How an IT consultant learned to automate himself as basic IT tasks fade into irrelevance
Oct 4, 2017, 10:49am EDT
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Brent Kenreich, CloudCover
For its first four years, Brent Kenreich’s Cloud Cover LLC was “me and a guy.” That’s on par for most managed service providers, which are basically independent IT consultants.
Shortly after bringing on a third person last year, Kenreich decided to abandon haphazard growth and develop a strategy. He hired Holli Houseworth as director of marketing and operations in January and started his first ads. Now the company has eight employees plus contractors and is recruiting for two openings.
Kenreich is aiming for $700,000 revenue this year, a 40 percent increase over 2016. In a decade, he wants to hit $8 million and have an office in another state.
“I decided I would do it: If I was going to have a business, it would be a business, not a job,” Kenreich said.
Managing the IT infrastructure of small to medium businesses used to mean installing servers, networks and machines, then fixing things that broke. Today, most clients have migrated some or all of their business to the cloud, and Cloud Cover is doing more strategic automation of business processes like time cards.
Kenreich did for his own business what he does for clients: Set up procedures and built several data visualization dashboards. The system can identify problems at client sites, and in most cases they’re fixed before the client knows there was a problem.
“There’s a magic to standardizing a process,” he said. “A lot of the things we do would be hard to do without that level of integration.”
Its nine core clients include construction companies, real estate brokerages and churches. For one, Kenreich is “virtual CIO” overseeing a company’s small IT staff.
The company is housed in an extra office attached to a truck mechanic’s garage at its founding client, Nickolas Savko & Sons Inc., a northwest Columbus contractor. Dump trucks rumble by the windows, and conference calls are sometimes spiced with passing mechanics’ colorful language.
“I know a tremendous amount about the makes and models of dump trucks and how much gas they use,” Kenreich said. "Part of our deal is I got free rent. As we grow, we’ll probably need our own office."
Edited and condensed from an interview with Kenreich, with one interjection from Houseworth:
This is an interesting headquarters for an IT company. How did you get here? I worked for Marty Savko for a number of years in various capacities. I left to take a different job. Marty found me and said, I’ve not been happy with anyone after you, I’d like you to come back. I said, that’s great, I’ll think about it. Marty said, nope, I’ll see you Monday.
I said, at least I should give some notice to the place I’m at now. Marty said, nope, I’ll see you Monday.
So I asked if it would be all right if I stop there at 7:30 in the morning and told them I have to go over to your office at 8. He said, well, OK, if you have to.
And so I was here Monday morning at 8, and I stopped by the other place and said this is where I have to go, but I’d love to be a consultant for you. And they said sure. And I was essentially in business.
Wait. You were able to quit on a moment’s notice, no hard feelings, and remain a consultant? I was very tactful. (For the first year, he supplemented his income with the consulting work.)
I had a lot of former clients calling me. My (one-year) non-compete (contract) was up on a Monday. I was double-booked as of Tuesday 9 a.m.
That must not have made your previous employer unhappy. That’s true. They are not particularly happy with me. Some five years later, some of their former employees are helping me out in various capacities.
Not to be awkward, but what is it about you that inspires such fanatical devotion? I’m as excited and passionate about computers and using them in unique ways to solve problems as anyone you’ll ever meet.
Houseworth: In talking to our clients, there’s a lot of hand-holding to get them to use our other guys because they want Brent. IT people, they’re not the easiest to deal with. Brent is very easy to deal with. He helps our clients understand the process, and actually gives them a lot of time and resources so they can, if they wanted to, do some of their own stuff. They trust in him, and he doesn’t make them feel like he’s this overlord of IT.
What’s the nature of an IT project for a big contractor? If you have hundreds of employees filling out time sheets on paper, that paper makes it back to the office at the end of the week, someone enters that paper into a spreadsheet and a report is generated. By the time you find out you have a problem, that’s been going on for two weeks. You don’t want to wait until you’re half a million dollars in the hole to find that they’re behind schedule.
When did you grow beyond the first two people? We had three for part of last year. I was not super at managing people when I started. Not that I’m super now, but I’m much better.
What did you have to change in yourself? By far the hardest part was lust letting go. It’s very unnerving to hire a finance person and give them access to your bank account. It’s a bit disturbing to give someone access to your emails so you can keep up.
How do managed service providers usually use offshore workers? The people who own the company show up and plug things in and someone in another country does the rest. They essentially mark up that (call center) service.
What’s different about you? While we fix some things remotely, we’re on site enough they know who we are and we know who they are, and in many cases where their kids go to school. We know their business. I know a lot about construction because I’m here, so it’s easier to have that conversation.
Aren’t your margins lower? Yes. The trade-off for lower margins is typically a stronger relationship.
Are you now moving into software development as well? One of our contractors is a developer. If you’re 20 years old now, you know how to fix your computer. The basic work (of IT) is going away. You have to move up the food chain to business processes to stay in business.
How do these last six months compare to the first 20 years of your career? The first 20 years I was focused on fixing something. The last few months have been all about building the systems to fix things.
You automated yourself. To a large extent, yes.
Like Moore’s Law for IT? Every 18 months you’ve got to be about twice as good to keep the business. Most of this job is learning. Whatever you knew five years ago is mostly irrelevant.
Brent Kenreich, CEO
Cloud Cover LLC
Business: IT managed service provider
2016 revenue: $500,000
Columbus Business First