Thoughts from Jay Mellon, partner, and Jim Laber, partner, AtNetPlus Inc.
Q: Give us an example of a business challenge your organization faced, as well as how you overcame it.
Issues of scalability across the organization come with rapid growth. Internal processes that were effective with a few staff members often do not translate to an organization of more than 20 employees. Very small companies tend to rely on the individual employee to multitask and to do whatever is necessary to provide exceptional customer service. As the company grows, the customer encounters various employees at different points in the process. This often results in a gap between the expectations of the client and the actual customer experience.
AtNetPlus has implemented several initiatives to address these issues including:
• Creating a Customer Advisory Team
• Developing Customer Service Standards
• Participating in third party surveys to gain insight into overall customer satisfaction
• Improving and fully documenting Internal Processes and Procedures
• Establishing management roles to ensure a consistent, positive customer experience
Each of these initiatives has been undertaken with deliberate emphasis on improving customer satisfaction. We recognize that exceptional customer service is what differentiates AtNetPlus from the competition – now and in the future. Remaining aware of the service delivery issues that accompany growth is paramount to our continued success. Not only do we have to put proper procedures and controls into place but we also have to instill ‘esprit de corps’ among the entire staff – to make “Attentive IT Support that Keeps Our Clients’ Technology Connected, Secure and Working” our primary mission as we expand the company.
Q: In what ways are you an innovative leader, and how does your organization employ innovation to be on the leading edge?
In the IT industry, complicated emerging technologies constantly must be evaluated and revised to fit the needs and expectations of our client base. With that in mind, Partners Jay Mellon and Jim Laber are always assessing industry trends to find new offerings that will not only be cost effective, but also give our clients a competitive edge in the future. They rely heavily on the entire staff for insight, suggestions, and improvements to our products and services.
For example, AtNetPlus recently moved forward with hosted virtualization. We began implementing this new technology a few years ago. Today, our firm is taking the lead in virtualization for SMBs. We recently became one of less than 100 companies in North America certified by VMWare® to implement hosted virtualization. In order to fully integrate it into our service offerings we are developing plans to expand our data center. The expansion will give us the capacity that we need to meet the growing demand for this technology.
The current data center was designed and built to be fully redundant and includes up-to-date security features. Although a privately owned data center is fairly unique for a regional IT company, our service offerings require flexibility that is not generally available through large, national providers. Services such as virtualization and Software as a Service (SaaS) are changing how IT will be delivered in the future. To ensure continued success and to set AtNetPlus apart from our competition, the data center must have the capacity to offer a full range of customized, hosted solutions to our clients.
To encourage innovation among our staff we have put into place an initiative called ‘pet projects.’ Each member of our technical team has a target utilization to meet each week, however we urge each of them to pick a ‘pet project’ in which they can spend up to four hours per week without effecting their utilization. With the approval of their manager, they can choose any type of project for which they have an interest, and investigate ways to use that technology to provide a product or service offering that would be of benefit to our client community. Sometimes this involves identifying and testing a new service from a vendor, or it could be writing a custom program to solve a problem.
An example of a recent success of the pet project program is our implementation of m0n0wall, which is a firewall (computer security solution). Our AtNetGuard service was designed by one of our IT Specialists and offers exceptional firewall protection to our clients. AtNetGuard employs an open source firewall product on top of low cost hardware resulting in a unique, affordable solution with the same functionality as devices that typically cost over three times as much.
Because of the innovation of our team, our clients are able to enjoy the benefits of cutting edge technology that is traditionally too expensive for small and medium sized businesses to employ. AtNetPlus continuously explores ways to help our clients remain competitive using the most advanced technology available.
AtNetPlus also looks for innovative ways to reach a larger market and to improve economic development in northeast Ohio. To that end, last year we became a Microsoft BizSpark™ Hosting Partner. BizSpark is a new, global program introduced by Microsoft to accelerate the success of high-potential startup companies. The program is designed to give entrepreneurs quick access to full-featured software development tools and product licenses from Microsoft at no cost to the startup.
The goal of AtNetPlus is to not only expedite the BizSpark enrollment process for startups but also to provide the ‘back end’ support they need to thrive. As a Partner, we can provide hosting for Cloud solutions developed by BizSpark startups worldwide. We can assist these companies with server hosting for themselves and their clients in our secure, fully-redundant data center. Removing costly roadblocks for high tech development will help entrepreneurs to bring their products to market sooner and with much lower overhead.
Through this program, one company that we have helped saved over $99,000 in startup costs. Clearly the savings in overhead alone can be the difference between success and failure for an entrepreneur. AtNetPlus benefits from this program by becoming the technical advisor to these companies and hosting their solution as well as from assisting the clients of the startup.
Although the BizSpark program was initiated by Microsoft, AtNetPlus immediately recognized the potential positive impact not only for us but for economic development in northeast Ohio. We have been contacting local incubators, business accelerators, and municipal economic development departments in the region to raise awareness of this program and its benefits for software development entrepreneurs. This unique program will allow us to not only expand our business but enhance economic development opportunities in the region.
Q: What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned and how have you applied it?
Partner Jay Mellon recently described the greatest lesson he ever learned: “My father is a lifelong small business owner. Some of my most memorable moments growing up occurred while sitting in his office watching him work at his desk. Today, he is an invaluable mentor and advisor. However, if I had to choose one thing that influenced me, it would be the sign in his office that read: ‘He who really wants to do something finds a way, He who doesn’t finds an excuse.’ Seeing those words served as a constant reminder to me that he believed his success was up to him. I now have the same sign hanging in my office. Whenever I see it I remember watching my dad and think about how success is a choice I have to make every day.”
Q: How does your organization make a significant impact on the community and regional economy?
The growth of small businesses is the engine that drives the local economy. The impact of AtNetPlus has been recognized by multiple organizations over the past several years. We have been honored by not only the Weatherhead but also by the NEO Success Awards, Cascade Capital Business Growth Awards, Leading Edge Awards, and the Inc. 5000. Over the past five years, we have had an increase in revenue of 54% and an increase in staff of 110%, which has a positive impact on the economy of the region. Our employees enjoy competitive salaries and full benefits. The taxes they pay and the dollars they spend locally trickle through the economy of several counties and many communities in the region.
In addition to the economic impact, AtNetPlus employees have made significant contributions to the cities in which they work and live. From the owners of the company to the newest employees, time and resources are freely given to a variety of volunteer organizations in the area.
Partners Jim Laber and Jay Mellon both serve on the boards of directors for several nonprofit organizations. In addition, Habitat for Humanity, Akron Canton Regional Food Bank, the Rotary, the Red Cross, several Chambers of Commerce, and many other volunteer organizations are actively supported by AtNetPlus and the efforts of its’ employees. As an organization, AtNetPlus is committed to improving the economy and the quality of life in northeast Ohio.