This week's ConnectWise IT Nation conference in Orlando, Fla., attracted roughly 1,600 attendees. Multiple first-time attendees looked around and openly asked me: "How the heck did this conference and this community grow so large and so influential?" I've got a simple answer.

Here's my thesis: ConnectWise has run a successful annual partner conference for nearly a decade. But the defining moment -- the tipping point -- arrived in April 2009. At that time, ConnectWise and HTG Peer Groups hammered out a strategic agreement. Generally speaking it involved:
  • First, HTG Peer Groups -- which includes dozens of VARs and MSPs -- would standardize on ConnectWise's PSA (professional services automation) software. The HTG members generate more than $800 million in IT-related sales and services.
  • Second, HTG adjusted its year-end gathering (HTG All) to coincide with ConnectWise Partner Summit, which has since been rebranded as the IT Nation conference.
In some ways, the ConnectWise-HTG relationship has had its share of critics and challenges:
  • Some HTG members were worried about being too closely aligned with a single PSA vendor; a few HTG members running Autotask apparently left the community.
  • Some VARs and MSPs wondered if the IT Nation conference would become overwhelming, combining too many priorities and too many vendor-led gatherings.

Why IT Nation Is Working

Generally speaking, I think the IT Nation conference silences most critics each year. In the vast majority of cases, attendees and vendors are impressed with the event -- which includes a boatload of non-vendor sessions and lots of networking time.

The IT Nation Conference works for a range of reasons:

1. The HTG member base focuses like a laser on MSP and VAR performance, growth and life-work balance. Those members include some of the highest-performance MSPs. Naturally, those top MSPs like to network with one another at a conference. And aspiring MSPs join in to learn from market leaders.

2. The ConnectWise culture is built around community. ConnectWise co-founders Arnie and David Bellini spend heavily to build user groups and the IT Nation conference. ConnectWise Director of Community Jeannine Edwards and her team work tirelessly to engage and support that community.

3. Yes, ConnectWise CEO Arnie Bellini wants to sell more software. But he also manages to evangelize sales strategies and business strategies to the ConnectWise community. His priorities are aligned with the ConnectWise community's priorities: If VARs and MSPs have the proper sales education to grow, they can consume more of ConnectWise's software.

4. Bellini has ambitious stretch goals. During today's keynote, he compared ConnectWise's place in the IT universe to that of Google Android, Apple, FaceBook, Skype and more. Is ConnectWise that influential across the IT market? No. But within sectors of the IT channel, it's safe to say ConnectWise is more influential than those IT giants.

5. HTG somehow balances sponsored vendor engagements with peer group learnings. Gradually, vendor sponsors have learned to pitch fewer products and instead share more insights with HTG members.

Balancing Act

Yes, ConnectWise and HTG Peer Groups are growing more powerful within the IT channel. This week's IT Nation conference, hosted by ConnectWise, proves that point. But with power comes responsibility.
  • Even as ConnectWise strives to build a Microsoft Office-like suite for VARs and MSPs, ConnectWise must also maintain open relations and open APIs with software companies that compete with the ConnectWise portfolio.
  • Even as HTG Peer Groups grows in size the organization must maintain a primary focus on MSP and VAR performance rather than vendor-dominated gatherings. With that thought in mind, I hear Sorensen and HTG have made the conscious decision to cut back on the number of deep vendor engagements the organization plans to have in 2012.
I'm not suggesting ConnectWise, Bellini, HTG and Sorensen are perfect. Designing a massive conference that attracts the right MSPs and VARs -- without overwhelming those partners with sponsored sales pitches -- is an extremely difficult balancing act. Plus, the IT channel needs healthy checks and balances. That's where software rivals and independent associations enter the picture.


Still, it's hard to argue with the IT Nation and HTG All formula so far. Can the model scale even higher? We'll find out at ConnectWise IT Nation 2012...