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Q&A With David Thomas, Managing Director of Bluegrass Group

Being the largest gathering of MSPs in Europe, DattoCon gave Technology Reseller the opportunity to spend time with the people who have the job of building relationships with (and selling services to) end user customers. What makes them tick? And how does the evolving Datto stack meet their needs? To find out we sat down with David Thomas, Managing Director of Bluegrass, the Exeter-based MSP, Datto EMEA Pioneer of The Year and organiser of Cyber Security Awareness Week. We started by asking David how he got into this game in the first place.

David Thomas (DT): We originally started as a project management company and were quite successful, working for the likes of AXA, Cancer Research and Prudential. We outsourced our IT support, as businesses do – thankfully. Then in November 2007 we had a server crash. We had an urgent piece of work we had to get to a client who was giving a presentation at the end of the week. The crash happened on Tuesday; we had to get it to him on Friday. The IT company just didn’t comprehend the importance of that – ‘It’s just one person. Does it really matter?’.

In the end we got the presentation written for him, but it was one of those light bulb moments – ‘Do you know what? We’ve moved around IT companies and we’ve never got one that really understands communication, the value of money and the significance of problems’. So, we changed overnight from being a consultancy to being an IT company. We had no experience; we were IT-based, but we had no qualifications; we had no clients; we had no processes. But we saw there was a niche and that was how Bluegrass started.

The first client came on board in December 2007. We had this vision of what service should be about, and that is what we sold. We sold the vision as opposed to saying ‘We’ve got 10 years of experience and we are the right company to go to’. Over the years that’s changed: we’ve grown from just 4 people to 31; we’ve got 120 clients around the UK; we have a main office in Exeter and a small office in Birmingham; we’re an MSP with a full range of services, 24/7, 365.

Technology Reseller (TR): Going back to that lightbulb moment; you had no experience or qualifications, what was your starting point? DT: Three of us were technical anyway. I was a programmer in years gone by and I had two other guys who liked taking computers apart and fixing them. Between the three of us we had sufficient knowledge to be able to offer a solution.

TR: What did you offer initially? DT: To start with, we offered break/fix. The two principles we established right from the start were that anything we offered had to be of high quality, because service was key, and that we would put 24/7 monitoring in place. Twelve years ago, 24/7 monitoring was something that tended to be done by larger organisations, but we knew from our perspective, as a receiver of IT support, that that was important. They were the principles on which we moved forward. That’s basically the story we told – we had been a receiver of IT support; we know what it’s like to get bad support; so trust us.

TR: And you found people who were prepared to do that? DT: It was a leap of faith for them; they took that leap of faith and the business has grown from there.

TR: Were your first customers people you had worked with previously on a consultancy basis or were they brand new to you? DT: They were brand new. With consultancy we were talking to large organisations that had their own IT departments. Our target market was SMEs.

TR: How did you find them? Through friends? Advertising? DT: Just through marketing and making phone calls. A lot of what an MSP does is being in the right place, at the right time; making that phone call at the point when the end client has an issue or has had an issue or has had frustrations. Then, you are pushing an open door.

TR: How long have you had a relationship with Datto? DT: For five years, since 2014.

TR: What led you to them? DT: We have always believed that we survive if our clients stay in business and that disaster recovery is key to every business, including ourselves. We looked at all kinds of different solutions and eventually chose one from a company I won’t name. We implemented it and it was fine. But in the background this company was constantly tinkering with the software, and there was a time when a client of ours had an issue and we couldn’t recover all their data. That’s a disaster. So we looked around the market and came across Datto. Five years ago, it was new, certainly in the UK. We tried it and we converted our clients to Datto. It was business continuity that we picked up first.

TR: And you’ve never had any problems with Datto? DT: Never problems, no. There are always issues, but we’ve never not been able to recover a client’s data, whole system or whatever, when we’ve needed to. And when there has been an issue, the support has been great. As it needs to be. Our clients expect good support from us, so we expect good support from our partners, and Datto has provided it.

TR: Since selecting Datto for business continuity, have you adopted more of its products? DT: We sell everything of Datto’s now. As they keep telling me, we sell ‘the whole stack’. We sell business continuity, networking solutions, SaaS protection. We also use their Autotask PSA and Datto RMM remote monitoring. We are fully invested in them.

TR: Will you also take on their new product, Cloud Continuity (see page 24)? DT: Without a doubt. There are lots of businesses out there that don’t have a server infrastructure and aren’t backing up their data effectively. And it’s not just companies that don’t have a server; there are some individuals in businesses, typically senior staff, who have a lot of data sitting on their laptops that they are not synchronising. To be able to cover them, to give them peace of mind is really critical. One of the things I say to our engineers is that if you are not monitoring our clients’ back-ups you are stopping me from sleeping, because the buck stops with me. Having all this continuity in place means I can sleep easily. It’s scary when you can’t recover somebody after they’ve had a ransomware attack.

TR: Have the services you have taken from Datto replaced an existing offering or are they an extension of what you provide? DT: That depends. Business recovery was a replacement; and networking, which includes switching and wireless access points, is replacing what we sold previously. So, we are standardising on Datto products. The more standardisation we have, the more efficient it makes the engineers, because they only have to learn about one vendor’s products.

There’s a phrase I hate – pane of glass. Basically, that gives you everything on one screen and enables the engineer to fix things from a desk rather than having to travel. We don’t charge our clients mileage or travel time (it’s part of what they pay), so the more we can keep our engineers in the office, the more efficient we become and the quicker the client gets a result. So, those are replacements.

When it comes to SaaS Protection, as far as we are concerned there is nothing else like it on the market. There is a clause in the Microsoft Office 365 agreement that basically says it is your data, you back it up. But they don’t tell anybody that; it’s buried in pages and pages. As a business owner, I would assume Microsoft were going to take care of my data, but they’re not. We have been selling it for a couple of years now, but SaaS Protection (originally Backupify) was a new product for us. With 365 becoming the dominant email system as businesses move away from on-site Exchange, you have to have something in place. When we sell 365, we give a price for SaaS Protection. It’s kind of mandatory, especially with GDPR.

Finally, Autotask and RMM are replacing ConnectWise solutions.

TR: Is that transition easy to make? DT: It’s been easier than I expected it to be, I’ll be honest with you. Because they are two core systems, I did think it was going to be an issue. Datto said ‘Don’t worry, it’s all going to be fine’ and the cynic in me said ‘Yeeeah, OK’. But, actually, it was. Datto RMM went live in September and Autotask goes live today (October 23).

TR: Are you interested in everything Datto brings out, if only for the potential efficiency gains? DT: We will be interested, but we won’t automatically adopt it. Datto’s product range is great, but we have to make sure it suits us and suits our clients.

TR: Are there any areas you would like Datto to move into? DT: Security. I got excited yesterday when Tim Weller (Datto CEO) said ‘There is one more thing I want to talk about: security’. I thought he was going to announce a security suite that is geared for an MSP to sell to an SME.

TR: What are the particular requirements for an MSP? DT: The vast majority of security providers sell products to MSPs and the public. It’s a confused process because they have customers who will go into a shop or buy their product over the phone, so their focus isn’t on the MSP marketplace. Datto doesn’t deal with the end customer: they get what it’s like for an MSP; they understand what an MSP wants; they understand the challenges we have in selling whatever it might be.

TR: Do you want Datto to offer a security suite just because of its MSP focus? DT: It’s not just that. We run something called Cyber Security Awareness Week (CSAW). The first was in 2017 and we are in the process of planning the fourth, CSAW 2020. The purpose of CSAW is to educate businesses in cybersecurity and data protection, because many SMEs hear about British Airways and Talk Talk and the NHS and think it’s not going to happen to them because they are not big enough. In fact, cyber criminals don’t care about size; their focus is targeting weaknesses. CSAW is a week-long series of free events to educate businesses. Datto has been our sponsor right from the start and is the lead sponsor for 2020 as well, which starts on March 9. We have a really good tie-in with them, which is why a security suite would be great.

TR: Have you seen a big increase in revenue and customer numbers since starting with Datto? DT: Yes, we have. If we go back to the data protection products, the BCDR; when we ask an existing client or a prospective client if they have lost data in the past, they invariably say ‘Yes’. We then point out that with this product they don’t have to worry about that. Then, it’s just a question of finding the right price point, because Datto is not a cheap product. And I don’t think it should be – if you want a cracking service you should be prepared to pay for it. That has helped us. Then you add networking, where you can get monthly recurring revenue, and SaaS Protection. So, yes, our revenues have gone up.

TR: So you provide networking as a service? DT: Yes. We provide the equipment and there’s a very small monthly fee. At the moment, we are going through a change and have started to include that within our managed service offering. Arguably, that is going to lead to a reduction in revenue, but it means the client will get a better service. You have to think long-term. If they stay longterm, you will get back what you invest.

TR: What are the big things customers are asking you for right now? DT: Their main priority is keeping their systems up and running efficiently. Business is not easy, and if you have inefficient staff and your systems are down and you can’t send out a proposal, you can’t process an order, it will impact your business. They say to us ‘Keep my business running please, and when we have an issue get it fixed as fast as possible’. That for them is the key.

https://bluegrass-group.com/

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2018