Standing Out from the Crowd

Building relationships, building business
In an intensely competitive market, AIE managed to stand out from the crowd and become more than a one-man-shop. Ben and Jeremy reflect on how they succeeded.

Benjamin Wills

The IT landscape in Chicago is different than many other major markets.

I say that still holding on to the attitude that major US markets are not different. For some reason, all the companies where I have worked in the past have had trouble growing their Chicago market to any significant size. As I live and work in the area, I realize Chicago is a very mixed business population. There is no major industry or player that stands out above the rest. Chicago is not critically entwined with the auto industry, a sole giant university or a tech development corridor. This wide mix of industry offers a lot of opportunity for IT service companies of all sizes to thrive. With that said, it is also difficult to stand out in the crowd of IT services companies in the Chicago area.

Our strategy has not really changed much from the beginning. 

Our approach to the Chicago market is that of leveraging relationships in our personal and business lives. In previous blog entries, we have talked about getting out into the market and doing person to person networking. This approach is still the preferred and most productive angle on the market. There really is no magic to the growth formula. Help others achieve their goals, and you will naturally gain business and the relationships that go along with it.

As AIE evolves into a mature business, our niche is starting to appear. 

We have the luxury to define what we do in the enormous field of IT and walk away from business that maybe we would have chased in the past. This maturation will allow us to deliver better service to our clients as well as make us more efficient. And really, any business should define what it delivers and continually walk away from the tempting opportunities that are not really part of the core strengths.

Not to advise turning a blind eye to new opportunities, but don’t treat the new activity as part of everyday business immediately. The constant introduction of new product or processes translates to constant turmoil and the inability to become efficient in delivery of the core product or service. Treat new opportunities and markets as research and development or experiments. Once the new opportunity proves out and there is an integration plan, a successful introduction to daily business will occur.

AIE did not mature any more gracefully than other typical businesses.

Much of what I write, I wish were more typical of how we operate. Growing the business internally and growing the business externally are really two different things. Sometimes I feel like I have two different careers!


Jeremy Wills

People do business with those they know, like and trust. 

I learned this one evening in 2003, doing business with an advisor of a Fortune 500 company. It stuck with me. But that’s not the full story — quite frankly, that’s just the beginning.

We operate in an intensely competitive industry.  

When we got rolling, there were endless up-hill dynamics to tackle simultaneously. There was a fatigued economy and a lot of paranoid wallets. As a result, changes in customer spending habits were evolving. The cloud invasion was emerging, challenging the ideal of having your IT infrastructure in-house, suggesting a datacenter model. IT companies were consolidating, adversely affecting our ability to compete against the one-stop-shop experience. Also, service delivery was moving rapidly away from T&M — known as break/fix — and trending towards a managed services offering to customers with monthly services at fixed prices.

In identifying these challenges, Ben and I made the commitment to embrace each of them, adopting the emerging technology tools and applying best-practice processes in order to successfully support our customers. I believe we had two strategic advantages — an architect and the ability to relate.

They liked that Ben was an architect.

We knew the flip-side of these changes in the market was that we were entering at an opportunistic time when business would be readily available — so long as we were able to build a sustainable services model. When we first started out, we sold what was on our shelf: Ben. In my mind, that was the only competitive advantage we needed to properly launch. Being a technical architect, Ben could deliver and support the very solutions we proposed; and, in retrospect is what ultimately helped establish and maintain our business relationships. 

They trusted us as fellow business owners.

Being in the small and mid-size market, we were talking directly to business owners. That, too, was an advantage, as we could relate to them as fellow business owners.  We leveraged the fact that both Ben and I previously worked with those inside Fortune 500 as well as within small business. This translated to the ability to meet high-level service delivery expectations, while being sensitive to the cash flow that often drives the decisions of the SMB market.

They knew we understood their needs.

Our approach was to not talk technology per se, which is merely addressing the surface of issues. Decision makers want to focus on issues such as how technology can drive business goals, mitigate risks, produce ROI, and help meet compliance requirements. In talking with C-Level decision makers, we removed the technology lingo and boiled it down to the dollars and cents. As I heard a consultant in a workshop state once, “we advise non-technical executives on how to make technology-based decisions.”  

The ability to move beyond tech-talk and communicate business solutions is what allows for the decision maker to put pen to paper.

People do business with those they know, like and trust. Those same people demand that we relate to their business challenges and architect the right solutions.