So you want to set up an IT support business? Here's what's really involved [Q&A]
With more businesses looking to outsource their support thanks to factors like skills shortages, there's clearly a demand for providing services like automation and remote monitoring and management tools.
But what does it take to set up an IT support business? And how does the idea live up to reality? We spoke to Dale Dawson, director of product at MSP platform Syncro to find out.
BN: What's really involved in setting up a service company like an MSP?
DD: If you ask this question of 100 different people, you're likely to get 100 different answers. In reality, you only need one thing to start your own MSP: customers. You need to have goods or services someone is willing to pay for, and you need to know how to sell that value. If you're an IT person, then you've already cleared the first hurdle. Now you just need to find customers that need those services and will pay for them.
It certainly gets more nuanced than that, but the conversation quite often gets infinitely more complicated than it needs to be. The pandemic has shown us that you don't need a physical office, you don't need expensive phone systems, and virtually any aspect of your business can be run from a mobile device or laptop from anywhere.
Logistically, you'll probably need a website as a basic competency check for prospects considering your services, a phone number, your own domain, and an email address. These are things any run-of-the-mill IT person can do in their sleep.
The standard MSP toolkit when you're just starting off is remote monitoring and management tool (RMM) to connect to customer assets, a professional services automation (PSA) tool for ticketing and invoicing, and perhaps a low-end plan for an online accounting package like Xero or Quickbooks Online to sync your invoices and handle your expense reporting.
You'll want to look for an RMM that offers per-user pricing when you're just starting out, because a good portion of your work will initially be break-fix, and you never want to miss an opportunity to resolve a customer issue that you detected because you didn't want to pay the monthly recurring per-endpoint fee to monitor their device(s).
Lastly, you'll probably want to speak with a professional about the levels of insurance you require, along with the potential of forming some kind of legal entity like a private limited company as a form of personal protection from potential lawsuits. That type of thing rarely occurs, but it does happen.
At the end of the day though, you're really right back to the first statement which is that all you truly need is customers. If you're focusing on anything other than acquiring new customers for the first 12-18 months, you're likely doing it wrong.
BN: What are the big problems in running this kind of business?
DD: The biggest problem for MSPs is consistently focusing on the wrong things. Most get too anchored down with finding the perfect process or procedure, in many cases spending inordinate amounts of time trying to craft their own custom process to circumvent perceived limitations in their MSP stack. Others buy onto the notion that they should only be focusing on a certain subset of customer or service type because, 'that's what the big boys do.'
The largest impediment to starting your own MSP is actually the lack of actionable information. In truth, this business is not nearly as complex as it initially seems. The most important thing to understand is that this isn't the kind of business that runs itself. If you're spending the finite amount of time you have doing anything other than selling, you're falling behind.
Efficiencies can and do matter, but when you're just starting out and you're only selling through say 25 percent of your salable time each week, you can be the most inefficient MSP in the world and it won't matter in the least. When you start selling out 75 to 80 percent of your salable time, that's when you may want to see how you can invest in making things more efficient. This can delay the need to bring on your first technician by awarding yourself some additional salable time. More importantly, it can ensure you have everything you need in place to know their time will be used efficiently.
Sadly, many MSPs fall into the process and efficiency trap right out of the gate. They never learn how to effectively sell, and as a result, their rate of growth is exponentially slower than those that focus on what matters most: selling.
BN: What issues are coming up that MSPs, old and new, have to prepare for?
DD: The largest issue all MSPs are facing today is an exponentially changing landscape. The biggest changes to the MSP space prior to the pandemic were moving a customer's Exchange Server over to Office 365 in the cloud, or the introduction of reasonably priced cloud-based storage for file syncing and backups. Those may have seemed like disruptive forces at the time, but they pale in comparison to what's happening in the market today.
Over the past few years, MSPs and their customers alike have had to deal with a pandemic that essentially rewrote the rules for how and where employees perform their day-to-day duties. Rampant inflation and supply-chain constraints have put a big question mark on any static purchases moving forward. And we're now seeing the largest appetite for cyberwarfare the world has ever seen. That's quite a lot to contend with for even the most seasoned MSP, let alone someone just starting out trying to learn the basics.
The key to successfully starting an MSP in the current climate is to be as nimble as humanly possible. Small business leaders have no idea how to set up work from home environments and what’s really needed over time, but you do. Companies have no idea how to secure remote working locations, but you do. Whatever the challenge, you have the toolset to resolve it. The biggest difference between MSPs that shrunk during the pandemic (or at best saw stagnant growth), and those that thrived was the foresight to know how these changes to the market would affect businesses, the wherewithal to move quickly on the opportunity, and the ability to seize on that opportunity by taking both the problem and the answer statement to prospective clients as a single unit.
BN: What are the big pain points for companies today, and what else do they need help with?
DD: The largest pain point for most companies today is uncertainty. For starters, many have no idea if it's safe to consider the pandemic over or not. If it is, what percentage of their workforce needs to come back into the office? If employees are asked to come back, how many will go looking for alternative jobs that allow them to continue working from home? If they allow them to continue working from home, how can they ensure the same level of security and access that a physical office awards? How much more are they going to have to spend to make that happen?
Supply chain issues and increased labor costs are another major concern. This leads companies to question how much IT they need to run themselves and what they should outsource, and how much they can afford to spend when all of their other costs have simultaneously gone through the roof.
Finally, with massive, high-profile security breaches becoming a regular occurrence these days, companies struggle to comprehend how they can avoid suffering the same fate when they only have a fraction of the resources affected companies had to spend on IT in its entirety, let alone for security directly.
It's no longer just about your MSP's competency in IT management. Your MSP will now be evaluated on your ability to successfully navigate a company into the unknown. For some MSPs, that's going to be exhilarating. For others, they're going to have to learn to adapt on the fly. Those that fail to do so will simply be left behind, or never get off the ground in the first place.