N-able’s Mike Cullen Remembered As Pioneer, MSP Industry Icon
‘A strong ecosystem is players who are all continuing to pay it forward and give openly. There’s enough value for everybody,’ says Liongard founder and CTO Joe Alapat. ‘If the MSP ecosystem operated like Mike’s personality, we would all be in a better place.’
Mark Scott said there’s no adjective that can’t describe Mike Cullen.
Icon. Legend. Titan. Pioneer of the MSP. Mentor. Friend. Godfather of the MSP industry. Larger-than-life personality. Charismatic. Architect of the industry. Vanguard. Father figure.
“Anybody who knew Mike knew he had this cool Sinatra, De Niro way about him,” Scott , founder of Burlington, Mass.-based vendor N-able and current managing partner at Top Down Ventures, told CRN. “If he gave you time, you definitely felt like the coolest person in the world. He just lifted people up.”
Cullen, a 30-year channel veteran and N-able executive known as “the godfather of the MSP industry,” who was recognized globally for his execution in go-to-market strategies, partner engagement, customer success and ecosystem selling, died last week, suddenly, while fly fishing in Patagonia, Argentina, according to his obituary. He was 66.
At the time of his passing, he was serving as a strategic adviser to N-able CEO John Pagliuca. Prior to that, he served N-able in a multitude of positions such as general manager of RMM (remote monitoring and management) Business Unit, GVP of partner enablement, vice president of sales and senior vice president of worldwide sales, landing him on CRN’s Channel Chiefs list for more than 15 years.
Many credit him with spearheading the MSP industry and transforming value-added resellers to the managed services model.
Simon Beckett, director of UK-based MSP and N-able partner Dynacom IT Support Limited, believes MSPs would be further behind without people like Cullen as he gave MSPs a foundation and understanding of the industry’s potential.
“Most of us didn't have an understanding of what an MSP actually did,” he said. “Mike had a skill and a talent for bringing people along with him in that conversation. We wouldn't be anywhere as far down the line as we are. In fact, we might not have done it at all. But Mike was so enthusiastic about it and explained it in such a way that you can go, ‘Actually that makes a lot of sense.’”
But transforming the MSP industry and selling products was just one side of Cullen. His larger-than-life personality, down-to-earth charismatic way drew people to him. He let people know he cared.
“The best thing about Mike was everything about Mike,” said Marie Rourke, founder of WhiteFox marketing who handles N-able’s marketing and communications and has known Cullen for about 20 years. “He taught me so much and looking back it’s all there. He’s there. He was so invested in the success of others, this industry, especially his team and our partners. You can see him, his heart, his approach, his style in so many of the leaders we know and love today.”
Services for Cullen will be held this Thursday and Friday in Ottawa, Canada. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Ottawa Heart Institute.
Former Colleagues: Cullen ‘Wanted People To Evolve In Their Career’
Those who worked with Cullen said he always took an interest in their lives. So much so that they’re still putting forth advice he had given them and passing it along to others.
Marco La Vecchia spent eight years as director of sales for North America at N-able. He was most recently the chief revenue officer at Ottawa-based MSP Fully Managed by Telus Business and knew Cullen for more than 20 years. They were so close that Cullen was at his wedding.
“There's so many people that worked with Mike that still leverage a lot of the principles that we learned from him across so many different businesses in North America,” he told CRN.
Ola Witukiewicz, senior manager of channel engagement at Vancouver, Canada-based vendor Scalepad, worked alongside Cullen when she worked at N-able a few years ago.
The last time they spoke was in December when Cullen sent her a congratulatory message after she won a CRN Women of the Channel award.
“He just took the time to reach out and congratulate people on their success,” she said.
She recalled being in a meeting with company executives and an idea being brought to the table, an idea she had voiced at a meeting a few weeks prior.
“This person took this idea as their own,” she told CRN. “I don’t know if I made a facial expression, but when the meeting wrapped up Mike said, ‘Don’t let anyone speak over you. You need to grow thicker skin if you’re going to make it in this space.’ The way he offered that advice showed that he really, really cared. He really wanted people to evolve in their career.”
Luis Giraldo, chief experience officer at Scalepad also worked at N-able and said Cullen would always champion big ideas Giraldo wanted to do and help him succeed.
“He taught me how to socialize big ideas,” he told CRN. “It’s one of those things I’ll take with me forever because it’s the one thing that I try to encourage in others who are coming up in the industry.”
Giraldo only knew Cullen for two years, “but that’s just the thing. His impact ran so deep. It didn’t matter how long you knew him, he had always found a way to have an effect on you.”
Colin Knox, founder and CEO of Calgary, Canada-based vendor Gradient MSP worked alongside Cullen at N-able when the company acquired Knox’s business Passportal in 2019.
“Seeing his approach to the channel, to MSPs, getting to know him a bit better and seeing what his philosophy was on empowerment, enablement, support and the success of MSPs was super inspiring,” Knox told CRN. “You could tell with him it wasn’t just lip service. He was so genuine in how he felt about things.”
David Weeks, VP of partner experience at N-able, had a different relationship with Cullen.
“Mike was a mentor, and the guy was a genius when it came to the space, but he was an absolute personal friend of mine and a father figure,” Weeks told CRN. “I felt like I lost another father. The hardest thing was my dad’s death. This is the second hardest thing in my life.”
Cullen would call Weeks every few days to simply check in and ask if he could help him in any way.
“When you got to know Mike, you were family,” he said. “He treated me as one of his own. The guy was an icon. And he never forgot a customer. Someone could walk into the room and he would remember the day we signed a deal with them, who they were, how they grew and what they did. Mike took every client relationship as a friendship. He never forgot anybody because he respected the fact that they supported him, his views and what he thought this industry could be.”
‘A Big Contributor To That MSP Business Model’
When Gary Pica signed on as one of N-able’s first customers, he had never heard of the term “MSP.”
“Cullen introduced me to someone who got me into a peer group that changed my life and it probably led to what I do now,” Pica, owner of Moorestown, New Jersey-based IT services and consulting firm TruMethods LLC, a Kaseya company, told CRN. “And he never asked for anything in return.”
When Scott founded N-able and brought in Cullen in 2000, the business started to take on momentum.
“Although Gavin [Garbutt, founder and former N-able CEO] and I get take a lot of the credit for N-able, Mike was like a co-founder in the business,” Scott said. “He was really there from the beginning and the person that, I would say singularly, made it successful.”
Joe Alapat, founder and CTO at Houston-based IT automation company Liongard, met Cullen when his company’s technology integrated with N-able. Cullen had given Alapat advice on the tool and how to make it easier for MSPs.
“He told me the concept of simplicity,” Alapat said. “He taught me to make it simple and was giving with his advice. Some of the stuff that is so simple now seemed like rocket science back then.”
Ted Warner, founder and consultant at Greely, Colorado-based MSP Connecting Point, said he was partner number “six or seven” at N-able.
“Mike and myself and a number of other early MSPs got together in Vegas and put together the whole marketing program that N-able used when they were first rolling out. They tried to get business partners like myself signed up as clients,” Warner told CRN. “Mike was always supportive and encouraging business owners like myself.”
He added that Cullen was “the best salesperson that I ever met.”
“He just had a way about him,” he said. “He treated clients and potential clients with respect and really had an uncanny way of making people feel really important and respected.
Cullen taught MSPs how to talk about their value add to customers, said Dale Walls. He taught them not to sell the product but to sell themselves.
“It wasn't about trying to sell N-able,” Walls, founder and retired CEO of Centreville, Maryland-based MSP Corsica Technologies, told CRN. “He taught us that we’ve got to sell ourselves, be a good managed service provider and stop doing hourly work. He's a part of the founding fathers of the industry what came to be this behemoth of an industry today.”
TruMethod’s Pica said Cullen had a way of explaining the MSP concept, what owners could do with it, how it could change things.
“It started with N-able and it started with Mike Cullen,” he said.
'Always Glass Half Full’
Cullen was authoritative but never egotistical, said Walls.
“He was always very open minded, respectful and respected,” he said. “Mike Cullen and that team were interested in our success. I think a lot of other companies… that's all lip service. But these guys meant it, lived it, breathe it, treated us as such and I really liked it.”
He was a salt-of-the-earth type of person, Gradient’s Knox said.
“He was always jovial, he was always glass half full,” he said. “He got so much out of sharing and teaching and giving people new experiences.”
If a colleague or a friend was in or around Ottawa, Cullen’s hometown, Knox said he would bring them to his favorite restaurant, have a glass of wine or invite them to his home for dinner.
“He was always so inclusive of everybody,” Knox said. “It didn’t matter if it was the first time he met somebody, he always made sure they were included.”
Scalepad’s Giraldo said outside of work Cullen took an interest in his music.
“He would text and ask me about my album and always showed interest in what was happening with me and my life,” Giraldo said. “He just always created opportunities to engage on a personal level.”
Cullen loved to travel the world, many said. Whether it was his vacation home in Lake Placid, New York or a trip to Europe or some other destination, he loved experiencing the world with others.
“I don't think you'll find anyone to have said a bad word about Mike,” TruMethod’s Pica said. “He was always there to help. This industry having people like that, and there's been a handful of others, is really what the industry has been built on. He set a great example for us.”
Dynacom’s Beckett said while Cullen was always interested in how his MSP was doing, he also liked to get a feel for the people in the room.
“He was so approachable and he would ask questions about other people rather than telling you about himself,” he said. “We’re a small partner and I don't turn up to everything, I don't go to every webinar but he always recognized you by name and remembered something about where you came from.”
His presence preceded him, Beckett explained. Folks could just say Mike, without his last name, and others knew who they were talking about.
“It’s why I was quite surprised by my reaction when I found out that he died. He’s not somebody who I knew terribly well but he was somebody who had a presence that obviously sticks in your mind,” he said.
Cullen helped those around him look at ideas in a different way, but he never took the credit. He helped David Weeks grow on a personal level, giving him advice and bringing him into his family.
He almost immediately took Weeks under his arm when he started at the company and helped him grow personally and professionally.
“I was three months in [to the job],” Weeks said. “A week later he took me to London and I spent the rest of my career on the road with Mike. Every time we were on the road, he always pulled me aside and said, ‘Here’s what you can do better, here’s how you can be a better person.’”
‘His Legacy Is The Foundation On Which The MSP Model Was Built’
Corsica’s Walls remembered Cullen’s commitment to success being unmatched.
“It was obvious by the way things were run at N-able that Mike had a commitment to success,” he said. “He had expectations and held his team accountable. They were going to win. They were going to hit their numbers. That was because of his leadership.”
Mark Scott said Cullen was the ultimate leader as he encouraged his team to grow their sales and meet their numbers, even if he did it in a funny way.
“In those very early days he’d bring people in on a Saturday morning to the N-able office,” Scott said. “We were on the fourth floor and he said, ‘Alright, guys, everybody come over to the window.’ We’d go over to the windows and it's the parking lot where everybody's cars were parked. He said, ‘I've never seen such a pathetic bunch of cars in my life. You guys have to start selling to make some money so you can afford something better.’”
A few years ago, Adam Slutskin and Cullen started hoping on weekly calls to get to know each other and talk about the industry.
“We competed against each other and we never met in person but we always knew of each other,” Slutskin, president, co-founder and CRO at software vendor Tampa, Fla-based Cyberfox with a tenured background at vendors such as Connectwise and Liongard, told CRN.
“But here’s the interesting thing, Mike and I never met in person. We were virtual friends,” he said. “This was the beginning of a journey for us both being aware of each other for over 20 years to getting to know each other.
“The impact you have isn’t always measured by how well you know someone,” Slutskin added. “Before I even knew him I respected him as a competitor and as a guy who did it right.”
Alapat said Cullen’s legacy is the fundamentals he brought to the channel.
“His legacy is the foundation on which the MSP model was built,” he said. “When I think about RMM and multi-tenant technology management, he’s one of the key guys behind that first early stage of the MSP business model. It was called outsourcing, it was a dirty word. He relabeled it and everything turned out better.
“A strong ecosystem is players who are all continuing to pay it forward and give openly. There’s enough value for everybody,” Alapat added. “If the MSP ecosystem operated like Mike’s personality, we would all be in a better place.”
Cullen saw the technology and was lightyears ahead in what the technology can do and how it could help MSPs.
“RMM was the forefront solution that brought MSPs from by-the-hour, roller truck reactive services to an industry that could remotely monitor things,” Knox said. “He was a part of the first few that was a proponent and guiding light in recurring services. He had a big part in developing, if not the first, education programs for MSPs about how to actually become an MSP.”
Cullen had respect for everybody and never looked at anybody as a competitor, Weeks said.
“He had this innate ability to be friends with everybody the minute he met them,” he said. “His intentions were genuine. It was never about more business for N-able. It was about how this industry can help us all and make us all successful. We can all have a piece of the pie and that’s the way Mike looked at it.”
Weeks learned from Cullen that there were no competitors in the space. There was enough business to go around.
“He said to me, ‘Don’t ever look at others as a competitor, look at them as an opportunity to learn from each other,’” he said.
In the days after Cullen’s death, Weeks has received hundreds of heartfelt messages.
“Not one person has said, ‘I liked doing business with Mike,’” he said. “It’s all been, ‘He was a friend.’ That’s a legacy.”