As a SharePoint business applications Internet service provider, we have walked into quite a few disastrous situations in SMB organizations that picked the wrong consultants to create custom SharePoint applications, especially Intranets. We often get a quick sale of our prepackaged application templates (see more at SP Marketplace) and a relieved happy customer when a successful implementation occurs.
In one example, an organization with 250 employees came to us after spending more than $150,000 with a consulting firm for their Intranet on their Office 365 SharePoint Online cloud platform. After one year they still did not have it in production and the IT Director was fired. His replacement contacted us to implement a buy / customized approach rather than a build from scratch at 1/10 of the cost. Unfortunately, in our experience this example is far from unique.
The issue we find is that many SharePoint consulting firms are focused on large enterprise implementations, with complex requirements, lots of IT staff, and large budgets. These firms have developed their business model to a point that they cannot afford to take on any engagement that is less than $50,000. For many SMB's, this is beyond their budgets.
We are not saying that the SharePoint consulting firms do not provide value and great expertise. We find that there is sometimes a mismatch between the SMB client and the Enterprise oriented consulting firm. Many SMBs are new to SharePoint via their move to Office 365. They have little experience with SharePoint and few technical resources. In most cases they are looking for a pragmatic intranet solution that will allow their organization to communicate and collaborate, and replace "email to everyone" as their main communication method. Also they are looking to use SharePoint to automate manual business processes that may be done in Excel today. What is necessary is a good straight forward implementation that will provide a quick ROI and can be built upon as they grow.
Enterprise SharePoint Consulting Firms - Big Solutions for Big Companies
The traditional SharePoint Consulting firm has been around for years and their focus has been the traditional SharePoint customer - large enterprises (over 1000 employees). Often these customers have had SharePoint for some time, many servers and have a good sized IT staff and perhaps several SharePoint experts. They use SharePoint in specific departments that have complex governance, security, business intelligence, and document management requirements. They are used to spending a lot of hours setting up the servers and administration. Also, their staff tends to be highly technical (sometimes programmers), rather than business analysts who are SharePoint Power Users.
The issue is when they are approached by a new Office 365 SMB client for help, they often don't understand that it is a simpler platform (little setup, easier administration), the business requirements are less complex, and the client may not have a bunch of IT people who can take over when the consultants leave. We find that the clients who just saved a bunch of money by moving to the cloud, do not intend to spend 100's of thousands of dollars to invest in a consulting firm that that focuses on enterprise level complexity and cost.
This is where the mismatch starts. On the Consulting firm's side, they cannot afford to perform an engagement on site for less than a month, because they have better opportunities with their enterprise customers. If a SharePoint consulting firm really wants to develop an SMB practice, they need to do things differently. First, by understanding the economics and a pragmatic approach rather than over engineering a solution, they better meet the needs of the SMB. SMB's should look for SharePoint firms who have created an SMB practice specifically and get references (with the costs).
Office 365 Service Firms - Your Local IT Guys who have moved their services to the Cloud
On the other end of the spectrum is the consulting services firm who may have migrated your email and Office apps to Office 365. Before the cloud, they were the IT service firms that installed and maintained your Exchange and Windows Servers. They are used to doing backups and setting up email, etc. They are your local operational IT guys, and Microsoft has worked with them to transform their services to the cloud. They are really good at the Office automation stuff, but have little to no experience with SharePoint, and often little knowledge of developing Intranet Portals or business process applications. Their business model is at the right price point, but they lack the expertise to create and implement correct business solutions.
We have seen some (those that get it) of these firms step up to learning SharePoint, and bringing in business analyst trained staff to develop their SMB SharePoint practice. These firms partner with us to implement our application templates to save money by not developing from scratch. They work with the SMB to define an overall approach to moving cloud benefits beyond Office Automation to a full business collaboration / automation implementation on Office 365.
Summary - Keep it Simple, Understand the Costs, Get the Right Firm
In summary, as an SMB looking to leverage the cloud, understand that you have an opportunity to really change the way you do business. Understand SharePoint and what it can do (educate yourself). We have some good introduction training videos to SharePoint on our site.
In starting to familiarize yourself with SharePoint, define your priorities (collaboration, information sharing, business automation) and create a plan. Don't "boil the ocean," implement it in steps, and bring your organization along through education about portal concepts. Most importantly, get the right services partner and check references of other SMBs they have done work for (ask how much they paid).
The right partner can be the difference between success and failure for an SMB organization transitioning to the cloud.
Rather than build your own SharePoint site, get an out-of-the-box template.