BeachHead: Interview with Charles Bennett

BeachHead builds better businesses from the inside out. In this series, we speak with people on the front lines of Canada’s thriving small business community to learn about their experiences and what it takes to successfully run a company.

This conversation is with Charles Bennett, Founder and Principal Consultant at Triella.

Triella is a full-service technology consulting company that helps small & medium-sized businesses create, implement and maintain their technology infrastructure. They proactively recommend technologies that reduce risk, increase revenue or lower expenses and deliver 100% Canadian based Private Cloud services by providing server, software and infrastructure as a monthly service.

Charles Bennett started his career as a PC Technician with Torys LLP, 30 years ago when they had about 100 employees. At the height of his career at Torys he was the Director of IT with 26 people reporting to him and supervised the transition through four technology platforms and a merger with a New York firm. By the end of his tenure, Torys had approximately 700 employees. After 16 years, Charles decided he needed a new challenge and left Torys to complete an MBA at Rotman School of Management and in 2004, he founded Triella.

Tell us more about Triella.

Triella is a full-service technology consulting company. Our slogan is “technology peace of mind”. We take care of the technology for our clients so that they can focus on their business. We focus on professional service firms such as law firms, engineers, architects, design firms—essentially, companies that bill for their time—and provide outsourced IT. If they have their own infrastructure, e.g. their own servers, desktops, and people, then we provide help desk support, maintain their servers, and give them maximum uptime. We also have private cloud-based services for clients that are particularly concerned about security and data residency. We have a data centre located in North Toronto. As clients save their data, it’s backed up in our data centres in both Toronto and Calgary with a high level of redundancy and security to protect their assets.

How did Triella come about?

I was working for Tory’s law firm and after working there for some time I felt it was time to do something a little different. I registered for an MBA program at Rotman and got accepted. In doing the MBA program, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to use the skills that you learn in the MBA in a traditional job. Throughout my time in Torys I learned that many firms, law firms in particular, are always looking for help with technology and there weren’t a lot of really good providers out there. From a strategic point of view, there was definitely a place for a company to win in that environment so I decided to create that company, essentially out of my basement. I ran the company in the basement for about a year before I hired another person and my wife got upset about people coming into the house all the time! I moved into a shared workspace with someone who became a client before eventually moving into our own offices. 16 years later, here we are.

What’s your role in the business?

Everything. I try not to do tactical stuff because we’ve got a team of people for that, but I do almost everything else—business development, management, strategy, hiring—in some cases firing—capacity planning, and project management. We have an accountant for financial services and our office manager does all the bookkeeping.

Who is your ideal customer?

Our ideal customer is a law firm of 5-100 people that values technology and how technology can help their business run more efficiently, not just somebody looking for the lowest price. We’re a proactive provider and we’re looking to always enhance the way in which our client operates. Rather than having a suite of products that we push on everybody, we try to make sure that everybody is operating as effectively as they can within their environment. If that means changing the suite of products we use, then we will do that. For instance, if we’re finding a lot of our firms are getting infected, we will look for a different product and will recommend to all the other firms change this product because we’re finding it to be better than the product that we previously had.

Our primary goal is to service our clients and if we do that well, we feel that we will make the money that we need to be profitable.

Why do your clients choose you?

I think they come to us on reputation. We don’t do a lot of external marketing and most of our work has come from people referring others to us. We’re actually just starting to get into marketing now and starting to do some advertising, etc., but it’s all been organic growth to this point. I think people come to us because we’re trustworthy. Our primary goal is to service our clients and if we do that well, we feel that we will make the money that we need to be profitable. We have a different kind of philosophy here and it’s something we continue to re-emphasize each week when we meet with our team—it’s about making sure that we’re doing the best job that we can for each client.

Why in this day and age is managed IT services still relevant? Why is it important?

There are a lot of free services out there these days and sometimes people think that they can grab these free services, cobble them together, and away they go! The risk there is that people don’t know what they don’t know. When we first started out sixteen years ago, you didn’t need to think about security very much but over the years, the threat landscape has become more and more prevalent. Years ago, viruses were a way for coders to show off their coding prowess and prove they could actually do the thing but now, it’s about making money. They will cripple your systems and try to force you to pay them to allow you back in. If your IT system has not been set up by a professional, then you may have things going on that you may not even know about. You wouldn’t start doing all your financials without having an accountant give you advice on it and it’s the same thing with technology—you need a competent technology team to help you set up your technology properly so that your business will be less of a target.

Recently, there was a reported breach at Microsoft, where a whole bunch of information such as email addresses and IP addresses were leaked out into the dark web—the dark web is the place where information like that gets sold. If someone receives one of those emails saying, “You’ve been watching sex videos. I’ve got your password and you need to pay me some money so I don’t release this to the public”, that’s all done based on these breaches. Someone gets hold of a password and uses social engineering to get you to think that they know more than they actually do about you and to get you to pay out bitcoins to prevent them from leaking that information. One of our clients had been using Dropbox and similar services. They had a local backup in their office as well as an offsite backup but when they got hacked and got ransomware put on their system, they discovered their local backup was encrypted and they weren’t able to recover the data off there. They went to their offsite backup and found out it hadn’t been working since January of that year and it was October by that point—they basically lost everything between January and October. We put all their clean data and operating systems on our private cloud and were able to secure them, back them up, and provide day-to-day service for them, all for one fixed monthly fee. Now they’re fully protected and they can focus on their business without having to worry about technology-related issues that might hold them back.

You need a competent technology team to help you set up your technology properly so that your business will be less of a target. 

The value of an outsourced IT service is the proactive nature of it. For example, we go in every month and look at our clients’ servers to see if there’s anything about to go wrong—are they running out of disk space? Have they any other problems?—and we correct all those before they become big problems that actually cause downtime. Just recently, there was a big Windows vulnerability announced and by the following Monday, all of our clients’ desktops and servers were fully patched. This took a lot of work and clients did not pay extra for this.

Some clients don’t even know that the vulnerabilities are out there. Our job is to know about the vulnerabilities in the products that our clients use and make sure they have a good backup. A lot of people use hard disks connected to their systems for backup and that’s virtually useless because if you get a ransomware attack, that hard disk is also going to be attacked. In fact, we did an assessment for a law firm with two offices in two different cities and recommended a backup solution for them, but it was more expensive than just copying the data to either office. They decided that they would just replicate the data from one office to the other. They got hit with ransomware and the hacker was able to get in there and encrypt all their servers and reformat the backup devices. The firm was left dead in the water. They had to switch to Office365 and create new email accounts for everybody. It took more than two and a half weeks to get back up and running and resulted in huge losses for the firm. It’s the kind of nightmare scenario that you can prevent by having a managed service provider, like Triella.

Your primary clients are law firms and you can appreciate why it’s critical for their data to be protected, but are there other types of firms that you work with who can use this level of protection?

We work with design firms, with charities—all kinds of different firms. One of the organizations we work with is Camp Ooch and when we started working with them, they were about 6 or 7 people but now they’re closer to 100 people. We’ve been enhancing their infrastructure and protecting them all along and they’re able to do what they need to do. You can’t grow like that if you don’t plan and make sure you’re putting in the right things in place to allow for that next tier of growth.

Make sure that the people you have working with you are trustworthy and are going to move the firm forward in a positive manner.

What’s the most powerful lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?

We bootstrapped from the beginning, went about eight years, had a huge downturn for three years and now we’re back to normal. What happened was that someone I had hired to be my right-hand person in charge of client service decided to start their own business while still working with Triella. They essentially stopped working on our business and started working on their own. That caused a big problem because I had to let this person go – along with the people that worked with them – which then left us under capacity for the clients we were serving. We weren’t serving the clients well and lost a lot of business as a direct result of that. The lesson there was to trust, but check, i.e. to make sure that the people you have working with you are trustworthy and are going to move the firm forward in a positive manner. You need to ask critical questions at the right times. For example, if a team member seems to have done something unusual or untoward, and you need to ask them about it, query it and go deeper. See whether everything is hanging together or if there are some holes in the story. If everything checks out, then just move on.

What are some of the most pressing challenges your business is facing at the moment?

Staffing is always a stress point. Finding the right staff for the MSP (managed service provider) world, you need people with high capability and low ego. They are also able to communicate well both written and orally. To find that combination is really tough and we do go through a lot of people. If somebody survives their first year at Triella, they’ll probably be here for 10 years. But we do have a lot of turnover while we try and find the right person. When we do find the right person, they tend to stick. Having said that, most of our staff have been with us from 3 to 12 years.

If you could remove one task or responsibility from your day-to-day what would it be?

I’ve removed a lot of tasks already and the stuff I’m doing now is management-oriented. For example, I recently met with my management team to set the strategy for 2020 and I wouldn’t want to remove something like that. I do project management, which allows me to be in touch with the clients and understand what’s happening there, but also to be in touch with the consultants and that’s useful too.

This one isn’t so much about releasing something as organizing my time better, but I’d like to have one day off per week where I could do more reading. Typically, I do proposal writing in the evenings and communication with clients and other responsibilities during the day. I’m always on, so I would like to reorganize my time to facilitate more reading.

When it comes to your operations, what are some of the more specific pain points and how do you tackle them?

Making sure that people follow the procedures that we’ve set because we have a rigorous process for handling client issues. Somebody may tell a client they will call them tomorrow at 10 but tomorrow rolls around and they don’t call. That’s the kind of thing that upsets our clients. Understanding why they weren’t there to make the call at 10, or why didn’t they have somebody else take the call if they couldn’t handle it. That’s the kind of stuff I spend a lot of time on—making sure that our procedures are being followed, all of the human factors associated with delivery, and making sure that we’re doing the things we’re supposed to do.

What’s the best part of being an entrepreneur?

The freedom to experiment, to make decisions, to drive processes, and to try and win in a market that’s very competitive.

What’s your favourite business book?

Remember what I said about not having time to read much..? I wouldn’t say I have a favourite book but I’ve just bought Traction by Gino Wickman and another book called Data Story. Both of those are sitting at home waiting for that one day week when I get to have a read of them! During my MBA, I read a book called Competitive Strategy by Michael E. Porter and that was incredibly influential for me and reading it was what made me decide to start this business.

What’s your favourite software tool for making your work easier?

There’s an IT-specific software program called ConnectWise that’s like our lifeblood. It’s where we track all our projects, it’s where we track the tickets for clients, it’s how we get remote communication to clients. It’s fundamental to what we do but it’s a software specific to managed service providers. The programs that we use need to be able to work across multiple clients. When most companies look for a piece of software they just have to worry about whether it will work for them but we have to worry about whether it will work for us across all our clients.

Where do you go to learn?

I belong to some peer groups where we meet and talk about our businesses and the various challenges we encounter. One of them’s called Peerscale and another is Toronto Resource Partners. I also listen to the Coaching for Leaders podcast and I really recommend it.

What’s next for Triella?

We’ve done a lot of work on our cloud-based environment and we have a lot of clients there, but we’re not yet as well known as our competitors. We want to raise brand awareness and let people know there is another choice out there in the market for them and that they should consider us because we provide excellent service.

Connect with BeachHead

BeachHead is passionate about helping businesses scale up from a strong Operations foundation. The BeachHead Organization Audit (BOA) helps founders evaluate their business through an objective lens. Our BOA scorecard allows us to evaluate all aspects of a growing business so we can recommend changes based on what the organization wants to accomplish in the next phase of growth.

If you’re ready to take your company to the next level, reach out and let’s start a conversation.

Email: rdrynan@beachheadstrategic.com
Phone: 416.888-4004

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