Sean Agerson started his first business as a freelance web developer, going door to door trying to find work he could do for small businesses. Courtesy Chelsea Miller
Sean Agerson is a passionate problem-solver. The owner and president of SJA Solutions started his IT firm with just himself and a laptop, but 13 years later, put it on track to earn $5 million in revenue this year. He attributed his company’s success to quality customer service and a focus on helping other growing businesses succeed.
Knowing he wanted to pursue a career in computers, Agerson studied management information systems at Miami University (Ohio), which he said was more business than technology focused.
“I thought it would help keep some of my options open,” Agerson said.
Agerson married his wife Liz right out of college. Because both of them were from and had family in Grand Rapids, they decided to move out to Colorado before they started “growing roots.”
“We packed up the U-Haul — didn’t have any jobs lined up — and just moved to Denver,” Agerson said.
Although he was able to find a job fairly quickly, Agerson had dreams to push out on his own. He started his first business as a freelance web developer, going door to door trying to find work he could do for small businesses.
“I figured out pretty quickly that I didn’t want to do that full time,” he said. “I wanted something more stable, so I found a job with a small, family-owned business out there.”
The company, Electric Utility Consultants Inc., provided continuing education for electrical engineers. Agerson was in charge of the company’s website, IT and marketing.
The company marketed solely via email, and Agerson said they would send around 80,000 emails every day to promote events.
“I think when I left there were only 20 people there,” Agerson added.
After living for two-and-a-half years in Denver and realizing the housing market was far out of their budget, the Agersons decided to move back home to Grand Rapids.
“Something that would go for, like, $120,000 here would go for $450,000 out there,” he said. “So we were like, ‘Well we could buy a house in West Michigan and vacation in Denver.’ We found we were using all of our vacation to come back here anyway.”
Unfortunately, the Agersons came back home when the economy took a dip. Agerson said, between 2004 and 2005, the job market in West Michigan was very poor, and few employers outside of Spectrum and Metro Health were hiring for IT.
But Agerson was approached by a family friend and business mentor, Calvin Murdock, who asked him if he considered starting his own business in Grand Rapids.
“I’d never really given it any consideration,” Agerson said.
As he and Murdock talked more about it, Agerson became inspired to give it a shot. His wife had a stable job at Fifth Third Bank, and between the two of them, they didn’t have many bills to cover, so it was a fairly low-risk venture.
“The timing was right for me to be able to try this,” Agerson said. “I think I only had to make $400 a week to cover the difference between her salary and our bills.”
With just himself and a laptop, Agerson started SJA Solutions to help small businesses do “anything and everything” with technology. His first client was SF Supply, an audiovisual equipment supplier in Grand Rapids.
SJA Solutions started out as just a “reactive” IT firm, being on the job only when a client had a problem. Agerson knew he couldn’t run a business, let alone generate stable revenue, if he had to rely on other people having problems. And higher pay was contingent on higher problems.
“If someone can’t play Pandora or Spotify on their computer, that might not be too much of a business interruption, but if the CFO is trying to pull up some report in Excel and they can’t view the spreadsheet, then they can’t make a decision,” he said.
About two years in, Agerson switched his company’s business model from a reactive to a proactive approach. Instead of companies paying SJA to fix their problems, they would pay the firm to avoid having problems in the first place.
The new model works like a subscription. With a fixed monthly fee, clients would get unlimited IT support. Whether clients engaged with the company once or 100 times a month, their bill would not change.
“Basically, it aligns my company’s goals with my clients’ goals,” he said. “Everything we do is geared toward driving down reactive support, making things stable, less risky and providing those consistent results that people come to expect out of technology.”
From starting SJA Solutions in a down economy to leading it to a 20-plus staff firm 13 years later, Agerson said it feels great to be able to meet companies’ growing IT demands.
“When we first started, our businesses that we were supporting didn’t have money to make upgrades in those investments,” Agerson said. “They wanted us to just help keep the lights on.”
But now in such a booming economic recovery, Agerson said companies are making the investments in technology that are propelling businesses like his.
He cited one of his clients, DeGraaf Interiors, an interior design firm that has done work for higher-end projects like New Holland Brewing’s Knickerbocker on the West Side.
DeGraaf works with a tailor-made design software, which Agerson said often crashed and failed to update properly before SJA was contracted to fix it.
Instead of buying an entirely different software system, SJA was able to save DeGraaf money by re-engineering the system it already had into a more stable, fine-tuned platform, as well as train end users to properly utilize it.
Another example Agerson gave was Byrne Inc., a Rockford-based manufacturer of power and data technologies, and SJA Solutions’ biggest client.
“We are in the process of redesigning their network top-to-bottom so that it can handle the growth that they’ve experienced over the past few years and just be as stable as possible,” he said.
Agerson said SJA Solutions also has improved the efficiency of Byrne’s line workers, enabling them to produce more components in less time.
SJA Solutions has a client in almost every industry, but Agerson said its focuses are in manufacturing and medical.
“If you look at West Michigan as a whole, I mean, that’s West Michigan,” he said, laughing. “We do have different accounting firms. We do law offices. We do a lot of professional service organizations, as well.”
The firm also has plans to branch into the nonprofit sector. Agerson said he loves the ability to level with new clients and collaborate with them to develop solutions to their specific needs.
“Sometimes we have to remove obstacles. Sometimes we have to refine some business processes. Sometimes we have to come up with a whole new way of doing something,” he said. “Just being able to have all those unique experiences … I just love that.”
But the most important part of the process is the human element. Agerson said his biggest priority in the hiring process is personality.
“If you got a great personality, you can communicate well with people, and you have a willingness to learn, I can teach you the technical stuff,” he said.
Agerson said his goal for SJA Solutions is to be the “Ritz-Carlton of IT services,” or being the best in terms of customer service.
To meet his goal, Agerson said his strategies are to continue to hire well and branch into markets the company currently doesn’t serve. He has his mind set on expanding north into Traverse City and further south into the Kalamazoo area.
As the owner of a growing business, Agerson is passionate about helping other businesses grow and succeed in any way possible.
“Selfishly, I want to help all of our clients grow and succeed so we can succeed, as well,” he said.