Q&A: Cohesion Business Technology's John Owens on entrepreneurship and lessons learned
Recently named to the Cincinnati Business Courier's "Forty Under 40" list of top young executives, these are fulfilling times for John Owens, a Dayton native who grew up the son of a church pastor. After graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 1996, he worked in the information technology industry until he decided to strike out on his own by forming Cohesion Business Technology
After more than a decade of constant growth, Cohesion exploded in the last 18 months, acquiring two IT consulting firms to expand its base to become a national presence with officers in Columbus, Boston and Charlotte, N.C. Owens discussed the road to success with hiVelocity.
Cohesion's come a long way in 12 years. Is it hard to fathom at times?
We pretty much started it on a shoestring budget. The first hurdle we had to overcome was funding, finding the capital for a start-up. We never reached out to third parties because we wanted to keep the equity and we wanted to build the business the way we wanted to build it. If you go the venture capital route or go to a third party, you surrender some of that autonomy. So, we did it on our own. Because of that, we grew in fits and starts for a while. There were some troubled times, like the economic downturn that followed 9/11, but we were profitable every year. The last four years have been the unbelievable part -- we've seen growth of 25 percent or more in each of the last four years.
And that's coincided with your ability to grow through acquisitions?
For the most part. We acquired Trasys, a smaller competitor, 18 months ago which has been a great situation for us, helping us diversify our client base. We've got 225 employees now, but almost 200 of those are consultants who are on-site with the clients, focused on delivery or managing the expectations of the clients. We've been able to build a good team through acquisitions.
How important is getting the right people in the right positions?
Very. Our first employee, from 12 years ago, is still with us. Finding those kinds of people is the key to success. One of my favorite things, now, is being part of a team and building teams. It's like a family or a sports team. I love the dynamics of finding great people that add to the value of your team. We've been very lucky in that way, but I think that's where my expertise lies now.
Technology companies seem to be in an ever-precarious position, as new and better technologies emerge. Is it difficult to keep up with the "next big thing," or is it even a concern?
It is. We try to differentiate. You have to stay ahead of the curve and keep an eye out for new technologies that are going to benefit the client. You have to keep an eye on what's coming out of Europe or the West Coast, and what others are doing that you can use to help clients. Sometimes, you have to sell the client on it. The next big thing for us is Agile, the project management system that's been around for about 10 years. It's caught on in many places... it's big in Columbus, but in Cincinnati not as many people are using it. They're just starting to look at it. We take a pragmatic approach and tell clients to do a partial integration -- let them dip their toe in and see how it will streamline things for them. Nobody's eager to leave a system they know when someone's trying to cram something new down your throat. And that's the way most companies try to force change. We don't operate that way.
Where does Cohesion go from here? Do you expect further growth in the future?
We're looking to acquire more companies. We're growing organically, but we want to expand even further to other markets and service areas. Acquisitions are a quick way to achieve that. So is partnering with other firms. The trick is to find the right fit. It's comes back to building your team the right way and finding people who add value.
Over the past 12 years, you've probably had a few lessons to pass along to entrepreneurs. Care to pass on a few?
There are a ton, some learned harder than others. One of the main things, I'd say though, is to stay fluid and adaptive to outside ideas. We were focused on having the right strategy, and were too rigid in regard to how we did business. Stay open to ideas. Having coaches or outside consultants to fill in gaps of your knowledge is a good idea, too. Knowing what you don't know. Having the ability to ask yourself "Are we doing things the right way? Is there a better way to serve the client?" Those were very big lessons we learned along the way.