Horizon Computer Solutions today has grown to 50 plus employees and a large roster of enterprise and government customers spread across Canada. You might think that our success is the result of a carefully orchestrated strategy coordinated by seasoned business professionals.
You would be wrong.
In reality, we’ve been guided more by instinct and opportunity than a calculated plan, but I think we’ve shown that enthusiasm, hard work, and a willingness to follow your dream can build a successful business. We’ve learned a lot along the way, so I thought I’d share some of our lessons in hopes that our story can inspire others to follow their passions.
Horizon was founded by four twentysomething young guys – Duane, Blair, Joe, and me – in 1995, and our motivations were pretty simple: We needed a job. The company we worked for had just gone belly up, throwing us out on the street without much warning. We knew we collectively had the skills to start our own computer business. My partners had the technical brains and the sales savvy, and I knew how to run a back office. With all we had going for us, we know any bank would be happy to loan us the seed capital we needed.
The banks thought otherwise. When the loan officers discovered that our only practical experience beyond our now-bankrupt former employer was Duane’s brief career as a milkman, they couldn’t usher us out of the office fast enough. So we had to scramble. I sold my car and rang up my credit cards to raise cash. Blair called up a former customer who had promised a favor if he ever needed it. Joe liked our plan. We were in business.
Our business plan actually did turn out to be flawed.
It was much too conservative.
We started as a storefront shop selling PCs, most of which we made ourselves. But before long we realized the scalability limits of that approach. So we began reselling brand-name PCs and providing services. Our location in the relatively small city of Saskatoon turned out to be a plus. There wasn’t much competition, and when the Internet train came through in the late 90s, we were the best guys to help businesses get on board.
Our business plan actually did turn out to be flawed. It was much too conservative. We beat our first-year sales forecast in six months. Emboldened, we expanded into accounting systems, website design, professional services, and even ERP. The fact that we didn’t know much about some of these markets didn’t faze us. We gambled that we could hire the talent who did. By investing in people with the right skills, thinking in the long term, and building trusted relationships with our clients, we continued to grow organically as we expanded into data center design and enterprise solutions. Was it risky? Yes. Did it pay off? Most of the time.
When I reflect on what I’ve learned over more than 20 years as an entrepreneur, a few core principles stand out.
1. Be passionate. I’ve always believed that IT is an enabler, not a cost center. I love technology and the promise of how it can make our businesses and our lives better. The thrill of being part of this wild revolution is what gets me out of bed in the morning. I can’t wait for what lies just ahead with the combination of the internet of things, Blockchain, artificial intelligence, and robotics.
2. See around corners. We’ve been lucky to have been pretty successful at anticipating change and picking winners. We don’t get everything right, which is why part of the equation is knowing when to cut your losses. But when we see small changes in our business, we try to look ahead at what they portend.
For example, when Best Buy moved into the neighborhood, we got out of retail entirely. We took a pass on smartphones because we didn’t think margins were there, and I’m glad we did. We placed a bet on data center services, even though it wasn’t our strong point because we knew we could find good people with the skills we needed. So far, we’ve been right a lot more than we’ve been wrong.
3. Trust your people. Hire with the understanding that people bring different skills to the table. They’re not all going to be rock stars, that’s not what you want. Wayne Gretzky was great because he had solid forwards and defensemen around him. Give your people assignments that set them up for success, then get out of their way. Treat them with respect. They will reward you. Our head of accounting has been with us for 20 years. Her knowledge of our business and our people is more valuable to me than any CFO in the industry.
4. Listen till it hurts. You can’t manage a successful technology business from behind a desk, so get out there with your customers. Listen to their problems, but don’t expect them to provide you with the solutions. That’s your job.
5. Invest in customers. We’ve always made it a point to offer events, seminars, and training courses to our customers at little or no cost. Investing in their skills makes them more successful, and also reinforces our own values. Do you know what they say about how it’s cheaper to get more business from existing customers than to find new ones? It’s true.
As good as the last 27 years have been, I like to think we’re still at the beginning. There’s so much technology in the pipeline and so many ways to use it, that we’ll never run out of ideas.
What success secrets have you learned along the way?