Florida is famous for many things: vacations, Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, Miami, the Everglades, retirement, and so much more. It offers a multitude of tourist destinations, along with myriad vibrant cities and a large number of colleges.
With the weather being a key talking point whenever Florida comes up in conversation, there are some obvious challenges and opportunities presented to Floridian MSPs. But what impact do these other factors have? Does Florida as a vacation destination of choice, for example, offer MSPs ways to expand and diversify their business? How is the state impacted by the large number of people who come there for college? And does the massive number of retirees who head down to Florida mean anything for MSPs?
We spoke to local players to find out exactly what being an MSP in the Sunshine State means for them.
When it comes to Florida, the weather is always top of mind. Hurricanes are the obvious concern, and with hurricane season generally falling between 1 June and 1 December, it's in the lead-up to this time that Floridian clients will start to ask about backup and business continuity planning.
According to Michael Goldstein, CEO at Fort Lauderdale, FL-based LAN Infotech, this "greatly" affects business, providing considerable opportunity for MSPs in the region.
"Customers want to know 'what's our plan? What should we be preparing for in the next five months?' It drives business up as people want to revisit those contingency plans. Obviously the world changes every year, but people focus a little more on their continuity plans as that first hurricane forecast come down."
There is clearly opportunity here. Greg Zolkos, president and CEO at Tampa, FL-based MSP Atlas Professional Services, told CPI that hurricanes offer the benefit of advanced warning - unlike tornadoes and earthquakes - which means offering not only the obvious backup and business continuity solutions, but also consultative conversations with clients, such as discussing what data needs to be sent off site or what a client's allowable downtime might be.
Other weather factors Floridian MSPs find themselves facing is corrosion in the coastal towns. Brian Smith, owner of Alachua, FL-based Baseline Systems, points out that, in a typical coastal town, you can "cut in half" the standard replacement rate for workstations and servers, which he puts at every three years, and every five years respectively, because of the salt air and electronic component corrosion.
Of course, this faster turnover of hardware presents opportunity for a quicker sales cycle and also opportunity to build a client base, Smith explains.
"You can have someone who doesn't understand corrosion or understand what it does to electronics, who gets fed up with their current IT provider because they can't get their equipment to last more than two or three years, so that would be a good sales opportunity for us to come in and pitch higher-quality, hardened equipment, designed to work in extreme conditions. We've had to implement some special outdoor-rated equipment and we've sold some hardened laptops that you could drive over with a truck and they're fine. That's the kind of stuff."
And, of course, Florida is known as the Sunshine State for a reason. According to Goldstein, it's a haven for executives looking to escape the winter cold of their usual location to somewhere warmer, which means residences of considerable size needing technology to be cranked back up after lying dormant for a few months. This provides highly lucrative opportunities for MSPs, he notes.
"Those executives look for MSP services to get the houses up and running, and that can be a big job when you look at the Palm Beach-type areas. One of our clients has 16 wireless access points in the house, so you add that up and think about it in today's IoT and smart technology world - that in itself has to be firewalled; you have to treat it like an office," he told CPI.
He also points out that "everything has to have a button" to work it - windows, blinds, doors and so on. "The last client I visited had four racks of equipment just to control the audio-video in the house."
Relocating-executives aren't the only clients with whom Floridian MSPs can expect to work. The state has a large concentration of healthcare firms. It is "medical central", according to Smith, who notes that a lot of people retire to Florida, which means a significant need for healthcare facilities in the state. And for Baseline Systems, being 15 minutes outside Gainesville means proximity to the University of Florida and teaching hospital the University of Florida Shands Hospital, as well as a Veterans Affairs hospital.
However, all these potential medical clients don't always bring worthwhile opportunities for MSPs in the Sunshine State. Smith points out that a great many of the medical entities that would "make good customers" aren't in the market for an MSP. "They're either already customers of another competing MSP in town, or they have a big enough IT department where they're able to self-manage and don't need the outside work," he said.
And those that may be open to working with a new channel partner can often make life very difficult for MSPs, he added. "These companies should operate in the patient's interest and want to make sure their systems are secure and their policies in place. But it's like an uphill battle trying to get through to them."
Another type of medical client that has a heavy presence in Florida is dermatology clinics, according to Zolkos. Atlas has two "extremely large practices" on its books, each with approximately 10 sites across the state. Such clinics are so prevalent across the Sunshine State that Atlas represents 20 dermatology practices across a 50-mile radius, Zolkos said.
"With the sun down here, dermatology clinics are everywhere… Meanwhile, there are a lot of people who don't properly protect themselves in the sun and in Florida you get a lot of exposure. So these clinics all do really well," he explained.
'Good old-boys network'
When it comes to the business environment in Florida, it stays true to form of the southern states we have spoken with thus far in that it operates on a heavy relationship-based foundation. Smith describes it as a "good old-boys network". He defines this as the biggest hurdle for Baseline Systems when it comes to doing business in Florida.
"Actually gaining the trust of the IT professional who doesn't realize that they need managed services can be tough. I have colleagues I've dealt with who are in California, Illinois, Indiana, all over, and have no problem at all talking to them or discussing with them, or even getting several steps down the sales pipeline. Whereas here in the south, you really have to know somebody in order to get a meeting."
He adds that "every single one" of Baseline System's clients has come through word-of-mouth referrals, despite spending "thousands" on advertising.
Zolkos, meanwhile, told CPI that in Tampa, the business environment is "definitely relationship based". However, for Atlas, this is a positive as it helps counter the challenges that marketing presents the MSP with.
"As an MSP - and most of us in Tampa that I know of are the same - we are horrible at marketing. We're just not marketing-type companies, we're service oriented. So it helps to have those relationships and to be active in the community, whether it's through charitable causes, events, networking opportunities, making relationships, or joining the local chambers. In Tampa, almost every time I talk to somebody, they know us through someone else. If you have those relationships and those roots, people are talking about you, and it's only a matter of time before they discuss something where you can impact them. There's just that type of culture here where people want to help people who they work with, and they trust."
Infrastructure, training and the brain drain
Floridian MSPs can benefit from a state-wide program called The Incumbent Worker Training Program (IWT), which is funded by the Federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and offers training to employees in order to "keep Florida's workforce competitive in a global economy" and help retain existing business.
Goldstein says LAN Infotech utilizes it every two years and it enables the MSP to have funded technical training for its employees and expand the business.
This is important in Florida, which, like upstate New York, can suffer the effects of a 'brain drain' as college graduates leave the area for pastures new. According to Goldstein, there is currently a significant push to try to retain such talent, especially in the tech sector.
"From a technology standpoint, there's a big focus in the Fort Lauderdale area - and I think it goes across the state - on the large number of people coming down here for school, as they don't necessarily stay. There has definitely been a big focus on 'play in the sun, work in the sun' because a lot of people come down to school and don't stay here. We do well attracting talent to our schools, but then the next thing you know, they are over in New York, Silicon Valley, Atlanta and so on, which means we find that typical shortage."
The same issue arises from Florida's popularity as a vacation destination, which means, again, a significant push to highlight the state's credentials as a technology hub is underway, Goldstein said.
Once the hoped-for influx of workers into the tech sector arrives in Florida, there may be some infrastructure questions at hand, however. According to Zolkos, the infrastructure in Tampa "isn't the most fantastic", but it serves the current workforce as best it can.
Goldstein notes that a lack of mass transit in Fort Lauderdale and beyond is proving troublesome for the fast growth that the city is experiencing.
"It's definitely not keeping up and as we come into the busy season - Thanksgiving time all the way to the end of April - it just adds to that level of traffic mess. As an MSP, we cover a good 90 miles of Miami up to Palm Beach, so this 'mess' ties into how we schedule and how we serve, those type of things," he said.
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