wrong thing . . .

or about how being on the right course can become the wrong course . . .

or about how being on the wrong course can become the right course . . .

But it's too perfect as it is.

I leave you to your own conclusions.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Network Documentation Workbook - limited time offer

As you may know, our most popular product, The Network Documentation Workbook is approaching "end of life."

So we have about a hundred brand new books to sell, and then we're done with it.

BUT we also have about 40 damaged books. Only the covers are damaged. Other than being a bit tattered on the outside, the inside is perfect. Includes the CD, of course.

These are a spectacular deal right now, while supplies last.

These damaged books are available at half price: Only $45 each.

Order now. When these are gone, they're gone. And then we're back to the full-price books that remain.

-----

If you've ever considered buying The Network Documentation Workbook, and put it off for some reason, this is your chance.

Check it out at http://www.greatlittlebook.com/products.htm

Happy Holidays Around the World

I love statistics. That's one of the fun things about looking through web logs (good times).

And poking around in the logs for this blog, I find that I have a very international audience. In fact, 57 countries are represented. Here they are in order of most visits:

    United States
    United Kingdom
    Australia
    Canada
    New Zealand
    India
    Greece
    Sweden
    Belgium
    France
    Dominican Republic
    Netherlands
    Ireland
    Spain
    Philippines
    Israel
    Czech Republic
    Brazil
    South Africa
    Norway
    Finland
    Singapore
    Germany
    Japan
    Portugal
    Malaysia
    Hungary
    Mexico
    Puerto Rico
    Switzerland
    Argentina
    Russian Federation
    Poland
    Turkey
    Serbia And Montenegro
    Panama
    Kenya
    Mauritius
    Thailand
    Austria
    Ecuador
    Moldova, Republic Of
    Kuwait
    Slovenia
    Slovakia
    Qatar
    United Arab Emirates
    Romania
    Estonia
    Bulgaria
    Indonesia
    Denmark
    Latvia
    Italy
    Lithuania
    Morocco
    Hong Kong


We're in the middle of a big U.S. Holiday here. Many nations and peoples have celebrations of Thanksgiving for their blessings. This is ours.

So I take a little time to thank everyone in the SMB community for their work at home, in the online communities, at the conferences, etc. The community continues to exist only because of the actions of its members day in and day out. And it truly is a worldwide community.

I thank everyone who has supported my efforts with books and other things over the years.

-----

Now through January is my favorite time of year. We get to slow down a bit, focus on our families, evaluate the year passed, and prepare for the year ahead.

I pray that you will all be blessed in the months and years ahead, both in your business and personal lives.

We're all in this together. Let's work to make our community stronger, and to help each other to be successful.

Now let's go enjoy the "Holiday Season," as we say in the U.S.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

What are we worth to Microsoft?

The big opening presentation at SMB Nation included this announcement:

For the just-completed fiscal year, Microsoft license sales by, and as a result of SBSCs, reached $100,000,000.

One hundred million dollars (US).

Yeah. Cheers. Whoopeee.

Now, on the way to the conference center, you pass a building with a 50 foot tall banner hanging down -- an advertisement for Halo3.

Halo3 was released three days before the conference started. By the time we got on the airplane to fly home, Halo3 had sold $300,000,000 worth of product.

We always hear about how rabid the Apple users are. They're the most vocal 4% on earth.

But the truth is: A whole lot more people Love Microsoft, Love Windows, and Love Office.

And even though the media like to play up the whole "evil Microsoft" and "everybody hates Microsoft" crap, it's just not true.

Anyway, the point is: Lots of people love Microsoft products.

Perhaps Microsoft has finally decided that they have so much good will that they can simply alienate a segment of the population with no long-lasting ill effects.

The not-so-secret secret is that you can make a lot more money selling directly than you can through the channel. And, truth be told, a whole lot of people are eager to lay down the Visa card and buy direct.

Once the resolve to be a channel-only vendor is broken, things can never go back to what they were. But how does MS get the ball rolling?

They can't start by going direct-on with their most profitable Gold Certified partners. That would be stupid.

And they don't want to go against their nicely-profitable Certified Partners. That would be silly.

Those targets will come later.

So a quick dip into direct sales will have to be focused very clearly on Registered Partners.

Hence the deal with ComCast.

-----

In the end: What are we worth to Microsoft?

We -- the SBSC community -- bring resources of good will, software recommendations, and the occasional channel sale.

But truth be told, we're a bunch of small business owners serving a bunch of small business owners. Small x small = small.

Very few of us can brag about one million in Microsoft licensing sales.

Let's see . . .

Halo = $300,000,000 in a week.
that's $ 42,857,142 per day
and $ 1,785,714 per hour
or $ 29,761 per minute


SBSC = $100,000,000 per year
which is $8,333,333 per month
or $1,923,076 per week.
that's $ 274,725 per day
and $ 11,446 per hour
or $ 190 per minute


Stop: How many dollars worth of Microsoft licenses did you sell in the last twelve months? One minute's worth? Two minutes' worth? Three minutes' worth?

On the Halo scale, my firm will finish the year in the range of 3 or 4 Halo sales minutes.

So I'm not confused about my value to Microsoft.

All of my value must therefore be tied up in good will and software recommendations, because it's not in channel sales.

-----

Don't be sad.

This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It's just a thing.

I would venture to guess that almost everyone who reads this is a fan of Microsoft.

Somehow, somewhere along the way, Microsoft has earned massive amounts of good will in our community.

It's not just the SBSC program, which is so spectacular that it is actually irrational to not participate.

Microsoft has worked for years and years to develop great programs, great software, and great training geared toward our space.

So Microsoft's Bank of Good Will has many deposits.

When they make a mistake, there's a little withdrawal and the balance goes down. But they can survive some pratfalls based on current deposits of good will.

But let's not forget that Microsft is just another vendor.

They do things right. They do things wrong.

They do things that are in your best interest, and they do things in opposition to your best interest.

Where they are channel friendly, you should jump on board. Where they want you to lead your own clients to Live Office and Live Meeting, then you should walk away.

When they offer free training and resources, take it. When they want to sell training and resources, buy what brings value to you.

-----

At the end of the day, the micro-consultant (SBSC, not Certified Partner, not Gold Partner) has one primary value to Microsoft:

- You are their goodwill ambassador. You are their "unpaid" sales force.

Microsoft pays you with free software and free training, with special programs here and there.

What are you worth to Microsoft?

You're worth the cost the PAM program and the SBSC program, plus the PAL program, a couple of the MVP programs, the training, and the go-to-market campaigns. Oh, plus hands-on-labs, TS2, Connections, MSDN events, the MAPs program, and the big orange/green truck.

I'm sure I'm forgetting some!

Microsoft is still making plenty of money on us. But they are also continuing to make deposits in that bank of good will.

-----

Nothing has changed.

Run your business in a manner that makes money for you. Where your interests coincide with a vendor, use their resources. Where they don't, go do your own thing.

Microsoft is just another vendor doing their own thing.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Microsoft, oh Microsoft. Why have you abandoned me?

Lament of the Abandoned Technician
----------------------------------

Befuddlement reigns in the land of the SBSC.

My good friends at Microsoft have courted me for two years. They have bestowed upon me new certifications and lopsided badges of blue. Lo, they have offered special promotions to me, and granted to me a special zip code finder-thingy that never quite worked.

Verily, I tell thee. I have been loved.

Now comes word that I shall be foresaken. My clients shall be wrenched from my bosom and served alongside pay-per-view by a minimum wage cable-puller with tan lines on his butt crack.

Microsoft, oh Microsoft. Why have you abandoned me?

Have I not done thy bidding? Did I not buy the books and pass the exam? Did I not attempt to pull up mine own self by my bootstraps?

When you plastered Harry B and Level Platforms all over thy pages, did I not visit them? When you launched SMB symposia, did I not attend? On newsgroups and blogs and in emails, did I not heap accolades upon thee?

Why, then? Why have you now abandoned all pretense of friendship and planned to steal my loving clients?

Why have you conspired with a foolish provider to take from me the clients I have earned, and to then provide them with interrupted service and applications that fail?

Do you not see that I am your Partner? I have met thy requirements. I have used my mouse and clicked upon my acceptence. I have accepted pennies to thy dollars.

What say you?

I shall provide the service? But what service have you left me?

What say you?

I shall provide planning and strategy? That self-same client will rely on me for a vision of the future?

Surely this cannot be, for I am not a business consultant.

My lot has been that of a technician only. I speak of servers and switches. I understand registries and "hacks." Mine is not the world of strategy and fine-tuning.

I have not made a role for myself to play. Surely, my old beloved friend, you will tell me what is left for me to do.

Tell me, dear friend Microsoft, what would you have me do?

For, surely, you cannot abandon me.

Microsoft, oh Microsoft. Why have you abandoned me?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Microsoft's Misstep is Your Last Warning

Normally I don't get to say "I told you so" for about ten years. But in this case, I get to say it after only four months.

See http://smallbizthoughts.blogspot.com/2007/07/wpc-notes-saas-i-mean-software-plus.html, wherein your intrepid reporter predicted what Microsoft sees in your future:

- Hosted MS Server
- Hosted MS Office
- Hosted MS Services

Your clients will buy everything directly from Microsoft and your job will be to show them how to use Outlook.

Microsoft confirmed this last week: http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/press/2007/nov07/11-14MSComcastPR.mspx.

The really nasty, over-orchestrated thing that bothered me at that keynote speech is that Kevin Turner went on and on and on about how Microsoft loves the channel, and Microsoft is built on the channel, and Microsoft will always support the channel. "Now here's Steve Balmer to make clear that Microsoft couldn't care less about the channel."

After one slide, Vlad and I just looked at each other. "I guess it's over for us."

Conclusions:

1) The bad news is that Microsoft is going to work really hard to take all of your pesky 1-10 user clients away and give them to Comcast.

2) The good news is that Microsoft is being completely open about this. They're not lying to you or deceiving you in any way. They're looking you straight in the eye and taking your clients.

3) The really good news is that they've picked a really bad ISP to partner with.

-- -- --

The choice is obvious. Fiber isn't everywhere. Cable's really super fast. So, if you're going to partner on this kind of thing, it really has to be a big national cable company.

But all cable companies suck when it comes to business class service. As a Comcast subscriber I can vouch for their unreliability. In the past year we've had four major outages and at least six minor ones. In fact, Comcast is the reason we decided to move our servers to a co-lo facility. Even if we can't get to the server, our company is still "up."

Aside from programming, Comcast has no history of launching a new technology smoothly. So it's going to be a bumpy ride and suck out loud.

Comcast is always being accused of throttling bandwidth for one reason or another. They say they don't, but it doesn't take much imagination to come up with a handful of tests to prove they do. This "traffic shaping" will allow them to give a little better performance to their SMB clients.

But it won't do much good when internet access is down.

So the first grand attempt will fail miserably with very angry customers. And, very likely, some lawsuits from small business owners.

-- -- --

That's not the end of the tale, though. Together Comcast and Microsoft have more money than J.K. Rawlings.

They'll retool. They're rewrite. They'll buy better equipment and hire the right people.

Eventually, they'll make it work.

And, when they do, they'll grab up a bunch of small businesses and keep them forever.

Gee, it seems like only last week that I was warning you: Do you sell Technology, or do you sell Business Consulting?
(http://smallbizthoughts.blogspot.com/2007/11/selling-technology-vs-selling-business.html)

Decide what you want to do in 2, and 3, and 5 years. Microsoft has made a misstep with this Comcast deal. That buys you some time to retool and figure out what you're going to do.

Don't ignore this. It's your last warning.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

I Stopped Counting Pennies

I had a conversation with another I.T. Pro the other day. He asked what we were doing with marketing. My first response, of course, was "Do you use Robin Robins?"

So he asked how much it costs.

And I said I have no idea. I know I belong to some level of mastermind group. There's a monthly cost. It gets paid.

And I don't care how it costs. I'm getting value out of it.

Do I do everything Robin says to do? No.
Do I do things as consistently as Robin says I should? No.
Am I getting the most I can from the resources she makes available? No.

But . . .

Do I get something valuable every month? Yes.
When I need advice, is Robin available? Yes.
Would I buy her kit again? Yes.
Would I buy her managed services program again? Yes.
Would I sign up for a higher level of mastermind if an opening emerges? Yes.

So the bottom line is pretty much this: Robin Robins is like Mickey Mouse.

If you're a parent and you've ever taken a four-year-old to Disneyland, you know how this goes. Your first reaction is that $40 seems steep for lunch. But by the time you leave, you just open your wallet and tell Mickey that he can have whatever he wants.

I don't know what the "value proposition" is, but I know value when I experience it.

As long as I'm counting dollars coming in the door, I don't pay attention to the pennies going out.

If I gave Robin $1,000 next year and didn't sell an extra ten hours of labor, then I'd drop the program.

But I'm not counting five hours here and ten hours there. I'm counting clients.

How much is a new client worth? For us, the price starts at $15,000 per year. So if we got one client per year from some Robin-related activity, we're way ahead for the money.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Saving the Wrong Pennies

I am proud to be a capitalist. Having said that, capitalism can lead to some pretty stupid decisions.

Perhaps the stupidest mistake you can make is to save one more penny.

There's a famous story that John D. Rockefeller actually counted the number of drops of solder needed to make an oil barrel. After all, when you're making millions of barrels, the pennies add up.

Unfortunately, that story taken in isolation by an eager up-and-comer can lead to very bad results. It is very common for a business to set a standard and then begin cutting pennies here and there until they create a marginal product.

A marginal product is one with no tolerance for flaws. One drop of solder, more or less, can result in millions of leaking barrels.

Here's an example from the 21st century. About once every four months I go to the grocery store and there's leaking milk on the shelf. I believe that the company that makes the cartons has a training program that includes the famous story from Rockefeller. So every now and then, some schmoe tries to get ahead by reducing the glue in the cartons by one drop.

The result is that I now check the bottom of the milk carton before I put it in my basket. If it's leaking, I grab a plastic container from a different brand name. And I don't care what the cost is. I might pay twenty extra cents for milk, but I don't have to clean my refrigerator the next day.

Here's another example. I take a drug called Enbrel. It's an "injectable." (see here). It comes packaged in a little kit you need to assemble. Each little piece is sealed in plastic so it remains sterile. But they recently changed the plastic on one bit of packaging so that it's very thin. Still sealed, so still sterile. But now the plastic is so thin that the seal doesn't peal off easily. The result: it is now pretty easy to struggle with this package and send the "sterile" part rolling across the non-sterile counter.

You might argue: These are unintended consequences. OK. Unintended. But that doesn't mean they're difficult to foresee. In fact, these are obvious Unintended Consequences. That's very different from unforeseeable and unintended.

-----

What has any of this to do with your business?

Consider this: Where do you count pennies and cut corners in order to squeeze another bit of profit?

Where might you have created a marginal product -- one that's truly on the margin between barely acceptable and not acceptable?

Alternatively, where do you come across as unnecessarily cheap?

When I first started my business I was telling my wife how expensive it is to park downtown. She said "I hope you're charging the clients for that." No. No I'm not. No one wants to spend $100/hr for tech support and get a reimbursement request for parking.

Of course we all need to make our businesses run better, and more efficiently.

Just don't get caught in the trap of saving the wrong pennies.

Don't live on the margin between acceptable and unacceptable. It doesn't take much to move well into the acceptable space.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Selling Technology vs. Selling Business Consulting

Come back in time with me a hundred years. Around the year 1907 the world travelled in 1) Foot, 2) Horse, and 3) Rail. There were a few bicycles, a few automobiles, and the ocassional Yak. But basically, small-scale travel happened by horse. That might be horseback or horse-drawn carriage.

Many many people existed to support the horse travel industry. They made wheels and seats and buggy whips. Some made carriage bodies, like the Fisher Body Company (originally Standard Wagon Works).

And when the automobile took the place of the horse-drawn carriage, many companies went out of business. Why? Because they were in the business of supporting the horse-drawn carriage industry. But Fisher Body was in a different business. They were in the Transportation business.

The Fisher brothers didn't whine that their family business was going away. And, unlike many other manufacturers, they didn't keep trying to use horseless carriage bodies on motorcars. They retooled and rededsigned. They built auto bodies for dozens of companies, including both Ford and Chevrolet. Eventually they were bought out by General Motors.

-----

So what business are you in?

If you're in the business of supporting Windows XP and SBS 2003, then your days are numbered.

If you're in the business of supporting Small Business Server, then your days are numbered.

If you're in the business of supporting Server 2003 and 2008, then your days are numbered.

But . . .

If you're in the business of supporting small- and medium-sized business, then your days look sunny and bright.

Here's why.

Any specific technology will fade and die. Yes, I still own a Commodore 64. But I don't use it much.

What lives and thrives is business.

If you're a technology consultant, then you're always going to be running to stay even. You'll always be focused on a thing that's about to be replaced.

But if you're a business consultant, then you get to plan ahead, focus on the big picture, and help your clients be successful.

Technology costs money. Technology consultants cost money. On the big business balance sheet, everything to do with technology is money flushed down the toilet. In three or four years, it's a pile of junk, no matter what you buy.

Busines consulting saves money. It helps clients spend the right amount at the right time on the right things. Business consultants are part of the team. Part of the solution, not part of the problem. If you're a business consultant, it doesn't matter what the technology is: you'll be there to help.

-----

How do you know if you're in the technology business vs. the business consulting business?

The primary indicator is:

-- Do you sell a new server setup as a one-time project and then have no ongoing contract for maintenance?

If you answered yes, then you're in the technology business.

Your days are numbered. You've been warned.

Friday, November 09, 2007

An Explosion of Communities

I was talking with a friend the other day and we were trying to figure out all the alliances within the SMB space just in North America.

I'm sure some are missing here, but here are the highlights as I see them:

1) Blogs and blogrolls. 99% output, with ocassional input. Still, a community, especially when someone responds to a blog post by creating their own blog post.

2) SMB Nation. Part conferences, part magazine, part email newsletter. Much of the community links back to SMB Nation.

3) SMB Group Leads. Leaders of the user groups. Yahoo group. Web site. Groove site. Ocassional in-person meetings.

4) Yahoo Groups. Primarily SmallBizIT, SMBManagedServices, MSSmallBiz. Plus "tech help" sites like sbs2k.

5) ASCII Group. Commercial enterprise, membership organization. Training. Their own online groups. Group buying power.

6) ICCA. Professional membership group. Conferences. Training. Magazine. Group buying power.

7) IAMCP. Microsoft marketing tool in disguise. Local groups. Meetings, website, events, networking.

8) SMBTN. Conferences. Coalition of user groups/individuals. Group buying power.

9) MSPU. Training for managed services. Books. Help desk. Webinars. Online materials.

10) MSPSN. Peer groups. Online forums. Trainings. Webinars. Group buying power.

11) HTG. Peer groups. Books. Business strategy.

12) Robin Robins. Membership-based. Monthly phone conferences. Audio programs. Marketing materials and strategies.

13) Vendor based services: ConnectWise, AutoTask, etc. Training on their own systems mixed with education and Business strategy.

14) Microsoft initiatives. Eric Ligman and the whole SBSC thing. PAMs and PALs. Mike Iem and the user group initiative. To some extend TS2 folks. In some areas they really participate in the groups.

15) Channel partners. (e.g., SonicWall, Trend) Some only give lip service to the SMB/SBS/User Group community. Others participate -- both speaking to the groups and listening to what they say.

16) The MVP community. Membership determined by Microsoft, of course. But a community that exists because of the community spirit of its members.

17) Culminis. An organization designed to support user groups. International community.

18) User Groups. Hundreds of them from sea to shining sea. In many ways, the U.G.s are the glue that keeps the rest of it together. They filter information about all of this stuff and help facilitate the flow of information up and down, and all around.

And what did I miss? Dozens and dozens of blogs, for sure. Email lists? Other groups? Different communities?

And Podcasts.

-----

Are you connected?

Monday, November 05, 2007

Aggregating and Filtering

In my last post I talked about a "Need Aggregator" for the SMB Universe.

There's no denying that the means of communicating and participating are expanding almost as fast as the information on the internet.

With Yahoo groups, news groups, email lists, blogs, podcasts, etc., we've become as overwhelmed with communication tools as we are with the communications themselves.

Some of this is just plain fun. People like toys. Sometimes they're physical toys (cell phones, cars, computers) and sometimes they're virtual toys (computer sites, online communities).

Some of this is business. Some is a combination.

If you consider all the types of communication technologies, and the quantity of information being fed down each pipeline, you can see why some people simply opt out.

If you believe the premise that the forms of communications will continue to expand, then you need some strategies for dealing with it. Here are a few tips.

First, find filters. These are people, processes, or programs that help you find the information you need and avoid what you don't. Examples:

- People. If three MVPs tell you to pay attention to something, it's probably a good idea to check it out. Same should be true with your PAM or PAL.

- Processes. Don't just poke around a little here and a little there. Find some things that work for you and do them consistently. This might mean checking specific blogs, reading a specific magazine, or contacting a specific list of friends and contacts.

- Programs. Whether it's Google Alerts, Newsgator, BlogPulse, or whatever: You need to find some tools that help you narrow down what you are exposed to.

Please note that last line very carefully. You do not need more tools to find more things. You need the best tools to find the best stuff related to your business.

If you believe the analogy that working with Microsoft is like drinking from a firehose, then you need some serious filters. On top of Microsoft you can add every hardware vendor, every software vendor, all the major technology news outlets, all the blogs, etc.

Now you're drinking from every firehose in the world!

So you don't just need a filter, you need a few good filters.


Second, look at yourself as a producer of information. After all, when we participate in yahoo groups and news groups (or create a blog), we put out ideas out there for other people to chew on. As part of the community, we can help others by reducing the need for filters.

Here are two frequent examples.

One example is that small group of people who engage in lengthy pointless debates or flame wars. These don't happen very often. But when they do, they discourage people from participating or even following the rest of what's going on.

I grew up in a house with six boys. Sometimes we were loud. Sometimes we argued. Sometimes we even fought. I don't recall my mother telling us no to do these things very much. But what she did say was: "Take it outside."

It's too bad the domain name takeitoutside.com is already taken. It would be nice to push a button and have people take their debate over Commodore vs. Atari to another realm where we don't have to scroll past it to read our newsgroups.

A second example is that small group of people who admit they have no experience or information, but jump in with lengthy opinions. "I've never installed a phone system, but I'd choose asterisk over response point . . .." Or "I've never hired an employee, but . . .."

I don't mean to squash open and free discussion, but give me a break.

People come to these sites -- and come back -- because they are looking for useful information and find it. We all have things to contribute, and most people could contribute more than they do. But when someone asks a question that's truly important for his business, it would be good to get responses only from contributors and not just people who want to post.

In other words, be a good citizen by contributing more when you have something to add. But also limit your posts.

It's always fine to ask questions and get discussions going. That's part of the community. Again, if more people did this, we would have a wider variety of discussions.


Third, look at yourself as a consumer of information. Are you an educated and discerning consumer? Or do you try to take it all in?

Remember, you're drinking from all the firehoses in the world. You have to accept the fact that you can't read it all, you can't take it all in, and you can't internalize all the information -- even the information relevant to your field.

If you want to hang out on a dozen sites telling B.S. stories, go ahead. But don't call it work and don't complain that you don't have time for what's important. Decide what's important and develop good habits -- muscles of success.

The hard part about community is that you begin to KNOW these people. After you attend a conference or two, you start reading these sites and saying "I know her. I met him." So you want to read what they have to say. But there were 700 people at SMB Nation. Plus 200 at this conference, 150 at that conference. Pretty soon you have thousands -- tens of thousands -- of posts and blogs and stuff to keep track of.

See item one: you need filters.

Your most important filter will always be yourself.

Unless there's a hot topic addressing exactly what you need in your business today, it's okay to skip discussions about all the other "stuff" out there.

Are you going to miss some things? Are you going to find out about some key technologies a little bit late? Yes. Has this happened in the past with zero ill effects? Yes x 1,000,000.

-----

Who, oh who, will build us a tool for aggregating AND filtering the internet?

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Needed: Aggregator for the Universe

The number of ways to communicate with groups and communities is exploding. And, of course, the number of groups and sites to monitor is exploding.

Let's just say you want to keep track of

College Friends
Culminis
Exchange Defender
Favorite Blog 1
Favorite Blog 2
Favorite Blog 3
Favorite Email List 1
Favorite Email List 2
Favorite Email List 3
Favorite Podcast 1
Favorite Podcast 2
Favorite Podcast 3
A Hobby Group
Microsoft Advisory Committee you sit on
Mobi-Tech
MS Small Biz group
Official SBS Blog
OWN
SBS Group Leads
SBS2K Group
Small Biz IT group
Small Biz Thoughts Blog
SMB Managed Service Group
SMB Nation
SMBTN
Susan Bradley's Blog
Vladville
Your Marketing Consultant
Your own project
Your SBS User Group

Overall, that's more than 30 groups / blogs / projects / "things" to check up on. Some are blogs, so they're 99.9% read only. And some are news groups, which need some attention but not complete attention. A few are your own thing.

Now half of these are going to want the occasional webinar, seminar, Live Meeting, GoToMeeting, GoToWebinar, webex, whatever.

So that's 45 things to keep track of.

And now comes Groove space.

And RSS feeds.

And Facebooks and linkedin and social networking sites want to suck the remaining minutes of useful time from your life.

Uh . . . did I mention You Tube?

So now we're way over 50 things to keep track of.

Plus you need to keep track of the real news regarding your business and your vendors.

-----

And somewhere along the line we've mixed up the things we need to do (keep track of information and people in our business lives) with all the things we could do.

The business world is a series of inter-locking filters. Being productive and getting ahead involves finding effective filters. No human being can read all the great blogs out there. Or keep up on the news. Or be up on all the latest promotions.

In the world of RSS feeds, we rely on RSS aggregators to pull together just the stuff we want.

In the much bigger picture, we need a "Need Aggregator" to bring us all the juicy bits from a world that grows more complicated all the time.

Pull up a chair, youngins, and remember the early days of the internet.

There was a time when the Domain Name System we use today did not exist. To use a name on the internet (like telnet.umich.edu), you had to download the latest hosts file from InterNic.

Yes. Every machine with a name was in that file.

And FTP hadn't been invented, so you downloaded it by capturing a telnet session. Or just a screen capture if you were within the MERIT network and not using telnet. You can see why that system didn't last.

Then FTP was invented.

And when lots and lots of ftp sites sprang up, we needed a way to track all the stuff on the internet. So Gopher servers sprang up, all of which linked back to the ultimate mother ship at the University of Minnesota.

And then the awesome Scott Yanoff began producing "Yanoff's List," the occasional listing of every resource on the internet. Yes. Every resource on the Internet. Truth be told, it probably had 90% of everything in existence at the time each list was published.

Eventually, when Netscape and the World Wide Web exploded in 1993, it became obvious that the internet was going to grow out of anyone's control very quickly. It was also going to become impossible to "index" manually. So WAIS (on the non-commercial side) and DEC (on the commercial side) started trying to index the world.

And a thousand search engines were born. Most of the early ones (like Yahoo) were really only indexes. True search engines came later.

And a million portals were born. In 1994, one measure of a good web site was how many links it had to other web sites.

After many years, communities developed. True communities. Communities with people who knew each other and cared about one another. Communities with leaders and rules. Communities that added the human element to all this technology. Communities where people could find an "introduction" to whatever the topic is.

Communities where we can all help each other keep track of the latest news, what works and what doesn't, who's doing what, which vendors are good, and so forth.

The tremendous appeal of social networking sites is that you can use them to be your Need Aggregator. But now we see an explosion of social networking sites.

-----

We have too many tools and too many points of contact.

If you have a web site, a blog with RSS feed, a yahoo group, an MSN group, a email distribution list, a monthly podcast, and a monthly webinar . . . someone will ask you if there's a Groove site or a webinar.

Will you ever catch a break? No. Next week there will be a new technology. And next month. And next year.

Think about this from two perspectives:

- You as the producer of information

and

- You as the consumer of information

In my next post I'll give some thoughts about surviving in this crazy mixed up world.