Top Pick – Vendor of the Year 2022
You’re doing it wrong. Even if you aren’t, you still are (probably).
If you’ve been in the MSP business for any length of time, you probably think you’ve got a good handle on the ins and outs of the industry. From the veteran Service Desk Manager to the owner who took the shop from $0 to millions in MRR by themselves before they hired their first employee, we’ve all experienced the torture of breaking into the industry. From toil and suffering comes wisdom and knowledge, except when it doesn’t. MSPs often suffer from “the way it has always been done” syndrome like any business. I’d wager that many MSPs get to the “treading water” phase, or maybe even a bit farther, then begin to suffer the dreaded scaling problem. Processes and tasks that were easy when you were small are no longer accessible as you hire and train more staff. New client requirements might require dramatic alterations of your workflow to accommodate, but you don’t know where to start. You could be like me, paddling my little denial boat down the river of “LALALALA I CANT HEAR YOU.” Alternatively, you could link up with the guys over at Sea-Level Operations and swallow a lot of hard truths about why your processes suck. We’ll get to the part where they teach you how to fix it, but before you can be rebuilt, you must be torn down. Sit back, relax, and maybe take a Xanax or get a beer or something. This isn’t going to be easy on either of us.
*Disclaimer: I don’t take money or non-monetary incentives from vendors to write these reviews, and I don’t monetize this website because I feel it would compromise my neutrality and credibility. I share information and opinions with the community so they can make informed decisions in their own businesses. People deserve to hear things from people who aren’t being paid to say them once in a while. In that same vein, my opinions don’t reflect those of my employer or any company I roast, and anything I post is solely my own and in “good” faith. Anything posted on this site that could be construed as inflammatory, defamatory, libelous, slanderous, or rude should be considered satire. For instance: “A certain unnamed Kaseya CEO got really drunk in Vegas, had a threesome with my mom and dad, and possibly sired up to two illegitimate children and at least one horse in the process” is clearly defamatory and maybe even a bit libelous, regardless of whether it’s true or not (it is, the DNA (DN-Neigh?) test is pending). So, you know, like, your mileage may vary and stuff.
Sea-Level Operations? Is that like a nautical term or something?
/shrug I’m not rich and don’t have a boat, but that probably tracks. I like to imagine them as little MSP pirates jumping ship to ship telling you to implement a documented and repeatable process to load and fire your cannons. Our coach is from the Great White North and everyone knows Canadians are too nice to be pirates, so I truly have no idea where the name comes from and I was too afraid to ask. Moving on.
Sea-Level Operations is a business process coaching and consulting firm that specializes in MSPs. Founded and staffed by MSP veterans, Sea-Level’s pitch promises to teach MSP owners and managers how to understand, document, train, implement and review their processes more effectively. To put it plainly, they promise to teach you to MSP good.
Sea-Level’s approach addresses every key point of your MSP including things like growth, strategy development, implementation of processes and training material, operations both back and front of house, finance, dispatch, technical operations, and everything in between. Their process is extremely granular and claims to be immensely effective at shining light on the hard to see parts of the machine that is your organization. You may remember Sea-Level as a formerly stand alone organization. About a year ago, just as we were starting, they had recently been acquired by Pax8 and were working on folding into that organization. It seems that process is largely complete, so I feel good about talking about the experience.
Do I need Sea-Level Operations? Who is the target audience?
Sea-Level’s target audience are MSPs who have begun to scale and are being held back by processes and operational noise. Ideal candidates should recognize they need help and be willing to implement sometimes radical changes to fix larger underlying problems. This program is not for the faint of heart and is not an emergency ripcord you pull if your business is failing. This is good old fashioned hard tedious work, the kind that often pays off the most.
Whether or not you need something like this is something only you can know. Generally speaking, if any of these bullet points can apply or be related to you and your operation, it might be a good idea to seek a process coach:
- You need to break out of an internal feedback loop of process revision that is not achieving your goals, and an outside pair of eyes would be useful.
- You want to develop good habits for operational oversight, KPIs, and management.
- You or your leadership staff are failing to identify and address problem processes or operational items that are affecting your bottom line or workflow. This typically presents as a mental paralysis of “I need to do so much that I don’t even know where to start.”
- Your business is growing, and as you add staff you’re finding your once-efficient processes are not scaling effectively and are in some instances becoming a hindrance.
- You need to implement a PSA for the first time and don’t know where to start.
- You want to make your operation more resilient and standardize your processes and documentation across clients.
- You want to implement staff augmentation or outsourcing with a partner like Benchmark 365.
- You don’t know what you don’t know, and you want to be sure you’re aligning with proven methods.
- You want to standardize and optimize your processes so you can participate in Service Leadership Index (gross ConnectWise) or other peer data sharing groups.
Wait, if you needed Sea-Level Operations doesn’t that mean you were, in fact, doing it wrong? Why should we listen to you?
Let’s get this out of the way now:
- I fully admit to being bad at many things.
- I am frequently wrong about many things.
- I struggled with admitting it was processes and procedures that were the problem.
- I thought we were different because we are special, but really no matter the model your MSP employs, there’s some baseline standards that apply to every single one. They are typically operational and not technical.
- If I went into this engagement with the attitude I have now, I would have done way better way faster.
- We’re doing it right now, and have the data to back it up.
Don’t make the pitstop at dickheadville like I did, is my point. Swallow your pride, tame your ego, and admit there’s room for improvement in all things. This is something that must be approached with an open mind to be valuable.
Onboarding to Sea-Level Operations
The quick and the dirty of how this shakes out is that you are assigned a Sea-Level coach and that coach sets up a weekly call with the stakeholders in this project. This is typically the owner(s), service desk manager(s), and finance staff. That’s a generalization and your mileage may vary on who you choose to include in your weekly calls.
On those weekly calls you work through the modules of the program and talk about how you’re currently doing things and how you might change those things to more align with best practices. At the end of each call everyone is assigned homework to complete before the call at the same time the next week. You can count on homework being one to three hours per person per week on average. There are some modules that are very heavy on the homework and can take much longer, and others that are much shorter. Depending on what you currently are doing, you may need to do more or less work on each module.
The modules start off with things like getting your PSA configured (which was 15 or so submodules when we went through it), getting policies and procedures documented, establishing KPIs, and tooling. I want to stop here and say one of the only negative things I will say in this review.
ConnectWise sucks ass. If that’s your poison, fine, but leave me out of your overly-clicky bullshit interface.
The unstoppable automator meets the immovable coaching program
Sea-Level pushed ConnectWise on us hard. In fact, before we signed up with Sea-Level they gave us the disclaimer that their program is designed for CW and their templates and modules were modeled on CW interface and capabilities. We were using FreshService at the time and planning our migration to HaloPSA. We wanted to utilize the Sea-Level methods, but dropping HaloPSA was a deal breaker for us. We were confident HaloPSA was the play and a year later we don’t regret sticking to our guns on that.
This became a point of contention early in our coaching program. We were actually initially being coached by three coaches. One was an experienced Sea-Level coach training the other two. The experienced coach was a great guy, and one of the trainees (who would later become our coach) was great, but I wasn’t a fan of the guy who has been lovingly nicknamed Dickhead #3.
Pretty soon DH#3 left for another company, and our coach-to-be was being cut loose to take us on his own. We went from 3 coaches to 1, and that was when things actually took the best turn we could have hoped for.
Our guardian angel, who art in Canada, please free us from the oppression of CW
Our Sea-Level program would have failed early and catastrophically if it weren’t for our coach. I’m not one to believe in fate or destiny, but when I say Canadian Jesus sent us exactly who we needed when we needed them, I mean it. Our coach decided to take it upon himself to investigate HaloPSA on his own and within a couple of weeks had come to the same conclusion we did: HaloPSA kicks the shit out of CW and the Sea-Level program could be adapted to HaloPSA.
We connected our coach with the HaloPSA technical services implementation team we were working with to build out our instance, and a symbiotic relationship that was meant to be, happened. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of our coach, the Sea-Level program will be (or maybe already is) adapted and available to future HaloPSA shops who want to take the plunge.
So, this is to you, Sea-Level and Pax8 management reading this review: You probably know exactly who my coach is, but what you don’t know is what a massive asset he is to your organization. He was the one person willing to go outside his comfort zone and investigate something different. Thanks to him, your program is no longer chained to a single crappy PSA and you can enjoy a prosperous future of working with forward-thinking and modern MSPs who embrace highly versatile platforms like HaloPSA. Thanks to our coach, and no thanks to DH#3, this is a positive review.
That was heartwarming and all, but how is the content?
Generally, pretty okay. I will say that every time I see a mid 00’s CW screenshot I die a little bit inside, but the content is wholly relevant and grounded in a fact based approach. It’s a lot to get through. Some isn’t applicable, and some is dated. We’re almost a year in and I’d say we’ve gotten the bulk of the bigger modules complete but still have maybe 30% to go. That isn’t the fault of the program or our coach–more that we are taking a slow roll to cover differences in how the platforms handle things and build HaloPSA to complement the program and its values.
Content is released/delivered to you as you move through the program on their LMS. The bulk of our program has been delivered on their old portal which uses Managed Services Platform. That garbage is just the worst. That isn’t Sea-Level’s fault either, and they recognize it’s garbage and have migrated to the Pax8 LMS. We’re about to be migrated to that new portal, so I will exclude the crappiness of Managed Services Platform (we have used it internally too) from scoring.
Managed Services Platform, you’re on notice – your product sucks ass and you should fix it before someone says something mean about it on the internet, you dicks.
Was it worth it? Did you get value from the program? Are you still getting value a year later?
Absolutely 100% yes on all accounts. This is probably one of the single best decisions we made in the time I’ve been there. The us of a year ago wouldn’t recognize the business now. We’re generating actionable data and metrics that mean stuff and that we can do things with. We’re able to make informed and data driven decisions based on cold hard facts with the receipts to back it up. We’re able to identify the gaps in the armor, the places we are potentially losing money, and the utilization spread across the client base is much more clearly defined. We still have a long way to go, but most of the road is behind us and we’re reaping the benefits.
I won’t sugarcoat it, this continues to be the biggest time and effort investment on the part of administration and operational staff. It has been an arduous and often emotional journey. It has shaken things up for our staff (who are absolute rockstars to be able to adapt to changing policies and procedures so well), but overall everyone is happier across the board because less shit is on fire and people know what to do and when to do it. It’s some kind of invisible anchor that tethers everything to reality. Or maybe it’s the permanent fixture my coach implanted in my brain yelling “INSPECT WHAT YOU EXPECT” every time I develop new methods or procedures.
I mentioned in my Benchmark review that Sea-Level was what put us in a good position to make that partnership successful. I hope this review clarifies and drives that statement home, because I don’t think we could have done it without Sea-Level. Our coach believed in us, our platform, our ideas, and our ability. He was and is able to motivate (and sometimes shame) us into doing what is necessary to succeed. For this, Sea-Level falls decisively in “worth every penny” territory. If you are willing to put the work in, this is the program that takes you from small MSP to an efficient midsize or large MSP. It isn’t an overnight change, and it requires you and your staff to care and desire to be and do better at your jobs. It isn’t something you do, set up, and it’s done forever. You need to invest the initial time up front to get yourself on track, and then consistently follow that up with good housekeeping best practices. If you think you can hack it, I encourage you to do so. There’s something(s) for every MSP to take away from this program.
Aw shit, I said I wasn’t going to do another love letter to a vendor. I promise they didn’t pay me. Remember the part where I said Managed Services Platform and ConnectWise suck? And the whole Kaseya bit in the disclaimer? Can’t buy that kind of authenticity.