Finding a solution in the cloud

In the Kalamazoo office for Newmind Group Inc. there are few clues this is the headquarters of a cutting-edge company solving computer problems for businesses across the country.

In fact, during any given week, five days out of seven, the office might not have a single employee in it.

It's very close to being a virtual office and that makes perfect sense for a company that spends most of its time connecting other businesses to the cloud -- a move from an on-site computer systems department to information technology (IT) services hosted by someone like Google.
 
Last week, Newmind's founder and president Daniel Jefferies stepped out of a training session at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., to talk by telephone about how those connections have helped Newmind Group grow and thrive.

Just a year ago the Kalamazoo-based company was doing business in a geographic area tightly focused on Southwest Michigan with about 50 clients. Now it has more than 250 clients "from sea to shining sea," Jefferies says with a satisfied chuckle.

This month his staff expands from five to seven. The staff tripled in the past year and is expected to triple again this year, all driven by an owner and president, Jefferies, who started the business seven years ago at age 24.

Home schooled, Jefferies took college courses during high school and found he enjoyed anything that had to do with technology. When he realized taking the traditional college route actually would leave him behind in his pursuit of a technology career he got training directly from Microsoft. An early internship proved successful and his career was launched.

He jokes his decision to start his own company at a young age was made in equal parts boldness and ignorance. He didn't know how much work it would be.

"When you grow up a little outside the system, like you do when you're home schooled, you have a little different perspective about what you can create," he says. "No one has given you the impression you can't do something."
 
The company lately has grown not only its staff but its public profile. It was one of the team of volunteers that helped Kalamazoo coordinate the Kalamazoogle effort to convince Google that Kalamazoo should be one of the places to receive its ultra-high speed broadband network.
 
For Jefferies, 31, who grew up in Sturgis and has been a Kalamazoo resident his entire adult life, it was an easy decision to get involved when Mayor Bobby Hopewell asked. ("They have a good reputation and do do excellent work, so it was a blessing to have them be a part of this project," Mayor Hopewell says.)

"It's important to help out with projects that you believe are important," Jefferies says. "We wanted to do our part. That's central to who we are and how we run our business."

As the company has grown, Jefferies says, it has become more focused in its giving. This year's emphasis is on the orphans in the earth-quake ravaged island country of Haiti.

Day to day, Newmind Group works primarily with small to mid-size companies, those with five to 500 employees, likely to be experiencing computer system problems such as out-of-control spam in their e-mail in-boxes or a system that has not kept up as the company has grown.

"These are the kind of problems that keep business owners up at night," Jefferies says. "In a lot of businesses they are trying to handle these problems by themselves. They're missing out on their kid's baseball game because they're at work trying to handle this. When we can take a client that's stressed out from trying to do it all himself and provide a solution that makes it so he can get to the baseball game -- we've done our job."

Newmind offers solutions from a variety of software vendors. Jefferies calls it being "vendor agnostic." While in Silicon Valley last week Jefferies had meetings set up to visit representatives of a number of vendors the company works with.

But what has put Newmind on the map, the whole map, is its experience with Google Apps. In February 2009 Newmind became the first Michigan company to become an authorized reseller of Google Apps, allowing it to get the jump on companies just beginning to realize the advantages of doing business with Google. He is in contact regularly with key people at Google and his connections got him a spot on the 2009 agenda at Google's I/O conference for web developers.
 
"Being early, having the skills early, and the relationships we've built with people at Google has been huge for us," Jefferies says.

Up until then, Newmind Group essentially provided the IT services needed by companies that didn't have departments of their own. In the business, it's called providing software as a service and the people who do it are managed service providers.
 
When Newmind decided to use largely Google solutions the computing giant had not yet formally launched its partner program.

For Newmind Group the move to expand its Google Apps offerings came about as many of Newmind's customers were outstripping the capabilities of their computer systems. Google Apps provided the solutions needed for companies that had outgrown their in-house IT departments or those that simply couldn't afford on-site solutions.

It worked, for example, for a local realty company with serious e-mail issues, including one particular inbox being bombarded by 30,000 spam mails getting through in a single day. Newmind installed a Google Apps solution over a weekend. It was a fix that could not have been made as quickly if on-premises equipment had to be installed, Jefferies says.

The kinds of functions companies can do using Google Apps surprise many business owners.
 
"I've had people from huge multinational corporations with huge IT departments tell me they can't do what people can do with Google Apps," Jefferies says.

Those familiar with Google's free services may wonder how a Google reseller like Newmind makes money. The answer: Businesses pay for and get more service than consumers using free Google services.

As a reseller, Newmind Group can set up a company with Web mail service, instant messaging, calendar, document sharing and video for businesses all hosted by Google.

What that means for companies is there's no hardware or software to download, install or maintain.

Businesses pay a flat fee per user to get access to the five services that are part of the Google Apps suite. With the savings realized by not having an IT department on-site, the price of such solutions comes in at what Jefferies describes as "ridiculously low." Another advantages is since the system is connected to Google data centers and servers maintained by Google engineers the systems don't have the downtime experienced with on-site solutions, he says.

As Newmind Group continues to connect customers to Google the world at large remains divided over who ultimately will control cloud computing.

Microsoft's cloud-based platform, Azure, already is available and its pricing scheme is set -- users can pay for each service individually. Apple offers Mobile Me for $100 a year. Google expects more companies will buy into the per-users services this year.

Jefferies says he doesn't know any more than anyone else who will come out ahead. What he sees, however, is Microsoft, for example, has a lot of money and history invested in maintaining on-site IT departments.

Jefferies quotes a study that showed that for businesses 85 percent of their IT costs is for "keeping the lights on, to keep the hardware up and running."

He appreciates how nimble Google has been in responding to requests for new services as they arise and adjusting others to meet customers needs.

Then again, Microsoft has "a lot of money and a lot of talented people," he says. "If they can overcome the cultural barrier they'll be in a position to kick butt."

"We've dealt with Microsoft for years and if they develop something better, something that would help people, we'll move to it. The whole idea is to do the best thing for our clients."

Kathy Jennings is writer and editor for Second Wave Media.

Photos by Erik Holladay

 
For more of his work visit Erik Holladay Photography.

Captions

Daniel Jefferies, President of Newmind Group Inc., talks with a client on the phone at their offices in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Daniel Jefferies has taken his company that last year had 50 clients focused mainly in Southwest Michigan and has expanded it to 250 clients from around the nation.

A Kalamazoo area native, Daniel Jefferies has built a thriving company in Southwest Michigan with hard work and keeping the best interests of the client first.

Daniel Jefferies, President of Newmind Group Inc., is poised to triple his staff in the next year.
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