Ash Bonebrake & Brian Loughlin: What Makes an MSP Successful

Success is rarely easy. Two long-time MSP professionals from Intelice share how they leveraged differentiation to become one of the top MSPs in the metro Washington, D.C. area.

What does it take to create an award-winning MSP with a stellar record of expansion over several decades? Ash Bonebrake and Brian Loughlin of Intelice recently chatted with Stuart Crawford, Founder and CEO of Ulistic -- and some of their answers to this question may surprise you. Differentiating your business, focusing on a particular vertical and always pushing the boundaries of technology have served this Washington, D.C. area MSP well for many years. See what this dynamic duo considers their critical factors for continued success in the future.

Intelice's Back Story

After passing through various fields including drafting, building websites and configuring databases, Ash Bonebrake eventually created a business around 1999 that included multi-tenant hosting in Microsoft Exchange, functionality that was quite advanced at that time. From there, Ash joined a major regional accounting firm in the early 1990s where he saw technology options continue to grow and evolve. Now one of the most well-respected IT managed service providers in the region, Intelice began as a division of this same accounting firm around 1996. Over time, the division that would become Intelice grew to be the largest in the organization. This was partly due to the Business Solutions group that included CPAs who were able to bring a strong focus on accounting software and business process improvement.

When Brian Loughlin joined the business in 2003, he brought a background in engineering and a passion for business technology. Brian excels at trying to bridge the gap between IT support and other projects, such as working with MS Sharepoint and middleware while providing an overarching IT solution for clients. Brian specifically appreciates the opportunity to provide smaller clients with advanced solutions that will support their ongoing growth goals. Today, Intelice leans on business process improvement by leveraging cloud-based solutions such as Microsoft 365 and SharePoint on top of a solid accounting backbone. While Intelice is rarely the lowest cost provider, they add value back into the business by becoming a knowledgeable partner for business transformation.

Differentiation Is the Key to Success

Both Brian and Ash believe that their focus on efficiency, which started during their early years as an accounting firm, required them to hold to a higher standard than many IT companies in the area. The leadership team was able to differentiate Intelice from other managed services providers in the area because its background as an IT audit practice allowed the technology professionals to provide a unique perspective to their clients. While their high-end accounting software implementations are often customized for large clients, the team was always interested in how to make their client's businesses more efficient. The goal for each engagement is not only installing hardware, software and providing support but also taking the time to shine the light on business process re-engineering and process automation.

Back in the early 2000s, there were 6,500 Microsoft Certified partners in the mid-Atlantic region, but only around 120 of these businesses were managed partners. Of these 120, only 2 MSPs offered implementation and support for both Dynamics Accounting as well as infrastructure, cloud and other traditional MSP tools. One of these two was Intelice, which allowed the leadership team to form a tight bond with Microsoft professionals as the business grew. The Intelice team excels at creating a holistic view of their clients -- making them a trusted partner for Microsoft. Intelice's ability to provide high-quality service to their clients brought several significant referrals from Microsoft, while their recommendations to deepen the relationship with Microsoft through the introduction of new tools to clients made them a valuable partner for Microsoft.

Diversity Is a Strategic Advantage

Offering a diverse range of solutions is a strategic advantage for Intelice, as they are providing information and guidance, not just IT support or discussing servers and PCs. Their background in accounting systems and middleware allows the Intelice team to provide more comprehensive service to their clients than a traditional IT MSP. These enhanced service offerings include understanding the business process workflow, much of which is now centered around Microsoft NAV and Business Central. The team can now leverage two decades of experience in the MS Dynamics platform, allowing them to smoothly translate their understanding of these complex platforms to client projects.

Is Cloud Truly the Future?

Asked to provide advice for new or growing MSPs, Ash immediately noted that cloud is the wave of the future. Microsoft will continue to add to their stack, as evidenced by the recent release of Microsoft 365 that pulls in operating system licensing, productivity software, security and more. This major consolidation of platforms provides a significant opportunity for MSPs as clients shift their current implementations to add Windows to their subscriptions. This approach adds efficiency and makes the environments more secure because they are all managed together instead of under separate umbrellas that may contain different security rules.

In the past, MSPs would make their money because specific functionality wasn't working and needed to be resolved: Windows 2000 wouldn't work with a specific app, for example. Consolidation has caused many of these issues to float away or lose importance, which can leave MSPs floundering to revise their business model. Since Intelice has always been focused on the business process side and helping businesses move to the cloud, they've already shifted many of their business models to center around cloud services. Things simply don't break as much as they used to, so MSPs will have to be more engaged with providing support and integrations as well as building efficiencies into the business. Security is also a major business need, along with compliance and IT audits. Because of their history, the leaders at Intelice understand the complexities of the modern business processes and accounting systems and can provide added security, IT auditing and remediation as well as more traditional offerings such as IT support.

"Security Compliance is Top of Mind"

Many business owners seem to be hiding their heads in the sand, ignoring the fact that a breach could have a dramatically negative impact on the business. Intelice provides a number of security solutions for their clients, but a key market segment are government contractors with specific compliance needs. This type of business often requires another level of security, and a need to understand the insurance and compliance requirements. Intelice teams look at the entire business, searching for ways to implement cybersecurity requirements such as training of staff, email and web security. Most companies don't understand the steps that they are supposed to be taking to maintain a high level of security in their business. In the last several years, smaller businesses are being hit as hackers watch their accounts -- seeing how transactions are scheduled, the timing of conversations and even mimicking the tone of internal staff as they're asking to have large sums of money transferred to an offshore account. The dynamics around cybersecurity have changed, and Intelice focuses on offering training that will help clients understand what could be impacting them. Intelice views their role as a business partner: letting people know what they should be doing as well as handling the rules and compliance issues. Helping clients stay compliant and secure is where the Intelice team feels they add value.

The Next Generation of IT

The DNA of Intelice is that they love technology, so they are very passionate about staying on top of what's coming in the future. How voice-managed AI can be translated into business efficiency, how to leverage voice tech to issue and process POs . . . these are all examples of how next-generation technology can impact our world. Stitching together all the pieces to create an integrated solution that incorporates technology from UX to mobile phones, operational systems, different applications and infrastructure -- and making it all into a very comprehensive and supportable solution.

When asked what they would do differently if they were starting a brand new MSP today, both Brian and Ash agreed: Go cloud! Intelice decided to get rid of its last data center approximately four years ago. There is a huge opportunity right now for smaller MSPs to take advantage of cloud-based software -- something that was too expensive for them to manage in the past. When your MSP morphs into a CSP (Cloud Services Provider), you don't have to invest millions of dollars into data centers. Instead, you can start getting engaged in solving business problems and making solid recommendations that will allow a business to scale seamlessly. Procuring, managing and upgrading software and hardware for data centers are no longer required activities for MSPs-- instead, MSPs should be paying more attention to how they can provide business support.

Finding Your Perfect Niche

The team at Intelice recommends finding your perfect niche, where you can really get to know your customers and understand their business. Dig deep to understand their business concerns and the marketplace and you can position yourself as an expert while leveraging the cloud-based technologies that are already available. It's crucial that you don't take on any business that just happens to call you, as this can be an extremely inefficient practice. Instead, look for businesses that are a good fit with your core of knowledge -- a tactic that shows true operational maturity. Consider focusing on a particular industry or one of these four areas of verticals: industry, technology, location and job roles. Stuart specifically notes that there are new opportunities for MSPs to strategically reach CFOs and CEOs by working through knowledge workers as long as you understand how businesses will actually be using the technology.

People are approaching work differently than they did only a decade ago. When you see someone tapping away on their phone, it's just as likely that they're DM'ing a colleague to find the answer to a business question as chatting with their friends about a cookout this weekend. Learning how to leverage the vast social network of the younger generation is still an ongoing challenge that needs to be considered with any technology project. In your role as a business advisor, you might be the voice of reason for keeping certain social media accounts while blocking others. A final thought: Continually evaluate the changing culture and landscape and consider using different media on websites and in your MSP marketing to connect with your core audience.


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