Early in 2000, Arlin Sorensen invited three fellow IT providers to join him at his kitchen table in Harlan, Iowa, for a brainstorming session about a very particular problem.
“I had beefed up my team because of the pending Y2K revolution that was going to create massive opportunity,” Sorensen recalls with bemusement. That opportunity never materialized, though, and by April Sorensen found himself with lots of extra technicians, little for them to do, and no idea how to relieve the resulting financial strain.
“We couldn’t figure it out, so we decided to reach out and talk to some other companies,” he recalls.
The conversation begun that night soon expanded onto other topics and drew in more channel pros hungry for business insights, until eventually what started as an improvised answer to a short-term challenge turned into HTG Peer Groups, a partners-helping-partners venture that now has a little over 500 members in some 70 groups around the globe. Acquired by managed services software maker ConnectWise in 2018 and renamed IT Nation Evolve, the organization is celebrating its 20th birthday this year.
Sorensen, however, saw none of that coming that first night in his kitchen. It took five years, in fact, before the four companies in his original peer group expanded to 12, based solely on word of mouth. By 2006, with dozens of companies clamoring to get in, Sorensen felt compelled to create a second group, and then a third, then seven more the next year, and eight more in 2008.
“I never had any intention of creating more than one group,” says Sorensen, who today is ConnectWise’s vice president of ecosystem evangelism. “It just kind of happened organically as people heard the stories of what was being learned and shared and the impact it was having,” Sorensen says.
That impact was often profound, especially for members new both to running a company and to managed services, which was itself brand new back then. “They weren’t business MBAs, they weren’t salespeople,” Sorensen says. “They were good at fixing things and they started a company, and all of a sudden they had a business and they were looking for answers.”
Sorensen’s peer groups helped them find those answers. More importantly, they held members accountable for putting the answers into effect. “The problem with being your own boss is you often do what you want to do, not what you need to do, and that’s really where the peer groups can step up and help,” Sorensen says.
To ensure that participants follow through on commitments, goals, plans, and scorecards are a big part of the group’s operating procedure. Four times a year, for example, managed services consultancy Service Leadership Inc. benchmarks members financially against industry averages. “They get their report back and basically have to explain why they’re not best in class and what they’re going to do about it,” Sorensen says.
From the beginning, moreover, the planning and accountability has extended beyond business matters. Group members get scored as spouses and parents by family members regularly, and work together on defining the legacy they wish to leave behind when the time comes to retire. “I made a decision very early on that helping somebody succeed in their business if they don’t succeed in life is not OK,” Sorensen says.
The interaction among members has only accelerated recently in response to the coronavirus pandemic. “We’re all facing a whole bunch of things we’ve never seen before,” Sorensen says. “Doing it together is way more comforting than trying to figure it all out alone.”
In a significant shift, those discussions have taken place entirely online. “We’ve been a face-to-face organization for the most part our entire history, so we had to do some quick pivoting in terms of learning how to leverage tools and create value for people in a virtual world,” says Sorensen, who is pleased by the results so far.
In particular, he adds, eliminating the need for participants to travel to in-person meetings and squeeze into a room together has enabled more leaders from member organizations to join in the conversation. Much as businesses of all kinds new to connecting remotely plan to continue doing that even after coronavirus stay-at-home measures become a thing of the past, so too does IT Nation Evolve.
“I think we’ll eventually end up with a somewhat hybrid kind of solution where we are able to do more,” Sorensen says.
That won’t be the organization’s first significant structural change, though. Through the years, Sorensen has added web-based groups to the original face-to-face ones, plus others that combine one-to-many online sessions with smaller in-person breakout groups. Sales leaders and service leaders can join groups specially dedicated to their needs, as can newcomers to the channel and more mature IT providers. Other groups help VARs learn how to become MSPs, and help would-be buyers or sellers of managed service businesses navigate the M&A process.
Joining ConnectWise, according to Sorensen, has allowed him to grow the organization faster. “We were always wrestling with resources and having enough of everything to do what we wanted to do when they acquired us,” he says. “We have significantly grown in pretty much every way you could think of.” Indeed, the number of individual people participating in groups has doubled from roughly 350 to over 700 in a little more than two years.
Thoma Bravo, the private equity firm that bought ConnectWise early last year, has had less impact so far. “We haven’t seen a lot of change,” says Sorensen, noting that the kind of work IT Nation Evolve does isn’t likely to grab an investor’s attention. “We have a lot of stuff going on and a lot of people involved, but it’s not a huge moneymaker. Never has been, likely never will be.”
If that changes, Vice President of Consulting Brad Schow and Director of Partner Success Andre Gilmore will be the main reason why. They’ve assumed day-to-day responsibility for IT Nation Evolve while Sorensen, who is approaching retirement, devotes his time to meeting with groups.
“I get to do the fun stuff that I enjoy, which is really digging in and helping people and facilitating,” he says. “As long as they’ll have me, that’s certainly what I intend to do.”