I believe many small start-ups result in part because the owners came from a business or industry they knew they could improve upon, whether by process or invention.
AIE’s situation was not much different in the start-up phase. We had our ideas and improvements from our respective career experience. However, we also happened upon a couple of big surprises that were not a part of our core market strategy, that have become frequent bottom line producers for us: structured wiring and sub-contracting. Both of these came as a result of stretching our comfort zone and being poor.
If necessity is the mother of invention, poverty is the father of risk-taking.
When we had opportunity to bid on wiring projects, it was not in my skill set nor was it in my desire. I thought to myself, “who needs to wire anything anymore?” I also thought that kind of business had long ago become commoditized.
Encouragement from Jeremy to take the risk and a smart, willing technical staff with skill made our wiring business a profitable and interesting product. There are many reasons behind wiring and it often indicates other large scale IT changes at a client – all good for AIE to know!
The other surprise to me was sub-contracting for other IT firms that we would traditionally view as competition.
This strategy has also become a vital part of our business. “Co-opetition” is not a word invented by me, but it has become a major part of my vocabulary. No company has all the skills required for every job, so when the need arises, the company often sub-contracts. We have just made it a focus to help other companies deliver a more complete offering to their clients.
Obviously, trust plays a large factor in allowing a competitor behind the curtain, as it were, but as time goes on, the relationship becomes very reliable. We tell our potential “co-opetitors” that there is plenty of business in Chicago for all of us, so we do not need to resort to plundering.
My advice to entrepreneurs: Be on the look-out for non-comfortable business opportunities that will expand your horizons and then find a great co-opetitor to help you grow into that new line!
There were three instances I can recall where unexpected change was facing us.
They were all fairly immediate. Right out of the gate, we recognized a need to shift how we provided our service model from T&M to a fixed price model which offers all inclusive services—known as being a managed services provider, or MSP. The second was in adopting new tools needed to support our clients.
The last was in expanding our services.
In particular, about two years into our business, I was introduced to the owner of a Chicago-based company looking to take a new internet-based smart device to the marketplace. This device required both firewall programming skills along with wiring and wireless delivery.
They were faced with a decision of their own — whether to do the IT delivery in-house, or to partner with us in order to deliver the services to their customers. After a number of meetings, they decided to move forward with us.
We knew the partnership would come with some upfront costs.
We spent a significant amount of time helping navigate post sale implementation details. We acted quickly to create marketing materials, process flow charts between our companies, custom service orders, and procurement for all of the necessary hardware. The upside we imagined to be good, but didn't necessarily know how good.
Our effort and adaptability grew our businesses in ways we couldn't have anticipated.
This partnership played a significant role in allowing us to take one of our contractors and convert them into our first full time employee. It also bolstered an unexpected new service revenue stream in structured wiring. This segued us into other profitable areas including wireless and mobility solutions.
Every day, marketplace opportunity is right around the corner. Elbow grease and a little ingenuity continue to bridge the gaps. And I continue to realize that the cost to invest in new opportunities is unavoidable, but inevitably yields exponential returns so much greater than can be seen in the original forecast.