Welcome to Podcast Episode Number 9 of the Mobile Alabama Business Podcast with Abe Harper. My name is Marcus Neto, I am the owner of Blue Fish, a digital marketing and web design company based in downtown 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 some time with us today.
Today, I'd also like to interject that none of the people that we're interviewing for the podcasts have been paid a dime to be a guest. We're genuinely interested in their business, and we want to help amplify all the successes and the good stuff that is going on in the Mobile area. We just wanted to clear that up, because somebody did bring it up on our Facebook page recently.
Anyway, in today's show, I sit down with Abe Harper. Abe and his brother Carl own and manage Harper Technologies. Harper Technologies is known for data forensics. If they can't recover it, then it can't be recovered. They also manage large networks and do PC support. We talk about Abe's former hobby of motorcycles and how about led him to getting his pilot's license. We talk about how about is now an asset that helps him cover a larger area of business. Abe is also on the board for Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce. So let's dive right in with Abe Harper. So welcome to the podcast Abe!
Abe: Hey thanks, great to be here, pleasure!
Marcus: You and I met for the first time probably about 2 or so months ago?
Abe: Yeah about 6 days about 2 months ago.
Marcus: Yeah, and I know we run on the same circle, so it's really cool to get a chance to sit down with you and talk shop even though our businesses aren't extremely close together. We kind of...the tech aspect it kind of overlaps when news and stuff like that, we understand each others business. It's really cool to get a chance and sit down with you and talk. I want just for the audience here, for them to get a chance to know you, so why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you ended up here in Lower Alabama and are you married? Do you have kids? You know, all that kind of stuff.
Marcus: [laugh] Little bit more Abe!
Abe: All the above - a native resident of South Alabama, born at Thomas Hospital, August 29th, I won’t disclose the year but...
Marcus: He's young ladies and gentlemen.
Abe: [chuckle] We've lived here pretty much my entire life except for one year in college in Tallahassee, Florida. Fast forward considerably my brother and I have always worked together doing different things. We decided that we want it to venture out and start a company about 11 years ago and we took an opportunity that was before us and jumped out, kinda did the out-of-the-nest thing and it's rolling and rocking and pretty much the whole way. As a personal preference, I'm a personal entertainment standpoint of you know-- kinda like to find things that I enjoy to do outside of work or you know something more than staring at the computer all day long, but by enlarge Harper Technologies is 24/7, 365.
Marcus: There you go. I find it interesting, I was listening to another podcast this past week, and I can't remember the guy's name, but he's a famous actor and he was just recently in The Chef and it's going to... as soon as we stop recording, I'll remember his name. But anyway, he was remarking at how when he's not acting, you know that he really enjoys working with his hands and doing things that he recently had taken up pottery. And so I think it's interesting that a lot of us in the tech industry, the last thing we want to do is get behind another device or sit behind an iPad and read or something along those lines. It's, we want to get away from that and focus on doing something a little bit more tangible, because everything we deal with is virtual.
Abe: Right, right.
Marcus: Right? Tell us a little bit about the business, you mentioned that you all started, is it 11 years ago?
Abe: 11 years ago, 2003/early 2004. December of 2003 is when we officially launched. 2004 is when we started operating as an IT company servicing computers, networks, pretty much our first 2 to 3 years was "hey, help my a-load doesn't work."
Abe: “The CD ROM tray in my computer won't come out, what do I need to do, my computer is making a roaring noise, can you help me?” I'd been an IT considerably prior to that. I worked for small company while I was in college, that was a local based company, they're out of business, but they were, the owner of it was a person that afforded me a lot of opportunities. He gave me a chance to kind of get my feet wet, but at the same time gave me some freedoms that were unheard of somebody at my age at that point, so fresh out of college to working beyond the years, so I didn't do what I wanted to do really. Harper Technologies has evolved and grown just a tons since then and as a business owner it's been a challenge at times to keep up with it, but also been just really rewarding on the back end and look at that growth and see that you actually clear those stairs. Well. Yeah.
Marcus: Well at some point of time and stuff becoming about the technology and the focus on earning more knowledge in the technology room and more about the business intelligence, I guess if you will, about how to run a business properly, right?
Abe: Right and as with anything as it grows, as it starts out, it's you and your business partner and everything seems like it's you're on cloud nine, and then all of a sudden, reality set in, you've got the growth patterns to worry about as far as hiring up professional services, what do you do yourself, what don't you do yourself. Then you've got the logistics of the first April 15th that rolls around, or March 15th depending on what that day is. Are you prepared for that and you got payroll when you have employees, and then you've got, later down the road, I won't say disputes, but transactions with clients that you may not see eye-to-eye on. So it's a learning curve. I mean it's always a learning curve and then at top of that you throw in technology reinvents itself every...
Marcus: 6 months now?
Abe: Yeah, 6 months or less.
Marcus: Yeah, that kind of speed can wear you down. It's definitely interesting to me just to hear your perspective as somebody else who's in the tech industry, and I speak to a lot of people that are in my line of my work with the digital marketing, website services and stuff like that, but I don't have a whole lot of contact with folks that are in your line of work. So give us a break down, you've told us a little bit about how you got started on the business, but what are the exact services now that you guys are known for?
Abe: We're primarily known as 3 areas, I think. One is forensic data recovery, that something that we've kind of been emerged in and we've been growing in over the past 4 years. We have a hardware design, analytic sector which is where we basically go out, we troubleshoot people's equipment, we fix it. And then network consulting, that's our big one, because under that umbrella falls a lot of different categories on topics but we do everything from office 365, deployments and roll outs for fortune 500's all the way down to network consulting for our parents who have 2 computers at their house and a wireless router. We try to fit all to the business day where we can.
Marcus: Where have you been focusing on lately to build your businesses? Is there an area that you're putting a lot of effort into or anything that has required a little bit more effort?
Abe: On our side, I don't believe this been as much in the effort for building the business forward as it has been on maintaining the principle that we’re founded on, which has always been highest level of customer satisfaction we can possibly retain. I think it's a fierce statement to say in this area, the market and the target based for clients is you can narrow it down pretty tight to the clientele that you're looking for, but if you don't focus on maintaining a clean and clear reputation for being ethical, honest, efficient, clients aren't going to continue to shop with you. You've got virtualization, you've got cloud based services, but all of that the customer’s still gonna need for us what we need is for the customer need, us as the component of that.
Abe: So, I think the answer to that is that our main focus on growth in business has been maintaining customer satisfaction.
Marcus: That makes sense. You guys can't get a visual picture about where literally have been Abe's office in, it is one if the worst rainstorms that we've seen in a long time, and there's a lot of lightning happening outside of his 2nd story windows here.
Abe: Glass blocks.
Marcus: Yeah, the glass blocks. And so every once in a while I'll jump and Abe gets a little giggle because there's a lightning cloud to cloud and stuff, it's kinda interesting. You mentioned customer satisfaction as the area focus, what are you actively doing to pursue that or to ensure that is something that is happening?
Abe: For us it's about taking time with each individual case as much as we would if we were acquiring that customer for the first time. Be it a 11, 12 year account, someone that we knew before we had our business or be it someone that just walked in the door yesterday. For us, it's all about the consistency of rhythm. We don't ever want anyone regardless of their size, regardless of their business type to feell that they're excluded from our scope. And I guess I should stand back and say this, why we don't necessarily agree that the customer is always right, we think the customer always deserves to have a fair opportunity to be satisfied and have a pleasant experience.
Marcus: They're obviously they're hiring you for your technical expertise, they're hiring you for the skills that you bring in the table. They may not necessarily be right on how to apply these technical skills, but how you deal with all man, the tactfulness and stuff like that, I completely get that.
Abe: For us the biggest part of it is maintaining a clear line communication with the customer, making sure that they understand that we want a hundred percent satisfaction for them. Not just that's a piece of paper statement, not if it's in our documents but effectively that if they are dissatisfied with something, they've got a way to communicate to us, and for us we've seen that our business grows considerably with that. We have pretty good metrics that show us every time that we stand in the gap, we fill in the customer's concern or we bridge what they're worried about and take the time to do that as opposed to just rationalizing it as a casualty of IT, then they are willing and able to move forward.
Marcus: Yeah. So often times in the tech though and business and even as part of this podcast, we've gone back a couple of times and actually defined what certain things or we even just stop recording and gone back and re-recorded with the actual layman's terms or what something means, but I think in the tech industry we're so quick to just rattle off things and not really pay attention to explaining it to the person and what the benefit is, and why they're making this decision, even though it may cause them the tangible money that is coming out of their pocket is significant, but the benefits of what they're gonna get or gonna you serve that by 10 fold or whatever so.
Abe: And in our case, it's the matter of making sure that people, like you said, they understand it. By enlarge, to people technology they see a hard drive and it's a box, they don't know what's in and they don't know how it works, they don't know why it works, to them it's magic. To us we understand it, and taking and translating that language from us to them, so they're comfortable with why they have to spend money on it. Then can sometimes be a challenge.
Marcus: Yeah. As a business center we face a lot of different challenges and I'm curious as to if there are any challenges that you've faced recently or anything, maybe situations where you've come out of it on the other side you've said, "Well, I really learned something out of that experience". And it doesn't necessarily have to be something negative, it could be something as simple as, "Well, I didn't know Quickbooks", and I sat down and I read a book, and I learned how to do Quickbooks or something, but what's one of the more important things that you've learned business-wise of the last say 6 months?
Abe: You know in the last 6 months, I don't know that I can quantize something hard, one of the lessons of hard knocks, I will say that I started, I complicate brother zero knowledge in business administration and management. So for me, I’ve spent the past 12 to 11 and 12 year learning experience as it goes.
Abe: Daily, there's always something new to be learned . And I just really trying to think of something over the past even year that I've learned that's a value to me, that a tough one! I mean, there's always something I'm learning. I did learn that changing even something as small as a tack structure type, can have huge impacts on you financially and on paper.
Abe: We are an LLC, our company's a Limited Liability Corporation, only advising of our Legal and accounting council so we decided that we would file as S Corp and move over to that.
Marcus: Welcome to the club.
Abe: And there were some fees and some payment schedules that were not disclosed when they initially gave us that direction to go. So, when accounting comes back to me and says, "Hey! We're writing this check!” I say “for what?” I say, "because we're an s corp!" And I say, "That's not what I learned about S Corps. Well, you didn't get the whole picture, I'm still learning." So.
Marcus: Yeah, the one I mean we don't have to go down that path too deep but just to clarify, there are some benefits to filing as an S Corp that you don't get as an LLC mainly in the sense of what you pay out in terms of social security and stuff like that. So you can end up saving yourself significant money, especially for those of us that are younger and that don't know whether we'll even see social security payments or not. That's why a lot of the CPA's are suggesting to go that route. We've been filing as an s corp for matter or year or two now. I feel you because the initial payments are quite extensive. Are there any books that you've read that give importance to you or anything that you would recommend on new entrepreneur might wanna read or...
Abe: The Bible. [laugh] Now, aside from that, because that is a thing I keep, to me my faith is huge.
Marcus: Sure. Absolutely.
Abe: I read a lot of journals. I keep up with PC World with Tech Mag with Read, Write Course Online and follow those guys because a lot of the book knowledge from the technical stand point, if I'm looking to grow my business in technology, I'm missing out on a lot of meat and potatoes of the current day architecture. There's things that just are changing so fast, that by me taking and blinking if it's an older book especially it's like gonna have it their journal just to keep them a little more current for me.
Marcus: Very good. You mentioned that couple of magazines, but any other resources that you found helpful? So websites, or organizations? And they don't have to be specific to the tray, they can be just general business.
Abe: General business.
Abe: Definitely, the local Chamber of Commerce been hugely helpful, and if I be, we actually on Friday had an article published.
Marcus: What's that?
Abe: National Federation of Independent Businesses and it's Federation of Foundation of Independent Businesses.
Abe: My younger brother received-and we've been members for quite some time, 2007, he received the Young Entrepreneurs Award which basically brought us to DC, had an award ceremony with Congressman Bonner, met with his, gave us, presented us the award, he got won a scholarship for college on that and they wrote a story on us then, and then this year they wrote a story following up, and it just published in there. I think it's an online article, only I don't think they had paper publication as complete book. They've been hugely instrumental and as finding if we need resources like legal council, like accounting council, they are great resource for connecting on your small business community, even though they're nationally distributed, they find ways to connect to the people if you need it.
Marcus: Very good. Yeah, you mentioned the Chamber and I think both of us just recently received our letters of I don't know, intent or what everyone to call it for joining the board here for the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce, so congratulations on that!
Abe: Thank you!
Marcus: I'm looking forward to getting to know you a little bit more while we serve in that capacity.
Abe: Likewise, very much so.
Marcus: Well, here’s the question that I know you well enough to know that you're a very interesting guy and have a very interesting answer to this question. So, what do you like to do in your free time? Do you have any hobbies?
Abe: No, I have no hobbies. I sit and stare at the wall.
Marcus: Please, please, please, please?
Abe: I love to fly, General Aviation is my by far my biggest and most frowned-upon by my wife hobby most times.
Marcus: And your insurance agent?
Abe: And I'm insurance agent, yeah. The two of them, I think are trying to find a way to get me out. ANd my business partner. I think these three people work can get me away from that. My wife and I like connecting with young couples and kinda help them, to see them grow in their relationships. We have a daughter, we have an 18 month old, so that's probably my mostly-engaged hobby all of that at this point and I've always been involved in music production in some degree, studio or live, and no matter how far I walk away from it, I always get drawn back to it. I closed down all of the equipment I had for studio production for about 4 years ago and a friend of mine who I consider to be mega producer called me up about 3 weeks ago and said, "Hey! I got something you need to see!" So I say, "Okay, I'll stop by at your house" because he lives near the airport, so one goes in line with the other and I visit him and he gave me a new piece of equipment and it's kinda like-- just like kinda got a breath a fresh air.
Marcus: You never...I would consider myself a musician to, you never leave that.
Marcus: It is engrained in your soul, it is written there and you will always find solice in going back to that place. It's definitely something that isn't draw. I love actually, I love to chat with you about that offline because I think the actual music production when I told my wife a couple of months ago that when I went to James Madison, I was a music major. James Madison at that point time, you could either be performance, an education, or production major.
Marcus: And I knew I wasn't good enough to be a performance major, and I didn't know anything about what production meant. So I went in to the education realm. The reason why I dropped out of that program is because I knew I didn't want to be a teacher, I just don't-- I'm not wired that way. God bless the people that are, but it just wasn't for me. And so, but what I really wish is that I had known more about what production meant because I think with my affinity for tech, whether be gadgets or whatever and my ear for music that I could have really done something in that realm. But anyway, it's just, it's always been a passion of mine. You've mentioned flying, and I just think that's one of the coolest things that what how did you like go down to that path, like how difficult is it to become a pilot? You know, all those kind of questions.
Abe: It's not inherently difficult as much it is, a commitment of consistency. Everything in being a pilot starts with a routine. There's a routine for a the practicality and practice of it, and there's a routine for the safety piece. The answer to your question to how I get in in being a pilot, I had a motorcycle when I got married. Motorcycle is deemed unsafe and...
Marcus: Wasn't flying wasn't a good alternative? [laugh]
Abe: You know, I don't know if her-- I don't know if that what she was thinking.
Abe: But when the motorcycle went away I needed something to fill that void for a hobby, and of course that was one of my off time for studio stuff, so I went back to, okay I need a hobby, and I feel remote control helicopters and then a buddy of mine said, "Hey, why don't you think about real aviation?" So I part the remote control helicopter and started working on my pilot's license. It took me 3 years to get my pilot's license. But that's as a business owner, as a primary operator in my business at that time and my commitment to it time wise was not conducive to me building the consistency that it would work out where I could do it 6 months like some people can.
Abe: Basically if you want to get a pilot's license, you go to a flight school and connect with a certified flight instructor, tell them, "Hey, I want to be a pilot!" And they'll start you with the essentials which is the discovery flight, they'll give you some paper work and make sure that you clear all the legal side of things before you get into it and you start training and it's just like anything else but takes time in money, but it's not as costly as you think it would be.
Marcus: And I know because you're business takes you to quite a wide radius of areas including all the way up to say Birmingham and into Tennessee.
Marcus: And Panama City and Tallahassee in one direction, and then as far as Texas in the other direction, I would imagine that that's become, instead of something that's just a hobby, it's actually become an asset to the business that you're able to get to those places really quickly. Is that one of the considerations that you made for going down that path or?
Abe: Absolutely. At the time we got the airplane that we've got now, we were consulting the IT for the BP oil spill on 2010. That was I kinda showed with you offline, the story of how we got, of where the airplane came from, and how the initial start up, and it was, but we were consulting the BP oil spill, and they have offices, the company worked for had offices from Crawfordville, Florida to Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi. And now here I am as primary consultant driving that range everyday and a half.
Abe: And it kinda boiled down to me saying, "Okay, if I'm gonna do this, I need a much more efficient method.'' Granted, I didn’t have a pilot's license quite yet at that point. So my intent was aimed on getting the airplane, having it and making that commitment about the airplane in the middle of that project didn't get my pilot's license until that when my project was over with at that point. So it never saw activity on that but shortly they're after us started learning about how I could use it to gain business in New Orleans. We had a Tallahassee office for many years so we have the Tallahassee for 4 years and would fly back and forth down there. Even just connecting with clients in Evergreen and places like that.
Marcus: Birmingham or Atlanta, or whatever we talked about going up to Atlanta to one of the...
Abe: Atlanta Tech Center.
Marcus: Yeah, exactly. And so it's interesting to me how something that, some people would see as extravagant, but in another sense has become a way for you to expand the business, it's a hobby that brings you joy and I'm sure that you and your family use it also for times where you just need to just get away and have a vacation, and it becomes a little bit more cost effective to do that, and it even does to fly commercially nowadays.
Abe: Right, right. Well and with it too. I think it's a fresh statement to say since we own an aircraft in 2010, it has literally brought us enough in terms of revenue and the abilities that has expanded to us to pay for it, all the upgrades and all the maintenance that we put into it.
Marcus: Yeah absolutely.
Abe: So it's not all that disimilar that someone that owns a business, my father and my uncle done a concrete business and they have to have a concrete pumps to do things, but more to have a concrete pump you had to have a 2500 plus series truck to pull the pump. So you know, we're not gonna pulling the pump, you wanna have the truck and use the truck to pull the boat, something like that. So it's a business necessity to us at this point. Yeah, I don't think we could maintain the business that we have without it.
Marcus: Yeah, it's cool, it's really interesting. You mentioned consistency and commitment in your answers regarding the plane. You strike me as a fairly consistent, fairly regimented guy most of us in the tech industry are. Are there any rituals or anything that you do in an average day I mean is there a pattern, or reputation in your day in the things that you do that kind of get you in the mood or that you just find hope you make it through the day?
Abe: For me, the one consistency that I struggle with I'll start with...
Abe: ...and that is finding time to eat. My wife fusses at me all the time. I wake up, I skip breakfast, I skip lunch because I'm in the middle of the project, and before I know it is that I skip dinner because I'm still trying to finish up something. So I'll go pretty much the whole day and then I'm complaining about a headache the next day.
Abe: As far as my ritual consistency, my day pretty much starts the same everyday, pretty much close the same everyday.
Marcus: So, what is that look like so unpack for I mean you get up the certain time, have a cup of coffee, read emails, I mean what is that actually look like?
Abe: My day typically runs analysis, the scale can be shifted by couple of hours depending on the previous day too but it typically runs 6am out of bed, 7am out of the house, on my way to the office, at the office check in on paper work, check in on who's tasks were completed yesterday, what else is got to be done, doors open at 8:30.
Marcus: So, 8:30 phone's ringing, making sure stuff has get to run out to people, around that time I'm normally doing daily financial assessment, what do we make yesterday, what do we expect to make today, what do I think we need to make tomorrow.
Marcus: That's hardcore man, daily?
Abe: Daily. And then that's Monday-Thursday, and then I go out into the field, I go service customers, I handle business, make sales call just like everybody else in the team does. And then I oversee things that need to get done. On Friday, my day's a little bit different. I actually trim my day off to where I get up at 6:30, I stay at home usually because that's my safe haven, and I do financial assessments of the week and the month to date on that Friday until about 10:30-11:00. I look at where we are, what we got, where we going, what we need to do, what we've done, what we did right, what we did wrong, a comprehensive picture. I think I love aviation because I love being an entrepreneur. And I love being entrepreneur because I love aviation. And both of them, there's always a series...I had a financial planner once told me just because the wind of the conditions bump your plane around doesn't mean you have to answer every call, but it also means you need to take notice of every bump and my business have treated the same way, if I see something that bumps us one direction or another, I look at it and I decide, Okay, this is something that needs a small correction, or something that needs a huge correction? And do I need you to act right now, do you have to act on it, or can I wait, take my time and enjoy it a little bit? That's kind of my Friday, it's me standing by, looking at the mountain so to speak, trying to figure out, "Okay, where do I chisel, where do I chip, where do I need dynamite."
Marcus: That's a good analogy. Tell us where people can find you, how would they get in touch with you if they have a project that they like to run by.
Abe: Absolutely, we're located currently at The Summit at Daphne, we're on Highway 98, 29000 US Highway 98, that's the easiest way to walk and find us. Or you can always email us at Harper Technologies, it's abe@harpertechnologies for me, or they can email support@harpertech, or they can always call (251) 690-9029 and we accept smoke signals but not on cloudy days.
Marcus: Or rainy days like today, this is kinda crazy outside. Well, I wanna thank you again for coming on the podcast, are there any final thoughts or things you want to share?
Abe: I think that's it, but I really appreciate you guys take time to come in and talk with me, I really enjoy.
Marcus: Absolutely man. Well, I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your journey as a business center on entrepreneur. It was great talking to you.