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October 2013
Riding Hard to Find Virtual Solutions
By Zenda Douglas

     Like trickling rain, binary numbers drop and slide onto the fabric of life, forecasting every possible sequence into infinity. Most participants, mesmerized, will experience the steadfast order; a single reality that can be taken for granted. A rare few will perceive the development of alternate realities—situations arise, problems are clarified; solutions become evident.

     Such was the backdrop for the movie, The Matrix. The ability to “see the matrix” allowed for insight and understanding, quick responses, survival itself and a new order.

     “I relate to that,” says an enthusiastic Troy Rice, owner and president of See the Matrix Incorporated, a Charlotte-based IT company. “With us IT guys, well, we often live in an alternate universe with the way we think, talk and look.”

     Rice also relates this theme to his business. “We see through a different set of lenses. We look into a mess of wires and problems and make sense of it.” And that’s a good thing for his clients whose computer woes often seem otherworldly.

     See the Matrix, or STM for short, provides, hosts, maintains, monitors and supports hardware, software, licensing and antivirus protection, allowing its clients to focus on their core business operations and goals.

     Work with small to mid-sized businesses in the Charlotte area comprises about 65 percent of the company’s activities, although the growing client directory is scattered over 18 states as well as in satellite offices abroad.

     “Entrepreneurial, professional-based businesses such as accounting, legal and medical gravitate towards STM,” says Rice. “Their software works really well with our platform, plus they tend to have multiple offices with a small number of users in each one.” Rice adds that that’s because companies with 50 or more users at one site likely have their own on-site IT person.

     STM is currently managing services for approximately 2,200 users. Clients include James McElroy & Diehl, one of Charlotte’s biggest law firms, and Adams Outdoor Advertising. Assisted living communities and small hospitals round out the company’s client base. Rice admits that there are businesses too big for the company.

     “We can’t really offer anything to Wells Fargo, but we can go to smaller businesses and offer them the same enterprise-level services that Wells Fargo utilizes,” maintains Rice. “We have the same quality and level of equipment sitting in our data center that Fortune 500 companies, banks and large hospitals have.

     “Businesses that have been frustrated with a too-small IT operation lacking in immediate response or face the option of working with a larger firm but at prohibitive costs—these folks are attracted to us. We operate on a flat-priced model; rates are based on the number of users and pieces of equipment.”

     One of the company’s largest new clients came on board earlier this year—a small hospital in New Orleans with over 100 users. “That was an amazing project that couldn’t have been done without the right group working on it,” says Rice.

     STM’s vendor partners include Cisco, EMC, Dell and SonicWall. Rice likens the process of bridging vendors to customers to building a house. “We buy the best brick, wood, tile, shingles, paint and nails that are available to build a structure; then we sell the house.” See the Matrix earned $2.5 million in revenue last year.

 

Living in the cloud

     “Customers ask, ‘When are we going to the cloud,’” says Rice. “I tell them, ‘You’ve been in it for eight years now.’” See the Matrix was far ahead of the curve, according to Rice. “We’ve been doing it longer than anyone else in Charlotte; before it had a name; before it was cool.”

     The cloud is a relatively new delivery paradigm making information and services accessible at any time from any location and from any device such as desktops, laptops and smart phones. Through the cloud, data lives and runs on multiple and highly-redundant servers in locations external to the data owners.

     “Why in the world would a company today want to have its data on a server in an office when its whole business life is dependent upon that server and subject to mechanical or electronic failure, theft, damage, accidental deletions or power outages?” ponders Rice.

     See the Matrix owns a private data center in the TW Telecom Data Center near Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. All client data is stored there on an EMC SANS appliance and applications are run from an array of redundant servers. STM utilizes TW Telecom’s conditioned power and generator, preventing downtime from loss of power. The company utilizes a triple entry fiber Internet service to insure constant connection.

     “Jack Bauer [referring to actor Kiefer Sutherland’s character in the television show 24] couldn’t get into the place. There are nine layers of security before you get to a computer over there,” boasts Rice, describing the facility on which blinds cover, not windows, but more concrete. The unmanned data center is located 3.7 miles from the company’s West Morehead Street offices.

     The constant monitoring and probing of the network systems is conducted by the STM staff. Annual upgrades are supported by Varrow, Inc.

     “We finished an upgrade about 60 days ago,” says Rice. “It came off without a hitch and no one [customers] knew. That’s the way it’s supposed to be—no lapse for the customers, just seamless backups, faster retrieval and advanced security.”

     Downtime is the ultimate nemesis for most businesses, according to Rice. “We work to make sure that computer problems don’t stop your operation in its tracks.”

 

A bright and capable team

     The STM team consists of 12 full-time employees.

     “I am blessed with a great staff,” shared Rice. He speaks of Travis Nieves, his director of operations: “Together, we manage the data center. He’s the hardware guy; I’m the money guy,” laughs Rice. “We often act on ideas Travis brings to me because his ideas make sense to further our products and the stability of our program.

     “Tim Bailor is senior systems administrator and has worked with the company for over 10 years. He’s kind of my McGyver,” says Rice. “He’s sat at every desk here.”

     The company’s on-boarding manager is Mat Schulz. He acknowledges,“It’s a massive undertaking to bring a customer with 25 users on board—two weeks of work for us, then a 24-hour switch-over.”

     “I never tell anyone that someone works for me,” says Rice. “They work with me to build this company. We all built this company. Each person is valuable. If somebody doesn’t come in, it’s felt.”

     See the Matrix came through the Great Recession with relative ease. “We did notice that our customers weren’t buying new equipment as much, but none of them went out of business. In our house, we weren’t losing money, but we weren’t growing at great strides, so we tried to maintain our war chest in case it was needed. Raises were suspended for a couple of years but we were able to keep all of our staff.”

     During that time, the company even picked up some new customers who switched from having an on-site IT person, according to Rice.

     See the Matrix started out as a break/fix operation. “We’ve done our share of repairing slow computers, reviving monitors, fixing printers, ramping up memory and, of course, coming to the rescue when servers crash,” says Rice.

     The company has a ‘tell it like it is’ approach to repair. “We don’t just fix and leave. We tell them what they need to do so it won’t happen again. Sometimes equipment is just worn out and needs to be replaced. You wouldn’t want your medical doctor to just treat symptoms and not look for the root cause of the problem; you shouldn’t want that in your IT service either.”

     Furthering the medical analogy, Rice says that many people think they have to know what’s wrong before calling the IT professional. “You don’t,” he maintains.

     Today, fewer customers come on board in direct response to a computer crash. Rather, they have an increased level of awareness regarding operation and security, says Rice.

     A native of Charlotte, Rice graduated from West Charlotte High School before attending Appalachian State University. He graduated in 1998 with a degree in graphic arts, part of his somewhat unorthodox business plan.

     “I was way too interested in my fraternity and knew that I wouldn’t make it through business school, but I was already very handy with computers,” explains Rice who cleverly traded coursework for the maintenance of department computers.

     “I’ve always enjoyed technology,” says Rice who has had no formal IT training. “I was a geek as a kid—an audiophile—always breaking things that had to be fixed before Dad came home. It just made sense to me how these things worked.”

     Now, Rice, an avid reader, keeps abreast of new technology by diving into all the publications vendors and researchers offer. He also communicates with his young staff that includes a person dedicated to keeping up with what’s new. Plus, Rice says his customers are a great resource for new information. “It’s a matter of being receptive,” he says.

 

Staying on track

     Rice’s passion also extends to riding motorcycles, from motocross to joy-riding on the track.

     “I’m an avid biker,” exclaims Rice. “Four years ago, Santa brought my son a dirt bike for Christmas. I was so enthralled watching his fun—I couldn’t get enough.” Rice’s wife Patty surprised him with a bike for his birthday.

     “My first time out, I cracked two vertebrae and fractured my coccyx, a feat that will cause significant back pain for the rest of my life. But, I love it.”

     After the terrible accident, Rice engaged a motocross trainer who has taken him from a novice to a skilled rider in competition. Rice competed recently for a spot on the U.S. Team for the BMW Motorrad GS Trophy. Rice grabbed 17th place among 73 riders from around the country. The competition took place at the BMW Performance Center in Greer, South Carolina.

     Now the entire family—wife, son 9 and daughter 6 are all involved in riding. “We’re a very active, fit family. Exercise is a very big part of life,” says Rice.

     Rice is also active in furthering causes he feels deeply about. Sometimes, these interests overlap. Rice recently participated in a 10-day, 1,056-mile motorcycle ride across Peru as part of the filming of the television show Neale Bayly Rides: Peru on the SPEED Channel. The trip’s goal was to raise awareness in America of a non-profit organization, called Wellspring Outreach International, which helps to support orphaned children in the Peruvian village of Moquegua.

     “I lost a dear friend to brain cancer two years ago,” shares Rice. “I like to get involved with efforts to further research and treatment.” Rice also uses his gym workouts to raise funds for Barbells for Boobs. “I have to compete in ungodly awful exercise routines but it’s worth it,” he says with a smile.

     Rice hopes to grow the company into a $10 million enterprise during the next five years. “We’re going to continue growing our customer base and advancing our technology,” says Rice. He has been approached by potential buyers but says he has no plans to sell.

     “What would I do—perhaps ride motorcycles professionally for a while, but then what? I don’t want to start another business. I’ve already put the work in here.”

     “Some people are impressed with what we have and what we do, but I look around in amazement that I could afford a conference table, color laser printer or LCD monitor, much less have the opportunity to buy a building,” says Rice.

     He remembers the humble beginnings of the business when he would take a pay check home and say to his wife, “Put it in a drawer or use it as a note paid. We can’t cash it.”

     “I know how hard it is to grow a business. It’s been a great ride. We’ve come a long way but we haven’t peaked. We’re still clicking uphill.”

 

 

Zenda Douglas is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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