Arlin Sorensen launched his first solution provider peer group as a way to share ideas and help his business. More than seven years and 18 additional peer groups later, Sorensen's model has proven successful and he's ready to take it to the next level.
Heartland Tech Groups, the consortium of peer groups he initiated in 2001, will now launch and manage Ingram Micro's new peer groups within the distributor's SMB Alliance, an organization of more than 3,000 solution providers focused on the small- and midsize-business market.
With Ingram Micro's considerable resources, both parties hope the new SMBA Peer Groups can help hundreds more solution providers learn from each other through either face-to-face or online-only groups.
"SMB Alliance has its own invitational [conference], its own advisory council. About the only thing we've been lacking is consistent peer-to-peer collaboration. Where we're going with SMB Alliance, that's the next big thing," said Ryan Grant, director of channel marketing for Ingram Micro U.S. "We've been working for Arlin for years. He's been running Heartland Tech Groups for several years. It made sense to leverage what they're doing and help additional partners move into an HTG [Heartland Tech Groups] model."
The HTG model was borne out of Sorensen's solution provider business, Heartland Technology Solutions, an 80-person company with offices in five Midwestern states; he's in Harlan, Iowa. Sorensen wanted to grow the business and developed the peer groups, each of which consists of about 12 solution providers.
"It has been challenging to find the right companies. I would tell you the majority of growth has been word of mouth to this point. People heard about the program. We ask partners to fill out an application. Over time, we have identified what the profiles are for those most likely to succeed in the program," Sorensen said.
The mission of the peer groups is not to foster partnerships on business opportunities—there are other organizations for that. Rather, HTG's goal is simply to share best practices to help each business owner run his or her independent solution provider company more effectively, Sorensen said.
Each peer group meets once a quarter for two days. Members must share company financials and additional otherwise-confidential business information with noncompetitive peers.
Participating in a peer group takes considerable effort, Sorensen said. Groups within his HTG initiative have occasionally booted members who are not fulfilling their obligation.
"Some folks are unwilling to share anything. They think they have the magic bullet and don't want anyone to find out what it is. But there's also much more to be gained from sharing than from fear," Sorensen said.
Sorensen said the only "requirement" for membership is a desire to grow the business. "This is not for lifestyle VARs who are content with what they are doing today," he said.
Each member gets homework after every meeting and has to report its progress at the next meeting. "It's a playground peer pressure thing. If I say I'm going to do X, Y and Z and then I have to tell you how I did, it's only going to take failing once or twice before people start throwing tomatoes at me," Sorensen said. "If you fail to show up, if you fail to do your homework, if you miss your goals, you won't survive in this organization."
That said, those willing to put in the effort see a "phenomenal impact," Sorensen said. In particular, the groups help solution providers who get stuck at a particular size get to the next level. "We've had companies double in size in 12 months. It doesn't happen to everybody, but it's been huge," he said.
"We are totally focused on business development. Most of the folks are technical or sales folks. They didn't grow up running a business," Sorensen said. "We try to provide best practices, education, how to handle all the stuff that happens in a business, like what's an employee handbook look like? A hot topic today is how to manage through economic turmoil, how to guard your cash."
Ingram Micro's Grant acknowledges that all 3,000 members of Ingram Micro's SMB Alliance won't be a fit for the SMBA Peer Groups. Ingram Micro doesn't have that amount of resources, but the more solution providers that can take advantage of the peer groups, the better customers he believe the company will have.
"We're really going to handpick the right partners that make sense for face-to-face-groups. The big thing is they have to be committed to really doing it," Grant said.