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Partner Spotlight: SA’s Blackbird IT

Partner Spotlight: SA’s Blackbird IT

How this MSP evolved from a t-shirt side-gig to a business with 46 employees.

Ben Corbett (Blackbird IT)

Ben Corbett (Blackbird IT)

Credit: Blackbird IT

The ‘Partner Spotlight’ series explores partners operating in the local channel landscape right around the country, from Cape York to Hobart, Byron Bay to Fremantle and beyond. This edition focuses on Dulwich-based based managed services provider (MSP) Blackbird IT.  

In order to find the way through the channel, it’s important to keep one’s mind open to all ideas. That’s how Blackbird IT’s director Ben Corbett found his wings in the Australian partner landscape and lifted the MSP up with him.

Corbett’s passion for IT started as far back as he can remember, with his first computer being an Amstrad CPC 464 when he was eight years old and his knowledge for computer networking born out of a desire to play multiplayer computer games with friends.

This led him to picking up a few coding languages during the early days of the internet and eventuated in a computer science honours degree at Edinburgh University.

“As I learned more about IT a few things became clear; one, I despised the negative stereotypes associated with IT; and two, I sought to distance myself from these wherever possible,” he said.

“I’ve never felt that there is anything particularly special about specialising in IT and baulk at the labels such as 'computer whiz' – I appreciate that they are often used innocuously but I fear that they feed the arrogance that I so often see in the industry.”

He then moved into visual effects in London at Escape Studios for nearly six years, then was convinced in 2009 to move to Australia.

Due to having a niche skillset, he decided to apply for IT manager or MSP positions but was held back by his resume.

“Undeterred from my lack of success in finding a job I decided I would just start a company and began to attend the local library it work out how on Earth I would do this,” he said.

“I quickly realised I was pretty clueless – 'What the hell is an ABN?' – and so thought I would apply for any old junior job to get some sort of income while I got this new business off the ground.

“I undertook a scattergun approach of any job in SEEK that had IT or computer in it. The variety of roles was pretty broad and I figured I would just take anything.”

This led him to an interview with LeetGeek — originally a side hustle by owner Richard Stafford to sell geek-inspired t-shirts, which was then repurposed as an IT consultancy — for a junior tech role.

However, Corbett instead felt like the two of them could become business partners. Fast forward to December 2009 and that’s what exactly happened.

“As we grew, we felt that we were getting incorrectly associated with the smaller/consumer type businesses with ‘geek’ in their name, so in 2015 we decided to start the rebrand process,” he said.

That process kicked off, unbeknownst to Corbett, on a trip to Uganda, where it just so happened one of the other members of the party worked at local advertising agency KWP!. The two stayed in touch after the trip and worked together on the rebrand.

“During the discussions, we were asked what do we enjoy about what we do. Someone joked ‘We Love Fixing Computers’ and then both laughed, confirming that actually we hated when things didn’t work! No, what we loved was helping people; we loved seeing the results of when technology worked well,” he said.

“The phrase ‘helping people realise their potential’ came up and we liked that because we could apply it to customers and staff alike, both of which are important to us. We were asked what sort of space would a brand that focused on realising potential take up? Of course, it was lifting people up, into the sky, helping them soar. ‘Like navigating the clouds’; another joke but the sentiment made sense.

“The KWP! director said, ‘You know , something like Blackbird, or Bluebird or...’

“‘That’s it! Blackbird,’” Corbett replied.

“He responded, ‘No I meant something like Blackbird,’ but of course at this stage we were set. I remembered the [Lockheed] SR-71 [Blackbird] jet as a kid and thought it was the coolest thing ever, and so Blackbird stuck,” he added.

At the start, the business was focused on integration work, particularly around Apple solutions. This coincided at the time the US tech vendor was experiencing substantial growth and users were using Macs in corporate environments.

“Incumbent IT companies didn’t want to touch the Macs and so they became our trojan horse,” Corbett said. “We got a foot in the door fixing up a Mac and then had the opportunity to comment on everything else we saw.

“Apple saw what we were doing and suggested that our skillsets would be very useful helping schools so after much deliberation we took on three senior staff with education experience.”

The association with Apple, he said, was a blessing and a curse.

“Whilst it accounted for less than a third of our work, we became labelled as The Mac Guys — Great for when Apple work came up but we were getting discounted for Windows only environments,” Corbett said.

While not specifically seeking them out, the business today works with 46 staff members, typically across a large number of professional services, construction and engineering organisations, as well as supplying services to public and private education institutions and local government associations.

In addition to Apple, Blackbird IT also counts Microsoft, Jamf, Sophos, Veeam, VMware, Citrix, HP, HPE, Dell EMC, Ruckus, Cisco and Lenovo amongst its vendor partnerships.

Despite facing his fair share of problems as a business owner, Corbett said it’s those problems he reacted to while on the job that shaped Blackbird into what it is  today.

In order to deal with those reactions more smoothly, he said he learned how to sift through the “noise” in business more efficiently.

“There was a period when we were drowning in ‘business intelligence’,” Corbett said. “If there's no action to the information that you are reporting on then it is just noise.

“We distilled everything down to the most important metrics, then we don't waste time looking over a ton of interesting information that might be all telling us the same thing in a slightly different way.

“It's tempting to say that I would change things that resulted in our toughest/darkest times in business but the problem with that is that the learnings from those are now so ingrained in our psyche that by removing them we would not have developed the business calluses that strengthen our operations today,” he added.

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