Within the halls of Autotask Corp., there's talk about knocking down a firewall. The chatter goes something like this: The Autotask online community has roughly 34,667 users -- mostly MSPs and VARs. But outside of Autotask (outside the firewall, that is) few solutions providers know about the community. Jay McBain, senior VP of strategy and market development, is aiming to change that. On the job for roughly 100 days now, McBain is part of a growing Autotask executive team that wants to more fully leverage the existing Autotask online community while pushing deeper into new verticals worldwide. Here's how.

During a phone conversation yesterday, McBain and I discussed seven areas. They included:
  1. His first 100 days at the company: What were the surprises, challenges and opportunities?
  2. Executive Leadership: How does McBain think new CEO Mark Cattini is settling into the job, and how is former CEO Bob Godgart approaching the chief visionary officer position?
  3. Community: How will Autotask seek to leverage its existing online community while pushing into new markets?
  4. Integrations: What types of hardware, software and cloud services might integrate next with Autotask?
  5. VARStreet: It has been a year since Autotask acquired VARStreet, a product sourcing and quoting system. How much time does McBain spend focused on VARStreet, and how might that platform evolve?
  6. Unique Selling Proposition: Autotask competes against rivals like ConnectWise and Tigerpaw Software. So what makes Autotask unique?
  7. Big Enough Market?: Is the traditional IT channel -- VARs, resellers and MSPs -- large enough to meet Autotask's financial aspirations?
Here's a closer look at each area.

1. The First 100 Days

Actually, McBain joined Autotask from Lenovo roughly 90 days ago (cut me some slack on the math). "The biggest surprise for me," McBain says, "was learning about the Autotask community. It's now 34,667 users; they're generating tens of thousands of posts [online]. We're getting 42 new users per day into the community."

The challenge: Most of that online conversation occurs "behind the firewall," McBain adds. "We have to do a better job bringing the passion that's inside the firewall and extending it outside the firewall." More on that in point three below...

2. Executive Leadership

Meanwhile, new Autotask executives are settling into their positions while co-founder Bob Godgart has transitioned from CEO to Chief Visionary Officer.

When CEO Mark Cattini joined in December 2010 and Godgart moved to CVO, some industry watchers quietly wondered if Autotask's board or venture capitalists had lost faith in Godgart as CEO. But Autotask's response has been consistent: Godgart, eager to get back to his innovator roots, says he personally recruited Cattini to the CEO post.

Fast forward to the present and McBain says Cattini and Godgart are a natural pairing. Plus, CFO Vince Zumbo recently joined the company to provide more operational support. "Mark [Cattini] is decisive and a strong leader," says McBain. "Everyone wants to hit a home run for him here. With Mark here and now Zumbo on board, we've got strong operational people to free up Bob [Godgart] to be that entrepreneur who does research and looks for the next big thing."

3. Community

So, what is the next big opportunity? Some clues come from Godgart's position on CompTIA's board. CompTIA has an emerging relationship with InfoComm -- an organization for the professional audiovisual industry.

McBain estimates there are 5,000 AV pros in North America, and another 10,000 who focus on the home AV market. Autotask believes the audio and visual equipment needs to be proactively managed. Toward that end, Autotask will focus heavily on the InfoComm International association conference (June 11-17, Orlando, Fla.).

Meanwhile, McBain pointed out that nearly 35,000 people use the online Autotask community. But what about extending that community beyond Autotask's own cloud? For most of 2010, that involved building Autotask's face-to-face user groups, which were designed as grass roots, bottoms-up initiatives. Mark Crall, formerly executive director of business and community development, oversaw the effort but left the company earlier this month.

McBain spoke highly of Crall's vision but suggested some adjustments are coming. "The user groups were designed to be by the people, for the people," says McBain. But he concedes: "Some user group meetings would attract six people, others would attract 36. Autotask can do more to help the leaders of each user group. I see them growing in importance."

I suspect Autotask will discuss potential steps and strategies during the Autotask Community Live conference in May.

4. Integrations

Most MSPmentor readers are familiar with PSA and RMM (remote monitoring and management) software integrations. Looking ahead, McBain suspects Autotask will seek to integrate with AV equipment -- especially as that equipment gains Ethernet and WiFi connectivity. At the same time, McBain says Autotask will maintain "open arms" to the entire industry for additional integrations. McBain doesn't mention rivals by name, but it's clear that Autotask doesn't intend to stretch from PSA into RMM.

(In contrast, ConnectWise Capital invested in RMM player LabTech Software, and Kaseya seems to be pushing from RMM to PSA.) Both ConnectWise and Kaseya have vowed to keep their respective APIs open.

5. VARStreet Update

It’s been about a year since Autotask acquired VARStreet, the product sourcing and quoting system. Since that time, Autotask has been mostly quiet about VARStreet. My thesis: While VARStreet had potential, I suspect Autotask had to do more work than originally expected to polish and scale the system.

McBain seems to confirm the thesis. "The issue [with VARStreet] wasn't the product itself," says McBain. "The issue was scaling the product. We had to circle the wagons to make sure that happens. Instead of supporting hundreds of vendors, there will be thousands of vendors to support. I think we knew that going in. We had to go back and ensure [VARStreet] had the back-end infrastructure and synergy with Autotask built in. Mark [Cattini] sees it as a jewel in the crown. He's looking at ways to invest more into VARStreet to accelerate the development of the tool."

6. Unique Selling Propositions (USPs)

As I conceded yesterday — MSPmentor sometimes spends too much time writing about competition between Autotask and ConnectWise. But on the other hand, the PSA vendors also spend a ton of time countering each other in the market.

I asked McBain what, ultimately, makes Autotask unique. He offered three points:
  • Technology leadership. "[A decade ago] we were one of the first cloud-based companies in our industry. Ten years later Autotask is a very robust -- wide breadth and deep depth -- platform. It's one of the most valuable pieces of SaaS software out there today. It grew up in the cloud. We don't have to keep legacy stuff going. All of our resources can be pointed to the future."
  • Community leadership: "There's an active base of users. If I can help move the community from inside the [Autotask] firewall to outside the firewall there's a lot we can do to drive the industry forward."
  • Open initiatives. "There's a lot of motivation for us to be as open as we are and try to add value in as many places as we can, and not lock ourselves into a specific vertical or horizontal."
(For readers who want equal time on ConnectWise and Tigerpaw USPs, check out this insider's look at ConnectWise as well as this interview with Tigerpaw President James Foxall.)

7. Big Enough Market?

I keep asking PSA providers the same two-part question: Roughly 70,000 North American VARs and resellers have yet to discover and embrace the power of PSA software. First, can you get those 70,000 solutions providers to embrace PSA. And second, is that target market big enough to meet your financial goals?

McBain's reply: "Is there enough blue ocean and enough opportunity for the players in this market to grow? Absolutely yes. For every North American solutions provider that has PSA, there are six that don't. Even if three of those six never embrace PSA, there's enough market upside. Autotask can grow organically with its product set in our target market, absolutely yes."

Can Everyone Truly Grow?

Sometimes the media (myself included) spends too much time describing corporate "winners" and "losers." Fact is, each of the major PSA players appears to be growing -- while using vastly different strategies to do so.
  • Autotask, it seems, has realized it's time to play to its strength in the SaaS market, more effectively connecting the dots between cloud computing and online communities, while trying to build a stronger bridge to face-to-face communities.
  • ConnectWise, meanwhile, has the freedom and flexibility to move really fast. Since the company is not controlled by outside investors, CEO Arnie Bellini and President David Bellini have the freedom to make investments that may greatly benefit MSPs -- even if the investments inject more competitive stress into market. (Prime example: ConnectWise Capital's investment in LabTech Software.) Also, Arnie Bellini personally visits MSPs and consults with them -- ensuring that real-world market trend information flows back to ConnectWise's Tampa, Fla., headquarters.
  • Tigerpaw Software, though likely smaller than ConnectWise and Autotask, has also carved out a successful niche for itself, working with both VARs and MSPs -- as well as telco resellers. And James Foxall has consistently raised the company's profile over the past year.
Overall, the PSA players are talking less about each other -- and more about empowering their respective communities. That's a healthy trend.

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