Owning a Business in a Tough Economy

I can’t control the economy, I can’t control taxes, and I certainly can’t read the minds of what the people in Washington plan on doing in the next year(s). I can certainly have an opinion on these topics but when I see reports that small businesses aren’t growing because they are unsure of how decisions in Washington might impact them in the future I call BS. I think this is just an excuse. There is an opportunity in every market!

When I started my company it was after 9/11 and new startups were popping up left and right in Northern Virginia as government offices had blank checks to start up new projects and do anything they had to do to protect us. It was easy. I saw this opportunity and pounced on it. Anyone can start a company and be successful when your customer has blank checks to give you. What shows that you are sustainable and a real successful business though is when you show an ability to grow during times when your customers are spending less and making cuts and when other businesses are shrinking.

Obviously it’s not easy to do and every industry is different but here are some tips I feel can  help you thrive in a tough economy….

1. Be specialized….be something that others are not. There are always going to be other businesses that do things similar to what you do. It is important that you can set your business aside from other ones. For us we are an IT company, just like a lot of others out there. What sets us apart from them is that we specialize in offering PMP certified Project Managers and also a very specific expertise in a project management software. That is what helped us get established and it is our bread and butter when large companies ask us what we do. They don’t want a company that does everything. They want to find small niche companies that can help round out their resume. Once we get the foot in the door then we can show them all of the other things we do but that niche is what is critical to get in the door.

2. Be Important…fill critical needs not all needs. One big mistake I saw companies make during the period of time after 9/11 when government clients had money to spend was that they were trying to be everything to everyone. I took a slightly different approach and I tried to find one or two spots on each contract that were critical roles that I knew would not be cut or eliminated. This helps a lot during the down times when cuts come your positions are not the first ones they look to cut. We have been very successful by filling critical needs, not just all needs.

3. Be ahead of the game….think ahead….expand to areas where others are not…stay up to speed on economy and rumors of spending etc. Move to to new areas before the money gets there…get out before the money leaves. Diversify as well. Our main goal this year is to really focus on adding new clients to protect ourselves against potential budget cuts or changing priorities. It is VERY important that small businesses are always expanding their networks and speaking to each other about potentially doing work together. It is almost like a fraternity where we look out for each other.

4. Ignore rumors and the doom and gloom – We have been hearing about drastic cuts now for 3 years. Who cares. If I did what I read about small businesses doing then we would not be where we are today. It is annoying to read that small businesses are not growing because of uncertainty of what they think the government might do. Just worry about what you can control and focus on what you are trying to do. If something comes along and forces you to change course or adjust your plan than deal with it but don’t be afraid to make moves because of rumors of doom and gloom.

5. Work Hard – complacency will catch up with you….If you don’t work hard, know that others are and you won’t be successful. This sounds funny but the Biz (co owner in case you forgot from last post), hates to go on vacation because he’s afraid he will lose his job because people will think they can survive without him when hes gone for a week. True story. Here is a very accomplished, smart guy that still has the hunger that hes worried to take a few days off out of fear that someone will replace him. Now granted that’s a bit extreme and Im working on the guy but that’s the hunger I am talking about. As an entrepreneur my family comes first and then comes the company. My phone is always with me, my email/voicemail always responded to promptly. This is my passion and I chose this course. Nothing makes me happier than being able to see the progress we have made and continue to make because of our hard work and dedication.

Last year was a terrible economy according to all estimates and even in the industry we are in a LOT of companies had terrible years. We enjoyed our best year ever as a company. In my opinion, it was no accident. We have a great team, great employees, and are keeping our eyes on the big picture. Time will tell I guess but my biggest piece of advice to people is to ignore the doom and gloom on tv and deal with real life.


Cool Networking Idea

Last week we were fortunate enough to receive an invitation to and attend a rather unique networking event that I wanted to write about here. The event was sponsored by Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) and held at their beautiful offices in Tysons Corner, VA. I attended the event with my co owner Dave Baldini (who from this point forward will be referred to in my posts as The Biz).

PWC sent out invitations to about 15-20 small businesses in the area that they are currently doing business with or would like to do business with in the coming year or so and invited them to come to a reception at their offices after hours. They provided food and drinks for all in attendence which for me automatically made it a cool event. Sounds like a normal networking event you say? Hear me out.

What made this event different than most was that PWC invited 2 guest speakers in that were government employees. The individuals that spoke were leaders of Small Business Offices at government agencies and were great resources for those of us in the room. The talked to us about upcoming opportunities at their organizations, gave us tips on how to acquire business there and answered any questions we had about doing business there as well.

After the speakers were done we had an opportunity to speak more to them as well as network with managers from PWC and also the owners from the other small businesses in attendence. The BIz and I divided and conquered and collected as many business cards as we could in the time that we had. We already have follow on meetings scheduled with PWC as well as a few of the small business owners we met. What a great idea by PWC….truly a win win for them as well as the rest of us in attendence. Companies like PWC have requirements they need to meet each year for business they need to give to small businesses. This helps them build a network of small businesses to work with in the future. For the small businesses the benefits were obvious. Free beer and food. I mean meeting other small business owners as well as Senior managers at a firm like PWC. Also, the ability to hear first hand from Small Business Office managers about upcoming opportunities.

This event also marked a very interesting event for us as a company. This was one of the first times I feel we attended any sort of a networking event like this where we actually were one of the larger of the small businesses in attendence. It felt good to realize how far we have come and how well we have done and continue to do.

I tip my cap to PWC for putting together this great event and it makes me wonder what other type of events do big businesses put on to provide networking opportunities with small businesses? Small businesses are of huge importance to large companies and it’s important that we as small business owners keep that in mind. Don’t go into these events awestruck but rather go feeling as if you belong. As with many situations…Act like you’ve been there before. It shows and it makes a company like PWC comfortable working with you.

Why did I start my Own Company?

Owning my own business was something I always wanted to do. Of course when I was in my pre teen years I had those responses of “I want to be a pro soccer player” when asked what I want to be when I grow up. But once I hit junior high and high school it became my goal to be a business owner (note: I did actually realize my dream of becoming a pro soccer player but quickly learned that I was not going to be able to survive long being paid $200 a game).

When I was a kid I can still recall memories of me drawing “business plans” in pads (my mom probably still has some of them at her house). One specific example was when I used to work at a nursery on weekends that a family friend owned. One of the locations was nothing more than a roadside stand that sold plants and flats of flowers. Some weekends the owner, Joe, used to leave me there to “run” it while he drove off to place his horse racing bets for the day. As I sat there I would think to myself, if I ran this place I would fix it up, I’d knock down that wall, I’d put some more signs up in the road to market it better. I would then go home and write all this down in my pad. Working at this small business showed me what it took to run a business (it also showed me how to understand the racing forms!) Now that I think back on it, it was a little weird but nevertheless this was something I feel I was meant to do for a long time now. When I was recruited for college, soccer coaches would ask me what I was looking for in a school and my response was always “I want to play soccer and learn how to start a business”.

I feel that it takes a special breed of person to start and run their own business. An entrepreneurs mind works differently than a regular persons. Just like a developers mind works differently than a managers mind, a doctors mind works differently than someone not cut out to be a doctor etc. When someone describes a situation that they are dealing with in their life or job many people react by thinking how to get around it, or deal with it etc. My mind immediately thinks, I wonder if there is a business opportunity in this. Is this a sickness? Probably…but it’s how my mind works.

I was once asked by a client that I had worked for to come back and run a program for her. This was it, in my mind this was my chance to start my own company. I asked her if I could come back and work for her as my own company as opposed to the company I currently worked for. She told me she could care less who I worked for, she wanted ME not the company I worked for. At the time I was fortunate that Katie had a great job and we had the flexibility that if my venture failed we would not starve or be unable to pay our bills. Others are not so lucky. These are the people I admire most in business. The people that are so passionate about their ideas that they are willing to risk it all to see their idea come to fruition. Are some of them crazy? Absolutely. But many people thought Steve Jobs was crazy, and Bill Gates was crazy..and the list goes on and on.

I always dreamed that I would think of some awesome product and then sell it to the world. Well, as I got older I figured out that you don’t necessarily HAVE to think of a product that will change the world in order to own a successful business. All you need is an idea and the drive to make it happen. Ask people for advice that you trust. At the time I didn’t know anyone that owned their own business so my first few years were spent flying by the seat of my pants and learning on the job. It definitely added to the rush but it’s also probably what started my high blood pressure issues!

Is owning a business for everyone? Of course not. But if you think it is for you and it’s something you always wanted to do my advice to you is…Go for it! The other advice I can offer is that if you aren’t sure it is for you and you aren’t really positive that you want to do it, then DON’T. Without the passion for running a company there is just no way it will succeed because you won’t put the necessary time in to make it succeed. If you like the idea of running a small business but don’t think you have the flexibility or the knowledge to start one, then go work for one and see first hand what it takes to run one. You can often get involved with that small company and learn on the job how it runs.

So there you have it. A little insight into the warped mind that is Geoff Keller and how integrateIT came to be.

Social Media

It’s impossible to go to a company’s website nowadays without seeing those little icons somewhere on the page linking you to the Facebook page or their Twitter feed.

We decided about 6 months ago that we needed to join the club and have those icons on our website as well. At that time I had no false hopes of what it would mean for us. I didn’t try to convince myself or anyone else that by being on Facebook we would be able to hire people because they loved our Facebook page, I also didn’t think we could attract a new business partner because they followed us on twitter. The goals were simple, for Facebook, share some company news with people we know as it arose. For Twitter, periodically post a news article or a story about project management (our niche) and see what happens. Success would be if 6 months out we logged into one of those sites and we had a post that was less than a week old. We succeeeded, great now what?

I was told by several people that LinkedIn was a great source of recruiting. I still to this day disagree. I feel I have given Linkedin a fair shot and I still do not get the purpose of this website. I feel like I must be missing something. I go on, I “Link” up wth someone…and that’s that. I have joined recruiting “groups” on the site and all that I have seen from these groups are daily spam filling up my inbox. I get requests to Link Up with recruiters who want me to then pay them to recruit for my company. Hardly what I had in mind.

At any rate, we will continue to have a presence on these social media sites. In 2012, we are going to try to come up with some new ways of expanding our presence on Facebook and Twitter as I think there is some potential there. We have actually assigned one of our employees to work on this in 2012 to see what we can do here.

As far as LinkedIn goes, if anyone has any ideas on things I may be missing please do share because I feel like I must be missing out on something….although I have yet to meet someone that can show me proof they have hired people from this site.

We Don’t Need no Stinkin Website

When I started the company in 2004 one of the first things I did was buy the www.integrateit.net domain (.com was already owned). Shortly after making the purchase I thought to myself, now what? I am a company of 1, I don’t know how to develop a website, and honestly who in their right mind would care about me or my company enough to want to look at my website?

Nevertheless I contacted my trusty go to web developer, my brother Tim, who was the cheapest guy in the business at the time (free) and had him whip something up for me and develop a company logo (The same company logo that we use to this day and I actually REALLY like and have gotten many compliments on through the years). The website he developed was one that I thought was very professional looking (he would argue differently probably in hind sight) and it served it’s purpose at the time. That purpose you ask? To show that we existed….nothing more.

Times have changed though as we have grown and I have seen the purpose of our website evolve through the years. Once I started hiring on actual employees I immediately realized I needed a way for them to enter their time that was a little more cutting edge then the pieces of paper I was having them use at the time. It was at that time that my other expert developer Melissa took over and developed our intranet which included a place for us to enter time as well as store important documents our employees would need. This was the first time that I would consider our website to be functional.

Shortly thereafter I would meet with potential new hires and they would say to me things like “I was checking out your website” or “I noticed on your website that you offer…” and it then hit me that the website also needed to be a marketing tool for the benefits that we offer and jobs we are trying to fill because potential recruits were going there to check us out before interviewing with us or even contacting us to get an interview.

Today we have hit a whole new arena of use for our website and that is to market us as a company. I have been lucky to do some work with some very large companies over the past few years and often in my meetings with them they will say things like “I saw on your website that you guys worked on ….”. That first time I was told something like that I can remember getting out of the meeting and thinking to myself…OH MY GOD, I don’t think we have updated the content of the website in MONTHS! I was mortified thinking what this company must have thought as they perused our website filled with outdated content. Real professional. As a result we have now placed someone in charge of content of our website for 2012. His role is to ensure that we always have current content on the website for when new companies or perspective employees head there to look us up. He will also be responsible for our Social Media presence (which I will address in a future post). Also, in 2012 we will be completely redoing our intranet because the architecture that we developed it in has been outgrown. That’s right, we have grown too big for our intranet and need to redo it so we can continue to grow without crashing our own intranet.

The moral of the story here is that no matter how small you are there are going to be people checking you out on the web. As you grow, the importance of that website will grow as well and the purpose of the website will change. If you don’t keep up with the times and update your website you may lose out on a recruit, or a meeting with a new partner and the worst part is you may never know about it.

Happy New Year

New Years Day. I got up early (as if I had a choice with 3 boys 5 and under) and got a nice workout in to start the year off right. My personal goal this year is to get in better shape and get in some sort of a routine with respect to my exercising. From a company standpoint one thing I make a habit of for each of the 7 years that we have been in business is to make sort of New Years Resolutions for integrateIT.

In the past when we were smaller I would actually make up a powerpoint presentation outlining what we accomplished in the prior year and then my goals for the company in the coming year. In that presentation i would also look at the prior years goals and mark them as achieved or not. This exercise is actually quite simple but is a way to hold myself accountable for the goals I set. I don’t have shareholders or stock analysts holding me accountable for the promises I have made so this is one small way I can do that for myself.

As my company has grown I have found that these are great things to share with my employees as they are interested in seeing how we did the prior year as well as our plans for that coming year. It also allows them to contribute to meeting those goals if they know what they are. I make sure that these goals are not financial goals as I don’t need to share those types of goals with everyone but rather measurable goals that are a stretch but also attainable. I have not yet presented this years tot he staff so I won’t steal the thunder here but 2 examples that we will have this coming year are to hire 5 new employees and to close a contract with a new government agency we don’t currently do business with.

As you can see both are easily measurable and for anyone that works in the industry we work in you also know these will require some work to achieve.

2011 was an awesome year for integrateIt during some very tough economic times. For that it may have been the year I am most proud of to date. We look forward to a great 2012 and wish all of you the same success in 2012 and beyond!