How to Find a Small Business VAR

by Pam Baker

Buying technology off a store shelf may seem fast and convenient, but it's usually the most expensive route. Here's how to find a small business VAR to help you get the right tech at the best price.

Choosing the right small business IT for your company can be a tricky and confusing affair, even for computer-savvy small businesses. Technology changes too quickly for any one person to fully keep track, so the options can seem both foreign and endless.

Time constraints can double the trouble, since it's common for small businesses to either buy technology "just in time" to meet the specific needs of a project or as a quick fix for technology on the fritz. Either scenario means buying equipment and software on the fly, with little time to worry about the technical details.

"I suggest that most SMBs not buy an out-of-the-box solution, as it's probably not quite what they need, even though they could make it work in most circumstances. It may be overkill and more expensive for most business purposes," advises Steven Holtzman, co-owner of a family-owned aerial photography business called West Coast Aerial Photography.

VAR Explained

Even if, miraculously, you manage to squeeze in the time to research the various technical choices, you can easily find yourself torn between options. Of Option A or Option B, you might wonder, which will do the job best? Which will cost more in the long run? Which can grow with my company, and which is simply more technology than I will ever use?

For many small business owners, the best way to resolve all these issues is to turn to a company that already knows the answers: a value added reseller (VAR). In essence, a VAR resells existing products, but then adds its own services too, which typically include consulting, installation, trouble-shooting and related computing services.

In years past, VARs tended to focus on serving big businesses and directed very little attention at small and medium businesses. But this has changed, thanks to a recession, a slow recovery and big business' tendency to lock the coffers against new purchases until economic winds turn favorable again.

These days, big and small VARs alike see their future in serving SMBs. The upside for small business: you get better deals, better service and more VARs to choose from than ever before.

Choose a National or Local VAR?

You have plenty of options among VARs on both the national and local level. But how do you know whether you want a national or a local VAR to be your technology partner?

"One advantage to using a big, national VAR like Dell and CDW is that they're likely to have a dedicated pre-sale support person who specializes in a particular brand of product, i.e. Microsoft licensing specialist, and this person can help the small business choose the right product and license," says Joyce Tang, president and chief engineer of AgilisIT, an IT services company specializing in serving the healthcare and biotech industries.

Other big advantages to using a big, national VAR:

  • They offer one-stop shopping for a wide range of technologies and products
  • Typically offer warranties
  • Often offer financing
  • Typically offer training programs to help you and your staff learn how to use the new technology
  • They're typically more financially stable and therefore more likely to remain in business

The advantages to working with a smaller, local VAR:

  • Typically offers more personal service, and often more prompt to respond to questions and problems
  • Typically more focused on a specific technology and often on a specific industry as well. A VAR specializing in your industry can be far more useful than a VAR who focuses only on the technologies they sell
  • In today's economy, smaller VARs are more likely to negotiate price than are national VARs

Abbie Hosta is the marketing manager at Accellis Technology Group, an IT services firm specializing in serving law firms and professional organizations. Not surprisingly, when it comes to choosing a VAR, she advocates hiring a specialist rather than a generalist.

"Stay away from the 'Geek Squad-ilk' companies and look for VARs that work only within certain demographics," she advises. "Their specialty will go a long way."

How to Find Small Business VARs

To find national VARs, look first to the manufacturers of the small business hardware or software that you think you may need. Many of the manufacturers have their own VAR divisions and small-business specialists too, or they have a list of third-party VAR partners that you can choose from. It's not uncommon to find that some of the VARs on that list are geographically close to your business.

To find local VARs, ask other local businesses (large and small) who they use. You can also check the memberships of local organizations such as the Better Business Bureau or the Chamber of Commerce, which typically has a technology council.

Sometimes a computer and electronics store will have a list of local VARs, as will computer repair companies. Search engines, such as Google, Yahoo and Bing will also reveal local VARs. If you're using a search engine, be sure to use a mix of search terms.

For example, don't just enter VAR but instead enter a brand name such as Microsoft or Dell and then VAR. Add your city name or zip code, and the search engine should produce a list of local VARs for you. Try other search term combinations until you have all the information you want.

"Talk to as many providers as you can find, and get references from people that you know both in and out of business," advises Tom Miller, vice president of Channel Management at Sage. "Then you make a personal assessment of who you think actually understands your business the best. You need to have a high degree of confidence that they understand your business."

Qualities to Look for in a VAR

Before you start interviewing VARs, make sure you have your goals firmly in mind. Write down a list of objectives you want to achieve in the relationship. This list should consist of business goals rather than a shopping list of brand names and IT equipment requirements, although those are good to have on hand too, if you know them.

But you want to really focus on specific business processes and goals. That, in the end, will tell you and the VAR what technologies you need.

"Make sure the VAR can assess the true needs of your IT environment -- whether that means implementing infrastructure that can scale up to accommodate future growth or making small, strategic suggestions that won't break the bank," says Brad Amano, solutions marketing manager for Eaton Corporation, a power management company.

"Partner with a VAR that has deep industry relationships -- if the reseller can call on trusted vendor partners to assess a particular aspect of an IT environment on the fly, small business owners can be assured that they are making wise and educated decisions," said Amano. 

He added that having a VAR that you regard as a trusted advisor is key to a successful business relationship and that, "VARs in turn must have a solid foundation with their vendors so that small businesses can get several levels of support."

Pam Baker has written for numerous leading publications including, Institutional Investor magazine, CIO.com, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, the NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers.

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This article was originally published on Tuesday Sep 13th 2011
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