Continuing our series of MSP in the Spotlight, and following on from our interview with Craig Sharp from Abussi, today we’re talking to Ayo Joel-Taiwo, the founder and CEO of BlueRam Technology Solutions. Ayo grew up in Nigeria, and founded BlueRam in 2014, serving SMBs in Chicago metropolitan area, where he now resides.
It’s not unusual for successful MSPs to work across many different verticals, and BlueRam is no exception. The company has clients from several varied industries. These include not-for-profit organizations, charter schools, manufacturing plants, and even a couple of law firms. We were excited to learn from Ayo’s experience, and you can find out more about the MSP and what they offer directly from the BlueRam Technology Solutions website
Tell us a bit about you and your business. How did you get started? What prompted your decision to become an MSP?
I always wanted to be an entrepreneur, even before I understood what that meant! I got into IT about 15 years ago, and by 2012/2013 I was really looking to start my own business. I didn’t know where to start or what it required, so I started out working for multiple consulting firms. In 2014 I had some really tough life experiences. I wasn’t working, and I decided I had nothing to lose, that if I was ever gonna start my business – this would be the time to do it. Taking a job for anyone else at the time would only have pushed me further away from that goal. In a nutshell, that’s how I decided to start.
It was rough, very rough. I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have any capital to pour into the business. I started doing soft contracts for some IT firms who needed a network and security person, as that was my area of specialty at the time. I saw a huge demand in the industry for people with that skillset. I subcontracted with other companies, and that’s how I was able to make money on an hourly basis.
I moved in with family, I got rid of my apartment – I lived like a poor man to pour the money into my business. My son was born at that time, and that kept me going. That pushed me to make a go of my business and gave me the confidence to succeed.
How do your clients find you? Or how did you find them?
My initial clients were people I had worked with in the past. There were two companies where people that I had been colleagues with had moved on elsewhere. I reached out to everyone I knew and started telling them I had started my own business. I was lucky to get two companies on board because they had worked with me in the past. I started really really small and then grew from there.
We didn’t have a lot of revenue, so we couldn’t afford a huge marketing campaign. I used local advertisements instead. In fact, my biggest client today came from an ad on Craigslist. It’s typically where you could go to find break/fix type technicians. I was at a point in the business where we had a lot of downtime. I thought ‘Hey, its free to post on craigslist – why not?’ We somehow found a small gig where we were referred to a company that needed IT help. We didn’t realise at the time that they had 500 million dollars in revenue. Today they are our biggest client.
How do you differentiate yourself from your competitors? What are you offering that they aren’t?
I started this business with no money. The only thing I had was my hard work and my dedication to the customer. That’s always been our strategy and what differentiated us. I might be the CEO but I was an engineer for 15 years, and I’m still the lead engineer. I’m very much involved in the day to day of the business. Customers know they get ‘me’ with their day to day. We ran with that from the start, and it became a very powerful sales pitch. We’ve been that way and we plan on staying that way forever.
Do you find it tough moving clients over from Break Fix models to Retainer?
I have found that clients who have been with us from the beginning like to see us grow as an organization, and so they are more open to us becoming a strategic partner and taking on more. In fact, a pivotal point for BlueRam was where we had a customer meeting and the client said to me ‘I want to see you grow, I want to see you stay around for a while. If you need to interact with us differently, we are more than willing to change how we interact with you guys’. He could see that we were getting to a point where Break/Fix wasn’t working anymore and he was willing to adapt to keep the relationship intact.
That was an interesting time because it showed me that out clients wanted us to grow, they were watching us grow. Because of this, converting them to where we have our recurring revenue was easier than I would have imagined.
How did you determine your pricing? What factors influence how much you charge?
We have a standard rate for the Chicago market. We want to be affordable for the small businesses we target, but then we can’t price too low because we have to be profitable. We’re right around the market rate for our geographic location.
In the SMB space, you also have some customers who are working with maybe a one-man IT company. They understand the value of going with a company, but they’re used to paying low rates. We try to work with them on a pricing structure which is not too overwhelming for them. We recognise the space were in, but also recognise that not everyone can afford the market rate.
Are there any recurrent challenges you encounter with clients?
The biggest challenge would be a personnel change with a client. You need to spend a lot of time building a relationship with the new person. Let’s say a new Director of IT comes in, for example. They may not really understand the value we provide. We need to make sure we get to know that person. A lot of times it’s like getting to know the company you’ve worked with for years all over again.
Together with our clients, we’re part of a team. To ensure this, we know all the employees, we work hard to understand their business, we’re very responsive, and we resolve conflicts quickly. If you have those qualities, then things come easier.
Looking back at your own beginning – what advice would you give yourself when you first started out as an MSP?
A lot happened so fast. I would tell myself that you learn a lot every day. I had moments where I questioned whether I was nuts for doing this. A lot of times I questioned if I would ever succeed at it. There are moments where things aren’t going your way. I had 15 years of experience, so the technology itself was second nature to me, but there’s a lot more that goes into a business than simply the service you provide. I was always learning things, which at some points I hated doing.
You need a good support system. I was lucky that I had a supportive family and people who pushed me every day. I had moments where clients would make positive comments on the service I provided, and even though it was nothing to them it may well have been the boost I needed to get through that day.
You need patience, you need toughness to ensure you never give up. Above all, be open, be very open. There is a lot that you need in order to be successful that you don’t know you need yet. Always being open means you’re gonna learn. It makes that learning process a lot easier.
What is the most useful professional product or service you’ve bought in the last year for under $100?
It would have to be Atera. I’m not just saying that, it’s very true. At the time I discovered Atera I was paying a competitor more than twice what Atera was quoting me for the same tool. It came at a time when I needed a PSA tool, but the affordability was not there, and I was struggling with it. We didn’t have the revenue to justify what we needed. I was actually at a training session in Florida, and I looked over a guy’s shoulder, he had the Atera Dashboard open. I had worked with all of them, and yet I didn’t recognise this one. He told me the price, so I went home and tried it for 30 days. It just made sense to me, and I switched over. It was a game changer. It was cost-effective, and it reduced my expenses which in a small business is very important.
And outside of your professional life? Are there any products or services you’ve bought which have been real game-changers?
For me personally it would be DIRECTV NOW. When I started my business, I let go of my apartment, so obviously I let go of my cable TV along with it. But I love sports! I found this app which allows me to stream sports. It’s way under one hundred bucks and I was able to stay engaged with what I love at a lower cost. Even now that I can afford cable TV, I still use it.
As a matter of fact – I’m watching Nigeria play Argentina in the World Cup right now as I’m talking to you!