Episode 6: CJ Ezell of PointClear Networks

Transcript:

Welcome to Podcast episode number 6 of the Mobile Alabama Business Podcast with CJ Ezell. My name is Marcus Neto. I own Blue Fish. A Digital Marketing and Web Design Company based in Mobile. I'm the host of Mobile Alabama Business Podcast where we talk to local entrepreneurs and business owners about their businesses and how they got started. I'd like to thank you for spending time with us today.

In today's show I sit down with CJ Ezell. CJ owns and manages PointClear Networks, which is a VOIP and IT services company headquartered in Fairhope. CJ and I have known each other for a while through our involvement in the Chamber. In this interview, we talk about his background as a local yocal. We discuss how CJ has already built up one business that he ultimately sold. He tells us how he got started with PointClear Networks and how he has positioned the company as a one stop shop for infrastructure services. So, lets dive right in with CJ at PointClear Networks.

Marcus: Welcome to the podcast, CJ.

CJ: Thanks, glad to be here.

Marcus: You and I have had a chance to get to know each other a little over the last 8 months. We've had lunch numerous times and just our involvement in the Chamber, and I'd like to partially hold you responsible for me starting this Podcast and the efforts that we're doing here on MobileAL.com. But I'll admit I know just a little bit about you... I know you're married and have a daughter, but why don't you start by just telling us a little bit about yourself. Did you grow up in the area? Where did you go to school at? Those kinds of things.

CJ: Yes. I did grew up in the area. Actually was born in Mobile, lived out in West Mobile towards Semmes. I went to Mary Montgomery in high school graduated there in 1992. Lived in Semmes, until 2010 when we moved over across the Bay to Fairhope.

Marcus: Very cool. I’m from the class of ‘92, as well. There must be something in the water or something?

CJ: And yes, I am married. I do have a 16-month old daughter.

Marcus: Just curious, did you go to college or...?

CJ: I did! Yeah. I went to University of South Alabama, but I actually studied Emergency Medical Services Education. That was my first career.

Marcus: Interesting.

CJ: Yeah. Technology was not something that was really on my mind when I got out of school.

Marcus: Correct me if I'm wrong but your first business called ASI Group, that was acquired and that dealt with doctors' offices and stuff like that, am I correct?

CJ: Correct. Yeah so I spent 8 and 1/2 years after I get out of school in Emergency Medical Services. It was a very rewarding field to work in, but It wasn't what I saw myself doing for the rest of my life. So when I got out of the EMS and was trying to figure out what I wanted to do and technology sort of, it was a good fit for me, but I wanted to be able to utilize all my experience from EMS. So I built my first business around working with health care providers, that way I was able to utilize the experience that I brought into the industry from the Emergency Medical Services. 

Marcus: Now, I know a little bit about that industry just from some of the things that we do at Bluefish and I know that there are some additional regulations and the security requirements and things of that nature. So I think It's very interesting that you chose of all things to go into that industry to start, because normally people have to kind of ease into that kind of thing but you just jumped in you whole haul.

CJ: Well, I will say this, when I first started ASI, probably the first year or so we're in business, we pretty much did work for anybody who'd write a check. 

Marcus: Okay, yeah.

CJ: Regardless of whether they were healthcare provider or not. But we did just because of my experience and the experience of my business partner at that time. He also had some health care experience that was why we gravitated towards the healthcare industry. And it helped us, I think primary because we understood what some of their needs were, and we understood the lingo. We spoke the same languages as those people. And it took probably a year to 18 months before healthcare really became our true vertical and we said that "Hey, this is the only industry that we're going to work in." That is the path that we ended up taking the business and it was one of the reasons why we were so successful with it.

Marcus: Very cool. As I've mentioned before that business was actually acquired, correct?

CJ: Correct! Yes. In October of 2010, we were actually acquired by a company called Henry Schein Inc., which is the nation's largest medical supplier. So they are a distributor of healthcare goods. They sell consumables. They sell pharmaceutical supplies that sort of thing. So one of the industries that we fell into with the ASI was dental. Even though we were health care integrator, we fell into this specialty of the dental vertical market, so we worked a lot with general dentists, orthodontists, or oral surgeons. And Henry Schein Inc. is very big in that market. So as they decided that they wanted to grow into the technology sector, they reached out to us and about 8 other healthcare integration firms throughout the United States. And they did a mass acquisition of all of our companies between 2009 and 2010.

Marcus: Now that's really interesting. So they wanted to move into that and so instead of building up a business they just purchased you.

CJ: Correct.

Marcus: ...client list and services of... each of those individuals?

CJ: Correct! Yeah. They owned the software product to that was very prevalent in the whole industry. And so what they did was they looked for a hardware integration companies that had a familiarity with that product and expertise and integrating that product into dental offices. And so those were the companies that they targeted. And their vision was to be a total source technology provider for these dental offices.

Marcus: It's awesome. And now, you are the founder/owner of PointClear Networks. And I know you had a non-compete, that meant that you had to take a bit of time. So don't need to go into any of that but how did you get started with PointClear Networks? When did you start that business and so on?

CJ: So PointClear Networks actually started, began life, in 2010 right after we sold ASI to Henry Schein. There was a portion of our company that did offsite data backup, website hosting, email hosting that sort of thing, that they did not want. It was not a part of what their vision for their business model was.

Marcus: Sure.

CJ: So we spun that business all off at the time that ASI was acquired by Henry Schein. And that company originally was called A-Safe Managed Services. And so from 2010 until my non-compete was up with Henry Schein in 2013, that's what that company did. Once my non-compete was up and we decided that we wanted to expand back into the IT services industry, we re-branded the company PointClear Networks and went back in the full service.

Marcus: And give you a foundation to start on...

CJ: Exactly! Yes. We were able to maintain relationships with a large percentage of our old customer base through the backup business. And so that enabled us when we launched PointClear Networks to really have a strong foundation to start with.

Marcus: Yeah, it's pretty cool. What you have been focusing on lately to build the businesses? Is there an area of the business that you're putting a lot of effort into or...?

CJ: We really are. So one of the things that we wanted to do to differentiate ourselves from a lot of the other IT service providers in the area, was we really wanted to embrace voice services. What I mean by that is 10 to 15 years ago when the internet started data was something that rode on top of analog phone lines, right?

Marcus: Right.

CJ: Fast forward 20 years and in 2015 and now voice is the service that rides on top of data circuits.

Marcus: Right.

CJ: But a lot of IT companies in the area still have not really embrace voice. So what we wanted to do was really build a company that could service both sides of the house. So we can be your IT provider. We can be your voice provider. We can take care of your telephone systems and really blend all of those different specialties into one company.

Marcus: That's cool. So you offer voice over IP services, as well as managed IT services and stuff like that?

CJ: Correct. Yes. 

Marcus: As a business owner what's the most important thing that you've learned over the last three to six months?

CJ: I would probably say the most important thing that I've learned over the last three to six months is to really understand who your ideal customer is.

Marcus: That's a hard one. I will tell you that for the last six months I've been studying that and I'm not even -- we have an idea who we think it is and we know who we like working with...

CJ: What did it for me was I read a book called "The Pumpkin Plan" which was written by Mike Michalowicz. Part of "The Pumpkin Plan" where he talks about is you take your top five or ten clients in terms of revenue and you list those clients out, and then of those 5 or 10 you say, "Which one of these do we really enjoy working with?"

Marcus: Right.

CJ: And typically out of ten there will be seven or eight or maybe even all ten just depends on your company, but you'll have some of those customers will stand out above the others. So these are the customers that you truly enjoy working with. That you wish you could clone. That you wish you had a 100 more of and that's what your ideal customer is, right?

Marcus: Right.

CJ: You take the top revenue producers that you really enjoy working with and then you figure out who they are and how to go out and get more people like them. That's really what we've been focused on. Over the last three to four months, has been defining that and then going out and finding those customers. One thing that I can tell you from my personal experience is that since we have defined what that ideal customer is for us, it has been very obvious to me who our ideal customer isn't.

Marcus: Right.

CJ: When I've gone on some sales calls and stuff.

Marcus: I've actually been working my way through “Book Yourself Solid” which has -- it has that as well as some other things. The very first chapters watches you through that process of writing down all the clients that you've worked with and we worked with a lot of people in groups. We have launched a project and then we may or may not continue that relationship with the client, depending on whether they sign up for maintenance services or SEO or anything along those lines. But anyway, we've wrote down all of these different things and then asked you to write down in one column who the people that you really don't enjoy working with are. Fortunately, over the last year we've done a pretty good job of not working with those people anymore. So there really wasn't anybody on that list, but then there was this middle group of people that really don't fit that ideal client profile. There's something in the relationship that just doesn't ... clicking or something....and so its...you have to make a decision about those people as to whether they can be brought into the final group which is the ones that you really enjoy working with, they respect what you bring to the table. They never complain about payments. They pay on time. They give you some sort of creative freedom. At least in our world there's some creative freedom on how to solve problems and stuff like that. I found that a very interesting thing. I guess we're in track with our businesses on focusing on that because that is also been something that I've been working on as well.  So if anybody is out there listening that is an extremely good exercise to go through, because then you get this idea of when you sit down with somebody and you're going through the sales process is this really somebody that fits the ideal client profile? And do we want to add them to our roster of clients because sales process is really a two-way interview. Right?

CJ: Sure.

Marcus: Yeah.

CJ: And I can tell you that, that when we first started the process and we're identifying your ideal customer was and we thought we had that worked out. We did take a couple of deals that...initially that did not fit that profile. And as those deals panned out, it became very clear that we should have not taken those deals.

Marcus: Yeah.

CJ: And that we should have stuck to our guns so that is something that we're trying to become a little more attune to is making sure that the sales call is a two-way interview so ...It says much about them be a good fit for us as us being a good fit for them.

Marcus: Absolutely. And I think a lot of people don't recognize that. So they get into a sales process and just sell, sell, sell. I'm going to get this client under whatever circumstances, but the truth is if you do that often times it can end up hurting you. It can hurt your business it can cost you money. It can make your employees extremely unhappy. 

CJ: Exactly.

Marcus: And make the client unhappy. And a client that's unhappy isn't going to refer any additional work to you  or....so there's a lot of things that you...

CJ: In fact they are more likely to tell people how dissatisfied they are.

Marcus: Yeah, exactly. And then you’re in a situation where you have to spend a lot of time and effort marketing against the bad word that's on the street in regards to that. When really it was a decision that you should have made as part of the sales process of ...really was just not a fit and go different ways so...

CJ: Exactly. 

Marcus: You mention the Pumpkin Plan is that correct?

CJ: Yes. The Pumpkin Plan was the name of the book by Mike Michalowicz. He has written several books, "The Toilet Paper Enterpreneur" was the first book that he wrote. Which is really all about ...

Marcus: That's hilarious.

CJ: It is. He's very unconventional I think in some of his views. But that book was really about trying to decide if starting a business was something that was right for you or not. So it's geared more for people who were thinking about going into business or they maybe have an idea they want to but they've heard all the negative comments from friends and family members about how hard it is to start a business. So the whole point of the book was to really help you decide whether or not that's what you wanted to do. Then if...if you want to into business for yourself, here some ways to make it past those first couple of years. Kind of on shoe string budget...

Marcus: It's good.

CJ: ....really about bootstrapping. But  "The Pumpkin Plan" was the second book that he wrote which was again about how to take an existing...it was about how to take an existing business and make it enjoyable. So the track that I think of entrepreneurs get into as they start companies because they want to be their own boss.

Marcus: That's not a good reason to start.

CJ: It really isn't but so many people that's why they start. That's why they start their own business. And so they...when you start your business, you're thinking “finally this is the freedom that I want.” What ends up happening is...you just end up working for yourself. So you don't really...you haven't really accomplished any freedom. Now you're just a slave to your own company instead of being a slave to somebody else's company. So the Pumpkin Plan was really about how to avoid that...in your business or if you’re there in your business how to reverse that. How to get out of it. And refocus and make your business work for you. And then he has a new book which I just finished reading a couple weeks ago called "Profits First" which is....

Marcus: Okay, you recommended that to me.

CJ: I did. Yeah I did recommend that book to you. And I would recommend that book to anybody who owns a small to medium size business. It basically takes gap accounting and turns it on its head, right. So the whole theory behind the book is the old model is sales minus expenses equals profit. And so ....and we all follow into that trap. So what happens is at the end of the day, your expenses continue to climb and then you end up really with no profit left or very low amount of profit. So again, you're back into that trap of now you're just a slave to your business. So what “Profit First” does it teaches you how to...it basically says sales minus profit equals expenses. So it really forces you to....

Marcus: Live within a budget.

CJ: ...budget. Exactly. Budget your business. And so you decide what you want your profit margin to be. You plan how to get there over a certain period of time. For us its going to be a 10 like a 10 quarter process to get to the profit margin that we ultimately want to be at. So it's not something that you just jump into overnight and instantly change everything that you do. But it’s a systematized way to get you where you want to be. So that as the owner of the business, you're actually making what...you should be making and not what's just left over. 

Marcus: That book just moved up in my list.

CJ: I would highly recommend you. I actually heard Mike speak about a year ago at conference, it was just before “Profit First” came out and he was actually speaking about the book. So when I walked out of the conference, I said this...the moment that book comes out I'm going to get copy of it.

Marcus: I heard him on a Podcast. And you were an affirmation. Because when I heard him on....speak on another podcast. There was something in what you were saying that I really felt like, "Okay, this is something worth paying attention to." 

CJ: .Sure. And Mike is...so Mike's background is...he was an IT guy as well. So he has owned a couple of technology firms in the New York City area. 

Marcus: Yeah.

CJ: Build those, sold them, started over. And its funny because in “Profits First” he actually talks about how after....I think it was the second company that he sold, how he was just on this high. He thought he had the Midas Touch. He couldn't fail and he ended up actually failing. So he invested... he went out and invest a lot of money in all these different start ups. And within an year all but one of them had gone out of business... And he...so he'd lost all the money that he accumulated. And that was a wake up call for him about how you should really watch what you do and be careful in investing.

Marcus: Yeah. And that's extremely helpful for you to have given us a couple of books. Because what I find in talking to other business owners is that the ones that are wanting to move their business to the next level also recognize the importance of self-education or self-improvement as a way of doing that. And so its always nice to get some insight into what you're reading.

CJ: Absolutely. I actually set a personal goal for myself starting last year to read one business book a month. That was...

Marcus: We should join each other on that. I need some accountability there. Because I will admit that my tendency is to get a third of the way through a book. And then I'm just like, "Yeah, I got it." But what I don't recognize is that the last 3rd of the book probably has some real meat in it too that I am missing out on but... Are there any other resources that you refer back to on a regular basis that can even, technical resources that you frequent like other podcasts that you listen to, or other websites, blogs, anything like that, that you want to mention?

CJ: Yeah. So as an IT professional one of the resources that we use constantly is a community called "Spice Works" which is a really large community of IT professionals.They have a very active forum, both from a technical standpoint and from a professional standpoint. So we rely Spice Works pretty heavily.

Marcus: Very cool. And you're a member of some mastermind groups as well. Aren't you?

CJ: Yeah. Well, so I'm a member of the ASCII Group which is another large IT industry trade group.

Marcus: Now let  me pause you there for a second...

CJ: Sure.

Marcus: Because those of you that are listening to this don't get that ASCII is one of the earliest forms of programming language. 

CJ: Correct.

Marcus: So it's funny that a technical group would name themselves the ASCII group. Go ahead.

CJ: Yeah. And ASCII actually has been around for 30 years. So its...

Marcus: Gosh has that been that long.

CJ: .Yes. Probably one of the oldest technical groups as well. ASCII has been very beneficial for me as a business owner. Because most of the members of the ASCII are business owners. And they have a very active business owners on this forum. It's nice to have a peer group that you can shoot ideas out to and bounce things off then and say, "Hey, what do you think about this?” One of the things that's been valuable for me with ASCII is picking new vendors as well. So I'm sure you know as a business owner when you try to find a new vendor the vetting process can be very daunting and very lengthy. So its nice to have  a peer group of a couple of thousands other business owners that I can say, "Hey, has anyone ever dealt with Vendor X?"

Marcus: Yeah.

CJ: And whatever your experiences have been positive or negative. And that has saved me a tremendous amount of time in terms of vetting potential vendors over the last few years.

Marcus: We don't have the same requirements that you have in purchasing hardware, that kind of thing. But what we do have is we do have those similar kinds of headaches when it comes to tools that we use. So for instance, project management software that we use or invoicing software that we use and so on and so forth... 

CJ: Sure.

Marcus: ... fort so that...I mean it ....couple of months ago I went through the process of reviewing well over 30 CRM management applications, if you will. And for those of you listening that's Customer Relationship Management software. And it just...it became this really big thing and ultimately what I figured out was that for where we're at in our business that spreadsheet works just fine. So I spend all this time and then realize...but I did ...I poked around and asked a bunch of guys what they used because we...we do have some similarities there but...What do you like to do in your free time? Do you have any hobbies or how do you unwind from running the business?

CJ: Well, obviously I enjoy spending some time with my family. We like to travel along the coast. And music has always been a big stress reliever for me.

Marcus: Listening, playing, what?

CJ: Both, yeah.

Marcus: I didn't know that. So what do you play instruments or ...

CJ: I play at the guitar.

Marcus: Yeah. (Laughter)

CJ: And I do some vocals here and there. So that's ....and that's goes back to my high school and college days.

Marcus: Very cool.

CJ: Yeah.

Marcus: I've been learn to strum a bit. And used to...I actually...I majored in music for a year at James Madison as a vocal major so....

CJ: I actually had the opportunity to attend the University of Minnesota on a music scholarship and ...

Marcus: Wow, cool.

CJ: ..and having said, for two reasons what I did know what I would do with a music degree and two....

Marcus: You would teach.

CJ: Well, exactly...

Marcus: That's what...

CJ: ...and two it was Minnesota which meant that in the winter the snow was like 3 feet on the ground.

Marcus: Yes. 

CJ: As a Mobile boy, it just wasn’t going to happen....

Marcus: Yeah that's not going to happen. So...that's really interesting because I think music is also a passion of mine and nice to have that outlook. Although I will admit that I don't play much anymore. I used to be much more active but as the business has grown it's left a little time. But I still enjoy listening to music while I'm working and stuff like that. I have a great appreciation for  it.

CJ: Absolutely. And photography is another a hobby that I've just recently taken up. I know you're big photography...

Marcus: Yeah.

CJ: You are a big photography guy.

Marcus: I'm about eyeball deep into that so, yeah. Tell us a little bit about what the average day looks like for you? You have anything that you do everyday? And so like you wake up at a certain time or do you read first thing in the morning? Or you have a cup of coffee and then go straight to work?

CJ: I used to read first thing in the morning until I hit 40 and then my eyes don't focus first thing in the morning. So my reading has shifted into the evenings now.

Marcus: Sure that's funny.

CJ: I get up and I do the usual things. Get ready. And then I probably, I'm checking email about 7:30 in the morning. 

Marcus: Goodness.

CJ: Yeah. Sometimes little earlier. And when you're..unfortunately when you're in the IT business, you get a lot of emails. So I start my day with 50 or 65 emails in the queue at 7:30.. 

Marcus: Ouch.

CJ: Yeah.

Marcus: Yeah. I know...I would imagine it doesn't....probably doesn't get a whole lot better as the day goes on. 

CJ: It really doesn't. One thing that I ....I'll tell you one thing that I have started doing that really has made difference in terms of stress relief. For me personally is ... you have.... and it's a hard thing to do as a business owner. But you have to at some point in time set calm like a DMC. So you have to set a time and say after 5:30, I'm not checking emails anymore, I'm not responding to emails or telephone calls, I'm going to turn my phone off. And you have to do that. You have to give yourself some separation from your business otherwise you'll be up at midnight or later responding to client emails, or working on something. So it took me a long time to learn that lesson but it really...to me it’s important to do that so I can spend time with my family. 

Marcus: So you provide Voice Over IP services. So you have a phone system obviously at the office. And I know this is... we are getting back into the business side of things. But I also see that you have a cell phone, an iPhone sitting next to you on the couch. So how much of your business goes through the phones at the office versus just direct dialing your cell phone?

CJ: Not as much as I would like. That's probably one of our biggest challenges as a service organization is trying to get customers to actually utilize the infrastructure that we put in place within the company. 

Marcus: Yeah.

CJ: And I think a lot of that falls into just where we are as a society and the instant gratification, always wanting to be able to get in touch with somebody. So that is huge challenge for us is trying to educate clients that, "Hey, we have this support infrastructure in place." "You don't necessarily always have to call, me, or…”

Marcus: CJ.

CJ: ...or this particular technician on your cellphone." Because if they're...that technician is somebody else's office, it’s not fair to the customer that they're with for them to stop working to take your phone call. Just like you wouldn't want them to stop working if they were in your office to take somebody else's call. So we try to funnel as much as we can through the infrastructure of the business. But there are still some people who just refuse to get that route.

Marcus: When you're a small business owner, so much of the business is wrapped in, wrapped up in who you are.

CJ: Correct.

Marcus: And so often times they think, "We'll if I'm not getting a hold of the owner, the person, then it’s not going to be handled." The truth is that often times as the owner, we're just turning around and saying, "Hey, ...

CJ: Right, we're just turning around and ...

Marcus: ...so and so...

CJ: ...delegating it to somebody else.

Marcus: .....can you please take care of this client. And one of the things that I hope to do over the next 6 months and sounds like you've got a little bit of that already in place, is put in some of that infrastructure. So taking my cellphone off the website so that when I get phone calls they're actually going through something, because I'd like at some point in time to have other people that can, they can handle that. So...

CJ: Its funny. That they were having this conversation because I just told my wife this morning over breakfast that our next hire had to be an outside sales rep. So that I could get myself out of that role. And that's another thing and another important lesson as a business owner that you have to learn is that at some point in time, you can't be everything. And so....and I've done a fairly good job of that over the years of extracting myself out of the technical side of the business. But now I'm at a point where if the business is going to continue to grow, I have to now take myself out of the sales side as well. Which is a little scary because nobody can sell your business like you can as the owner. But at the same point in time, you need to concentrate your efforts on business development and the vision, where you're going to be in 3 years, in 5 years, in 10 years. And it’s really hard to do that if you're wearing a bunch of different hats. 

Marcus: Yeah.

CJ: And I know that as a startup...as a small business wearing multiple hats is ... there's no way to get around that. But you have to be smart about as you're growing. How do you take yourself out? Because what I've discovered is that a lot of times, I'll be the bottleneck. And a lot of business owners around fall into that same trap. 

Marcus: I was going to say one of my good friends, Jason Safrina, he owns a studio up in Chicago. And he tweeted this past week that, "Nothing like going away for a week to figure out where I'm still the bottleneck." And I thought that was really interesting.

CJ: Yes.

Marcus: Because I mean if you go away, then if something's not getting done while you're away, then that's....

CJ: Then you're the bottleneck.

Marcus: ...yeah. 

CJ: Yeah.

Marcus: And so often times as a small business owner it’s, "Where am I still holding things up?" Is it the sales side of things or ...back when we didn't have a designer and I was still doing the design, it was ...the front end guy was always waiting on me to finish and complete the design. And then just recently, it was some of the project management/client interaction stuff. And so we've had this big push to get everybody into our project management app. So much like you were talking about earlier that there's a structure in place where people can get assistance quickly. And that the people that are actually doing the work can ask questions directly. And I don't have to be that go between. Because it’s a layer of management that's not really necessary.

CJ: Absolutely. Yeah. Its funny because as I realize....as I have those A-ha moments of ah, I'm the one holding this up. Then that goes on my list. So...okay, so I need a process for this, that somebody else can take over, and get me out of the middle of it. 

Marcus: Tell us a little bit about where people can find you. I know you have a website but do you have any other contact information?

CJ: .Sure so our website is pointclearnetworks.com. And we have an office on US Highway 98 in Montrose, between Fairhope and Daphne.  We're very active in the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce. We're very active in the Baldwin Business Council. So we're...it’s not hard to find us along the Eastern Shore. 

Marcus: Well, I want to thank you again for coming again on the podcast. To wrap up is there any other final thoughts or comments, you'd like to share?

CJ: No. Just thanks for having me. I really enjoyed it.

Marcus: Very good. I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your journey as a business owner and entrepreneur. It was great talking to you.

CJ: Thanks