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What's in the MSP's core DNA?

Posted by Warwick Eade

DeskDirector: MSP tips and tricks

There are thousands of business books that reference Steve Jobs and his work at Apple. There is only one that Jobs himself said greatly influenced him – “The innovator's dilemma” by Clayton Christensen.

In the book is a theory on how it is possible for upstart firms to completely wipe out huge incumbents in a few short years. He shows how big business “dinosaurs” can completely miss the arrival of small business “mammals.” He explains why this can happen even when, in hindsight, the big guys could easily have crushed the small guys.

The DNA of the theory is that there is “the job to be done” behind every product and service. People buy products and services because they have a particular “job” in their life that needs to be done. We “employ” that product or service to do the job.

Theodore Levitt summed it up:

“People do not want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter inch hole.”

There’s plenty of smarter people who can explain it better, like Tony Ulwick’s with his Jobs-To-Be-Done theory and, of course, you should read the book yourself.

"Innovation stagnates when you don’t understand what jobs are to be done. You compete with other companies in your category, rather competing for the Jobs To Be Done (JTBD)."

A restaurant is competing for the job to provide a fun night out - and not with the menus of other restaurants.

The MSP industry is as bad as any at identifying the JTBD. 

Try these thought experiments:        

DeskDirector Thought experiment


Experiment 1: Your boilerplate web site

  1. Take a copy of the web site of a similar sized MSP in your particular city
  2. Search and replace for names, dates and identifying photos, etc.
  3. Leave all the other copy the same. All the services, all the promises. 
How many of your customers would recognise that this is not your business, rather than just another website refresh?

Experiment 2: Your pre-historic service agreement

I started my MSP in the late 1980’s. During my early years, I had the opportunity to see a few mini-computer service agreements (Prime, DEC etc.). These agreements were founded on a set monthly fee in return for a commitment to keep the mini-computer going. OS upgrades, backup and preventative maintenance was provided as required. Big projects were extra.

There was some element of incident response. More usually, this was charged by the hour. Every quarter, an account manager turned up to show the customer what new stuff you could/should buy.

  1. Imagine getting hold of a copy of one of those 1980’s agreements.
  2. Swap out the old technology for new.
  3. Leave all the service elements the same.

Reckon you’d sell that service agreement in 2016? I know I could.

How did we get here and what can be done?

We’ve been lulled into thinking we’re innovative because we are surrounded by continuous technology innovation. Technology innovation is a month by month event. Service innovation barely has a pulse.

We need to start thinking about the JTDB. Now more than ever.

If Thought Experiment one highlights the problem, then Thought Experiment two shows the way.

Products and services are ephemeral, but JTBD have the same half-life as humans needs and wants (hint: a long time).

Let’s have a look at what those 1980’s support agreements were doing – effectively, addressing three needs.

Lights on

Keeping the infrastructure working at an optimal level. Designing for redundancy if critical. This is the realm of RMM, AV and infrastructure management. This was once the biggest part of our job. Customers owned all their own equipment and, for a long time, that equipment was not all that reliable.

Now, with public cloud, server infrastructure is outsourced and rented. On premise equipment has become cheap and disposable. MSPs should be preparing for redundancy on this job.

Leg up

If ‘Lights on’ is about managing the machines, ‘Leg up’ is about managing the humans. When all the equipment is going but the human has stopped. Usually it’s a matter of missing skill or knowledge. It’s about giving the user a leg-up to get back to work. “Let me help you with that. There you go. Have a nice day.”

This is the realm of incident response, help desk and training. The industry hasn’t done a great job innovating here. Most of the innovations have been cost reduction packaged as service improvement (think remote support).

There is an ocean of opportunity here. This why DD Portal exists.


Leverage is working out how to do more with less. Introducing new gear, new software and new systems to our customers. The lights are on and the humans are working but – how much more we could do if we used this system or technique?

For the longest time, we allowed vendors to lead here. We sat in as go-between and clipped the ticket. That is changing fast. I always thought it was a poor way to make a living, but it seems to be the hardest things for most MSPs to quit.

“Just give us a little bit more of that sweet, sweet margin”.


Buffet and Munger love businesses that buy commodities and sell brands. We should aspire to be those businesses.

Microsoft is now the commodity and not the brand. We need to create our own services and brand them as service products (Pro tip: Microsoft knows this and is keen to help).

How is this useful?

It depends. It depends if you want to innovate and if you believe that innovation will grow your business.

If you don’t, then Christensen’s latest book, “Competing Against Luck”, is a good read. (Hint: stay focused during the luck bits).

But if you have always believed in the KYSS principle (know your s**** Sir!) , and selling other people’s stuff has seemed like empty calories, then you’re in for a good time.

If you choose the side of Innovation, then there’s learning, hard work and an upside that so much better than what we have been settling for.

Make money, innovate and have fun eBook

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