iData turns 20, quietly

iData turns 20, quietly

Mike Smith reflects on the evolution of a solo venture that has grown to bring storage layer expertise around the globe

Storage layer specialist iData this year reached its 20th anniversary of doing business.

The company was founded in 1992 by one-time IBM programmer Mike Smith, as a sole venture, selling Legato — the first commercial Unix backup solution — and bringing on a group of engineers from Sun Microsystems.

“As a startup we were very focused on sales, not so much on support which is what generally happens,” Smith says. “We actually started to put our focus on support to win business, where we had a support desk of qualified engineers for customers to go to locally. Once EMC acquired Legato, that changed the game considerably because that opened the whole storage area to us.”

The company shifted its focus on storage solutions at that point, and hasn’t looked back. Smith’s conscious decision to specialise, develop expertise and build up a support desk for customer service has paid off, in its longevity and expansion. The company today employs a staff of close to 30 people, several of whom are noted experts in particular technologies, with iData capturing business from as far afield as the US and Europe.

“We’re still a very niche player,” he says.

As part of its customer service, iData maintains an in-house lab in which it runs all the products that it supports.

“With the lab, we try our best to replicate a problem, to help fix it,” he says. “We try not to treat our customers like an appendage.”

The company’s main vendors include EMC, HDS, Quantum and Symantec. Staffing continues to be a regular problem in terms of finding the combination of experience and expertise iData looks for.

“We operate in a specific area where there’s always a shortage,” he says. “You can’t pick people right out of university. You have to try to find people that have experience in the area we deal with and train them.”

He says certification across the vendors is mandatory, but experience is more important to his company.

Smith says it is as important to build business with existing customers as it is to bring new ones in, but finding new business is more difficult. It’s the satisfied customer that has helped bring new clients on board, he says.

“This is an industry where people move and a lot of the growth has come from people moving from one existing customer to a new company and calling you in to that company from having previously worked with you,” he says.

Smith says he entered the IT world “by mistake” in the early 1970s. When Smith was studying part time, working toward an accounting degree, a friend told him about a job opening at IBM. They both applied, and both were hired.

Later he worked for Firth prior to their merger with Fletchers, installing IBM systems and software, before entering business for himself.

“I haven’t been employed by anyone since 1979. I’m probably unemployable,” Smith jokes. “Having someone tell me what to do wouldn’t fly anymore.”

Smith hung the iData shingle in Auckland, but today the company has offices in Wellington, Sydney and Melbourne as well. He counts Brian Norris, a well known blogger on VMware solutions, and Preston de Guise, a networking expert, among his employees.

“One of the reasons for our growth is the fact that we don’t lose staff,” says Smith. “We have people who have been with us for 15 years. So there’s some great company loyalty and a lot of good people.”

Smith says anyone thinking of breaking out on their own should keep a few things in mind.

“Pick your market, pick your products, and don’t try to be everything to everyone,” he says. “But if you don’t enjoy it, then there’s no point.”

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