20 years of HTG/IT Nation Evolve

| By: Arlin Sorensen
How it all began

HTG was born out of necessity. The roots of HTG go back to the IT company I was running at the time. Founded in 1985, Sorensen’s Computer Connection Inc. (SCCI) served small business clients across Southwest Iowa. It was the spring of 2000 when a crisis was happening that caused us to stumble upon one of the best business accidents of my career. 

We had grown the company from our farm-based office located near Harlan, Iowa, to 36 employees when the clock struck midnight and Y2K failed to happen, at least as advertised. SCCI had scaled up to meet the overwhelming demand that had been promised for technical services to help companies do business in the new century.  Our phones never rang, and the business did not come. The mantra of the movie Field of Dreams was “If you build it, they will come.” We scaled up but no one was coming. Could it be that we were just missing the opportunities? It was a novel concept, but we were getting desperate to figure out what to do as we had never experienced a slowdown like this before.

It was at a management team meeting that one of the SCCI team suggested we talk with some other companies and get some perspective on what was happening.

We reached out to three other Iowa technology providers we were familiar with and asked if they would meet us in Des Moines for a half day to compare notes. All three agreed, and we spent most of a day commiserating about the lack of Y2K opportunity we all had uncovered. We realized that the issue wasn’t just localized to SCCI but was a broad-scale issue with the state of the IT economy.

That first meeting may not have yielded any big strategic breakthroughs, but it had a benefit that is still one of the top benefits peer group members mention today—perspective. We also realized we weren’t alone. As we wrapped up the day, our four companies decided to continue meeting via teleconference on a regular basis to continue sharing what was happening in our patch. We did that until taking the next step to have another face-to-face meeting a year or so later.

That was the beginning of what later became HTG. Four companies struggling in their own markets who took a chance to come together and share. We learned a lot from each other that day. Over the next few years, we stayed connected, and later we got more serious about working together and built a regular structure of meetings and interaction.

The focus moved toward becoming a place to bring ideas and get feedback. A place to set goals and receive accountability. A place to have iron sharpen iron as well as be encouraged. It is usually very lonely at the top. Having peers who can hold us accountable to doing the things we need to do is an essential part of being successful.

Because of the learnings we had from our peers, and with more than a nudge from the bank, we took action that saved the company. We downsized from 36 to 25 – the one time in my career where I had to do layoffs beyond an individual or two. We began to move our now excess inventory through discounting to our current clients, but also aggressively on eBay, which at the time allowed us to recover 80-90% of the value of the product over the next 6 months or so. Had we not had that first peer group meeting we likely would have spent the next few months trying to uncover non-existent opportunities related to Y2K. That would have crippled us and may have even caused us to fail.

We learned that day the importance of a famous quote by Ken Blanchard: “None of us is as smart as all of us.” That was true then and continues to be true to this day.

Milestones over the years

It was 2002 before we truly formalized Heartland Tech Group (HTG) and put some structure in place. Arnie Bellini, CEO of ConnectWise at the time, came to the farm to implement ConnectWise PSA™ (formerly Manage) as the operating platform for HTS (SCCI had rebranded as HTS through our merger and acquisition run that began in 2003). That relationship would prove strategic throughout the HTG journey.

Over the first five years we grew to 12 companies, and by the end of 2005 there were over two dozen companies on the wait list to join.

In 2009 we had Bob Burg, co-author of our culture book The Go-Giver, come speak to us in Dallas at our first SMB Summit. We had begun using the book as an onboarding tool shortly after its release the end of 2007, and it has been part of how we teach the HTG Way ever since. 2009 was the first time we did centralized peer group meetings at the Omni Hotel in Dallas. Up until then, each group determined their own meeting locations which was a logistical nightmare to schedule and manage. Service Leadership began quarterly benchmarking this year. We also began our monthly newsletters – “The Voice of HTG” and “The HTG WAY”.

2010 marked our 10-year anniversary as an organization. The year took us Down Under to begin a group in the APAC market. Our first vendor peer group began this year as we worked to help our vendor partners understand the HTG experience. We also held our first vendor town hall meeting where we spent the day training our vendor partners on the way SMB IT providers did business and the challenges they faced in an effort to create a better understanding between the two groups. We also focused on building leadership with our first CEO Forum which taught the strategic planning system from Microsoft called Accelerate. HTG announced the 1-4-250 target: One mission, four plans, 250 members, ten thousand employees, touching one million end customers with the HTG way each year.

In 2011 we added our first ‘large company’ group to the membership program. Dr. Larry Little, who wrote “Make A Difference”, which is another of our onboarding resources, trained those who attended the CEO Forum on the importance of understanding personalities as we lead people. I had a dream that we could build a culture that would become focused on giving rather than taking—on using what we’ve been given to help others—on making a difference rather than collecting stuff for self. This grew into what we know today as Hands That Give.

In Q2 at Dallas in 2011, we announced Hands That Give, our philanthropic effort to make sure no member ever faces a personal crisis or natural disaster on their own. The idea of a community coming together behind a cause—funded by giving rather than dues or billing—where members would give from their success to help others who were in need. The mission of Hands That Give is to provide response to any sort of disruption—whether it is in business or in life. This is truly one of the major differentiators between HTG and other peer groups. We are not afraid to get into the mud to assist anyone facing a personal crisis or natural disaster. It is members helping members overcome the challenges life can throw at us. We continue to stand with members offering resources and people to help them overcome and succeed.

In 2012, we reached 25 groups and started our second groups in both APAC and EMEA. We began a Leadership Track that met each Wednesday during our quarterly meetings with a focus on building leaders which was a limiting factor for growth in many member organizations. Heartland Leadership Group (HLG) was founded to meet the need for consulting and later became a part of HTG bringing in a team of industry veterans to the facilitation and consulting team. This team became a foundational part or our facilitation team even to this day.

2013 brought the return of the online groups with 58 members. We kicked off a more formal Leadership Academy with a structured yearlong syllabus. For the first time, we had our Planning For Success four plans put into a resource manual which we were able to provide to members to assist them in developing and maintaining their four plans.

In 2015, we held our 15 year anniversary celebration in Minneapolis in Q3 with a wonderful program and lots of member sharing. The online groups almost doubled to 110 members. We started our fourth APAC group and added Stuart Applegate as a teammate down under.

Scott Scrogin came back from his peer group of people who run peer groups in different industries with an idea for Jumpstart, an onboarding program which completely changed how new members joined HTG and intentionally prepared them for success. The infamous bobble head dolls of Scott and Arlin came about and literally traveled the globe to provide pictures and entertainment for the 15th anniversary all year long.

2016 found us with 32 groups. We continued to expand the online program by adding some Continuum specific online groups that had 27 members. We kicked off our SEPG (service exec peer groups) with 110 members and held our first ever Service Summit. We took HTG through an entire rebranding effort and changed our three distinct offerings to Empower, Engage and Emerge. 2016 found us with 32 groups. We continued to expand the online program by adding some Continuum specific online groups that had 27 members. We kicked off our SEPG (service exec peer groups) with 110 members and held our first ever Service Summit. We took HTG through an entire rebranding effort and changed our three distinct offerings to Empower, Engage and Emerge.

In 2017 we rolled out our one to many program called Engage (now called Evolve2).  SEPG continued to grow, achieving 170 members. We added our first SAPG (sales exec peer group) and rebooted the Jumpstart program to leverage the new Engage program as part of that strategy. In coordination with ConnectWise, we introduced the HTG Booster Program which was a huge success. It was an offer to provide 10 hours of free product consulting on the different ConnectWise products HTG members were using. It was the most successful program we have ever introduced to membership.

And in a flurry of year end activity, we came to agreement with ConnectWise to be acquired on 1-1-2018 and become part of their organization.

2018 found us as colleagues at ConnectWise, and the year began with the entire team coming to Tampa in January for onboarding. We were at 35 groups in the IT Nation Evolve (new name for Face to Face groups) program. We did a reboot of the SEPG program with Dan Saxby taking that lead. Across all our programs, we had 43 facilitators (staff and contractors) leading over 50 groups. The Planning for Success workbook became V3 as we rebranded and updated the content adding PWT (personal wealth target) and BVT (business value target) into the plans.

2019 saw us grow to 43 IT Nation Evolve 2 and 3 groups. We added a Security Booster Pilot group which transitioned to the security peer group. We kicked off an M&A focused peer group and also a VAR peer group.

IT Nation Evolve today

That brings us to 2020, the 20th anniversary of now IT Nation Evolve peer groups. Hands That Give is now under the ConnectWise Foundation umbrella which gives it 501c3 status for the first time.  We are at 49 Evolve3 groups having added a CFO group this year.

Our membership has grown significantly:

  • Evolve1 (online meeting monthly) – 93
  • Evolve2 & Evolve3 (face-to-face groups meeting quarterly) – 410
  • SEPG (service exec with 2 face to face and four online) – 18
  • SP (solution partners meeting face to face quarterly) – 18
  • M&A (meeting face-to-face quarterly) – 7
  • CFO (meeting one day quarterly) – 6
  • SAPG (sales exec with 2 face to face and four online) – 10
  • Facilitators across all programs – 43

If you’re keeping score, that is over 700 company interactions across the IT Nation Evolve portfolio with over 500 unique companies. Who would have ever dreamt (certainly not me) that a small group of 4 companies from Iowa would be the seeds that planted a foundation for what IT Nation Evolve peer groups are today?

I’d love to be able to pull out the napkin that contained the detailed plan for HTG and the peer group framework as it exists today. But there is no napkin, and there was no plan on my part. Much of our success at HTS came from the companies that we were able to spend time with and learn from over the years. They provided real time data and perspective that informed our decisions and allowed us to move confidently in the market.

Peer groups truly are a secret weapon. When people ask me what the secret sauce has been in whatever success I’ve had, it comes down to two things:

  • Surround yourself with the right people who are smarter than you, are ‘all in’ for the mission and are committed to the journey.
  • Engage with peers who will open the kimono together and share openly in a high trust environment.

It would be a lie to say that success happened because I was a brilliant leader. Success happened because of the people that surrounded me and those companies we have served.

As an entrepreneur who is continually looking to create something new, my skill is in visioning and starting things. Finding and hiring the right people has always been a major part of my secret sauce. That extended to having the right companies in our peer groups so we could learn outside our own walls.

It has been an amazing ride over the last 20 years. While I am no longer directly accountable for the peer groups, I am still passionate about the peer to peer experience and love facilitating groups. I lead 5-6 group meetings each quarter and would do more if the calendar allowed. Peer groups are a powerful tool in many ways. But you can’t get the value by looking in. You need to be all in, sitting as part of the group at the table.

It’s not for the faint of heart, but for those who dive in completely and focus on giving value rather than taking it, the impact will not only change your business but also change your life. That’s the thing that gratifies me the most. It’s great to help a company be more profitable or to grow their company. But it’s completely satisfying to help a leader with their marriage, family, team or themselves as individuals on the journey through life. That’s what keeps me in the game!

What I’ve learned over the years

Here are a few of the things I’ve learned leading HTG and participating in IT Nation Evolve over the last 20 years. They are important lessons I would have never learned without the peer groups and people involved:

  1. The foundation of anything worthwhile must be unmovable. For HTG, my faith has been the foundation from the beginning. I stuck to my personal beliefs and principles to develop HTG.
  2. None of us is as smart as all of us – there is power in peers. Being in a trusted environment where people share everything openly is the secret weapon for success.
  3. It’s not about me. Peer groups are not about the individual but the group. The focus is on delivering something of value to every person around the table each time we meet. Individuals are not the center; the group is central in every situation.
  4. Time is the greatest resource we have. We all get 168 hours each week. It is how we choose to use those hours that matters and determine what happens in business and life.
  5. Value is created by what we give away. The Go-Giver has been our guide. We create value by giving.
  6. Vision without execution is hallucination. Without execution we will not progress on our path to success. We need peers to hold us accountable to do what needs to be done rather than what we want to do.
  7. Leadership must be developed and rewarded. Leaders are made, not born. If we want to grow, and provide a path to the future, we must invest and take care of those who will lead.
  8. You cannot separate work from life. Purpose (mission), vision and values must be the same across our life and business. We can’t separate them but must be true to who we are in every environment we are in.
  9. Planning is foundational for all areas of business and life which is why we have our Four Plans. (Legacy, Life, Leadership and Business)
  10. Culture eats everything for breakfast. How we live and act together is critical to how we do everything.
  11. You can’t improve what you don’t measure. Service Leadership benchmarking is how we keep score along with our scorecards on legacy, life, leadership and business. Our MPD (monthly performance dashboard) helps report on the metrics that matter.
  12. Accountability drives behavior. Setting quarterly SMART goals which must be completed by the next meeting drives success. Being accountable makes sure they are done.
  13. Community/ecosystem is critical to success. Resources like the HUB, newsletters, blogs, community days and other tools creates a large ‘family of peers’ that provides even more value than the individual groups can by themselves.
  14. The people you surround yourself with determine your impact. That is never truer than the team we have delivering peer groups. It’s the thing I am most proud of in my career – being able to assemble the greatest team imaginable to lead people to success in their lives and businesses with passion.
  15. At the end of the day, we are in the people business—it is all about relationships. “Make A Difference” and other tools teach us how to effectively connect with others. But make no mistake, people are the thing that matters. We may sell and service stuff, but our business is always people!