Americans love a good makeover as evidenced by the sky-high ratings of television shows like Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or Fox’s plastic surgery extravaganza, The Swan. Microsoft recently applied that trend to the small business arena with its Microsoft Technology Makeover; a contest that according to the company, allowed it to help “small businesses in the U.S. experience the true value technology can bring to their business.” We take a look at the contest, the winners and whether this experience changed the way they do business.
The contest was open to any U.S. business (partnership, corporation, Limited Liability Company or not-for-profit) with 10-to-50 employees and at least five PCs and consisted of two parts. Entrants filled out an online questionnaire and submitted a 500-word essay explaining how their company would benefit from a tech makeover. Judges looked for the following criteria:
- The business issues the entrant faced were common among small businesses
- The entrant had typical technology concerns — such as security, redundancy and cost
- The winners represented industry segments most typically found in the small business community
According to Lori Newman, a Microsoft marketing director, several themes became apparent as the judges read through the entries. “Most small business owners want technology, but they’re afraid of it, especially since they don’t have IT people on staff. They’re also concerned about how to integrate the various systems so that they all work together smoothly. Finally, many people are interested in how to use technology to grow their business. They want to work smarter so they have more time to sell and connect with their customers.”
Microsoft awarded the grand prize — a combination of technology and services with an estimated value of up to $75,000 — to three companies. Each winner received some or all of the following (depending on each company’s circumstances):
- Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003
- Microsoft Windows Server 2003
- Windows XP Professional
- Microsoft Office 2003
- Microsoft Wireless Broadband Products
- Server hardware, desktops, notebooks and printers from Microsoft hardware partners
- Set-up and service from a local Microsoft Certified Partner of the winner’s choice
Over the next few weeks, we’ll profile each of the three winning companies and look at the state of their technology prior to the contest, what they received from Microsoft and how it’s changed the way they do business.
Company: Pigeon Internet Group, LLC
Business: Internet Developing and Consulting Firm
Location: Reston, Virginia and Kansas City, Missouri
President/CEO: Andrew McLeod
Andrew McLeod runs a five-year-old company that provides custom Internet and marketing communication services for small and medium-sized businesses including Web site design, interactive design and development, Web hosting, video production and print collateral.
Andrew McLeod (r) the President and CEO of Pigeon Internet Group and Charlie Nielson, project manager, display one of the Dell Tablet PCs the company won in the Microsoft Technology Makeover contest.
He saw the ad for the Microsoft makeover contest while he was browsing the company’s Web site looking for servers that he hoped to buy in the next six months. McLeod filled out and submitted the application and promptly forgot all about it.
Two months later, when he got a call from a Microsoft representative telling him he’d won, the information didn’t quite hit home. “I thought it was a joke at first,” McLeod says. “When a few more people called and left voice-mail saying to contact them on their cell phones, I thought it was a scam.” Even after receiving a package of legal papers from Microsoft, McLeod, though increasingly excited, still remained uncertain. After four days, he called Microsoft directly and after again receiving confirmation, he finally believed.
McLeod started Pigeon Internet Group in 1999 while attending college in Wichita, Kansas. He relocated to Virginia in 2000 where the business caught on much faster (the five college pals he hired continued working from Kansas until they graduated in 2003 and went full-time). Since 1999, the company has grown to include 4,000 clients and 13 employees including project managers, sales reps and developers.
The company relied on Linux applications and virtual technologies such as Instant Messaging and VoIP. McLeod wanted technology that would help them be more organized in terms of tracking sales contacts and generating opportunities. “The methods we were using weren’t efficient or safe,” he says. Each of our sales guys kept their contacts in their Outlook files — they weren’t centrally located. If one of them ever left, we’d lose that information.”
Data backup was another issue. “We didn’t have that area covered properly,” McLeod says. “You usually don’t worry about your data until it’s too late.”
The adventure started with a conference call between McLeod’s people, Microsoft and Nortec, a Northern Virginia-based Microsoft Certified Partner that integrated all of the hardware and software McLeod’s business received. “The first stage involved an in-depth talk about our company’s business practices and what technology we needed,” says McLeod. “At our next meeting, Nortec presented a gap study of where we were, where we wanted to be and how the Microsoft tools could get us there.”
Once the roadmap was in place, equipment started arriving: hardware from Dell including desktop PCs and Tablet PCs, flat panel displays, a variety of different servers including Microsoft Windows Small Business Server, Sharepoint Portal and CRM servers and backup tape drives. Software applications included MS Office Professional and MS Project, to name but a few. The package also included employee training on all the new hardware and software systems.
“It was an incredible experience,” says McLeod. “Everyone was so nice. Microsoft and Nortec created an entire IT infrastructure for us from the ground up. “There were times,” he notes, “as we followed the road map, when we found gaps — hardware or software that would be appropriate but wasn’t on the list — and Microsoft happily provided it. Microsoft Project is a case in point.”
McLeod says they now use CRM to manage their sales and customer leads. It stores all of the company’s customer info, leads and opportunities in one central location. “It’s too easy not to act,” says McLeod. “We were too busy chasing business to adopt CRM, but now we lose less business because CRM is much more efficient.”
And you can be sure that data is safe. “Our customer data is all we have,” says McLeod. “Our security is much better now that we have RAID servers backed up onto tape.”
In terms of business growth, McLeod couldn’t be happier. “The last six months have been amazing,” he says. “We’ve increased our business by 100 percent. The tools Microsoft gave us completely justify the expense,” he continues. “After seeing the results we’ve had, I’d invest in the infrastructure even if I had to pay for it myself. We got to this technology level so much sooner than a company our size with our revenues normally does — we completely outclass our competition.”
As thrilled as he is, McLeod is even more grateful to his benefactors. I can’t thank them enough. Microsoft was amazing, and Nortec did a phenomenal job representing them. I’m the lucky one, and lucky doesn’t even begin to describe it,” he says. “This experience has changed our business and our ability to dream about the future.”
Lauren Simonds is the managing editor at SmallBusinessComputing.com.
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