Podcast  |  Operations,

1.10: Business Lessons From a $500k Solopreneur MSP

solopreneur MSP represented by 1 billiard ball

Photo: Fernando Latorre, on Pixabay

“Ask your customers what they want and give it to them”

Marvin Bee of MB Systems does just over half a million in annual revenue as a one-technician shop. We dive into how he does it, including the systems, tools, and supports he uses, and his hard-won learnings from 26 years as an IT support business, including:

  • 3 books that helped Marvin figure out customer service
  • Why he struggled in the early years, and what he does differently now
  • What customers really want—and why it’s a lot simpler than you think
  • When your tech stack will hurt more than help
  • How to keep your processes running like a well-oiled machine

Who’s on this episode

Host: Jennifer Tribe
Guest: Marvin Bee, MB Systems

Marvin Bee, host, IT Business PodcastMarvin Bee is the owner and president of MB Systems, an IT solutions provider that specializes in on-site network administration and support throughout South Florida.
Marvin is also host of the IT Business Podcast, a show dedicated to helping managed service providers and IT professionals run and grow their business. In the podcast, Marvin shares his unique perspective on the channel as both an MSP and a media professional who talks to the movers and shakers in the industry.

Episode transcript

Jennifer: I’m Jennifer Tribe and this is Workflow, the podcast about growing a happier, healthier MSP. More profit, less stress.

Today on the show I’m talking to an MSP who is a case study for a happy, healthy service provider business. Marvin Bee of MB Systems does just over half a million in annual revenue as a one-technician shop. We’re going to dive into how he does it, including the systems, tools, and supports he uses, and his hard-won learnings from 26 years as an IT support business.

It all started in 1997.

“That’s not going to work for me”

Marvin: My boss, while I was at a computer repair store, decided that he did not want to provide on site service to customers, mostly businesses who didn’t want to tear their computers apart and bring it into our shop. And I ran the tech department at that time and I said, we gotta be able to do that. Now, he would let us do it after hours and as long as we purchased our stuff from him. And I said, that’s not going to work for me. So to make a long story short, I ended up leaving there, starting that business and now in my 26th year and I do serve, I would say primarily businesses. I’ve got about 95 to 98% businesses. I will support residential clients if they are the owner of their business or if we have to do remote support for them. And we focus primarily on law firms, that’s probably about 70% of my business. I do have other offices in the medical field, some engineering, and even a couple of commercial business stores. But that’s the face of my business now.

Jennifer: In 26 years in business, that is impressive by the way, congratulations. In 26 years of business, you started as a solopreneur and you have remained a solopreneur. What has guided you in that decision to stay as a one-person shop?

Marvin: Well, I probably need to put a correction to the record because I did start as a solo tech and I did have staff at one point in time. I actually had up to four staff in my office and in 2012, I got a little frustrated because I had techs sitting in my office doing nothing for a big portion of the day. As we started to do remote work and I found that I could handle my customers remotely and didn’t need to have techs in the office, I would just subcontract techs when I needed to. So that’s what I did. And then I spent three years wandering aimlessly in how to support my clients remotely before I actually started doing true managed services. So that’s when I went back to basically being a solo tech. And I’ve got a couple of subcontractors that I call, not very often, because of the managed services in that I’ve got two clients where they actually have a tech on site so I do co-manage.

Jennifer: The freelancers that you hire, you hire them as boots on the ground to go out on site when you don’t want to do that?

Marvin: Yes.

Jennifer: So the four techs that you had at that time, were you a break-fix shop?

Marvin: For the most part, yes. We did have customers that because they were law firms, they understood the term retainer. So we would charge them monthly for the return of some hours or remote support in that sense but it wasn’t truly managed services.

Jennifer: And that’s where you were having trouble matching demand to tech capacity, right? Because there would be some days when nothing would come in.

Marvin: Yeah.

“Matching the tools I needed with the service clients wanted”

Jennifer: Okay, that makes sense. Let’s talk about that three years you said, where you were struggling, trying to figure stuff out, how you do all of this remotely. What would you say are some of the key lessons that you learned that now enable you to run this business all by yourself?

Marvin: Well, I think back then it was just a matter of matching the tools that I needed with the service that the clients wanted. So I was able to do remote support, but I wasn’t able to actually manage the devices. So all the things that our RMM tools do for us now with antivirus, web protection, even cloud backup and things like that, I could connect to a computer and help somebody reinstall something. You know, when it came to their email, Outlook, but when it came time to truly managing the system, I didn’t have that. And it wasn’t until I came across managed services as a whole that I really began to understand that.

Jennifer: So was it the proactiveness of the managed services, or was it just that RMM tools really started coming on the market in the mid- to late aughts, let’s say. So before that things were more difficult to manage but then as the tooling evolved, is that what made it easier for you or was it the managed services model itself?

Marvin: The proactive nature as you mentioned, that was it. It was being able to do all of those things without having to manually do it I guess is the best way. So one of the things that I learned to do was accept scripts in terms of automation. I learned to find the tools, like I said, to manage. And I forget the name of the first one I came across but being able to deploy software across the network was something that, you know, it would take me hours to do that for some clients where once I was able to get that tool, then it took me minutes.

Jennifer: What was your ARR last year, if you don’t mind sharing that?

Marvin: My ARR last year? Well, for me it was $526,000.

Jennifer: How much of that did you spend on freelancers?

Marvin: Just over $12,000.

Jennifer: And how many hours a week do you work?

Marvin: Oh, more than we all want to acknowledge.

Jennifer: But is this like a reasonably close to 40 hour work week or are we talking 80, 90 hours a week?

Marvin: I would say it is probably close to the 60 hours, because I work 8 to 6 for the most part. And even though I advertise the hours as 9 to 5, I come in an hour early, leave an hour late, and then I’ll come in on Saturdays, even if I don’t have a project just to do catch up work, all the things that if I had another technician in the office, I would have them do during the week. So it comes to about 50 to 60 hours.

Jennifer: What is keeping you from hiring a part time tech, especially now that they could work remote just as you do when you’re on this managed services model and so there might not be that same risk of not having work coming in for them. What’s keeping you from doing that at this point?

Marvin: Well, funny you should ask, because I do have an ad out right now where we are trying to hire a part-time tech, specifically part time. We thought about full time, but I thought, let me just go back and start with part time and we’ll see how that goes. That way I won’t have to worry about all of the overhead expenses with a full-time person, benefits all of that and we’ll see how it goes.

Jennifer: In terms of admin support, bookkeeping, project management, email, do you have someone, a freelancer, managing that stuff for you or are you still doing that on your own?

Marvin: So again, I probably should add a correction to the notes because while I am the solo tech, I do have somebody that’s in the office. My wife works in the business. She works almost full time and she takes care of all of those admin things, inputting all the bills, prepping the invoices, answering the phone, doing follow up. She’ll even do drop offs and deliveries for me. So I do have that.

“I would try to find businesses where I could make them a customer for life”

Jennifer: In terms of how your business is set now 26 years in, is there anything that you would change about how you built it? Knowing what you know now, what would you change?

Marvin: Some of the things that I think helped me really get on track because I really didn’t get on track, even though I started in ‘97, I didn’t get on track until around 2005. And part of that was just simply getting out and finding information. And I started to model my business off of bits and pieces of books that I’ve read. There was a book called Customers for Life. A book called Customer Once, Client Forever, and then a book called Delivering Knock Your Socks Off Service. And while I didn’t implement those books entirely, I did take bits and pieces that I could model my business after. And they were just simple little things.

And one of the things that I started to realize myself was not to chase after every single business I could. I would try to find businesses where I could make them a customer for life. So when I would look at a customer’s value, it wasn’t just how much money am I going to make from them on this sale? It was if I look at this customer in a 5, 10, 15-year lifetime cycle, what could I make off of them at that point? And so I built the model where I would have customers and they have averaged 15 years of being my client. I’ve got one who 24 years has been my client.

Jennifer: How did you decide to specialize in law firms?

Marvin: That happened by mistake. That was being at the right place at the right time, where I met up with a consultant who was needing network support to implement their software. And we decided that we would meet before going over to the client and get to know each other. And it turned out that the project went well and that consultant needed somebody that they could refer to other clients when they needed that and that’s how I ended up with law firms.

Jennifer: And you liked them so you stuck with them.

Marvin: I wouldn’t say I liked them but they were decent enough. They paid their bills. But as I started to build my platform of business, they were the ones that once you got past all of the initial pushback where they didn’t want to spend the money or they didn’t understand, you got to the point of realizing what it was that they needed and giving it to them. That was one of the tenets that I got out of one of the books, and it was simply ask your customers what they want and give it to them. And even though we think of it in terms of we’ve got to give them AV, we got to give them MDR, XDR, and blah blah blah. A lot of times all they want is somebody who’s reliable, somebody who’s responsive, somebody who’s reassuring and empathetic. And somebody that’s going to give them peace of mind that their stuff’s going to work and when it doesn’t and they call, you’re going to get back to them and you’re going to help them get it fixed. And I think that’s what most customers want. Attorneys its just a little harder to get through their shell.

“There can be too many things in our stack”

Jennifer: In terms of find out what they want and give it to them, it doesn’t mean going off your standardized stack. This isn’t like a you’ll do anything but more general business principles?

Marvin: Yeah, more general. I mean, you want to build your stack hopefully wide enough that it can do most everything but small enough that you’re not overwhelmed and trying to do too much. And I think that we’re probably coming to a period of time where there can be too many things in our stack. But if you can just find those bits and pieces, maybe it’s two items in every category that will give you the options, either low price, high price, or provide this service or that service. But as long as you have enough in your stack that you can do everything you need to do, but it doesn’t overwhelm you and your team, you can probably do most everything. And if you can’t, then you partner with somebody who can provide it for them, and if your customers trust you, they’ll trust who you refer.

Jennifer: So a few takeaways that I’ve heard from our conversation so far in terms of building towards success. One is doing a deep dive on customer service, really figuring out that piece of the business, understanding what your clients want. Specialization, vertical specialization. Would you say that was part of your success or would you say that’s optional?

Marvin: I think it’s optional, but there might be a way that if you target it properly, it can be success for you. Like I said, mine just kind of happened organically. Before that, I was doing body shops. I happened to get in touch with the right person who said, You know what? I’ll get you in every body shop in the county. And that worked for me. And then I found myself working with attorneys, and that worked for me and it has still worked for me. And one of the things if you find the right vertical and you can add in other components, because for the most part, most customers just want us to take care of the computers, just keep them up and running. But if you can add other services for them, things that touch your network anyway, things like phones and being a vendor resource when it comes to somebody bringing in copiers, being able to be the person that when they need new internet service, they’re going to call you. All of those things are just adding to the portfolio that you can provide your clients.

“Find the stack that streamlines your tasks as much as possible”

Jennifer: I imagine that you’ve had many years to fine tune your SOPs and automate where you can automate. I’m sure it’s a well-oiled machine at this point so tell us what this well-oiled machine looks like and some of the learnings you’ve had in building that.

Marvin: Well, it’s well greased, let’s say that. It’s still something that I evaluate all the time. I think, in terms of providing what’s needed in a system, one of the things that I try to do is realize that first of all, I had to prioritize the tasks that needed to be done. And so you’ve got to look at your systems as to what are the things you have to do, and then what are the things you want to do. And everything from starting in the way that we present ourselves to customers, answering the phone, we have a process in place. Now I don’t do it because I don’t have the best phone voice. I’m not the friendliest. That’s why Kim answers the phones and everything.

But the way that she answers the phone, the way that we take in client requests, that happens because of our system. So having the proper system in terms of your CRM or your PSA or even if it’s Outlook, a way to categorize your clients, categorize the task, whether you’re assigning an Outlook task or creating a ticket, have that flow so that it goes to the right person, the right team. Having your documentation in place. These are all things that once you set them up properly, you don’t waste time with the systems. Documentation is probably one of the places that is the most difficult for us as MSPs to keep up with, it’s just constant.

But setting up your documentation to where you can find the information you need, whether it’s somebody’s password or a configuration or a setup document. It takes time. But getting that set up and we use IT Glue and so literally every piece of information that we can put in for a client is in there. And that includes checklists and documents, even if they’re a third party setup. If it’s a PDF, we download it off the Internet, make our tweaks, upload it to IT Glue. So that way it’s there and if one of my subcontractors needs it, if my future tech needs it, they can go to the same place for the client, find it and make life easier. So those are probably the first things to start with in keeping the machine well oiled as you say.

The other is simply when it comes to standardizing the stack and I mentioned minimizing it so that it doesn’t overwhelm you. But I think finding the stack that streamlines your tasks as much as possible. We talked about scripting, the scripts that can automate all those repetitive tasks. If it’s not scripting, then putting together the proper workflow so that everybody knows to go from step one to step two to step three in place. Maybe it’s a piece of hardware. One of the things that I’m known for is my network testing tools. And it’s not just the tool, it’s setting up the profiles in the tool so that when I go to a particular client. I have that client profile already on that tool so that I can open it up, test the network, test the Wi-Fi, troubleshoot from that tool, and I don’t have to start from scratch every single time. So that’s kind of it in a nutshell.

“Do everything you can to make your job better, smarter, and faster”

Jennifer: Tell us more about that network tool. I’m sure people are going to want to know what it is and how you use it.

Marvin: Well, there’s a whole set of them, but the one that I use the most right now is called the NetAlly EtherScope nXG. And that is a handheld tool that will test both wired and Wi-Fi networks and it’s not just a tester. It’s actually something that will validate whether the network is working properly or not. It’ll go out and test your DHCP, test your DNS, it’ll do a detection of all the devices that are connected to the network at that time. You can set it up to cross VLANs so you can actually see if you’ve got phones on a certain VLAN or Wi-Fi clients on a VLAN, you can see that in there as well. You can set up throughput testing.

And it also provides apps built into it that if I’m testing a cable and I come across one where the pins are messed up or there’s a short, I can take a screenshot and send it out through an email all through that machine, rather than pull out your phone, take a picture, download it, send it over to your email, then send it. All of that sort of stuff. So investing in these tools makes my job faster and easier. Do everything you can to make your job better, smarter, and faster.

Jennifer: What mistakes would you say you made early on that if you had to do it over again, you would do them differently or start something sooner?

Marvin: Mistakes. Well, the first mistake as a new business owner is understand your money. And it’s not just simply pay your taxes, which was a big mistake I made the first year and tried to do that myself. But understanding your money, understanding cash flow, knowing what your expenses are that you have to cover versus what you have to charge for your service. It took me a long time to kind of figure out a way to list all my expenses and then figure out what I needed to charge. Back in the break-fix days you just kind of charged an hourly rate and hoped it covered everything.

And nowadays you’ve got to figure out your endpoint cost, your cloud cost, all your as-a-service cost and of course your labor cost, your overheads and stuff. So understanding that, knowing the numbers, knowing what comes in and what goes out and that cash flow is really key. And luckily I was able to learn that fairly early in those early years and I’ve been able to fine tune it to where now I can pretty much just look at a new client and I know off the top of my head about what my expenses are, about what my cost my billable charges need to be and know that I’m going to make money.

“Don’t worry about trying to be like somebody else”

Jennifer: Now you also have your own podcast for MSPs. Tell us why you decided to start that.

Marvin: So the IT Business podcast was one that I actually brought back to life because it had what they call podfaded. It had kind of sat for maybe two years where the original host didn’t want to do it. And people were asking for it. So I said, Well, I think I can do this and brought it back. The real question is why do I keep doing it? Because there are days where it’s like, you know, podcasting is time consuming. You ask how much time do I work? So those 50 to 60 hours that I told you about don’t include the podcasting time.

But I have found that there is a thirst for technicians, business owners, to have a place where they can get more information. Even though we have so much at our disposal, it’s nice to hear somebody like you on the internet or on a podcast or on the radio that is going through the same struggles you are going through, and hear how they persevered or how they did something. I like doing that for people. I have heard from a lot of my listeners. I get emails pretty regularly. I get Facebook messages, LinkedIn comments all the time where people have said, you know what, thank you for doing that, or that’s helped me. Or hey, I know that you worked with such and such or you’ve done this, can you point me in the direction and stuff? So I think where it is now is I have found that the podcast is a resource for the community that at least for now, I think I need to keep doing it.

Jennifer: Is there anything else you’d like to share with an MSP who’s listening to this about the lessons you’ve learned in 26 years running your business?

Marvin: Don’t worry about trying to be like somebody else. And not to denigrate other MSPs or other people that tell you this is how you should do something. We have enough customers, we have enough people in this world that are different, that we have a model that works for a lot of different people. You don’t have to run your MSP the same way as everybody else. You don’t have to run your business the same way as everybody else. Find out what works for you. Find out what works for your customer. I would still say, listen to everybody. There is bits and pieces you can take. People look at me after 26 years and ask me what has been the reason that I’ve been able to sustain myself. You know what? I didn’t really listen to anybody else in the industry. I listened to my customers. And my wife.

Jennifer: That was Marvin Bee, owner of MB Systems and host of the IT Business Podcast.

If you’re enjoying the Workflow podcast and episodes like this, please let me know by leaving a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. I would really love to hear your comments and it will help more people find the show. You can also send me direct feedback to podcast@syncromsp.com

Until next time, this is Jennifer Tribe. Thanks for listening.

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Jennifer Tribe

Jennifer Tribe

Syncro’s director of content. Espresso-fueled Canadian nerding out over plain language, productivity, and podcasts.

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