Security Staff Acquisition & Development, Channel markets, MSP, Small business

Building an MSP Company Culture: 5 Lessons From inhouseIT

Early in my IT career, I had the amazing opportunity to be recruited by a local Orange County IT consulting firm named inhouseIT -- which has since been acquired by Cal Net.

Almost as soon as I was hired, I knew there was something special about inhouseIT but I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was at the time.

I was in my late 20's and had been working since the day I turned 16 years old. I have been an employee of some of the biggest corporations in the country, and I have been part of a three-person team just starting out. Never in my life have I worked for a company that has impacted my entire life the way that inhouseIT did at the time. To this day, the majority of my close friends were all, at one time, employees of inhouseIT. Several of my current business and professional contacts were also influenced by relationships that came out of inhouseIT (including this gig, writing for ChannelE2E).

As I currently interact with many different IT consulting firms, I am still consistently shocked with how inhouseIT has impacted the IT industry as well. Former inhouseIT employees went on to top positions in IT firms in the area, and within software and service organizations that are still some of the most widely used tools for IT professionals.

So, how was a small IT consulting firm in Southern California able to impact so many lives and impact small business IT consulting as well? I had some of my own ideas about how inhouseIT was able to accomplish this, but I wanted to check with the source to see if my theories were correct. I chatted with Steve Bender, Troy Hickerson, and Craig McHugh the co-founders of inhouseIT to gain insight into this phenomenon.

1. Partners set the example

The three partners were, first and foremost, really great friends. Setting the example of really caring about one another and helping each other out was very important for them. Instead of a cutthroat environment, they wanted to foster a spirit of collaboration. They also strongly believed in servant leadership. The partners wanted everyone to know that they were also employees of the company. There was no "us" and "them." They wanted everyone to be involved in decision making and brainstorming ways to make the business better. Steve Bender said, "If you want a lot of people doing what you say... that's not it."

2. Fun company traditions

This is one area I definitely remember from my days at inhouseIT. There were two XBoxes in the lunch room attached to two TV's. Every day during lunch everyone would hop into the lunch room to play XBox together. Instead of going to get lunch outside of the office, many would either bring it back to the office to eat or just bring lunch from home. Nobody wanted to miss out on quality time with Halo.

We also had family movie nights, Wednesday morning breakfast meetings (which turned into surf sessions and then breakfast during the summer time), Fat Friday's (where we would all pile into a car or the company van and run to the local convenience store to get some treats), and more. These company traditions were not official, stuffy, "team building" activities, they were co-workers being encouraged to have fun together outside of the job.

In the old days before programs like Slack were popular within a business, we would have a public folder that was labeled "fun" for employees to share funny or random items. These days dedicating a channel within your chat program for "watercooler" or "fun" is a great way for companies to communicate that aren't always in the same location. They can have fun chatting about the latest TV show or sharing something funny they saw or read online.

3. Don't overthink it

Looking back, Craig mentioned that they didn't know enough about business to understand that they might be doing it wrong. They didn't understand a lot of corporate best practices. They didn't know that you shouldn't allow your employees to play Xbox all day (they didn't let us play ALL DAY, there were specified hours). While this ignorance certainly led to mistakes along the way, I believe it helped them to foster the kind of company culture they wanted to work in.

Since they let the employees have quite a bit of rope, they were able to give quite a bit of input back into the business. Without this collaborative environment, inhouseIT wouldn't have been able to change the way IT companies support clients. The company was a pioneer in the industry by changing up the service model from billing hours for break/fix solutions to billing a flat monthly fee for maintenance, which many MSPs use today.

4. Make friends & connections

One thing they attribute the success and the success of their employees to is being involved in peer groups. Steve had a couple of great things to say about this: "The company with the most connected people wins." He mentioned that your next great idea is likely not going to come from yourself. It will come from interaction from the people in the trenches with you.

Bender, who is an avid motocross racer, drew some similarities running a business to racing. He said that on the racetrack everyone is competing and trying their best to win, off the track everyone is great friends and helps each other out. Reaching out and becoming friends with your competition in business is a great way for both companies to succeed. When you both end up going after the same client, the gloves are off and let the best business win, but as soon as that "race" is over you are back to being friends. I saw this time and time again as employees would break away from inhouseIT to start their own business and have firm stances to never take business away from inhouseIT.

Never underestimate the power of a peer group. You can even have your employees take advantage of these relationships by putting a couple people from different companies together that have the same position. As they interact they can share tips on how they get the job done.

5. Hire strategically

Craig said one thing about hiring that really stood out for me. "Hire people you want to do life with." What he means by this is that you are going to spend a lot of time with the people you work with. Sometimes you might see them more than your own family. If you find people you want to be friends with, you want to go to the movies with, you want to "do life" with, you will build a team of individuals that will become friends for life. They mentioned that they also had a referral program. When a friend of yours gets hired on, you would get cash! This would really encourage employees to bring people on board that were already friends.

One way they found to weed out candidates was to place some strategic wording or quotes from books that guided the company's ethos on the page that would call for applications. If the potential employee could pick up on those quotes and talk about the book it came from, they knew the person could be a good fit. Being able to do this also means knowing who you are as a company. They weren't concerned with an obtuse or specific mission statement, they wanted to build something that the employees could take pride in. Care about who you are and how you are perceived as a company and the employees will follow suit.

What was next?

While inhouseIT has now been acquired by CalNet, the friendships that came from those early days with the company have truly shaped the IT landscape and my life. Several co-workers of mine created their own successful IT consulting firms, including briteCITY -- my most recent employer. Former employees also went on to positions at Kaseya, Connectwise, OpenDNS (now owned by Cisco) and more. It's clear that inhouseIT not only hired the best and the brightest but also developed them into strong leaders in the IT field, and the best of friends (and maybe that's a little bit of a self-serving statement, but it doesn't make it less true).