TFD9 Review: Solarwinds

Solarwinds did a fantastic job, and are another example of a company that really understands their marketing strategy and their brand.

Denny LeCompte clearly explains how Solarwinds is different before even three minutes had elapsed in his presentation. They’re not dealing with the bleeding edge problems of Fortune 50 companies. They saw a gap in the market, specifically mid-tier firms, who have similar, challenging problems, but there were ready solutions for them courtesy of earlier developments.

But, mid-tier companies don’t have the same sort of budget for tools. So Solarwinds took tractable problems with known solutions, and built tools that would be affordable for mid-market firms.

Solarwinds’ whole marketing strategy is aligned with this vision. They sell to the IT admins, not CIOs. They keep overheads low by delivering through the website. Users sell themselves on the products by downloading them and trying them out. They make the products easy to use to free up the admins’ time, because they want to solve their own business or IT problems, not spend time learning how specific tools work.

I love that Solarwinds are also very clear on the things that they don’t do. It’s a clear indicator of a company with a strong strategy that they understand well. They explicitly don’t customise their products with bizarre warts because a specific Fortune 50 company X wanted (like three-armed sweaters). The big guys spend a lot of money, so the vendors tend to listen to them and give them what they want, regardless of whether it actually aligns with the product strategy.

As Denny said, Solarwinds concentrate on the fat, middle part of the bell-curve. If you have a special problem, Solarwinds will tell you to go find a specialist to help you; it’s not what they do. They build tools for the masses, and strive to make the most people happy.


Thwack is Solarwinds’ customer forum. It was named that because “we had to call it something”, and it sounded pretty cool (much like the name Solarwinds, which doesn’t have anything to do with solar, or wind). Isn’t that refreshing? This is a really down-to-earth company.

Solarwinds is proud of their forums being a nice place to hang out. They’re very aware of the issues involved with managing an online community, and have done specific things to make thwack a positive place.

Solarwinds requires all their product managers to read all the posts on Thwack that are about their product. They consider the community built around the product as part of the product itself. This is really smart. For starters, they’re guarding against buyer’s remorse, and making sure that new customers are happy. They’re spending time ensuring repeat business rather than chasing new customers, which numerous studies have shown is cheaper, which is again aligned with their marketing strategy.

They also ensuring they have a market orientation, and will find out directly from customers about new product features they want. This is cheaper than gathering information through the channel (and losing information in the process), or hiring an outside firm to do market research. They’re essentially doing market research all the time, and can more easily tell what a majority of customers want from their products, and that feeds directly into the product development lifecycle.

This is classic business school case study stuff, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Solarwinds show up in one at some stage.

Product Acquisitions

Solarwinds have built a lot of products themselves, but they’ve also been on a spate of acquisitions lately.

I’m not sure if this is a case of deliberate expansion plans that will taper off once they reach a target size (it’ll have to taper off naturally anyway, as appropriate acquisition targets become scarce), or if it’s a natural result of Solarwinds getting a certain amount of momentum.

Listening to Denny talk about how they do acquisitions would make my old Corporate Strategy professor happy. They talk about having a good screen, but they critically talk about how the company/product would be better off by being owned by Solarwinds. This is how Solarwinds creates value from acquisitions, instead of destroying it, which is far more common.

Solarwinds takes great products that no one has heard of, and plugs them into their marketing and distribution capabilities, and now all the Solarwinds customers know about this great product that solves a problem a lot of them have. And then they buy it, and Solarwinds makes a load of cash. This is getting close to being what’s called a “core competency” of Solarwinds in the classical, technical sense of the term.

Lots to Like

There’s a lot to like about Solarwinds.

I like that they have a clear marketing and brand strategy. Talking to Tech Field Day, on our level, is perfectly aligned with their strategy.

I like that they have a friendly, community and family style to their business. There are lots of little cues in the language their people use that they are a positive and friendly company, not a cold and distant company. Again, this is well aligned with their strategy and the types of customers they want.

I like that their CTO, Joel Dolisy, was able to get right into the technical details of Fastbit and Netflow and the details of their database structure. This is someone senior who really understands their products and what they do, and can talk to a technical audience on their level.

One Big (Sort of) Downside

The one big downside for me, and probably a big part of why I hadn’t heard of Solarwinds before Tech Field Day, is that Solarwinds’ products are Windows centric.

They mostly require Windows and SQLServer to work, and I’m a Linux guy.

But that’s ok. I’m not their target customer, and it would be a mistake for Solarwinds to go after me as a customer. It wouldn’t align with their strategy, so not supporting Linux isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.

At least until there are enough people like me who want to use Solarwinds products on Linux. Then, and only then, would it make sense for Solarwinds to provide their stuff on Linux.

Update 31 July

Denny LeCompte emailed me after this post was published to let me know that Solarwinds do, in fact, have some products that run on Linux: Virtualization Manager, Log and Event Manager, and Alert Central all run on Linux.

And the flagship N-able product, recently acquired by Solarwinds, is also Linux based.

Denny explained that the Windows centric nature of Solarwinds’ products is most historical: Linux wasn’t as big a deal when they started writing the original products, and the business case for rewriting them hasn’t stacked up so far.

Like I said, this is a feature, not a bug. If the market demand isn’t there for a Linux version of something, then Solarwinds shouldn’t port it; that would just be a waste of money.

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