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March 1, 2006
By Khali Henderson
ALWAYS BE THERE WAS FOUNDED
in October 2000, about the same time things started looking gloomy for Internet businesses. In stark contrast to its VC-backed, indulgent peers, it is self-funded, profitable and growing by 200 percent every 18 months. But, the technology-enablement company still resembles dot-com era startups in other ways. For one, its offices are above a martini/manicure club called Mells Beauty Bar in downtown Minneapolis. And, three dogs Lola, Milly and Cooper wander the loft-like space every day. Some employee business cards read Tech Tinkerers where more dreary titles normally would appear. And, if diagnosed correctly, its founders, CEO Doug Carey and President Sara Christensen, definitely would have full-blown cases of the entrepreneurial bug; this is Careys sixth startup and Christensens third.
The two met while working on a project to bring e-commerce to a brickand- mortar real estate company. The pace of that venture satisfied neither of their newfound appetites for all things Internet. After less than a year, Carey, an Andersen Consulting alumni and former Bear Stearns investment banker, left to join fellow Stanford University Business School graduates in a San Francisco-based startup that planned to facilitate homeowners insurance binders on the Web. He recruited Christensen, a marketing and business development specialist, to come aboard. It was one of those venture-backed companies that was predicated on three rounds of financing and a public offering, but they raised their seed round when the Internet capital collapsed, Carey said, adding that left both of them with no meaningful employment.
I was actually in Portugal and got an e-mail from Doug saying, Guess what? Theres not going to be any paychecks this week. So, we have to figure out what we are going to do next, recalls Christensen. I came back to San Francisco at the end of the vacation, packed everything that I owned in two FedEx boxes, shipped them back to Minneapolis, and I think we started working that next day on brainstorming what our next project was going to be.
Their next project was always- BEthere, aBt, as the principals call it, is a mobile enterprise engineering firm, for lack of a ready-made classification. Its business model enabling real-time mobile solutions for businesses remains unique even among business-tobusiness wireless dealers.
What led us to wireless was every Internet-based business model that we were going to work on necessarily lead itself to [requiring] ubiquitous access. So, no matter what we worked on, it required that we came up with somebody with wireless expertise, explained Carey. We simply could not find a group that specialized first and last in putting the necessary components together.
aBt identified seven primary pieces needed to deliver comprehensive wireless mobile solutions. These include networks, devices, operating systems and software, applications and middleware, security, education and support. Thats the key discovery, says Carey. If you are successful in harmonizing those seven elements, you will provide the promise of always being able to be there.
Nevertheless, the concepts aBt was evangelizing in 2000 were so new even some of its potential vendors took some convincing. When we went to the carriers, they had a really hard time relating to what our vision was, says Christensen. They kept saying, We cant have a partnership with you unless you have a store. We were coming at it from a completely different approach from how they were working with partners.
To help overcome the hurdles, aBt drew a picture, literally, with seven spokes representing mobile components, and aBt as the hub where they come together.(You can still see the diagram on the companys Web site today.)
The one role we play with all of our vendor partners is we are knowledge agents. We know what all these vendors wares do and what they do not, and we are able to fit them into solutions, says Carey.
How aBt does that is no less difficult than explaining it. It takes about 50 people, strict methodologies and tight processes. One quarter of the companys staff is devoted to business development and managing accounts, and another quarter is focused on initiating service with those accounts employees, the end users. Forty percent of the staff is part of the implementation group, which includes three segments: the provisioning group, which interfaces with aBts partners; the prep group, which configures hardware and readies it for shipping; and the care group, which provides help desk services to end users. The remaining 10 percent are administrative, but also include the Research Development Engineering & Evaluation group, which test products to see if and how well they work. This is crucially important, says Carey. If you dont know yourself first-hand whats working and what is not working, you have no business going and getting the business world excited about the possibilities.
From start to finish, the aBt crew can outfit an enterprise in a few months, but it has done so in a matter of days, says Christensen. Some of our largest deployments were emergency-type of situations where we didnt have months to deploy, she says, noting aBts work with insurance companies following Hurricane Katrina by providing thousands of units and on-site troubleshooting and installation.
We dont know any other place that can do our volume of prep or level of accuracy, says Carey. When people have finally bought into this notion, what they want is to implement it quickly and accurately. … If you dont have that capability, you cant play in this game.
To ensure solutions work, aBt also occasionally has come up with its own code. Blue Mobility, for example, is a library of connectivity components drivers, scripts and signal meters for unsupported client platforms. We endeavor to buy anything we can. From time to time, there isnt a product to buy so we will produce it, says Carey. Numbra is another such software program that facilitates single-number services. This function largely has been supplanted by VoIP/SIP, but aBt still uses it internally as a virtual PBX linking its wirelessenabled staff. We could take our people, put them in motor homes, drive all over the country and never miss a beat, Carey says.
aBt may be its own customer, but most of its clients, frankly, are much larger enterprises. Carey says aBt can profitably serve companies or work groups as small as 50-to-100 people. Its largest engagement is 10,000 users.
One of aBts customers is Best Buys nationwide Geek Squad for which it provides thousands of customized UT Starcom 6700 phones running on the Sprint Nextel Corp. network. Jeff Robles, sourcing lead for the electronics retailers sourcing solutions and procurement department, says aBt has eliminated his worries about fulfillment and management of the Web and e-mail-enabled phones. I just dont think about it, he says, explaining his full confidence in aBts performance. They are one of the best in managing details whether its replacements or warranties or shipping. Robles says if he has an opportunity to involve aBt in other processes, he would do it in a heartbeat. They have removed the headaches and the oversight, he says.
Up Close & Personal
CEO: Doug Carey
Read more about:Agents
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