Q&A with IT Solutions
Founder, Ted Swanson
Tell me about ITS's start and formation. Why did you start the company?
When I was 10 I got my first computer - a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III. I learned to program on that machine -it had 0.05MB of RAM and a cassette recorder as a hard drive. I've always loved computers and even though I got a degree in something completely different - architectural engineering, I always wanted to be a computer consultant, so when I graduated from college that's what I did.
Did you always know you'd be an entrepreneur? Who were your mentors and/or inspirations?
I come from a family of entrepreneurs from my grandfather to my father and uncles. I saw what running a business looked like up close. I started 5 or 6 businesses from the time I was 14 until I graduated college. They were all small time and went nowhere, but they taught me a lot about what not to do.
Early on, at what point in time did you know you were on to something with ITS? Was there a moment of clarity?
When we moved into a real office and started paying rent and expenses I knew I better be on to something or we were all totally screwed.
Tell me about the evolution of the ITS service offerings. When did ITS become a true managed service business?
One of my first clients was a law firm, Jacoby Donner. One of the attorneys there, Chris Lee, taught me about billing and cash flow and how to survive as a business. They're still a client to this day. We discovered managed services in 2004. We were tired of being at odds with our clients - every time something broke we got paid to fix it. We wanted to be on the same side, rowing the boat in the same direction. It feels much better to be paid for keeping things running.
In your opinion what are the three most important qualities needed for successful business leadership?
The first one is integrity. If your employees, your vendors, or your clients don't believe you're going to do what you say you're going to do then you'll never even get off the ground. Second, I personally believe that a small business owner needs a very solid grasp of accounting and numbers. I never wanted to find out a month later that we didn't have as much cash in the bank as I thought we did. I always wanted to know that information first hand. And last, but certainly not least, you have to know how to hire good people - especially people that are good at the things you aren't good at. Leadership is a team effort and if you don't hire good managers they won't hire good employees and the whole thing falls apart.
What's the greatest lesson you've learned over the years in this business?
Nothing is ever as good or bad as it first appears. Also, you only have to run out of cash once to go out of business, so don't do that. Ever.
What's the best piece of advice you can give to young entrepreneurs in this industry?
We don't want any more competitors so I would advise them to go to medical school. The world needs more doctors.
As you look back on the past 20 years, what are your proudest or most rewarding accomplishments?
I am always so proud of how hard our staff works. They take personal pride in everything they do and in the success of the business. My proudest single moment is converting the company to an employee-owned business and seeing how much better they've made the company since that day.
If you think about the defining ITS moments over the years, what stands out?
One of our competitors offered to buy us in 2000 for $60,000. We actually came pretty close to taking that deal, but in the end we decided not to take it because we knew we could grow it faster than they could. Thirteen years later the same company made another offer for a whole lot more and we turned them down. For the same reason.
As the Founder, Chairman, and CEO / CFO of a technology organization, what does an average day for you look like? How has your role evolved overtime?
There was a time when my day started at a client's office working on their network. I was a consultant in the business for years. Today my role has changed because we have great managers and staff that actually know how to fix things (I don't really know how to fix much anymore). I spend my time working on the business and thinking strategically. The hard work is done by the rest of the ITS team.
What was the hardest decision you've had to make in this role?
Laying off people after 9/11. Many of our clients were directly impacted and we were bleeding money for most of 2002. I had to let two people go because we couldn't afford to pay them anymore. I still remember every detail of that day - probably more than they do. They were the first and only employees I ever had to fire who didn't do anything to deserve it.
If you could describe your corporate culture in three words, what would you say? What do you love best about the culture?
I only need one word - Ownership. I love that our employees own the business and make ownership decisions every day. It permeates the whole business top to bottom and our clients feel it in a positive way every day.
How does ITS foster long-term relationships with clients?
When we start working with a client, we plan on working with them for decades, not months or years. We're a partner and we know that if we can help them be more productive as an organization we will be a trusted advisor for a long time. We give honest advice and we only get paid when things are good. It's a win-win.
What makes ITS and your service offerings stand out from the competition?
In any business the employees are the most important piece of the puzzle. We don't manufacture a tangible product so the interactions between our employees and our clients is the product. We take a long time to hire new employees because we're very picky and once they're a part of our team they know that an unhappy client impacts them directly as an owner.
What can you tell me about the evolution of the industry from when you started the business to today?
We used to get paid to fix things after they broke. Clients saw us walk in and knew that there would be an invoice in the mail the next day. That was a horrible place for us to be. I didn't want to be the kind of business that needed clients to have disasters in order to be profitable. I'm glad that changed when it did. The other huge difference is the Cloud. I remember when we used to just call it the Internet and it was only useful for sending e-mail. We rely on the Cloud for almost everything we do today. And in 5 years there may only be a handful of servers left in our clients' offices.
What are you most excited about for the future of ITS? Where do you see the company in another 20 years?
In our business it's hard to predict what things will look like in 3 years let alone 20. My guess is that there will still be computers in 20 years and that businesses will still want a partner to help them make the most of their technology. I imagine we will also have an office on the moon. A satellite office, obviously.