July 6, 2009

How Open Source Can be SMB Friendlier

When his work phone rings, IT consultant David Sobel knows it’s probably another one of his many small- and medium-sized business clients needing help with an IT problem.

And since 1997, when he expanded his Fairfax, Va.-based business, Evolve Technologies, into consulting, Sobel has been growing his client portfolio with a simple strategy – fix their IT problems with the best tools available.

That means that when the best tool for the task is a Linux or open source application, just use it. And use them, he does.

“My job is just to take their pain away and make the problem go away for them,” he said. “They don’t care” what’s under the hood.

To Sobel, that’s a strategy that more IT consultants, resellers and major vendors should be following to bring the benefits, cost savings, flexibility and quality of open source software to SMBs.

But the problem, he said, is that many existing vendors who market open source applications continue to make the same mistakes over and over--instead of marketing their products simply for what they can do and solve for customers, they market them as open source as though that’s what sets them apart.

Yet that’s the wrong message, he said. For end users and SMB business owners, they don’t necessarily care that something is open source. They just want it to do what they need to get done.

And worse, some SMB users might even be leery of open source because they’ve heard about it but don’t necessarily understand it, he said. Some are afraid of it due to the fear of the unknown.

One SMB customer told him recently that he wanted to consolidate his servers from four down to two, while maintaining his IT capabilities. So Sobel told him all about how he could bring in virtualization to accomplish that, using open source tools and giving the customer the capabilities he wanted with less hardware.

“SMBs are starting to use virtualization,” Sobel said. “The moment you properly explain virtualization to SMB customers they’re immediately interested.”

Yet not all of his SMB customers want to know all those specifics about the chosen technologies, he said. “Every customer is not necessarily aware they have virtualization. All the customer knows is that he doesn’t need more hardware and has lower costs and he’s happy.”

For everyone involved, that means a different approach is often needed.

The SMB market is not at all like the large enterprise marketplace.

In large businesses, big IT vendors send out sprawling teams of sales people, sponsor big user conferences and stay in close touch to manage huge software accounts and make life easier for big business users and their IT administrators.

That same approach doesn’t work with SMBs, Sobel said.

SMBs can’t usually rely directly on the big software vendors because they don’t have their own big IT departments to deploy and manage and fix all the complicated parts of the IT infrastructures. Instead, SMBs rely on trusted value-added resellers (VARs), technology partners and consultants to help them decide what to do and how to do it, Sobel said. These smaller resellers know their users, feel at ease with their customers and make technology simple for their customers. “Every SMB wants a local guy they can work with. Linux and open source companies haven’t built such deep sales channels like Microsoft has.”

This is a difference open source vendors need to grasp, and soon, he said.

Open source vendors need to stop thinking that they’ll continue to try to engage directly with the SMB customers, he said. “They’re not. They’re going to engage with the [VAR] who will engage with the customer.”

And in many cases, the SMB customers don’t want to know how a problem is being fixed--they just want it done.

They don’t care whether there’s a V-8 engine under the bodywork or whether it’s an inline four-cylinder. And that’s where Sobel’s approach comes in to help his customers--tell them what they need to know, and let the consultant worry about all the technical details and acronyms.

For many prospective SMB users, trying to explain why a consultant would bring in an open source application “assumes a level of expertise that’s not necessarily there,” he said. “And then what’s not explained to the user is that [using open source] is no more complicated than going another route” with proprietary software.

What a typical open source vendor today will do, he said, is try to sell their product based on it being cheaper than a Microsoft Windows deployment, for example. But where that goes wrong is how it is viewed by the tech-wary SMB user who doesn’t have a big IT shop to do the work. “From their view, it would be more expensive because they would need training to do it” using open source, rather than sticking with Windows and what they already know and are familiar with, he said.

A better approach would be for open source vendors to target their offerings directly to the VARs and consultants who serve the SMB market, Sobel said. “They have to show the VAR how they’re going to be part of this and how they can augment those capabilities between end users and open source vendors,” he said. “They’re aiming too high with bells and whistles, instead of aiming to show they can help you open your doors each day,” Sobel said. “You’re still helping the end user, but you’ve got to show the VAR how to do it. “More importantly, the people you are talking to are the VARs and they have to see how they can be helping their customers.”

Some large IT vendors, such as IBM, are trying this kind of approach to work more closely with VARs, he said, “but they still haven’t gotten the messaging down right.”

“The key for the open source partner is that they need to look at it as a repeatable process, not as a custom engagement each time,” he said. “I don’t think that they’re focusing on building a partner program with the SMBs in mind. They need a whole lot more sales and marketing support. They need more specific guidance and direction.”

Some open source vendors may not see the financial value in making such attempts to woo VARs and their SMB customers, Sobel said. But every bit of business counts, and there are a lot of SMBs out there who need IT help.

“I believe that there’s more money in SMBs” to be earned, he said. “It’s just spread out so much more.”

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