When his work phone rings, IT consultant David Sobel knows it‚Äôs 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 ‚Äì 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.
‚ÄúMy job is just to take their pain away and make the problem go away for them,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúThey don‚Äôt care‚Äù what‚Äôs under the hood.
To Sobel, that‚Äôs 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‚Äôs what sets them apart.
Yet that‚Äôs the wrong message, he said. For end users and SMB business owners, they don‚Äôt 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‚Äôve heard about it but don‚Äôt 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.
‚ÄúSMBs are starting to use virtualization,‚Äù Sobel said. ‚ÄúThe moment you properly explain virtualization to SMB customers they‚Äôre immediately interested.‚Äù
Yet not all of his SMB customers want to know all those specifics about the chosen technologies, he said. ‚ÄúEvery customer is not necessarily aware they have virtualization. All the customer knows is that he doesn‚Äôt need more hardware and has lower costs and he‚Äôs happy.‚Äù
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‚Äôt work with SMBs, Sobel said.
SMBs can‚Äôt usually rely directly on the big software vendors because they don‚Äôt 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. ‚ÄúEvery SMB wants a local guy they can work with. Linux and open source companies haven‚Äôt built such deep sales channels like Microsoft has.‚Äù
This is a difference open source vendors need to grasp, and soon, he said.
Open source vendors need to stop thinking that they‚Äôll continue to try to engage directly with the SMB customers, he said. ‚ÄúThey‚Äôre not. They‚Äôre going to engage with the [VAR] who will engage with the customer.‚Äù
And in many cases, the SMB customers don‚Äôt want to know how a problem is being fixed--they just want it done.
They don‚Äôt care whether there‚Äôs a V-8 engine under the bodywork or whether it‚Äôs an inline four-cylinder. And that‚Äôs where Sobel‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúassumes a level of expertise that‚Äôs not necessarily there,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúAnd then what‚Äôs not explained to the user is that [using open source] is no more complicated than going another route‚Äù 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‚Äôt have a big IT shop to do the work. ‚ÄúFrom their view, it would be more expensive because they would need training to do it‚Äù 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. ‚ÄúThey have to show the VAR how they‚Äôre going to be part of this and how they can augment those capabilities between end users and open source vendors,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúThey‚Äôre aiming too high with bells and whistles, instead of aiming to show they can help you open your doors each day,‚Äù Sobel said. ‚ÄúYou‚Äôre still helping the end user, but you‚Äôve got to show the VAR how to do it. ‚ÄúMore importantly, the people you are talking to are the VARs and they have to see how they can be helping their customers.‚Äù
Some large IT vendors, such as IBM, are trying this kind of approach to work more closely with VARs, he said, ‚Äúbut they still haven‚Äôt gotten the messaging down right.‚Äù
‚ÄúThe 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,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt think that they‚Äôre 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.‚Äù
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.
‚ÄúI believe that there‚Äôs more money in SMBs‚Äù to be earned, he said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs just spread out so much more.‚Äù