Eugene Khazin

Principal and Co-Founder, Prime TSR

Today is a good day. 

Seven years ago, on May 2nd, 2013, I decided to create an IT consulting company with my partner Josh Davidson. It was initially called Silent IT, but now it’s Prime TSR.

We’ve grown from a two-person company to an award-winning 60-person full-time workforce with enterprise clients. And in the past 12 months, we’ve recorded our highest yearly revenue yet. 

I wish I can tell you it’s been smooth sailing since Day 1, but in reality, it’s been a rollercoaster. The path of an entrepreneur is never straight in any direction. I don’t normally publicly write about our accomplishments or even our failures, but I wanted to change that a bit with this post.

My hope is to inspire others who are contemplating starting their own company and to provide some lessons learned, so nobody makes the same mistakes we did.   

The start: Whatever you do, just make the problem go away

“Make it silent, please. It’s simply embarrassing what’s happened, and I don’t have the confidence that our team can solve this. Can you help?”

When the CIO of a multinational, multi-billion dollar company asks you to make a problem go away, you only have one choice: Make the problem go away.

And that’s what Josh and I did together.

After the successful completion of this technology project, Josh and I knew we could create a real business out of helping organizations make IT problems disappear. In essence, we were firefighters for technology companies. We set out to silence the noise of IT challenges, hence we named our company Silent IT, before rebranding to Prime TSR.

At the time, I was attending the Chicago Booth School Of Business and Josh was running global operations of internal shared platforms at Accenture. Together, we ran a problem-solving group—helping restore failing systems, making them more scalable, and helping flailing projects do better.

Funny enough, the CIO of Accenture, the individual who gave us the challenge of solving their hardest technology problems, encouraged us to create a new company together. He saw the need.

We took his advice, and after retirement, he became one of our best advisors.

Although we still take part in “save the day” problems for companies, we’ve moved more toward enabling organizations to be more forward-thinking and innovative. 

Here’s how we made that transition.

The growth: Good things happen to people who know what problem they’re solving

We made a classic entrepreneurial mistake early on. 

We had this big, robust, hammer that could solve any problem that came its way. We spent a lot of time creating solutions for problems *we thought* companies had. It was a backward approach. And, well, you can guess how that turned out - we could not scale.

We were stuck at being a 12-person company, so something needed to change. Thankfully, the quality of our work was never an issue.

We did several things to shift out of a boutique agency to a well-known firm in our space.

We expanded our service offerings (and shifted our focus). We realized we needed a better business strategy. The roadblock for future growth was just being firefighters. We decided to focus on fire prevention rather than dealing with it after the fact.

We developed formal partnerships with Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure. The future is the cloud. We are still in the early years of the cloud, and it will fuel innovation for decades to come. We invested heavily in cloud training and became official partners of AWS, GCP & Microsoft Azure. We recognized this as we invested more time learning from our current customers and potential customers.

We moved from hiring contractors to full-time employees. When we first started, we would hire contractors to work on projects. But as we grew, we knew we wanted to be bigger than just a pure “make money on margins” business. We found that we could build a better culture and a shared set of values. This has paid off significantly for us. Many of our service offerings, and platforms we’re building, are due to the dedication and passion of our employees. 

We focused on experienced hires only. There are some business models where hiring junior people early on and training them works great. Our business is not one of them. We don’t get a second chance to make the right impression. Bigger companies can go in with experienced people and then switch out to more junior people—we can't do that, nor do we want to.

We rebranded to Prime TSR and started a bigger marketing effort. The Silent IT name ran its course, and as part of our service offering shift, we thought a new name and website was worthy. Interestingly enough, rebranding is way more involved than I thought it would be. I learned a lot of things along the way, and I’m happy to see where we ended up with our site. We also built a stronger marketing and PR strategy to support and amplify our branding and growth efforts. 

We won several awards:

We upgraded our office. We began at a WeWork shared office space and quickly outgrew it. One of our customers, Narrative Science, who continues to grow every day, has a beautiful office on 1 North Dearborn Street in Chicago. We approached them about subleasing a big part of their office, and that’s where we are today. Of course, this was all before Covid-19 happened.·   Nothing replaces a warm handshake, but we might be even more productive now because we're not spending as much time in meetings.

We are thriving during Covid-19 because of decisions we made years earlier

The day the stock market dropped 400 points, I knew things were going to be much different than anyone expected. I, like everyone else, was concerned about the impact on our business and our clients’ businesses.

And even prior to the pandemic, we realized that having a financial cushion is important to the growth of the business. So during the early stages, we focused on getting that financial cushion in case we began losing clients.

Fortunately for us, the pandemic didn’t cause any strain on our business. If anything, it could have had a positive short and long-term impact on scaling our business.

Here’s what we learned during this time:

We chose the right industries. We are extremely fortunate that most of our clients fall in the healthcare and financial services industries, which are both doing well right now. It’s confirmation that some of our instincts on choosing industries to tackle were right.

We solve big problems that don’t change often. One of my favorite quotes is from Jeff Bezos when he said that people should focus on problems that aren’t going to change in the next 10-20 years. We took this advice to heart and knew that cloud technologies would be the foundation of companies moving toward more agile, digital approaches to business. By focusing on cloud technologies, we were naturally able to offer these services to clients who needed to move their organizations to remote-only and modernize their infrastructures to move quicker. The need for our services didn’t change, it just accelerated the number of companies that needed to invest in digital transformation and technology modernization.

We found the right partners and continue building trust and credibility with them. By being accredited partners with AWS and GCP, we built a direct channel for client referrals from these partners. I imagine these will be great long-term strategic partners for us, and a big part of our marketing effort is ensuring they understand our value proposition and our skillset. 

Our entrepreneurial DNA never goes away

Josh and I are entrepreneurs at heart. It’s part of our DNA, in every sense of the word. It’s not always about how to grow, it’s about giving back by providing opportunities to others.

Here’s what we’ve been able to do. 

Incubate emerging startups

  • We help with the incubation of a few startups. One of the companies works within our office space, and we are actively helping them grow.
  • We are board members to many early-stage startups, offering real-world advice.

Provide opportunities for others in need

  • We know how lucky we are to be in a position to grow a company. We’re thankful for the opportunities given to us and not a day passes where we don’t think about how to give back.
  • Genesys Works: Five high school interns have worked with us through Genesys Works (which is focused on underserved/underfunded high schools). All of our interns went on to college, and many of them got scholarships. Josh is also on the board.

Growth is difficult but rewarding. Here’s what we’ve learned

  • Empathy is underrated. “We like to solve problems” is actually a bad way to solve problems. Once we focused on empathizing with our customers and truly understanding their problems, big shifts happened within our business. This is why we’ve moved to educate our customers about how moving workloads to the cloud could greatly benefit their business. 
  • Preventing problems is worth more than fixing problems. We started as firefighters fixing problems, which worked well for us starting out. It’s not like someone can call 911 and get routed to us. The empathizing with our customers led to new service offerings that help our customers prevent fires and help them build long-term growth. Massive change of thinking on our end, and it worked out for the best. We, of course, still come in and fix fires, but our mentality has definitely shifted towards prevention.
  • Build a company culture, not margins. When we shifted from hiring contractors to hiring full-time employees, many of our growth problems solved themselves. We were able to have meetings where we taught each other things, and we approached our go-to-market strategy much differently since we had experienced people contributing to the growth of our company, and not just our margins. You can’t rely on contractors to build a company.
  • Spend 5x more time on hiring the right experienced people. Our consulting business relies on the trust of our people. We made early decisions to hire talented, experienced people who have the technical expertise as well as communication skills. As tempting as it is to hire less expensive junior people early on, we decided to go the other route and invest more in the high-end types of reliable technical experts. We often only get one shot with a customer, and we never want to risk it. In addition to this, we spend a lot of time on interviews, and this has paid off in dividends for us. Our retention rate remains high. 
  • Cash is king. We are a bootstrapped company and proud of it. But not having the initial financial cushion was really hard for us. If I had to do it all over again, I would strongly consider raising money upfront to get the cushion we needed. We were really cognizant of our financial position and always worked on improving it to help us plan for any possible issues. We started by offering discounts for more favorable payment terms because cash is our lifeline. As we gained more enterprise clients, they had 60-90 day payment terms, and because of our planning early on, we were able to handle these types of clients with little to no financial risk. 
  • Give back, always. Our decision to work with Genesys Works wasn’t a business growth move, yet it is one of the most satisfying things we’ve done, and it feels great to give opportunities to others. The lesson learned here is that it’s easy to get caught up in your own business, but take some time to breathe the fresh air, appreciate what you’ve accomplished, and figure out ways to give back. 

What’s next? The future is bright (and we are hiring)

As any business owner or entrepreneur, we all have goals. And many of them are aggressive in nature. 

Here’s how we plan on evolving as a company, and where we would like to be:

  • Double headcount by 2022. We are at 60 employees now, we hope to be at 120 employees in two years. 
  • Double revenue by 2022. We are in a great place to make this happen. 
  • Double down on healthcare and insurance. We are naturally passionate about the healthcare and insurance industries. It’s ripe for disruption, as well as for modernization. We are all consumers of those things, so in reality, we are also helping ourselves. 
  • Grow our brand. We aspire to be known as a national go-to partner for legacy software modernization for AWS and GCP.

It’s been a great journey, and I’m excited for our next seven years. If you’ve made it this far, I wanted to thank you for being an important part of our journey. We wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the support of our friends, family, and clients.