The Cloud as the New Frontier

People are driven to start a business for a variety of reasons. For some, it’s a life-long dream and for others, an unplanned situation such as a layoff, buyout, for example, may have driven them to chart a different path.

After being laid off In 2009, Jamie Begin, Founder, Ann-Arbor-based, RightBrain Networks (RBN), decided to stop sending resumes and start a company. He formed RBN when a few engineers came together in a small house in Dexter, MI and focused on software and web development. Begin, however, could see the opportunities for Cloud coming and decided to make that his next focus. He engaged with public cloud provider and leader (in terms of market share) Amazon Web Services (AWS) — beta testing some of their early services, getting AWS certifications and learning all he could about their platform.

RBN provides professional IT services with a focus on cloud computing and Software-as-a-Service. Their mission is to deliver customized solutions via consulting and building applications and infrastructure for companies moving to the public cloud. The company, which now employs 11 people, is expected to double by the end of the year. While there is a mixture of mostly engineers and non-engineers, the company offers an environment focused on teamwork and accountability.

I recently interviewed Donna Campbell, Marketing & Communications manager, for thoughts on starting a company with limited funding, fine-tuning its brand message in a competitive market and prospects for future growth.

Lee: RightBrain is an unique name. How did the company select it?

Campbell: People working with us expect to engage with a bunch of techies (left brain) but we like to challenge the notion that technical people are not creative. Creative ideation (ruled by the right side of the brain) is one of the the most valuable things our team has to offer. We bring big ideas to the table along with our technical expertise. Jamie likes to say: “We solve problems, and sometimes a computer is involved.”
Lee: And what is the primary focus of RightBrain?

Campbell: Our main focus right now is to help our clients better understand and utilize the tools and resources available to them on the public cloud platforms (Amazon, Azure, etc.). This includes helping them identify and execute best practices in the cloud. If we’re speaking aspirationally — we’d love to help more companies understand the benefits of cloud and shed their fears around adopting this change. We’re taking the pain out of embracing a new technology, and in doing so, empowering IT professionals with new knowledge that will give them a competitive edge – both personally and for their organizations as well.

Lee: You had no investors initially. How did you get RightBrain off the ground with limited funding?

Campbell: Our growth has been deliberately slow and careful. Jamie’s plan was less about making money and more about doing what he loved: “building cool things.” Jamie is still on his own without any investors. We’ve turned down several offers to buy the company. We believe we can continue to grow our way. In the past four months alone we’ve secured nine new projects.

Lee: And how have you been able to grow since RightBrain started in 2009?

Campbell: Our growth can be attributed to the cloud space heating up more and more each year. Our relationship with Amazon certainly plays a part, but mostly it’s just hard work, trial and error. Not everything we’ve done has worked – but obviously, some of it’s working. We’re signing more clients every day. I think a large part of it is that we provide flawless execution on each project – keeping our heads down and turning out great work. Clients refer other clients to us, Amazon trusts us because we’re good and they continue to refer to us and we get inbound business from our marketing efforts too.

Lee: Cloud technology. What is it and how does it benefit businesses?

Campbell: Cloud computing means instead of having (and maintaining) your own physical data center, your data lives securely on instances that are hosted (in the case of public cloud) by providers like AWS, Google, and Microsoft. Benefits include lower IT costs (cloud is a pay-for-only-what-you-use utility model), high availability, automation (which frees up your IT folks from the plumbing and cord-pulling of managing boxes so they can innovate) and being able to protect your data via redundancy in the event of a failure, fire or natural disaster. Finally, it reduces the cost of failure and encourages risk taking:

For example – instead of investing money in machines to execute a one-time marketing initiative (one that may or may not work) you could spin up an AWS environment, deploy your application, get customer feedback, look at your metrics, and then if it wasn’t working- you could tear it down with minimal costs.

Lee: Who are primary users of your consulting services?

Campbell: Companies who are ready to transition to the public cloud but don’t know how to get started. Software companies whose business is a web-based application that has high-availability requirements, and that needs to scale and respond to customer traffic. Companies that want to go “all in” on AWS but need help with best practices and managing their environments.

Lee: You recently engaged Ann Arbor Spark to help jump-start your business. What types of services did they provide? Grant funding?

Campbell: SPARK generously provided us with a grant to engage a sales and marketing consultant. Before we made an investment (with what little budget we have) in marketing initiatives, we wanted to have a ‘gut check’. Our consultant helped us tighten up our message, and confirmed some of our early positioning work. It’s not unlike what we do for our clients: she assessed, helped us make sure our strategy was on track, and suggested areas to improve. SPARK has been really supportive and continues to provide a sounding board for us.

Lee: You’ve been addressing your brand position in the marketplace. What have been the challenges and how are you solving it?

Some of the challenges of selling in this space are the fear of change, IT professionals possibly feeling their jobs are threatened, security concerns in the cloud, and the overall lack of understanding of what the technology itself can do. At first we attempted to deploy an outbound sales strategy. But due to either the market not being ready, or our execution, it wasn’t terribly successful for us. We’ve determined that our business is mainly inbound, and we’ve had to figure out how to make our messaging at tight as possible so that we close inbound leads quickly. Recently, we had an inbound lead from a global auto manufacturer — they did an organic search on local cloud companies, came to our website, and because the messaging was correct, understood that we could help them. They asked us for a meeting and we secured a project with them in two weeks’ time. Part of what drew them in was our AWS focus, and the fact that we were 100% Michigan-based.

Moving forward we’re also going to message around RightBrain’s culture of research and development in cloud – we’re on the leading edge of a leading edge technology. We see ourselves as pioneers blazing a trail and our upcoming messaging will reflect that.

Lee: Any progress with respect to positioning the company?

Campbell: Yes. We’re wrapping up our engagement with our marketing /sales consultant next month. Our time with her has illuminated which parts of our messaging need fine tuning. She also helped uncover some of our ‘secret sauce’ — what makes us different from other companies (while there are very few) that do what we do. We discovered a few interesting facts — like just how much R&D we do and how we are defining best practices in a new market. These are the things that make us different and translate to value for our clients.

Lee: Access to capital is always a challenge to start-ups. What advice would you share to those thinking about starting a business?

Campbell: Network. Network. Network. Leadership should be out of the office and out in the community. Join an entrepreneur’s organization. If you’re an expert in an emerging area – host meet ups at your office after hours (we do) to teach people more about what you know. There are so many resources for growing business in Michigan. If you’re a technology startup, get involved with Techstars or tap other local incubators like SPARK support. Try to hone in on a specialty. There are dozens of web development companies – but what problem does your specific business solve? it’s not enough to start a business to be your own boss – you need to be solving a business problem that others cannot solve for themselves.

Finally, one of our core values at RBN is grit. Everyone here is gritty and that means not balking when we’re asked to do something outside of our comfort zone or area of expertise. It’s part of our ethos and it’s worked well for us so far.