An interview with Richard Burnett, the Director of Clarity IT Co., Ltd, an established IT Service and Solution company in Bangkok.
When and how was Clarity established?
Richard: Clarity was established around November 2003. At that time, our focus was about Voice over the Internet Protocol (VoIP) which enabled making low cost phone calls overseas for a fraction of the normal cost. For example to call America cost maybe 30 baht per minute at that time and we had a system that could make that same call for 3 baht a minute.
And the other thing that went on at the time as far a development project was a photo printing kiosk, envisioning people being able to take their mobile phone or a memory card from a camera and put the memory card in the machine or plug the mobile phone in or use Bluetooth from a mobile phone then the machine could access those photos and be able to print them.
So that was how Clarity was started. It was on these two projects and one was very expensive in terms of cost. The photo printing was going to cost a lot for the machine design and the rental space was expensive; and the margin was small, requiring a high volume of custom to break even. And the other one, the VoIP service was very low cost. To sell that service, it may only cost 10 USD, about 300 baht, but the margin was quite okay with that. Again you have to sell a lot due to the low product value to make it success.
And neither of those looked to be a viable long term business so it was a time to learn. And as many business people would tell you; you don’t necessarily become successful without some failures. So that was a failure but it was a learning period. And after that, Clarity IT was established in November and we looked to focus back to what I‘ve done for most of the working time that I’ve had which is about providing IT services for business and that helped Clarity focus itself for that time.
Now the story goes, I was selling the VoIP service to the Managing Director of a magazine and curiously that person invited me to a network event with a Chamber of Commerce and it was at that event I met a lady who was the executive of the Chamber of Commerce and she invited me to do a seminar about IT – think it was called ‘Maximising the Use of IT in Business’. And that was the launch path for Clarity. In that time I went from having zero in terms of a presence in the market place to being like a spokesperson for IT for the Chamber and I got invited to go back and do more seminars and somehow my name started to go around. And that was really the beginning of Clarity.
OK so what I understand is you had started with the low cost calling and printing before setting up Clarity right?
Richard: Yes. The low cost printing for photos and the overseas calling was prior to Clarity being established, it was work that I did without a company, but, when the company was formed that was when Clarity as an IT company started.
How many staff and services were there at that time?
Richard: OK, so during that time, I did not know what the services would be, I did not know what the business would be; and how Clarity evolved was purely by the customer’s requirement or the customer’s feeling that I was someone that would fit their requirement. So I got into these meetings after the seminars. People would contact me and invite me to meet with them and I would be there to help them with some questions; maybe like they want to upgrade their computer, maybe they have some IT problems that they need some help with. So Clarity was customer driven. It wasn’t that I had a certain formula and this was going to be it. The formula was really what did the customer want and that was what shaped Clarity as a business. So in terms of the services at the time, the early work that we did was about IT Support and Hardware and some Software supply. That was the initial time.
And the number of staff, at the very beginning – we had a programmer who was working on a project with the UK and we had a sales person who was doing different roles but he was partly involved with sales but more than anything he was a bridge between me as a foreigner and the Thai people. So we weren’t a lot of staff at that time.
And in the beginning, how did you approach your customers?
Richard: At the very beginning, the work that I did to find customers was a mix of different things. One of the things was through the Chambers of Commerce. – They had a lot of network events and they also had publications like a monthly or bimonthly magazine and in that magazine they had contacts of new companies that were setting up in Thailand or people that had moved into that position like a senior manager within the company. So that gave me some contact information.
There may have been some other channels as well – that we cold-called on some people from a list of companies that we could get our hands on. So that was the active sales work and that was part of it, but the other part was the seminars which were a case of being out there, providing relevant information and people feeling that there was someone there that could give them advise or help them with their needs for IT. And probably the greatest success for new customer development was word of mouth. We would do work and then someone would mention us to another company or their friend. And then that other company of friend might contact us so that’s called word of mouth. We got success from that for sure.
OK. The next is have you had any remarkable experiences with Clarity at that time?
Richard: When you start a business there’s potentially a period of uncertainty – that you don’t know what the future may be and I think you can deal with that in different ways. You can either keep throwing money at it and not be too concerned, you can reduce your costs as much as you can and put enormous amounts of energy to what you’re doing so at the end even if it didn’t work out, it wouldn’t be because of your lack of effort so there would be no reason to be disappointed.
The other way is to become comfortable with that uncertainty and not let it be something as a barrier but you just get on with what you feel is the focus.
Were there some remarkable experiences around the time… I can remember one time which was, it was when we had two potential customers that we were talking to. And I remarked at the time if we got either one of these customers, it would be a help for our business. One of the customers was very well connected, quite influential and I felt that if we got involved with this company, it would raise our presence through his network of contacts. The other company at that time was one of the largest service companies in its field and they were a well-known name around the expat community in Bangkok. And I thought this company would be a good name for us to have on our books and may have some favours to us. So I thought if we got either of these companies that it was going to be a bit of a turning point for Clarity and as fate would have it both of those companies came to be our customers. So that was a big time of something remarkable that happened.
Richard: I’m sure there’s other times.. I’ll share you one other story…
So when I was interviewing at that time for staff, I had a temporary office – it was called a Serviced Office – and I was only there about maybe a few hours a week. I would drop in and pick up the post, sometimes it might only be 2 hours in a month that I’d be there. So I posted a job looking for staff and nearly everyone would send emails with their resume which was quite a normal thing. A few people would post their resume. And one person very strangely decided that he was going to visit the office space, the virtual office space that we had and it was purely by chance that I happened to be there at that time – for this could have been less than an hour a week. It was just by chance that I was there and he was there. And all of a sudden I found myself talking to this person and this person although he didn’t have a strong IT background which was what I felt I needed. His attitude, his interest and his eagerness made an impression on me. And that person came to work with us and he’s probably been a person that is indispensable for Clarity. Within a few years he’d tripled his salary and we wouldn’t be here today without that person I don’t think – so I’m very grateful for that, and quite remarkable how he came to work with us. It could easily have not happened if it wasn’t that timing and I don’t know any other person that came to that office for an interview, only that one person.
OK. I’m sure there are more stories but ok next question….
When you said ‘virtual office space’, what do you mean about that?
Richard: Oh, virtual office space, we had a temporary office. They have these office service centres to help a company that‘s setting up or if they just want to have a presence in a foreign country but not a lot of people. They provide a shared space where they have various meeting rooms and you hire a meeting room for an hour and they offer the service where they answer the phone calls for you on a certain number and they collect the post for you so when you visit there, they’ll give you your post or if a phone call comes in, they’ll call you wherever you are and tell you that this person called so you call them back. So it is an office service, it’s not the same as having a fixed office address where you got people there all the time. And people there they work for many companies.
Alright, so next is what achievements have you gained for the last 8-9 years?
Richard: I think, in terms of achievements people think about success – things that they’ve attained that they didn’t have before. If I look at it that way then the achievement parts are growth of between 15 and 30% each year for the initial 4-5 years. The last few years the economy here has been challenging because of the world economy, because of the political situation, because of floods – different reasons – it hasn’t been an easy environment to do business necessarily.
But in terms of achievement in the first 4-5 years definitely the growth of the business, having some wonderful people that joined Clarity and worked with us that I consider friends as much as staff. Working with some excellent companies that I consider professional global companies and been accepted and supported and appreciated by those companies that have been an achievement to me – is feeling like the people value what we do and for hearing that they get the benefits of us.
Another kind of achievement is really a personal achievement and that’s being more comfortable in doing business, doing meetings and providing benefits to helping people reach their goals – and that isn’t really about attaining something – in fact it’s really about letting things go so I’m more present for the people and seeing what makes a difference for them. It’s a different kind of achievement; one achievement about gaining something, the other achievement is about letting something go so you can actually be there for the other.
What about your office environment?
Richard: Yes, we started off in a small office at the top of a town house and we grew and found that was too small so then we took up the downstairs of that building as well. And then that became too small and fragmented and the lease was up on the building as well. So we looked around and we’ve always been around the area of Ploen Chit and Chid Lom. It feels like a heart of Bangkok to me and I like that place because there’s lots of trees. Let me explain what happened when we first moved. We moved from Soi Ruam Rudee and we had two potential office spaces; one was at Asoke and it was a very typical rectangular shaped office, it was open-plan which meant everyone could see everyone else – there was no wall and it was very functional as an office space and the rent wasn’t too bad for the cost. The other office space was at Wireless Road which I thought was a great location and the office was smaller than the one at Asoke. It was an L shaped office space with a little side office and with walls, and it was smaller but it had a character this space – It had wooden floors, like tile wooden floors and we renovated the bathroom, made a small bathroom and kitchen area.
It was interesting because the place at Asoke was a very typical office but the environment of Asoke was that is has very few trees and it feels agitated – the traffic – it doesn’t feel settled, I thought this was not a good place to do business. Wireless Road although has a lot of traffic, it has lots of trees and it felt like a nice place to do business.
The office place that we moved into, the previous tenant had left the logo on the door and the logo that they left was called ‘Heart and Mind’ and I kind of liked this logo, thought it was just like the decision of Clarity at the time – Asoke was about the Mind and rational thinking – what was typical about business and numbers. And the place at Wireless Road was more about the Heart which was really about what felt good. So we chose the Heart which was Wireless Road office and we had this cool little office with the wooden floor, that became our home for about 3 years. And then eventually they started to build this great big building next to us which shook the building and gave us all headaches – had staffs going home sometimes and I decided it’s time to move, so we moved to Soi Lang Suan and luckily we got the trees again because there’s a school there with lots of trees in a courtyard. That’s our home now.
OK. What services do you have now?
Richard: IT Service, Support, Outsourcing, Maintenance has been our core business. Hardware and Software sales fits with that closely. You know, you do the support and people need computers. We supply computers and people sometimes need support. So they kind of fit together and that’s our core business. Additional services that we do are Website Design, things like Web Hosting, Email Hosting and SEO work. We do PBX systems, cabling – network cabling and telephone cabling, CCTV – recording video inside office of factory spaces. Sometimes we do consulting, audit work for a company to make recommendations for their IT or check their IT. So those are perhaps our main services.
OK. What is your best slogan for Clarity business if you have any?
Richard: Slogan. The current slogan we have is ‘Your Regional IT Partner’ which fits because sometimes we work overseas, we work in Malaysia. In the past we’ve worked in Hong Kong, Singapore, Bahrain, and Vietnam. I think in a simple sense, we could say that we are a one-stop shop for IT in business or for SME business we’re a one-stop shop. So for a company that needs IT to support their business, we would be able to look after pretty much all of their main requirement unless they have some very specific application which is not a typical business applications then that might not be our area.
OK. What do you think a good service is?
Richard: You said good service, I think great service. When we work with people, so much of what we do is about the person’s feelings and so much about what we do is about the actual work, about fixing the problem or improving the IT or implementing something. You cannot do one without the other in my opinion. You need to be responsive and recognize the people and their emotions, their feelings, their needs, and sometimes that is more relevant than doing the IT work. I think of it as hand in hand – that do good IT work and we also recognise the person – respect who they are. And I think when we get that formula right – we hit both targets. That’s when we are at our best.
And what makes us feel that we do good work is purely the feedback from the customers. It’s when the customer writes to us, that they communicate something and say ‘we’re really pleased with Clarity’ or ‘we’re pleased with the work that your staff have done.’
That to me is our success because the customer that takes the time to write to us or say something – we know that’s where we’ve made a difference. If we’re not seeing that then you know then the customer perhaps doesn’t recognise that we made a big difference or obviously they might just be too busy that they don’t have time to communicate.
And how is the best service that Clarity can offer to the customers?
Richard: How is the best service? OK, So I’ve talked about what makes good service although I prefer to say great service. And how is the service. OK the service that we provide is based upon many years of experience. We have developed processes and a model for IT service based on our experience. And what we found is that when we go into a new customer that usually their IT is not consistent – so they’ve got perhaps different software – different versions of Windows, different versions of Antivirus. They may have Malware or possible viruses on some machines. They’re not using centralised storage, they may not have good backup. They may not have security across the data so only the right people access the files that they need to.
So when we go in to a company, it usually takes about 3 months, sometimes 4 months on average for us to settle the IT. When I say settle the IT, I mean we make it more consistent, more standard, so that it’s less likely to have problems. And that in terms of our service model; is really from the wealth of experience that we’ve had from working with customers over the years. And that is something that we’ve seen again and again – that we work with a company and after a few months, things become more stable, more steady and easier to manage – so everyone wins. We win because we’re not fighting problems and the customer wins because they’re able to get on with their business more without the IT getting in the way.
When a customer has an IT problem, how do you normally solve it?
Richard: There is no one standard way to solve all problems. Every problem has to be handled based on the nature of the problem, also based on the severity of the problem. For example, if a server was to fail at a customer site and all of the staff depend on that server to do their work, that is a serious problem for that business because the business can’t operate. If that was to be the case, we would make that a high priority and we would put our senior staff onto that problem, and other problems may be postponed based on that.
If the problem was a small problem, so for example, someone couldn’t open a certain webpage with a specific web browser but they could open it with another web browser then it’s not a serious problem because it’s not affecting their ability to do their job. In that case, you may wait for the time when our engineer is on site and our engineer may look at that problem directly. So every problem has its own nature and we base our response to the problem according to the problem itself. It’s not we do the same thing on every situation.
What are your thoughts about quality vs prices?
Richard: OK. I’ve heard of companies that don’t provide what I consider a quality service. For example, they may send staff that are not necessarily qualified or they send different people every time to the customers, so there’s no continuity and people have to learn the history of the problem each time.
So in terms of quality versus price, yes there are companies that offer IT services very cheaply. Do they know how to deal with every situation? Hard to say because I haven’t interviewed every company. All I can say is that Clarity is not the cheapest without question. However, we aim to be the best and I don’t say that without consideration. Why do we aim to be the best? Because we bring in working practices from overseas that’s based on many years of experience. We have our own internal policies of checking the work that gets done – we have a monitoring process. We have meetings periodically where we raise concerns about the level of work quality or the service. We have an internal customer relationship management system for recording and also helping dealing with our customer.
In general, I’m looking to improve the service where we can. That’s why I said we aim to be the best because I think there’s always room for improvement and every now and again I sit down with people and I’ll say ‘look, maybe we should do this, maybe we should add this to our service offering’ and I can’t speak for every other company but there are some companies that are sometimes here to make a quick buck. They’re happy to sell something which is not cheap, which may not always be what the customer needs. And the reason I know this is because we’ve come across it – sometimes a customer joins with Clarity and we get to see the history with that customer and we see that they’ve not always been giving what we consider the right level of IT advice or service.
Some of our customers – they dumb down our competitors – some of them – and they would never consider to work with them because they realise what IT service should be or what the standard should be but they did not know that in the past.
So Quality vs Price… I will say with Clarity that a customer gets what they pay for. We’re not here to take advantage of the customers. We feel that there’s a value to our business. We set a fee for that and we do good work. We do the best we can. And if I see my staffs not doing the best they can then I will address that. I will ask them what is going on. So we’re here to do quality work. Make money comes second. We do good work, people happy to pay us but if we go out there looking to make money then its puts people off. We go out there looking to do good work and with that money comes. Did that answer your question?
OK. And what is your advice for the companies who are looking for IT support?
Richard: The usual thing I say is ‘how do you know a good IT company from a bad one?’ There are two ways that I think are quite applicable to find that out. One is very simple – for that company to talk to the existing customers’ of the IT company – so ask for some references, find out who the customers are and talk with them – call them up and say ‘I’m considering working with Clarity. Can I ask how do you find this company to work with? Are they reliable; are they good, do they provide helpful information etc.?’ The other way is to try the company, try the IT Service Company for a period of maybe 1, 2 or 3 months and then that is the way of getting to know each other and seeing whether it fits. That is perhaps two straightforward ways to do it. You could base on your intuition but I wouldn’t go into it.
The last one is do you have any goals for Clarity in the future?
Richard: Yes. We want to keep growing about 15% per year. In the next 2 years, we’re looking to become more involved with cloud services – so things like having more information on the web, such as file storage, backup. Email on the web, we’re already seeing that today.
So my goals as far as the next few years is growth and to continue to hire and keep the best people we can because our staff are so important to what we do and I’d like to have basically 18 players that love to work with us and enjoy what we’re about, enjoy Clarity as a company to work with. And also long term or even in the next 2 years is to look at becoming more than just one office – that we might have offices in other towns, in other countries.
OK. Thank you.