Speakeasy: IT From the Outside — Q&A With Mona Abutaleb

The Imaging Channel had the chance recently to meet with Mona Abutaleb, president and CEO of mindSHIFT Technologies, and discuss that firm’s integration into the Ricoh Americas family. Of course there were a few surprises. Join me in the SpeakEasy.

What is your current state of mind?

I’m probably more positive about our industry today, and about mindSHIFT within the industry, than I’ve ever been. A part of it is Ricoh, but a lot of it is the industry. Cloud is very in vogue. It’s highly accepted now, so it is a great time for the industry. And then there is Ricoh. We’re only a little over a year into the acquisition, and they have been a fabulous parent. I’ve been on both sides of the equation before — I know how it feels with a good acquisition and a bad one. This one is really good. A big part of it is the businesses that we’re in, and the convergence of those businesses — it’s a very logical convergence. Another part of it is just who Ricoh is, the Ricoh Americas team; they’re just a great team to work for.

How many people are working at mindSHIFT?

Almost 900. We just did an integration — Ricoh had a small IT services team, mindSHIFT had a bigger IT services team, and now everybody that works on IT services within the Ricoh Americas family reports into mindSHIFT.

Tell us something you discovered after working with Ricoh in this last year that you weren’t necessarily aware of before.

I will tell you that the most remarkable thing for me was to discover the incredible desire and the momentum to be services-led. If you had asked me two years ago about the print/copy businesses, Ricoh or otherwise,  I would have described them as hardware folks. But the reality is, certainly within Ricoh at least, there is the drive to really lead with services, to be a service company, to be exceptional at services. It’s really refreshing for somebody that comes from the services world.

  “I think the imaging channel has a great opportunity and I can’t overstate it.” 

As an outsider looking into the imaging channel and seeing firsthand the convergence — do you believe that the imaging channel has a chance at gaining traction within the IT services sector?

I think the imaging channel has a great opportunity and I can’t overstate it. What the copier dealers have and what Ricoh has in their direct channel is the trust of their clients. They have created excellent relationships. This covers the entirety of the market from the independent dealers active in the SMB markets as well as Ricoh direct in the national and global markets. The relationships are very strong. Now that a high level of trust has been established, they can go in and augment the services they have been offering. They can also deliver a client’s e-mail, offer e-mail archiving, network management and even help desk services. Once you are a trusted partner, that extension of trust is much easier. I think that it is a fabulous opportunity for them — if we can get it right. And I think we’re getting it right with the dealers.

mindSHIFT started in the multi-tenant world, which is effectively what we call the cloud today. We built an automation platform in front of it that we have used for our direct business, and we are now going to extend it to the dealers. While we don’t generally extend it to a reseller channel, the fact that we are going to extend it to the Ricoh dealer channel is really a testimony to the value that Ricoh places on their dealers. They’ll now be able to come in and bundle IT services under their own brand. It’s a great opportunity.

Do you think that the imaging channel sales teams will be able to sell that solution to their clients and have that conversation? Will they have access to someone from mindSHIFT when they need specific subject matter expertise?

They certainly can. Over time, they’ll be able to do more and more of it independently. They can sell the straightforward services immediately. Eventually, this will become second nature to them. Quite frankly, they have customers now that are asking them about these services. Now they will be able to respond to a customer and say, “Yes, I can deliver that, and by the way, I can deliver it from the cloud.” What we are offering is automated provisioning. We’ll provision services in near real time and they’ll have customers up and running immediately. When a customer needs support, they’re going to call in to our help desk and get that support that they need.

One of the things that we tell customers is that when you call our center, we’re going to resolve 50 percent of the cases within the first hour, while you’re on the phone with us. To be able to deliver that level of support, we need to have people that can think on their feet, that have seen these problems repeatedly and therefore know how to resolve them quickly. I don’t think the vast majority of dealers can build that kind of support infrastructure. It takes a long time to build — it takes a whole different skill set. I think it is really important that Ricoh has put together the infrastructure to augment that capability for them.

Both the imaging channel and the IT services channel are male dominated. You are a top CEO in the IT industry. How do you feel navigating this landscape?

I studied electrical engineering in school and then I started my career in the telecom industry — I spent almost 20 years there. Then I spent some time in the media industry. This is my third job, I’ve been here almost 10 years. I have been in male dominated industries for my entire career. For me it is about hard work, it’s about good ethics, and it’s really just about keeping your nose to the grindstone. It’s never been a gender issue for me.

I’ve never felt that I’ve been faced with discrimination. I’ve been very lucky. If you can lead people effectively, then I think you get lots of good opportunities regardless of the industry.

In this next year, what are you investing the most in; what initiatives do you have going on right now?

There are three areas that I’ll talk about. First of all, Ricoh has a terrific national and global presence and we have some very large customers that we service today. Those customers seek certain kinds of services related to hosting and private clouds and very secure offerings. We announced recently that we are building a new data center in Long Island. We’re investing quite significantly in this new data center in order to deliver our infrastructure as a shared infrastructure for our small and midsize customers, but also so that we can deliver private, highly secure clouds for our large customers.

The second area is in our software-as-a-service business. We have a very large hosted exchange Office 365 business that we have run for some years that is self-service, self-provisioning. We’re investing fairly significantly to grow that business. We’re going to increasingly deliver more products online, like virtual desktops, which we currently deliver to our direct channel but not our online channel. Items like virtual servers, server management, help desk management, a whole suite of IT services — we’re going to augment the suite we already have with additional services in our software-as-a-service offering.

The third area of investment is in the geographic expansion that we’re doing with Ricoh. Today we’re in 29 markets, and 12 of them are fairly mature. We’ve been in these mature markets for some time, but we are building and getting more people on the ground in those 17 other markets. The goal is to grow them to be as successful as the legacy 12 original mindSHIFT markets. Because so many of our services are delivered remotely we really can be in centralized locations and then cover a very wide swath.

Who would your typical client be for the software-as-a-service business that you’re augmenting?

The average customer size is about 10 employees, but we have customers with more than 1,000 employees that buy just one product, and then we have customers that have only five employees that will buy a whole host of products. It’s literally all online, it’s self-provisioned and it’s delivered directly to the customer.

I think that as we look into the future and consider how businesses will buy, more and more will buy online. For us, it is important that our presence be very wide — as wide as our current product set, and then also very deep. We need to have the ability to support those services on every level.

  “I think that as we look into the future and consider how businesses will buy, more and more will buy online.”

Let’s talk a little bit about vertical markets. You’re in Washington, D.C. You’re setting up a new data center in Long Island. Are there specific verticals that you are particularly strong in?

We are very strong in five specific verticals. Legal, which is a great one to be in for Washington, D.C. We are also strong in associations and nonprofits, education, health care and niche financial — not banks, but venture capital firms, investment firms, wealth management groups. Those are the five verticals we’re in, it’s where most of our business comes from. They represent 50-60 percent of our customer base and more than 60 percent of our revenue.

Are there certain applications that you need to develop for these verticals that are tailored to their unique needs?

We have some very specific applications that we support for the various verticals, such as a legal desktop that we offer our legal customers that has their entire desktop in the cloud. Nothing sits on their local computer because of their emphasis on security. We have an array of products that appeal to those particular verticals.

Ricoh has a very large legal channel. When discussing document management, records management, litigation support, if you consider the suite of services that Ricoh mindSHIFT can offer to a legal client base — it’s a very powerful value proposition. I don’t think anyone else can deliver the scope of services that we can to the legal vertical — from running the mail room, to document management and copy and print imaging, all the way through to data backup and recovery, security, and putting a network infrastructure into place. We have a very strong presence.

Security is a key component to everything IT-related and there has been quite a bit about security in the news lately, due to the stream of big data breaches. How has that affected what you do? Have you had to work even harder to provide more robust solutions to wrap around your customer environment so that they can feel protected?

Security is a big concern for all of us. End users tend to be the worst breaches of security.  We are vigilant and aggressive about protecting the security of the networks. We also offer a very robust suite of security offerings to customers to protect themselves, like laptop encryption and full disk encryption.

Do you see more customers picking up those extra security features and enhancements?

We push it. We’re going to keep pushing it. Take disaster recovery, for instance — it’s easy not to make that investment, believing the chance is minimal of getting hit by a major catastrophe, but the reality is even a little chance with security now is too big a chance.

Besides security, what is the greatest challenge you face today?

Our greatest challenge is continuing to find ways to offer both traditional mindSHIFT and Ricoh customers the most comprehensive and effective solution in the market today. We were just acquired a year ago by Ricoh, and we still have a lot of integration activities that are going on. We very much want to be more integrated into the Ricoh suite — that is both our challenge and our greatest opportunity. Ricoh has hundreds of thousands of customers in the United States. mindSHIFT is a small company, so our ability to be a part of that environment, to work with a whole new group of clients, is a wonderful opportunity, and it’s the thing I focus on the most day to day. How do we most effectively become a bigger part of that engine?

What do you see as your biggest opportunity right now?

The cloud. It makes our sales proposition much easier. Everyone wants a piece of the cloud. It makes decision making difficult for customers because they don’t know which provider to go with.

  Everyone wants a piece of the cloud.”

mindSHIFT has been in the integrator business for years — we don’t make hardware, we don’t make software. When we come and give advice about which products and services to use, it’s not because we have a vested interest in any of them. We’re giving the advice about what we believe to be best for your business or your industry. That’s a fabulous opportunity.  

We advise people on how to get into the cloud, into hosted services and away from an on-premise model. If you HAVE to be on-premise, so be it, we’ll help you be there smoothly and securely. But we also discuss how you can move some critical services off-premise, how you can move some disaster recovery services into the cloud so that you’re not so reliant on a single on-premise individual or a single box.

When you’re in that trusted adviser role and having that conversation with the client, do you encounter resistance from people in the IT department?

Sometimes.  We sell to two types of buyers — the SMB and then the larger corporate environments. In the smaller businesses, if they have an IT person, our services could end up replacing them. In the larger companies, we are talking to that IT person about becoming an extension of their services. The IT folks inside the larger companies should be working on improving business processes, workflow automation, how to make the company more successful. Somebody else should be maintaining the plumbing, keeping the water running. If you’re focused on simply keeping the water running, you’re not focused on how to improve business for your company. We come in and discuss how we can take some of that maintenance off of their hands so they can focus on things that will make a difference.

What’s the next big thing?

I don’t know, but I do think we’re going to find that what we think of as the office environment currently will change dramatically. I think the big things to come are all going to be in the mobile space. It’s going to be about how you work – how you actually work. I think that will be a whole new area for us to start to dive into.

If your employees could describe you in three words, what do you think they would be?

Trustworthy. Team focused. And I hope they would tell you that I am smart.

What is your greatest concern for this industry?

Differentiation. Everybody can say they are a managed services or a cloud provider now, whether they know what they’re doing or they don’t. My fear is that we get entrants that really don’t know what they’re doing. It poisons the water for the companies that have a long and successful career within the industry. It’s very easy now to look like you know what you’re doing when you don’t.

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of The Imaging Channel.

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Patricia Ames is president and senior analyst for BPO Media, which publishes The Imaging Channel and Workflow magazines. As a market analyst and industry consultant, Ames has worked for prominent consulting firms including KPMG and has more than 15 years experience in the imaging industry covering technology and business sectors. Ames has lived and worked in the United States, Southeast Asia and Europe and enjoys being a part of a global industry and community.