New Survey Results: The Business Pressure Cooker – How MSPs Are Keeping The Lid On

Running an MSP business can be “a high-octane juggling act—it’s like I’m juggling with Molotov cocktails,” says Jeremy Colwell, founder and managing director of The Human IT Company, a managed service provider in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Carrying the mantle of managing and growing a business that’s also tasked with protecting its customers against cyberattacks can be stressful, agrees Michael Mullin, president and CEO of Integrated Business Systems, an MSP in Totowa, New Jersey. “Some days are obviously more stressful than others. But there’s always some amount of stress around because there’s always some amount of risk around,” he says.

Colwell and Mullin are not alone. The recent MSP Success reader survey on stress and productivity took a deep dive into what issues are stressing out business owners, what impacts their productivity, and the steps they are taking to address both. We also asked respondents which top stressor they would make disappear if they had a “magic wand.” You may (or may not) be surprised by their answers!

Good Stress, Bad Stress

Almost half (48%) of MSP owners surveyed report a moderate level of stress running their business, while more than a third (36%) call their stress level high. Just 17% say their stress level is low.

Just over half (52%) of MSP Success survey respondents feel stressed occasionally, with 30% experiencing stress every business day. Only 18% say it’s impacting their personal lives, and just 1% say they never feel stressed.

The American Institute of Stress defines four types of stress:

  • Acute: Causes a metabolic “fight or flight” reaction in your body that can last for more than an hour.
  • Chronic: Day-to-day stressors you live with but over time can affect your health
  • Eustress: Stress in everyday life that has positive connotations, such as a performance, a big presentation, marriage, graduation, etc.
  • Distress: Stress in everyday life that has negative connotations, such as divorce, getting fired, financial problems, etc.

For small business owners, “the simple act of running the company by itself is a challenge sometimes—finding the balance between the work stuff and the personal stuff,” says Colwell, who has been in business since 2007 and has five employees. “There are more hats that I have to juggle to make sure I’m properly dedicating time to growing the business while still finding myself having to get involved with some of the technical aspects. We don’t have such a large team that I can divest myself of that.”

Says Scott Larson, founder and CEO of eCreek IT Solutions, Denver, Colorado, “I’ve always overtasked myself in the past and tried to do everything. And I’m really trying hard now to delegate those things and trust my team.”

Larson calls his stress level low to moderate. He attributes that to having a large number of customers in a variety of industries. That alleviates the impact if one leaves. In addition, he says, “We feel pretty confident in our ability to take care of our customers.”

eCreek was founded in 2004 UM as a call center company and transitioned to the MSP space in 2012. The MSP employs 13 workers in the U.S. and eight offshore.

Mario Zaki, CEO of Mazteck, an MSP in Mahwah, New Jersey, that serves construction, engineering, and architectural firms, characterizes his stress level as moderate, “even though I kind of strive on running on high. I don’t like the stress of, ‘hey, our clients are down,’ but I enjoy the stress of ‘I have a bunch of things to do.’”

He “very rarely” lets business worries spill into his personal time. “I have a an 8-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter, and my wife works a lot of weekends. So my weekends are pretty stressful but not work related,” he jokes.

“The only time I will get an elevated amount of stress is if a client is unhappy about something that my team has not been able to help them with,” he acknowledges.

For Mullin’s part, he’s constantly monitoring the business to make sure “nothing really bad’s going on.” But he does golf most weekends. “My phone’s in the car. I don’t worry about what’s going on until I come off the golf course.”

He adds, “I think that part of my job is to keep other people from getting stressed. If I get stressed, they’re going to just follow me down that path and jump off the cliff with me.”

He learned that lesson over time. “I will tell you that 20 years ago I could light them up with the best of them. I think I’ve learned that I can stamp my feet and get upset and it doesn’t change anything.”

Larson, too, says he tries to keep stress in perspective. “It’s not a deep fear or worry, but it’s a matter of being vigilant and staying on top of what we do and making sure that our customers are safe. We do know we have a lot of responsibility taking care of our customers.”

The Top Stressors – And How MSPs Deal With Them

MSP Success asked respondents about top everyday stressors. Leading the worry list is new customer acquisition (64%), followed by lack of organizational efficiency (35%), cybersecurity for my business and my clients’ businesses (31%), and lack of documented processes (30%).

Other stress points include customer tickets, projects, and daily issues/customer support (24%); financial management (23%); increased competition with Super MSPs, cheaper MSPs, and more MSPs (22%); and staying on top of new technology and customer churn (both 21%). Surprisingly, hiring and retention (20%) was fairly low on the list.

“Those are all things that we pay close attention to every day,” Larson says. However, he adds, “We have a good client acquisition process in place. We have strong marketing. We used the TMT services to help us with our marketing and we have a strong sales group. We’re on top of financial management. We’ve been working hard to develop all of those processes.”

Documentation is still a major area of focus, he says, but that is “coming under control as well.”

While new customer acquisition does cause Mullin some stress, “I don’t think I’m giving myself any angst over it, but it is concerning and it’s difficult, particularly in northern New Jersey.”

Organizational efficiency can be a stressor for Colwell, but it’s something he has been working on. Documentation has been a weakness for “virtually every IT organization that I’ve been part of,” he says, adding that they’ve been using workflow automation in their ticketing system for years.

His MSP business also “loosely” follows the EOS model detailed in the book Traction and they hold weekly operations meetings to identify, discuss, and solve problems. “We get the team engaged in the discussion and the solution. We get better buy in because they’re part of that process of identifying operational inefficiencies or operational gaps.”

Still, he hasn’t made all the progress he wants. “I feel that the things that have gotten us to where we are now will not get us to where we’re trying to go.” Scaling the business, he says, will require greater reliance on automation and increased technician efficiency.

Expect the Unexpected When The Moon Is Full

Of course, there’s always the unexpected stressor if you run a business. “There are some days where it’s a full moon and everybody is calling in at the same time. It seems to happen when somebody decides to take a personal day and somebody else is outside the office,” Zaki says. “Then all the clients decide to call in at one time.”

Having a plan in place for something unexpected like a ransomware attack can help, Mullin says, who had a client attacked at 9 pm on a Saturday night last summer. “I watched 325 workstations and 15 servers get ransomed in 15 minutes.” He kept his team focused on executing the recovery plan and not getting bogged down with what they couldn’t control. “I think having those kinds of instant response plans and a process that you’re going to go through when the s*it hits the fan is important.” No data was exfiltrated, he says, and “we had a reasonable network up in four days and we had the whole network up in about 12.”

They are still Mullin’s biggest customer, and now have the extra layers of protection he had recommended before the attack.

Some unexpected stressors you just can’t prepare for, however, like “getting told by our landlord that we have to vacate,” says Colwell. “And that that literally happened a few weeks ago.”

Personal Productivity And Your ‘Do Not Disturb’ Sign

MSP Success asked MSP business owners to rate their own personal productivity on a scale of 1-5. The largest chunk (44%) rate themselves as a 4—pretty good.

More than a third (35%) consider themselves average (3) but feel they could make more progress, while 19% rate their productivity as low (2). Only 1% put themselves at either end of the scale of very efficient (5) and extremely unproductive (1).

Colwell categorizes his personal productivity as a little better than average. “I’m getting better at setting aside time for specific activities,” he says. “I’m working hard to identify opportunities where I can focus on certain aspects of the business.”

Zaki also feels like he manages his time fairly well, “but I could always use more time in the day.” He uses his calendar to manage appointments and has a to-do list but admits he doesn’t structure every minute. He would like to have more planning time for webinars and marketing strategy. “I am trying to find structured times where I can put those together,” he says.

One technique he has started to employ is simply closing his door to let staff know he is not to be disturbed—unless, he jokes, “you’re bringing me my lunch.”

He also feels he could use an account manager “to touch base with a lot of my existing customers because I don’t do that as much as I would like to.”

Mullin says sometimes it’s easy to get distracted by “the chaos of the moment. If a particular client calls in and has an issue, I can easily be running to help take care of that.”

He uses a Franklin planner to write a prioritized list for the day, but acknowledges he seldom gets through everything. Since attending this year’s TMT IT Sales and Marketing Boot Camp, however, he started following the advice of planning a meeting with himself, putting his “Do Not Disturb” on, and getting to those items he hasn’t been able to.

Mullin has implemented another TMT-recommended strategy: asking staff to put commitment dates on the calendar for projects. He’s carved out time for staff to complete them.

“I think that’s helped, because like me, technicians want to run to the fire. We set up an office where a technician can leave the bullpen and go work there with a door closed if he wants, in order to completely focus on that project.”

Larson rates his personal productivity as good, but not excellent. “Sometimes I feel like I’m not as productive because I’m not the one doing everything. Sometimes it’s harder to wait for other people to deliver on what they’re doing than it is to just jump in and do it yourself.”

Like Mullin and Zaki, he is trying to schedule more planning time. “I don’t know that I have the discipline to follow a specific time management strategy. I try to have a routine and a work schedule that allows me to do all the things I need to do.”

“Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”

MSP Success also asked respondents about what one thing they would change to decrease their stress level if they had a “magic wand.” The open-ended responses included bringing in new, larger, right-fit, or more understanding clients; hiring salespeople; driving more lead-gen; getting employees to be more accountable and curious; and hiring good staff at more affordable wages.

For Larsen, getting all his legacy customers on his current stack would be how he’d wield that magic wand. “I’d have them all on our primary package that we offer to new customers today. It’s a long conversation to explain to them that these are new tools that weren’t included in their old pricing— cybersecurity products that that they really need to have—and in order to provide them those new tools, it’s going to mean increases in price.”

Larson is starting to ask customers who refuse the endpoint detection and response (EDR) solution, which is now required, to sign a denial-of-service letter.

Zaki and Mullin would both use their “magic wand” to solve some people issues.

Mullin would like to automate more, but says employees need to be more curious, digging into why something happened in order to prevent it from happening again. “I think if we were digging deeper into these things, we’d find ways to make our lives so much easier.”

Going from a one-person MSP to hiring and managing employees has been a challenge for Zaki, particularly finding the right people. After a few missteps, he feels he has a good team in place now.

Lead generation and getting prospects into the “top of the funnel” is the stressor Colwell would like to solve. “I’m fairly comfortable that once we’ve got somebody top of funnel that X percentage will translate to a first-time appointment and X percentage of that will turn into a sale. The problem for us is just getting people in the top of the funnel, whether through outbound marketing or passive SEO type marketing activities.”

If he could wave the magic wand, he says, “I’d Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo myself to probably 3 or 4X the number of inbound leads that we’re getting, or more.”

Relying On Team – And Having The Right Perspective

Stress comes with the territory of running any business. However, the MSP business owners we spoke with have been able to put it into perspective.

“The proper team does relieve a lot of the stress,” Zaki says.

“I have worked at building systems and processes within the organization, so that if I need to take a day here or there, I can do that,” Colwell says. “We’ve empowered our team to make a certain level of decisions on their own, guided by core principles.”

For Mullin, when a crisis arises, he tells his staff, “We do not run an ambulance service. No one is dying. Take a breath.”

He stresses work-life balance with his staff. “The most important thing is not what we do. The most important thing is what they do when they’re at home.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Colleen Frye is executive editor of MSP Success. A veteran of the B2B publishing industry, she has been covering the channel for the last 17 years.

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