Two New Support Options for SMBs

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When the IT business gets slow at huge companies, vendors "discover" the small business market. Whether that's the reason in full or part, now seems to be a golden time for small businesses that need IT support, because the line of vendors ready to help keeps getting longer.

Let's talk about two of those new entrants into the market. First, focusing on the small end of the small business spectrum, is Staples (the office supply giant) and its new Staples Network Services. Second is Sparxent, a company acquiring regional IT providers to focus on servicing companies with from 200 to 2000 employees.

Staples has long sold technology (computers, laptops, printers etc.) and now wants to help you better manage those. As part of its Staples Business Advantage program, it just announced Staples Network Services. The target is companies with 20-250 employees. The current customer profile in the soft launch prior to the official launch on Sept. 24 has been companies with about 40 employees, but no full time IT person. There are about 8 million small businesses in the U.S. with 25 or fewer employees, so this market can certainly absorb another big player.

Since the focus groups told Staples it didn't have enough credibility with the public to be taken seriously as a major technology player, the official name for the new program is Staples Network Services by Thrive. Who? Thrive is, or was, an IT support company in the Boston area with about 85 employees. Staples bought them in December 2006 to be the foundation of this new service.

Speaking of service, Staples Network Services will offer antispam, antivirus, operating system patching, system and network monitoring, and remote support as their base system. Notice the "remote" emphasis, as group president Jim Lippie told me they can solve 95% of customer problems remotely. For those issues that need feet on the street, Lippie works with one of the large national IT "tech for hire" groups to solve those issues. They're limiting their onsite services now to Boston and Atlanta, so they can get their processes ramped up before they expand nationally.

Backup, always an issue for small businesses, will be available with Thrive Backup powered by EMC (really Mozy Enterprise). Automatic backups from each workstation, laptop, and server will transfer securely over the Internet to online storage facilities. Mozy Enterprise has a good reputation for small business backup, although most people think of Mozy as a consumer product. Nope, they do your business computers and servers as well.

Pricing will follow the per user per month model. General Thrive Protect services, antispam and the rest, will be $20 per month per user. Thrive Backup will be an extra $10 per user per month for unlimited backup space. Server backup pricing hasn't been decided, according to Lippie, but expect something in the range of $2 to $5 per month per gigabyte stored.

Staples now enters a competition with some big name competitors. HP's TotalCare is the first name that springs to mind, and Dell also launched Managed Services for Small Business. Beyond those two giants, every local reseller also offers all or most of these services. If this trend continues, small businesses won't be able to complain no one loves them.

Does Staples have a chance? You bet, because they have thousands of people walking into their retail stores every hour, giving them a huge customer base to contact. Although their Staple Business Advantage program for office products tends to be a little low profile, they're out there, they're providing more than just office supply catalogs to small businesses, and Business Advantage salespeople get a spiff (euphemism for financial incentive) to help sign up Network Services customers. Since they support PCs, Macs, and Linux systems, their customer base can stretch wider than HP's or Dell's. It should be an interesting competition to watch for the next two years.

Sparxent, a company you never heard of, wants to take over support for the small businesses outgrowing Staples Network Services and becoming midsized companies. Well, I count 500 or more employees as a large business, but some argue midsized starts at 1,000. Either way, they want to be the next step.

Dave Taylor, co-founder of Sparxent and one of the guys behind LANdesk, told me the middle market doesn't get the support and services they deserve. How is that possible? They're too big for the typical reseller, but too small for the huge enterprise consulting groups. So Sparxent started a year and a half ago, got venture capital funding early this year, and this summer bought NetworkD Corporation in California. Second, they are buying Arbyte of Moscow.

From nothing to a $100 million company by the end of this year is a fast start, but Taylor says they will do it. Acquiring larger regional resellers with specific talents will allow Sparxent to tailor its overall services to what the market needs. At least that's the plan.

I was put off with the spiel about "consultative selling approach." a phrase as old as "education reform" or "Middle East peace" and just about as likely to happen. Salespeople aren't consultants, and consultants aren't good salespeople, and I thought the 'consultative selling" buzzword died in the mid-1990s. Guess not.

That said, Sparxent will have the resources to provide network management, security, support, interactive dashboards, and programming services to midsized companies. However, that seems to be a busy area, at least since every Top 100 VAR listing I've ever seen shows about 80 of the 100 top national value-added resellers making the same claims.

All in all, however, the trend of more companies offering more services to small and midsize companies makes me happy. And if your company needs some help, it should make you happy too.

This story, "Two New Support Options for SMBs" was originally published by Network World.

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