"An entrepreneurial immersion on Necker Island with Richard Branson is one example!"
Now with 50 staff across four cities, Jacob drives the ambitious goal of international expansion, and it all stems from the love he developed for computer technology after receiving a Commodore 64 computer on his tenth birthday. It was a life compass as well as a motherboard. His inquisitive mind and the machine’s hard drive combined to teach him the value of pure fun with this new technology, and he learned to reformat the computer setup sequence after deleting it all, many times over!
Curiosity, and a developing penchant for all things technological, steered Jacob into an undergraduate degree in Computer Science at Monash University. In his first year he worked part-time for computer hardware manufacturer and wholesaler Alloy Computer Products (ACP), refining his knowledge about computing and networks. He began to notice that Alloy’s new products for business were selling, but computer support and product training were conspicuously lacking in the market. He stepped in; confident he had the capabilities to fill the gap he’d identified, and began a hobby business out of his parents’ garage.
With just one, then two customers – both still with him today – he steadily grew the business from part-time hobby into an enterprise which has just received internationally-recognised certification to elevate his professional standing in the industry globally, The business has expanded interstate and into New Zealand.
Jacob makes sure he tends to his staff to keep them on the pulse and happily engaged in the business. He looks after his customers in the same manner. His mantra is “I can only sell what I truly believe will work; products and services which are robust, and reliable, and will meet the customers’ expectations for their business requirements. Without that, I don’t want to sell.”
That fateful gift on his tenth birthday certainly provided a platform on which Jacob could further excel; not only as a computer-literate expert with skills to train and support end users, but as an enterprising businessman. He had noticed a gap in the market, seized upon it, and committed to filling it by investing human resources into computer support and product training for businesses.
Now the company has been recognised for its contribution to the sector, winning the Fujitsu 2015 Partner of the Year Award. Last year it began its rise in the industry through public recognition by winning the accolade of the Sophos Network Partner of the Year. This, says Jacob, “shows we’re out there really ticking the boxes and making sure that we’re getting the best outcome for our customers.”
What informed and drove his entrepreneurship? Fortuitously for Jacob, his mother’s boss (she worked in a pharmacy) took an interest in him during his school years and became a mentor of sorts. He introduced Jacob to the inside workings of business and the values of the ‘whole approach’ attitude to management. As a mentor, he not only shared his time and knowledge, he helped Jacob see potential for growth and most probably planted the seed of desire in Jacob to become master and commander of his own business and, ultimately, his life.
PowerNET celebrated its 21st birthday this year, yet it had all begun as a hobby in 1994. Jacob looks back and recalls, “It was really just a hobby which grew in my parents’ garage, until the year 2000 when the GST kicked in. The millennium or Year 2000 Bug also played a part, and by then I had about 50 customers, all grown by word of mouth. There was no marketing campaign. And when I hit the year 2000, they all wanted computers! I had 50 computers in my office and I had to set them all up. I realised then I need to get some staff.”
At that time, Jacob was also assisting with email set ups, domain name registrations and other necessary steps needed to get clients signed up to the internet and the world wide web. It was early days of the ‘www’ phenomenon and it seemed everyone was learning how to use this new collective tool from a select few already ahead in the game. Jacob was one of them; a trailblazer in this pioneering virtual world of the wild west.
Jacob remembers his first computer support call out fondly. He’d been working for Alloy, refining his skills, and had a really good handle on the technical aspects of the computer support role, but he was young and still driving with P plates when he arrived at his first client’s business. Jacob said the staff looked somewhat bemused, and he could sense them wondering how this inexperienced driver could help them with their sophisticated computer equipment. Jacob left an impression of efficient competence and the customer’s trust was easily won over. That business remains a loyal PowerNET client today.
That first client became one Jacob would visit “once every three or six months, and it was something I enjoyed doing immensely. And then the second client came along, Power Equipment, who we still look after today, after 21 years. They’ve now grown into a company with 100 staff, and an office in every state of Australia. Both are companies that I’m quite proud to look after. That relationship developed just because you do the right thing for them, and that’s pretty much how the business has built up from day one.”
Maintaining pace with the emergence of new technology has kept Jacob both excited and fully engaged in the industry. As new hardware and software capabilities ticked over, so did the potential to develop new insights and understanding of the technology. Then came the follow through and ability to impart that knowledge to customers in a comprehensible non-‘geek-speak’ way. The business grew, and hiring of new staff became a regular occurrence.
The IT industry has changed dramatically, particularly over the last decade. In the late 1990s Jacob remembers finishing his work at the same time as most other businesses, between 5-5.30pm. He would get out to his customers by day, and at night he would create updates and build patches. “Those days are long gone – support services are now available on a 24/7 help desk cycle.”
In the early days Jacob would take the help desk calls, sometimes at three o’clock in the morning, to provide support. Now he is no longer on call and PowerNET has a dedicated help desk team which works around the clock. Any technical issues are diverted through to that team.
Looking back on 21 years of successful service, Jacob will tell you that he’s always been passionate about getting the right staff, including those who can communicate properly. At PowerNET ‘geek speak’ is definitely out; good communicators with concise, user-friendly language skills are in. Keeping the customer informed without overly-complicated or technical language helps promote trust and reassures clients.
There have been many turning points for the company over the years including five major image transformations. Five years ago, Jacob suddenly found himself with a confounding dilemma. He had succeeded in making the biggest and best annual net profit, yet he was feeling unhappy about coming in to work. It was confronting, and he set out to deconstruct his internal dialogue. He came to the conclusion that ‘biggest and best’ did not necessarily fit with his goals for personal growth and fulfilment. He wanted to be able to come to work and have fun; to enjoy himself. So he restructured the business to make sure that this was not just possible but paramount; and not just for him, but for his staff as well.
Jacob makes sure he reinvests in the business and in the personal wellbeing of the staff. He takes time to address any issues or discontent which may surface amongst his staff; talking to them to find out what’s behind any pain or friction. He says repositioning staff into a new area or providing extra training are just two of the strategies he uses for staff retention. “It is very rewarding personally,” says Jacob, “when good members of staff leave, but return after a couple of years of experience on the outside.”
The speed of technological change has been so rapid, Jacob has had to build seven separate areas in the business and move staff with particular skill sets into those dedicated areas. This also helps direct staff into the areas they enjoy, allowing the space for them to focus on what they love and do best, be it networking, web hosting, security or something else.
Twenty years ago Jacob had to perform these tasks as a solo player. Today he has teams of specialists to whom he can delegate. He says with confidence that, whatever the project, he has the right people for the job. With the industry never standing still and giant suppliers like Microsoft and Apple constantly delivering change through new products, “the business is unlikely to run out of ‘puff’ any time soon” for new products and services requiring ongoing delivery of training and support.
Jacob’s ambitious goal, apart from having fun, is to become a T1 provider. This means not only developing the business into a $100 million turnover enterprise but taking on much larger customers. The challenge Jacob confidently intends to meet will be keeping the personal touch. How will he succeed? Through preserving the account management and sales executive structure to make sure the small business focus they had when just a one or two-man band is maintained.
With offices now in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Auckland and partner companies in Adelaide and Perth, PowerNET is positioned for further rapid growth. After substantial investment in new business systems over the last two-to-three years – management systems as well as end-to-end software – PowerNET is in a position to grow through acquisition, advertising, marketing and organic growth. The goal is to get it to a T1, with a potential 5,000 clients, with offices in other countries around the world. Auckland is merely the first of those.
Jacob says it’s an audacious goal but “without goals, you don’t achieve”. After past struggles with juggling too many goals at once, he’s come to realise filtering and focus are key. Now, with seven divisions and with good people focussed on what they do and loving it, they can all move together in one direction. Gone are the days of all-rounders. Today the light shines on focussed specialists. Ten years is a realistic timeframe for elevating the business to this ambitious level.
In talking of success from a business perspective, Jacob looks to his customers. If they are happy, he knows he is succeeding. Ditto for his staff; Jacob likes them motivated and well accommodated in terms of skillset and IT specialty. Every six months there’s a staff review. At that time any adjustments can then be made to assist in keeping them happy and motivated, even if that means transferring to a different state office, if they happen to be relocating for any reason. Jacob says his staff members deserve “the flexibility to adjust to make sure they are happy.”
What motivates Jacob? Following his passion; riding his bike to work (after a coffee-fuelled early morning start) and making people happy. He also considers himself fortunate to have spent a week on Necker Island with Richard Branson, who generously inspired and mentored him as one of a large group of entrepreneurs. Able to understand first-hand Branson’s charismatic power and why he has achieved so much, Jacob’s take-away lessons include the value of delegation, looking after your staff and creating audacious goals for yourself to work toward. In Branson’s case, an audacious goal is set on an annual basis and followed through with dedicated methodology.
Delegation is something Jacob has been able to enjoy more in the last few years but he initially found ‘handing over the baby’ very daunting. Now he sees the value in giving responsibility and control to those who are specialists in their particular areas. It also frees up time for him to focus more on growing the business and on what he enjoys most. This includes holidays and travel, and taking time out to pursue special interests and personal development training – an entrepreneurial immersion on Necker Island with Richard Branson is one example!
Jacob credits Gallop Management Systems and the rollout of a new end-to-end software program as two factors successfully changing the whole business model of PowerNET and improving on the business outcomes. With these in place, the business has just received its ISO certification 9001 – an internationally recognised affirmation, confirming PowerNET follows approved and professional processes in its industry.
Three business tips:
- 1. Employ the right staff
- 2. Trust your gut instinct
- 3. Work needs to be fun
- ‘Geek-speak’ is definitely out.
- “Jacob had grown his garage-based computer business from two staff to a business now hiring 50.”
- “We’re out there making sure we’re getting the best outcome for our customers.”
- “I can only sell what I truly believe will work; products and services which are robust, and reliable…”
IT business owner Jacob Ohlson may have started his working life with a job at Hungry Jacks, but his passion for technology has fuelled the remarkable growth of his internet technology company.