Hardy Martin is Chief IT Officer of AronData, Inc., which provides solutions to the CRM industry for implementation, development, and data integration. He has worked in the IT industry for almost 30 years.
We talked with Hardy Martin about starting up your own IT consulting firm, and he gave us some insight on what it takes to make it as a business owner and why it’s harder than most people think. The transcript below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
When did you start your business, Arondata, Inc.? Why?
I began AronData, Inc. in 2005 after working for Syngenta, an agri-business company, as a full-time IT consultant.
There was a need for my services, and being employed by one particular person, I couldn’t work or offer any services to any other company. So I designed and started my own company. As an IT consultant, I’m able to effectively divide my time well between other companies. I don’t need to be there 100 percent of the time.
What did you need to start up your small business?
Obviously, I needed to have an office or place to work from. Strong Internet bandwidth, business telephone, basic computers with the software I needed, accounting software, a vehicle, printer, office furniture – that was basically it. I worked from home, but my office was separate from the rest of the house.
Do you recommend working from home for IT consultants?
There are definitely benefits. But it depends on the type of business, especially if you’re seeing clients all the time. Most of the work can be done remotely. Otherwise, you’re traveling to the customer’s site to complete necessary work. You have to be 100 percent disciplined working from home. I get up at 7 a.m., sometimes 6:30 a.m., then go straight to my office and start working. I catch up with things, and after 9 a.m., I’ll go have breakfast. Back again to work. Eleven a.m. tea, work, and then lunchtime. Very rigid. The only thing I don’t do is knock off before 5 or 6. Routine and discipline are essential keys.
What are the first steps of starting your own IT business?
There’s personal apprehension. To go out by yourself, that’s a big step. From that perspective, if you’ve got a mindset that you’ll be okay, it helps a lot. There’s a lot of negativity from others and sometimes yourself. You’ll find yourself asking the question, “Are you going to be able to make ends meet?” It’s important to consider this because you’ve got to say, “What goals do I have for… six months… one year from now?” Set goals and make sure you achieve them. Weigh out risks and look at the high probabilities and apply an action plan for each to minimize those risks. Work out all of these things up front and make contingency plans. You need an action plan to compensate the risk. Otherwise, you’ll just go forward blindly. These are your two biggest steps:
- Believe in what you’re doing.
- Practice proper risk assessment.
Another key ingredient is that from day one you have some form of income – at least a minimum that will give you some way to cover your costs. If you do that, I think you’ll be successful.
How did you attract customers to your business?
I never advertised. I rely entirely on word of mouth. The area I specialize in – programming and specific CRM products – that’s my focus. But I have the ability to go work in almost any IT environment. In order for me to continually gain exposure, I would follow a few practices. First of all, I communicate with the software product providers in the field. They have access to a lot of clients. I go beyond regular coding, so I make sure they know about me. They know I’m technically savvy enough to manage their product. Then they can turn around and say to a customer, “This guy knows what he’s doing. The Market recommends him.” Also never nickel and dime a customer – you will lose business. Remember going the extra mile at no charge molds your persona in the field.
I’ve never been without a job because of that. Go the extra mile to get out there. I prefer to do the work first and let your name carry you. I don’t believe in traditional advertising or marketing. Although it can be done, just don’t spend excessive amounts on it.
How did you learn to operate efficiently with clients?
Three things to remember when working with clients:
- Approach clients with the mindset of, “I’m here to work with you to solve this problem. No matter what it entails, we’ll fix it. You’ve got this issue and we will do nothing short of fixing it.” Instill confidence in the customer from day one.
- Fix first, pay later. If it takes me ten days, then it will take me ten days to give you a solution. Whatever part of those ten days that is of value to you, that’s the portion I’m going to ask payment for. I had to learn your system, etc. – I’m not going to charge you for that time. That gives customers a reason to trust you and keep a long-term relationship. I know they’re going to call me again. A lot of consultants ask for money upfront, but it’s not always certain you’ll solve the problem.
- Make the customer feel that you’re part of the team. Train others to be able to take over what you’ve been doing. Customer satisfaction is your priority. Make sure a relationship is built.
What would you do differently?
I would have been more successful if I took more of a managerial position. I should have secured work jobs, hired other people to do the work, and then managed them. I did all the little work myself. However, my choice meant I could go in and handle things my way. I would try not to trust myself so much. Which sounds odd, but there’s guys that are much better than me – tons of hotshot programmers. If you’re an employer, you should always hire people who know more than you.
Can anyone start their own business?
No. Everybody thinks starting their own business is easy. It’s very, very difficult. Mindset and tenacity, ethical and strong values will ensure your success.
It was easy for me because I gained a lot of experience beforehand – my name was out there. I knew what I stood for and what I could offer.
You’ve got to be ready to manage your finances. You need to be ready to dig in. You don’t work, you don’t get paid. For somebody off the street, you’ve got to have an extreme tenacity and determination. Work 15-hour days, if you have to.
For two years, I had a second company, but I pulled out because the pressure was too much. I needed to focus on my clients. Don’t spread yourself too thin.
It’s a difficult market because there are so many options. I’m satisfied with a little pool of clients. Only take on what you can manage. You can’t overextend. It brings too much responsibility, and it forces you to say, “I’m done. I can’t take this stress anymore.”
What’s the most important thing for an IT consultant starting a business?
You’ve got to stay abreast of the technology. Constantly do training and research new tech in order to market yourself out there. Remember: a distinctive product that is in demand can be sold immediately. Technical service is a broad industry, and if you haven’t got something that’s unique, you won’t make it.
Get the train out of the station. Don’t sit back and relax; push hard, and get it cruising along. Work hard. I’ve never been able to separate business acumen from honesty. If I feel something, I’ll say it so you know exactly where I stand. It’s my business. If you withhold something, you can lose all that business. Years of work with a client gone – just because you didn’t speak up. Clients have to be able to trust you. Find your value of ethics. Stick to that no matter what. What’s right is right.
5 Tips from Hardy Martin
- Believe in what you’re doing. If you don’t believe in your business mission, why would anyone else?
- Build good relationships, and you’ll never have to advertise. Consider every client a potential long-term client who can refer your work.
- Get on a schedule. Put in the required hours to get things done. If you don’t, you’ll never get finished and you’ll never get paid.
- Connect with valuable contacts. Get in touch with software product providers and demonstrate your expertise with those products. This might require contacting people you don’t know. Do it anyway.
- Keep learning. Keep training in new software and technology. Be aware of industry trends to continually offer the best possible services.