Small Business Server is dead and gone, cloud computing is here to stay, and channel pros who want to be around for the long haul had better stop mourning over old business models and start coming up with new ones.
Such was the overarching theme of this year’s fall SMB Nation show. Held September 26 to 28 at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash., the conference cast aside anguished rants about the sweeping changes impacting SMB technology providers in favor of practical advice on surviving them.
“Let’s move on,” said Harry Brelsford, CEO of Bainbridge Island, Wash.-based SMB Nation Inc. during a keynote address built around the theme “invest forward.”
Brelsford, who views Microsoft’s Office 365 communication and collaboration suite as the next big thing for one-time SBS resellers, planned his conference accordingly, packing the agenda with speakers who have found success as Office 365 resellers.
Among them was Ben Gower, CEO of Perspicuity Ltd., one of Microsoft’s top Office 365 partners in the U.K. Channel pros looking to deliver Office 365 profitably despite the slender margins Microsoft pays on that product must hold down operating costs by adopting repeatable, documented processes; using automation tools like Seattle, Wash.-based SkyKick Inc.’s Office 365 migration service; and ditching veteran technicians and salespeople in favor of younger—and cheaper—replacements.
“We’re in a volume business here,” Gower said. “This is a way of acquiring a lot of customers in a very short time.”
On the other hand, he continued, there’s a finite supply of mailboxes in the world for Office 365 VARs to migrate. “We know that business won’t be around forever,” Gower said. As a result, Perspicuity continually works to turn one-time migration clients into ongoing sources of managed services and custom project revenue.
Other speakers discussed strategies for generating those custom project opportunities. “Show them the stuff they haven’t seen,” suggested Robert Crane, principal of the Computer Information Agency, a technology consultancy in Sydney, Australia. Most customers think of Office 365 as little more than a hosted email system, he noted, but it comes with file sync, enterprise social media, and external team collaboration features too. Channel pros who build product offerings around those capabilities can collect additional configuration, training, and support fees.
They can also reduce their exposure to a problem plaguing many conference attendees: customers who resist paying a dime more for Office 365 than the lowest price they find listed online. Wrapping value-added services and functionality around Office 365 makes that kind of comparison shopping harder to do, as does bundling the solution with backup, security, and other managed services.
“You don’t sell it as a line item,” said Joe Moore, director of system integration at Center for Computer Resources, an MSP and Office 365 reseller headquartered in Troy, Mich.
You also shouldn’t sell it without some accompanying on-premises infrastructure, other attendees and speakers observed, as most SMBs these days have sensitive data and line-of-business applications that they either can’t or won’t put in the cloud.
“It’s a hybrid world,” said Kevin Tobey, president of Salem Business Computers, a solution provider and Office 365 VAR in Salem, Ore.
Zynstra Ltd. agrees. The U.K.-based company makes SMB-scaled converged infrastructure solutions with pre-integrated compute, networking, and storage that it positions as an easy way to deploy and maintain the on-site portion of a customer’s hybrid environment. “It enables them to make a cloud transition at a pace that makes sense for them and their business,” said Zynstra CEO Nick East. Though Zynstra’s appliances aren’t currently available in the U.S., East hinted that they’re on their way soon.
For Brelsford, whose fall conference has been held in Las Vegas the last five years after a multiyear run on the Microsoft campus, moving the event back to Redmond is part of a renewed commitment to Microsoft that includes the launch of his new Office 365 Nation partner community earlier in the month. Microsoft’s push into cloud computing represents as promising an opportunity for channel partners as the launch of SBS over a decade ago, Brelsford believes, and is a great reason to say a fond and final farewell to that much-loved product as well.
“It’s pretty exciting,” he said. “I feel like we’re at the beginning of a 10-year run.”