By Jim Roddy, Vantiv
Please take the next 9 minutes to review this transcript from The ASCII Group’s member panel at Business Solutions’ Channel Transitions VAR/MSP Executive Conference on June 4 in Newark.
What you learn here will lead you to new solutions providers to partner with and inside information to run your business more efficiently. You will also see a new path to save money through deep discounts with vendors you’re probably using already.
To reap those benefits, you’ll need to spend some money to join The ASCII Group. But as you’ll read below, the three solutions provider panelists — Stanley Louissaint of MSP Fluid Designs, Andrew Harrover of Matrix Computer Consulting, and Mel Montalvo of My IT Provider — all state with certainty that their ASCII membership has produced a payback in multiples of the membership fee.
I don’t know if I’ve ever had more fun moderating a panel or have heard the passion combined with detailed specifics about the value of a solutions provider community.
The edited transcript follows:
Roddy: We are going to talk today about The ASCII Group. ASCII is a community of independent VARs, managed services providers, and solutions providers formed in 1984. Can I ask who in here has never been to an ASCII event before? A handful of people have never been to an ASCII event. Do we have any ASCII members in the room? We have a couple right up here.
What the organization does is give solutions providers tools necessary to survive in this changing market. They have nation-wide ASCII Success Summits. They have eight of them over the course of the year. I just came back from one in Chicago, and they are actually doing another one in Newark later this month. If you want to, go check one of those out. If you register and say that you are part of the Business Solutions magazine subscriber base, you can get into those events for free.
What we want to do is provide a little bit more color as to what ASCII can provide solutions providers. Instead of having somebody from ASCII say, “Here’s what we could do for you,” from a theoretical standpoint, we have folks who actually derive specific benefits for their business from The ASCII Group. Let me introduce our panelists. On the far left, we have Mel Montalvo. He’s a project manager and VP of operations at My IT Provider. We have Stan Louissaint. He’s the president of Fluid Designs. Just to my right is Andrew Harover. He is the CEO of Matrix Computer Consulting. All are managed services providers, and all are ASCII members.
If we can start off, Mel, with you, and work right across the panel, can you talk specifically about what tools and resources you have utilized most from ASCII that have impacted your business?
Montalvo: Sure. I’ve only been an ASCII member for eight months now, approximately. Since then, we’ve grown our business. We joined with Datto, for any of you who know about BDR appliances. I joined The ASCII Group after my second meeting, because we went to the ASCII event, and there was an overabundance of knowledge in that room. A lot of small MSPs out there are asking, “How do I grow my business? How do I hire the right techs? How do I fix this problem?” We all have problems as an MSP. In my experience, ASCII was almost like the Chamber of Commerce among IT professionals. You need someone to bounce ideas off of.
It has just been amazing for our business, because I am able to reach out to some of those who have “been there, done that.” It saves me a lot of time, and sometimes, it will save you a lot of errors and a lot of money that you would have to learn as you go, but the next event coming here, as Jim said, in end of June, I highly recommend for anyone.
Roddy: Got it. You use a lot of networking, and you talk to people who have been in your shoes before. Stan, what do you use ASCII for?
Louissaint: One of my big things prior to joining ASCII was I just wanted to get some more writing out there, and I just wanted to have some more published works. One of the things that ASCII helps with is PR (public relations) opportunities. I have taken advantage of a number of those opportunities. I’ve got articles in BSM. I’ve got articles in Search IT Channel, Tech Target, and for me, I would have never known what to do with PR or even how to even open those doors.
In addition to that, ASCII does have social media where they actually will take over your social media, send links out on a daily basis on your Twitter, on your Facebook feed, on your LinkedIn, as well as provide you a template for a newsletter that you can send to your clients on a monthly basis — essentially helping me out with that whole drip marketing campaign thing that most of us definitely struggle with on a daily basis. It’s just so much work to do, so taking that burden off of me has proved valuable.
Roddy: I can tell you that Stan and I had never met in person before today, but when I saw him walk in the room, I knew who he was right away, because of all of the content that he’s created with some of the help of ASCII. I recognized that beautiful face right away. (laughter) Speaking of beautiful, Andrew, what services do you use ASCII for?
Harrover: I do the same thing as Stan does. I enjoy writing. I write for myself, more or less. I enjoy writing about technology, and I could never — like him, I wouldn’t even have known who to call to get articles in those things.
ASCII also has insurance — E&O [errors and omissions] insurance — that is put together and spec’d for guys that do what we do. We had previously bought a package of insurance for small, IT providers. I had an independent party review it. We had been using it for two or three years, and thankfully, we never had any sort of claim. They said essentially, it’s a glorified general liability policy with an IT label on the front. We went to ASCII and they have a program. You buy it, and you are good to go, and it’s spec’d for what we do.
The third thing I use a lot of is called ASCII-Link. It’s a listserv, and it’s very active. I mean, hundreds of emails a day, sometimes. Not every day. I don’t want to scare everybody off, but when it really gets going — and it really is, like he said, it’s the network. The ASCII network and group is pretty tight. You get to know these guys and gals pretty well, and it is like the Chamber of Commerce for IT providers.
These guys have all done this stuff before. We had a question recently — we were trying to spec an EMR [electronic medical records system] for a psychiatric practice, and there were three guys on the ASCII list who, this is what they do. It’s just invaluable advice about how to do stuff like that.
I probably have 10,000 or 15,000 emails in that folder, because I just don’t delete them. It’s a knowledge base, almost. Those are the three things for me, that I use the most.
Roddy: Stan, if you could expand a little bit from the marketing standpoint. You mention a couple of things that you have done. What specific advice would you give, or what specific things has ASCII done for you? Can you talk about how that process works, because I know when we create content for a magazine, people say, “I don’t understand how you get all of that stuff to happen. It seems so laborious.” Can you take folks through the steps of the specific support that ASCII provided to you?
Louissaint: Essentially, the first thing is actually bringing the opportunity. I didn’t have to find it. There’s a PR person (Alysia Vetter) who takes care of all of that. She sends an email with topics that you can speak about or write about. Now, if you commit to a topic, you better write it, because if you don’t write it, that’s the last time you’ll ever get an opportunity again, because obviously, [the PR person] is going to go to whoever the publication is and commit to it.
Essentially, I didn’t even have to go looking. I was trying to figure out how I was going to go find this thing, and it was literally in my face. Every single month, an email goes out with the topics that they are looking for. You write your draft. You go and do the whole editing process, go back and forth with her. Eventually, it gets submitted, and you see your face online.
Roddy: But a big part of writing is figuring out, “What do I write to my audience about?” The topic selection is super important, and so that’s where ASCII is able to collaborate with the publishers and pick the topic for you, so you don’t have to worry if it’s a good topic or not.
Louissaint: And you already know who your audience is — obviously, if I’m writing for BSM, I know my user base is other folks like me, right? That’s different than if I’m writing for a group of lawyers. You already know you are talking to guys who are just like yourself, so you know how to approach that — in terms of it — writing style, how you are going to go at it.
Roddy: So, marketing never particularly has been, “I did this, and here is exactly what led to immediate ROI,” but what has this done for your business outside of folks recognize you? What other things has it resulted in for you? Any partnerships?
Louissaint: I do some expert witness work on the Google front, so being seen as an expert in your field is one of those things that you utilize. Lawyers are old-school, so publications and having topics that you’ve written about, means, “Oh, you are published. You are an author.” You are seen as the expert.
For me, that is one of the areas of my business that it has helped to take off, because now, I’m sitting in court, and someone is going through my CV [curriculum vitae], and oh, wow, seven, eight articles have been published by you. Of course this guy qualifies as an expert, you know?
Roddy: Andrew, you just wrote a column called, “How To Fire A Client” through The ASCII Group, published for BSM, so obviously, you are an expert in that, to tie in with what Stan said (laughter). Can you talk about why you do that? Why have you invested the time in doing that?
Harrover: For all the same reasons he has. At the root, it’s something that I enjoy doing, but it does provide credibility — prima facie credibility — for you in the business community. I mean, you have to sometimes pick the articles you are going to write carefully. Obviously, if we go talk to clients and give them examples of why we are experts — I probably wouldn’t bring the “How To Fire A Client” article. I would probably bring the “Internet of Everything” article I just finished, but it does provide credibility, and it’s credibility that sort of stands by itself.
You can put those writing examples on your website. You can distribute copies of the stuff, and ASCII makes that really easy, because they bring the topics and they bring the editing so even though I might write something internally, and then have it edited before I send it out to them, ASCII’s PR person edits it after that, and she’s just great. She really is.
It makes it really simple to produce relatively authoritative content that gives you credibility in the business community without a whole lot of work.
Roddy: One of the keys to if you are going to publish something and want to gain credibility: you are better off publishing nothing than publishing something bad. Of course, that’s where that editor is important.
Harrover: Or poorly-written and stuff. Yeah, that’s death.
Roddy: Yeah, I think I’ve died a few times in my life. (laughter) Mel, you talked earlier about the networking, so can you talk specifically how you leverage relationships? You said you talk with people who have “been there and done that.” Any specific stories you can tell about someone in particular you have met or what, specific impact that had on your business?
Montalvo: Interestingly, Stan. Stan is sitting here to the left of me, and we actually met through The ASCII Group. He’s a couple of towns over, but he’s answering questions that I put out there on the forum, and I look at his signature –
Roddy: Talk about the ASCII Forum, because folks in here don’t know what that is.
Montalvo: In the forum, you can throw a question out there like, “Hey, I have this client with an Exchange Server 2007. Something is going on here with relays. What do you guys suggest?” or “Hey, I just had one of my techs come to me who says he wants three weeks of vacation now that he’s been working with me for two years.”
There’s a range of topics, and you get to see it firsthand. You get to reply, give them some input, and you get that valuable information. That forum is constant — 24/7 — so, Saturday, Sunday, midnight, 2 in the morning if you’re up at that time, you watch your emails, people are up there answering.
Networking is key to your business when you are small, because you want to appear to your customers to be larger than life. If you want to be able to get those sales, you want to be able to service that client, software implementation, and hardware implementation.
I’ve been able to see Stan, realizing he’s not that far away. I made the introduction. We had a cup of coffee, and sure enough, we already did a deal together to partner. There’s enough business in New Jersey for everyone.
It comes down to the relationship that we have one-and-one with that customer. ASCII can help when that customer comes to you and says, “Can you provide something for my office down in Delaware?” This actually happened to me with a client. Within an hour-and-a-half, I had an ASCII member down there reach out to them and work with them. Now, in the client’s eyes, they’re saying, “Wow, you’re a great resource,” so the networking has been key, because of the fact that you have all these resources, sending out one email. You’re going to get responses that way.
Roddy: The notes I have in here from ASCII say vendors are not allowed in the online forum, so it’s not like vendors can say, “Here’s this awesome thing that I’m doing,” and you’re like, “Oh, gosh. I don’t want to participate in this anymore.”
My notes also say that members can ask questions and get answers in real-time, and the average is 3,000-plus posts a month. That’s a ton. Can you validate that for me? I can’t because I’m not a solution provider, so I’ve never been in that forum.
Louissaint: And you never will!
Roddy: With that attitude, you’re not going to be on the cover of BSM (laughter).
Montalvo: I’m available though. (laughter)
Roddy: One of the biggest things — BSM editor in chief Mike Monocello is not in the room — but when he was a reseller, he promoted so much organizations like The ASCII Group, CompTIA and the RSPA, because he felt when he was a managed service provider and a VAR, he was alone, and he had nobody to turn to.
Before I joined Jameson Publishing, I was a self-employed publisher, and I just had to figure it out by myself. Can you talk about what that online forum has done for you?
Harrover: It’s huge, because everybody at some point goes through the phase where they’re kind of alone in the world and no one else is having those problems. This hooks you up with guys from everywhere, and it can be as simple as, “What do you guys do to pay people?”
Some of these discussions that I saw this morning were like “This vendor: do they suck?” You get honest answers, because those guys aren’t there. They are not allowed there, and that’s insanely valuable, because you get more-or-less unfiltered opinions from people who are generally very highly qualified and can speak at a pretty competent level to whatever it is you’re talking about.
The other thing that he was talking about, like being able to network with other ASCII members, we’ve had requirements — I’m about thirty miles west of Washington, but I’ve been able to hook up with ASCII guys in midtown Manhattan, Texas, or Roanoke, VA, to provide on-site help. You just send an email out, and almost every time, there’s somebody there.
Louissaint: That’s one of the reasons I joined. You know, there are different levels of membership. I just signed up for three months, and I said, “Hey guys, I’m going to try this thing out. If I like it, can I extend it a year?” “Sure, sure.” Well, in those three months, I got the PR opportunities, and on top of that, Mel and I found out we were both fighting for the same deal and I won. (laughter)
Literally, this guy was in Seattle and needed a body in Jersey to transport some stuff from Jersey to New Hampshire — nothing illegal — and honestly, we were going back and forth, and it was $10,000 job at the end of the day. I would never have gotten that opportunity not being an ASCII member. He literally reached out to the ASCII forum and says, “Hey, is there anyone in Jersey who can do this?”
We just kind of went up against whoever else was there, but like I said, that would never have even been an option, because if I wasn’t in that forum or part of ASCII, I would never have been in the running for that. Like I said, for me, it paid for itself.
Roddy: How much does it cost?
Louissaint: I think the annual membership is around $1,000 a year.
Montalvo: It’s cheaper than putting an ad in the newspaper.
Louissaint: I can add up, and it does pay for itself, because you do get a discount from the other partners that you are already using. When I did the math, I didn’t even realize that they are partners with some of the other vendors.
I actually got another 15 percent off of some of the subscription services that I already subscribe to. So when I did the numbers, I said, “Okay, no-brainer. Sign up.” It paid for itself.
Harrover: ASCII is very receptive to, “Hey, here’s a vendor that a lot of us work with. Can we send the ASCII guys over to talk to them and establish some sort of a discount program, or some sort of partnership with ASCII and that vendor?”
We use GFI. ASCII provides a 10 percent discount for GFI. For us, that saves a fair amount of money every month. They are very active. If the community goes to the ASCII staff and says, “This is a problem we are having,” or, “This is a concern we have,” as long as it’s somewhat reasonable, those guys will take it and act on our behalf. It saved me a lot of money, and a lot of grey hair.
Roddy: I wanted to make sure we got all the main value out there and the price out there, too, because that’s always a question.
Q from audience: What size companies make up the peer network in ASCII? The perception is they are usually very small resellers.
Louissaint: The stats just came out. The majority of guys are what? Sub-ten (employees), is it? Sub-ten employees, our size, but there are quite a bit of ASCII members that are actually huge, some heavy hitters.
From audience: There are some very large ASCII members. There are, one might say, enterprise-sized ASCII members, and they join because they get enough discounts in certain things that make it worthwhile. There always have been, going back from day one. There have always been between ten and twenty, and we probably do over $7 (million) to $20 million dollars a year in revenues.
Montalvo: You can get answers if you are a large organization. If you are a large organization, you can find guys who do deal with large organizations and can give you answers for that.
Roddy: I think it seems ASCII reflects the channel. In our subscribership, people say, “You have a lot of small people,” and it’s like, “Well, yeah, because there’s a lot more small people than there are that handful of big people.” It’s kind of a pyramid.
Montalvo: Obviously, the majority of them are under ten, but in asking questions of the forum, guys who have five employees want to talk to guys who have ten employees. Guys who have ten employees want to be talking to guys who have twenty employees.
Q from audience: We have about thirty, and we want to talk to the guys who have fifty. That’s the knowledge base I want to grow to.
Montalvo: Right. I have never encountered that limit, and the guys who do have fairly big businesses, a lot of those guys still participate and they still answer questions. I have always been able to get some satisfaction to a question, even when I had five people when we started ASCII. I still get answers from guys that have a pretty macro view on things.
Roddy: We have time for one more question.
Q from audience: How large is The ASCII Group membership?
Louissaint: About 2,000 right now, and it’s U.S. and Canada.
For more information on The ASCII Group, go to www.BSMinfo.com/go/InsideASCII or call ASCII at 800-349-2724, ext. 108.