The Digicorp Story

By George Fahr, President

I am a member of an executive book club. Every couple of months, seven or eight of us meet to discuss an assigned book. Our most recent reading was a clever take on differentiating your business in a commodity marketplace. As hard as we all try to make our products and services distinct, most of us do have a commodity element to what we do. One of the author’s suggestions was to tell our company’s story. His belief is that a story is a good way to build community. I like his idea.

Unfortunately, the Digicorp story lacks an exciting twist or a “wow” discovery. Our tale is about recognizing that organizations need quality IT and telecommunications engineering support. Our secret sauces are perseverance and pragmatism. We hope that you find that our story is genuine. We see ourselves as much like our chosen home – the City of Milwaukee. Like Milwaukee, we are a bit quirky, we embrace hard work and we seek to achieve high quality. We are also humble. At times we fail. In those cases, every team member knows that it is time to step up and help. Our mission is simple – we strive to be the best IT and telecommunications engineering firm in all of the markets where we operate. We serve our customers and fellow team members with a sense of urgency. We are beholden to our many partners and the communities in which we live and work.

The First 24 Years

Digicorp incorporated in 1976. We began as providers of two-way radio communications systems. For readers too young to know what these systems did, just picture a bulky and unimaginably unsophisticated cell phone (that could only connect with others specifically connected to this network!) Digicorp stayed exclusively in the voice communications marketplace for twenty years. Over this period, we expanded into providing both telephone systems and cellular phones. The telecommunication’s marketplace was not without its challenges. And in 1996, Digicorp confronted the reality that in order to remain a financially viable organization, change was necessary.

If there is a “here’s where the story turns” moment, it was at this point in time. Digicorp was financially challenged and we needed to find a way forward. Thank goodness for a bit of luck. For as we charted a new path, the economy was healthy and the Internet was exploding. The first step in our positive transformation was our commitment to becoming an engineering-focused provider of IT and telecommunications technology. This was a departure from our previous product sales focus. We began hiring really good engineers who were also really nice people. We were happy to assist customers with the technical challenges that they faced. Even if a customer had purchased hardware and software elsewhere, we wanted to be their engineering firm. We also approached solving problems in a slightly different manner than the prevailing business culture. Our challenges had made us financially conservative. In an era of building elaborate technology solutions, we were technology pragmatists. I believe that during this period of time, we were one of the few firms in our industry that presented total cost of ownership, residual costs and useful asset life when we discussed technology solutions. We didn’t want to be cheap, but we did embrace value. This did not make us popular with many of the hardware and software manufacturers who provided us product. We also rubbed some potential IT customers in the wrong way. It seemed as many IT consumers correlated big to quality. (Again, these were the go, go days of the Internet. People were buying into the concept that “clicks” were revenue.) This all said, we found many customers who embraced our approach. From 1996-2000, we established our brand of technology pragmatism that continues to drive us.

Of course, it is one thing to sound all high and mighty about being technology pragmatists. It is another to actually build a business that supports this approach. The following few paragraphs will dig deeper into both our engineering model and our approach to pragmatic product selection.

The Digicorp Engineering Services Model

Like all providers of services, it is our job to give our customers an IT and telecommunications engineering experience that provides real value. In the regional markets where we operate, we are providers of supplementary or complementary engineering services. In defining ourselves in this way, we recognize that our customers must have a logical internal staffing model. There is not a simple formula for determining how many engineers a customer should have on staff. For our small customers, they may have a person who dabbles in PC support while our more sophisticated customers may have more IT staff than Digicorp has employees. In most cases though, IT staffing is usually based on defining the tasks that need to be done and determining how much time it takes to complete these tasks. In the end, staffing must make both “dollars and sense.”

When working with our customers on determining the right engineering model that fits their needs, we talk about the n+1 approach. n is defined as how much internal staffing is needed to meet our customer’s needs. The + 1 is the combination of the skills and time that Digicorp will provide to help keep things running smoothly. What we have found is that the proper n reveals itself when we look at how much outside engineering services are costing over a period of time. In a fairly simple example, if we are providing a bundle of engineering services that could be handled by an internal resource at a lower cost, we will recommend to our customer that they hire a fulltime employee. We are happy to help them do so. Our belief is that all parties are best served when we look out for one another. If we are true advocates, we are an asset for our customer. In helping our customers run both efficiently and effectively, our future also looks brighter.

Product Selection – Fit the Solution to the Need

As a systems integrator offering a myriad of IT, telecommunications and security solutions, we are aligned with many manufacturers and providers. From our earliest days, we knew that our supplier relationships would be important to us and to our customers. We must be expert on the systems that we represent. We also must have access to key technical personnel at these manufacturers. Accordingly, we seek real partners as our suppliers.

Every IT product or software has some level of complexity. For us it is important to weigh both the customer’s needs and organizational skills and limitations when recommending a product solution. Every situation is distinct. Some smaller organizations have very specific and demanding system needs. In these cases, we may recommend a sophisticated solution. There are also large organizations who have simple needs and limited staff. In this case, our system design reflects this environment. One size does not fit all. But our approach of listening to the customer and understanding their objectives does help us implement a solution that delivers cost effectively over the life of a solution.

              A Brief Example on What Not to Do

In the recent past, we were referred to a prospect who was looking to replace a telephone system that the customer had purchased a few years prior. When we met, it became clear that this product still had a useful life. In our discussions with the potential client, we questioned why they would replace the system. (Even though we do not support this particular product, we felt that we could find someone who would.) The current IT director stated that it was a “piece of ****.” The system has some fairly slick collaborative software features but they infrequently used them. When they did have reason to put the system to the test, they couldn’t master the software needed to do so. The IT director also complained of the ongoing mandatory hardware and software support costs. They needed a telephone system with easy to use basic features and an easier to use software interface for mobile clients and unified messaging. Just as important, they needed qualified system training. This very bad experience reinforces the importance of advocacy. A real business partner places the customer’s needs above the profits that a sale will generate. I also want to be clear, we don’t know the intentions of the previous vendor or the previous director of IT. But this does exhibit the challenge that we all face as trusted advisors. It is a tough job that requires a great deal of effort and skill.

              An Example of Building a Sustainable Partnership

The year was 2011. The economy was finally recovering from the financial collapse of 2008. But the scar tissue of this period left many organizations acutely cost sensitive. It was in this setting that we first made contact with a rebuilding 40 person services company. They were a people driven organization – helping other businesses recruit new staff. Their needs were fairly basic. They needed computers and software to serve their customers and to handle the necessary internal accounting functions. This organization had also been burned by a string of IT firms. They were using a managed IT services firm that neither delivered what was promised nor stayed within the cost constraints of their agreement. The President and her CFO were understandably hesitant to work with anyone. But they gave us a shot. We earned this customer because we never saw dollar signs in our eyes. We analyzed what they were paying and we told them that we could do a better job for roughly half the cost of their current vendor. Over the past nine years we have performed necessary hardware/software upgrades – nothing more. In the end, we do what is appropriate for their distinct needs. And no, we never got rich serving them. But we built one more enduring relationship.

Our Story – Still Much to Do

We have been in business since 1976. This is quite an accomplishment. We look to the future with great anticipation. But we are humble because we have also known failure. So with both hope and a healthy modesty we charge forward.

We firmly believe that quality, cost effective engineering will never go out of fashion. We are excited about a new generation of transformational technology. Our customers, properly fitted with these systems, will be greater at what they do. And for us, this is the best reward of all.

One final thought. Businesses are human constructs. Although Digicorp lives in a world of bits and bytes, we never forget that we serve people. And in this realm, we let one principle serve as our guide – it is best to be Kind.