By now you must be familiar with the “Buy Local” campaign. It started with food and has more recently (at least in this area) branched out to craft beer. But there’s a segment of the marketplace that makes just as much sense to buy local that would surprise many consumers: information technology.
Chase Boles, co-owner of Bailey Computing Technologies in Gray has watched the local IT scene grow in depth and breadth since the 1980s. Today the company specializes in highly available networks (in which, if a single point in the network fails, the network doesn’t go down because the power to other access points is increased to cover the gap), including servers, storage systems, voice and data. “We’re probably known more for training,” Boles says, “because we started doing training back in the 1980s. But training only makes up about 15 percent of our business now. The balance is in unified voice and data solutions.”
BCTI has now deployed networks literally coast to coast, from North Carolina to California and from Canada to Mexico to Puerto Rico. “Cisco recently named us as the No.1 Premier Partner Elite in Tennessee and No. 6 in the nation,” Boles says. “Companies like CDW come beneath us in the rankings.”
Traditionally, only large businesses and institutions like hospitals and colleges could justify the use of the so-called “highly available” systems. But that’s changing rapidly.
“In the 1990s, we did this in a TRW manufacturing facility with three shifts running,” Boles says. “Today the price has come down to where a small physician’s office can benefit from a highly available solution. This is all business. It’s not technology for the glory of technology.”
David Temple, founder and president of Saratoga Technologies, which operates in Johnson City, Abingdon and Knoxville, says today businesses can work with local companies to do things that in the past they’d have to go through huge telecommunications firms to do because of the price drops Boles mentioned.
“Look at voice,” Temple says. “Price and access to bandwidth are driving customers away from traditional voice service providers. Bandwidth prices have come way down in the last two years, and it’s less money now to put a full Voice over IP phone on your network than it is to get a copper line from a phone company. You might pay $50 for a copper line per month and only $35 for VOIP. That’s with the latest phone system, things like making your iPhone or Droid the extension on your PBX with full support, full everything.
Voice is our fastest growing segment.”
The ubiquitous nature of affordable technology means buyers have a choice of where to get hardware solutions of all sorts. For instance, Appalachia Business Communications in Gray has been selling photocopiers for decades. Now the firm is selling digital whiteboards and state-of-the-art signage systems and competing with other local firms that now have entered the managed print and IT services segment it helped introduce to the market.
“We’re a commercial grade copier company, first and foremost,” says Jeff Eaves, president. “But so much has changed. Now we’re offering managed services where we can take care of your server, your network and your workstations.”
Eaves has been in business in the Tri-Cities for more than 20 years. He’s built a base of clients who know and trust him and his company. He’ll put that up against an out-of-market provider any day, he says. “Look, if there’s a problem, my customers know who to call. Some of these outfits don’t even have a telephone number anywhere on their website. If you’re working with them and there’s a problem, good luck.”
Eaves tells the story of a client who called when they lost service and his tech told him, “I’ll go up there and fix it as soon as I get through watching this webinar.”
That’s the mentality at the large, out-of-market companies that gives firms like his the opportunity to succeed, Eaves says. “I told him, ‘that webinar can wait. You get up there right now and see to that customer. That customer’s data is the most important thing in the world to him right now. He can’t do business without it. We treat it as our responsibility to give him the best service he can get.”
Still, some customers think they have to go big to do things right, and going big means overpaying someone far, far away.
Even though his tech company, Appville, is relatively new (founded April, 2013), K. D. Bowen knows the challenges of selling to local buyers who think they have to go to Cupertino, Ca., to get what they need. Like Eaves, Bowen knows the value of accountability.
“A lot of time when you think of apps, you think of big companies. Small business owners sometimes think they aren’t big enough for an app. An app is just a tool for solving problems…so we did an app for a local church that helps young people tithe directly through their phone. Young people don’t write checks anymore, but they use apps. You know, we’re in the community. We’re at the chamber doing a Lunch & Learn. You can go online and find someone to make you an app. But they can get over on you. I can’t get over on you. I live here. I’m going to do everything I can to prevent problems and if there is a problem, I’m going to do everything to can to fix it. You know you can count on us. If you go to Washington state to get something done and they mess it up, that’s just on you, whereas we are here and we want to treat you the way we’d want to be treated.”
Appville is targeted primarily to small business owners who want to reach the burgeoning mobile marketplace. “I used apps in my sports retail business, Fanatics 101, to build loyalty. I’d give discounts to people who walked in the door ten times. I’d use the app to let them know I was having a buy one, get another at half price sale. When that worked so well, I thought, ‘Man, I should start a company that markets apps. If they work this well for me, other business owners will benefit too.’”
And while most small business owners still see apps as mainly a marketing tool, Bowen says one of his favorite app uses is not about advertising, it’s about competition. “We call it geofencing,” he says. “Everybody who has your app, everytime they go by your competitor’s store, the app will send them a notification. So they’ll go in and see maybe your store is offering 15 percent off today. That immediately gives the app user the opportunity to say to your competitor, ‘Hey, are you willing to match the 15 percent discount they’re offering? That puts your competitor in the position of having to make a snap decision to accept their customer’s deal or not. And you’re the one who put them in that position. Most of the time, your competitor will drop the ball in that situation.”
The fact that local businesses are taking advantage of these opportunities now is not surprising to Temple, who says, “We’re all walking around now with these devices that are very powerful. We have access to bandwidth like never before. We’re able to do things now that unless you were a large corporation, you’ve never been able to do before. Now you and I on the street can do what used to take a lot of money to do. We can do things for $100 now that used to take $100,000. That’s not hyperbole. Some things that used to take hundreds of thousands of dollars to do you can do now with free apps. The improvements in productivity a small business can achieve, working with a local IT company, because of this increased access to affordable technology, can be tremendously important to that small business’ growth.”