Building your managed services business requires hard work and careful planning – but sometimes small MSPs get so focused on getting the internal technology right that they neglect another important aspect of creating a strong and viable business: distinguishing themselves from all those other MSPs to the outside world. There are a number of ways to make a company stand out from the pack; one is to have a strong, recognizable person representing the company who is known as a thought leader in the company’s particular industry or space. The idea is that by having a representative closely associated with the company establish a reputation in the business community as someone who has innovative ideas and wields influence in the industry, the reputation will transfer to the company itself and it will be seen as one that, in the words of commentator Elise Bauer, “deeply understands its business, the needs of its customers, and the broader marketplace in which it operates.
There are some risks to this approach. The most obvious example is Apple, which has built a strong brand based in large part on the strong personality of the company’s founder/CEO/chairman Steve Jobs. Despite Apple’s position at the top of the market capitalization charts, Jobs’ death spurred plenty of speculation that the company couldn’t continue its current level of success without him at the helm. On the other hand, the fact that the company achieved such an incredible level of success after its near-death experience in the mid-1990s attests to the advantages of such an approach.
The making of a thought leader
Assuming you’ve decided that the risks are worth the benefits, the next step is to decide who within the company will take on the role of industry thought leader. This is often (but doesn’t necessarily have to be) the company’s owner or CEO. More important than title or position are the personal characteristics that thought leaders tend to share:
- Know the business. That might seem like a given, but the point is that you don’t just put your best talker, most charming or physically attractive executive out there to spout talking points that he/she doesn’t really understand. A thought leader knows not just your company’s business (inside and out) but the industry in which it operates.
- Be enthusiastic. A thought leader doesn’t just know the business; a real thought leader cares about it. To be a thought leader in the MSP space, you need to eat, breathe and sleep managed services. You need to be a true believer in the managed services model. You might or might not express that enthusiasm in a dramatic way (think Steve Ballmer jumping around onstage, yelling “developers, developers, developers!”) but the enthusiasm needs to be there, and be real. People sense when you’re just mouthing the words.
- Be brave. A thought leader is willing to take risks, to shake people up, to express opinions that go outside the box and stray from the “last known good.”
- Be accessible. It’s funny that we understand the importance of accessibility when we’re talking about software interfaces, but we often forget how important it is in human interactions.
Getting the word out
Okay, so you’re brimming with knowledge, enthusiasm and courage (or your chosen representative is). Now what? How do you get the word out that you’re the “go to” guy or girl on all things MSP? The trick is to get yourself into the spotlight, and there are some tried-and-true ways to do that:
- Write. The written word still carries a great deal of authority, even in today’s web-centric world where anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can be a published author. And because it is so easy to get your writing in front of a world-wide audience, you can quickly establish yourself by turning out accurate, well-written, informative content about managed services in general or your own MSP specialty area in particular. Blogging is a good starting point, and can bring you to the attention of the bigger content providers. Writing articles for print magazines, contributing a chapter to a book or even writing an entire book yourself go even further toward building your reputation as an MSP thought leader – and even make you some extra money. Don’t be afraid to write for free at first, and don’t be afraid to ask for compensation after you’ve proven yourself as a writer who meets deadlines and provides useful, accurate, well-written content.
- Speak. We’ve all heard that fear of public speaking is the number one phobia, even above fear of death. That’s the reason people who are willing to get up in front of an audience, and are good at it, can command high fees. Again, you might need to start out speaking pro bono, but you can turn a talent for speaking into supplementary income. Some of the same advice for writing applies here: Be sure that what you say is accurate and that it’s actually useful to your audience. It should also be entertaining. Be personable. Add a touch (but only a touch) of humor. Don’t just read or memorize a speech or read off PowerPoint slides. Let that enthusiasm and passion show through. Volunteer to speak at MSP meetings and submit presentation proposals for conferences. List your name with speaker’s bureaus. But don’t forget less formal opportunities to speak. Make yourself available for interviews with journalists, who are always looking for experts/thought leaders to quote in their stories.
- Participate. Get involved with local and national MSP organizations. Don’t just attend meetings; volunteer to work on committees and serve on boards. Run for election – it’s the chairperson and other officials that people look to for thought leadership in a given field. Participate in online discussions and forums, and get to know the people you consider to be thought leaders in your field. They say birds of a feather flock together, and hanging out with the “big names” is one way to become one.
- Think. All of the above activities involve getting a message out. Before you can take any of these actions to do that, you have to have something to say. Determine what your message is going to be, based on what you’ve learned in running an MSP business. And think about how you’re going to say it. Know your audience, and ask yourself what you would want to read or hear if you were in their positions.
Becoming a thought leader takes time and work, but it can pay off for you personally and for your company.