The hardest part about starting a business is that you have an idea about something people might want, but you have to get them to purchase it. You’ve got a blank slate and you have to get them to do what you’re asking them to do.
Adam Stern, founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based Infinitely Virtual, is an entrepreneur who saw the value of virtualization and cloud computing some six years ago. Stern’s company helps businesses move from obsolete hardware investments to an IaaS [Infrastructure as a Service] cloud platform, providing them the flexibility and scalability to transition select data operations from in-house to the cloud.
Stern founded Infinitely Virtual in 2007, to provide virtual dedicated server solutions to growing enterprises, offering what was essentially a cloud computing platform before the term existed. Infinitely Virtual is a subsidiary of Santa Monica-based Altay Corporation, which Stern founded in 2003 to provide Windows, VMware and other service solutions to small and medium-size businesses.
Since 2007, Infinitely Virtual has grown exponentially through its offering affordable, customized cloud-based solutions, using the most sophisticated technology available. Host Review named the company to its list of “Top Ten Fastest Growing” enterprises in 2011 and it has made the list on a regular basis ever since. Stern is a firm believer in corporate responsibility. The company’s products and services feature low-power consumption and fit squarely within the green IT movement. As a provider — and consumer – of cloud based services, Infinitely Virtual is committed to sustainability.
Prior to founding Altay and Infinitely Virtual, Stern worked for CallOne, Inc., a value-added reseller of computer equipment and professional services. From 1997 to 2000, Stern led CallOne as the Vice President of Operations. He then worked for 3Com in 2000 as a network consultant.
Stern holds a B.S. degree in business administration and management from Cal State, Northridge.
Where did the idea for Infinitely Virtual come from?
I got the idea in the mid-aughts, when I was operating Altay Corporation, a professional services company doing virtualization for larger customers. Changes were already afoot in that sector; there were freelancers in abundance, zeroing in on the SMB market. Against that competitive backdrop, my organization had been able to forge substantial relationships with a number of larger companies.
In the ensuing year, I used nearly all of my credit to fuel the growth of Infinitely Virtual. And by the end of the next fiscal year, I had paid off all of our debt and the company was in the black. I saw the future that was out there. We could have cut our losses, but we were unwilling to give up. We found that the technology could be used to host applications for small and midsize businesses over the Internet. This was well before Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services were the dominant players in cloud computing – and even before cloud computing was a thing. The jump into virtual server hosting was a very big leap because, at the time, no one had ever done it before. We got our start at the dawn of the cloud hosting business, so we’re legitimately pioneers.
When I went to my CFO and said, “you know, we’re going to do business in a completely different way — we’re going to pull our engineers out of the field, we’re going to build an infrastructure, we’re going to take millions of our dollars that we’d earned in professional services and invest it in equipment,” she looked at me and she said, “okay.” The kind of trust that we’d built over the decade of working together had been instrumental in making this large pivot toward virtual server computing.
And, similarly, the rapport, the loyalty I’d built with my engineering staff enabled me to sit down with each of them and ask if they were willing to step into this new reality, this very new world — no one knew what it looked like at the time. It was a resounding, yes, let’s run directly into the future and see what can happen.
At the time, there was no Amazon Web Services, no Microsoft Azure, and no one knew what Infrastructure-as-a-Service was. Even the terminology was different. When we started talking to customers, most of them had no idea what we were trying to sell them. It took a little while before they caught on, but when it started going, it went like wildfire.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
My typical day is highly scheduled; I have a heavily fortified calendar. During the course of the day, I talk to staff, track the progress of product development, maintain contact with vendors, and so on. The day is balanced between strategic items – new ways to protect data or adopt a product — and tactical matters. I spend a lot of my effort developing relationships with my stakeholders, with my team, with owners and customers to help them understand what they can do with this technology and what the future’s going to look like. My business philosophy is that being proactive – listening to customers and really letting them know that you’re there for them – is the most productive way to spend time.
How do you bring ideas to life?
My staff serves as my most reliable, insightful sounding board. When I’m mulling an idea, I bounce that concept off a staff member I trust, which is most likely to be an engineer. We discuss what we want to make, what issues, opportunities and obstacles we’ll need to address, and if it’s go, we’ll start to build and test. It’s that straightforward.
What’s one trend that excites you?
Because I’m an engineer at heart, I like sitting down with my lead engineers and deciding on what the future of computing is going to look like. That’s fun. That may or may not concern an emerging trend in the industry or the wider market. At the end of the day, I’m most excited about tapping into the relationships that I have with my staff and harnessing our ability to look into the future and build something wonderful together.
I’m a huge advocate of dismantling the so-called “technology roller-coaster” of buy, deploy and depreciate – it’s a complete waste of time and resources for all concerned. I’m excited that more and more businesses truly understand and embrace the off-premises world – the idea that organizations can be radically dispersed and be even more productive than they were under a centralized model. It works on so many levels: it means rethinking geographical boundaries, job descriptions, organizational behavior, access to technology, and so much more.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
In a word, listening. But to fully answer that, I need to go back to a man named Jay Stapleton, someone I met at my first serious job in the technology business and who became my first real role model. Jay was the best salesperson you’d ever want to meet. You couldn’t sit down with him and not want to buy whatever it was that he had. The way he did that really came down to listening to what you had to say and finding out what it was that you needed. If there was a way for him to do it, he did it. If there was a problem with price, he’d fix it. It was his goal to attract customers through relationships and to build those relationships over time.
It got to the point where you’d sit down in a sales meeting with him and you’d watch him bring in people just by sheer power of personality. And while that’s certainly not who I am, I learned a lot from him. He gave me a sense of how to treat customers, how important they were and are.
In today’s business world, the role of the customer has been lost. The prevailing view – in IT or retail generally — is that customers are essentially herd animals who can be forced into corrals. They take the product and, if you don’t like it, you can go find another corral. Instead, my philosophy was infused with this: the customer’s role is the most important role. They should set the tempo. They should decide what’s most important to them. You should be trying to address those things that pain them most. I think that’s really lost today.
I’ve looked at business as a way to build relationships and find those people who are looking for a great product, but that also want to work with me and my team. Any number of companies can do things; if your main selling point is you’re cheaper or slightly faster, that’s not enough. Anyone can figure out how to be cheaper or faster, but they can’t necessarily be as good at addressing customer needs and really listening to them.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Make sure to be fluid. Early entrepreneurship is about being open to new things, and knowing you’re not always right. And those are difficult things to do. The hardest part about starting a business is that you have an idea about something people might want, but you have to get them to purchase it. You’ve got a blank slate and you have to get them to do what you’re asking them to do.
This is an interesting time to be in business. It’s now quite popular to start-up businesses that have absolutely no value in the hope that someone will give you money to do so. And the sexiest things people talk about are things that, to me, have no value. The real issue here — and what’s lost in all that — is that whether or not you attract VC money, or whether or not you have a fantastic product, someone has to understand you and your product. Someone has to want you and your product. It has to do something for them that they can’t do for themselves or that something else in the industry doesn’t do for them.
What’s difficult about starting a business is that you’re guessing. I really enjoy MBA graduates who say, well, why don’t you survey your customers? But things like surveys provide only a fraction of the information you need to know to be successful. The real test is what works in the marketplace.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Bigger is not necessarily better. We serve small and midsize businesses, and we live in that world ourselves. We’ve scaled to a level that I’m pleased with, but given that some of the largest enterprises on the planet are, in theory, competitors of ours, I truly believe truly gargantuan operations don’t serve customers nearly as much as they serve themselves.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
At the risk of repeating myself, know your customers: listen to them. Identify with and fully understand their concerns and pain points. This isn’t a cliché – it’s mandatory for succeeding in business. As straightforward, even obvious, as it seems, it’s hard work and it never stops.
The backstory for this mantra of mine is a man named Ed Quiroz, another early contact in my business career. He said, “I don’t do business with you guys because you’ve got the best price, or because you offer the best service. I do business with you because I like you.”
It’s true that people often make purchasing decisions not solely based on a statistic, but on whether or not they like working with you. You make someone’s life easier because you do things for them that they don’t have time to do for themselves, and other vendors don’t think it’s important, or they just prefer doing business with you because you’re a good person and they feel an affinity toward you. I’ve looked at business as a way to find those people who are looking for a great product, but who also want to build relationships by working with me and my team.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
We experienced significant growth during the worst of the recession, in part by offering technologies and services that enable other businesses to grow and meet their revenue and productivity goals during tough times. That’s the value strategy; behind that, there is a commitment to total transparency: everything we do internally and externally is upfront and open. Responsible, respectful governance and business ethics are lodestars, and customers, partners and employees are experiencing the difference. We value relationships and build on them, and we value people and compensate them accordingly.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
In 2006, while running the organization that preceded my current company, two of our biggest customers no longer needed our services and, abruptly, I was looking at an 80 percent cut in revenue. Suddenly, I was losing money every month. It was time to decide what to do next. Infinitely Virtual became that next thing.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Home automation is hot, and a lot of people want it. But most people in the home automation business know only how to do one aspect of it. Grab a progressive alarm installer, a thoughtful electrician and a good computer person and create a one-stop home automation shop.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
Got a great headset from Plantronics using a DECT USB adapter. When you’re on the phone as much as I am, that’s invaluable.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
InfiniteVault , our file-sharing and backup application, enables me to work from anywhere.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
“The Leadership Challenge“, by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, changed my life at 24.
What is your favorite quote?
This, from Sir Winston Churchill: “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”
- The customer’s role is paramount. Customers should set the tempo. They decide what’s most important to them. You should seek to address those things that pain them most.
- Create a culture dedicated to total transparency: everything you do internally and externally should be upfront and open. If responsible, respectful governance and business ethics are lodestars, customers, partners and employees will experience the difference.
- Price and product are important to any business but neither drives relationships. Do business in such a way that you find those who are receptive to your offerings, but who also want to build relationships by working with you and your team.
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Carlyn runs the day-to-day publishing operation here at ideamensch and interacts with our awesome customers and entrepreneurs. She is likely editing this with a cat on her lap.