Ryan Barton, a native of the New Hampshire Lakes Region, launched Mainstay Technologies as a one-man operation in 2007, dedicated to helping small- and medium-sized businesses make the most out of their computer systems and information technology.
The company now employs more than 30 IT professionals at offices in Belmont and Manchester, and is eyeing Portsmouth for expansion. One of the fastest-growing companies in the state, Mainstay was recently named Business of the Year in the business service category by Business NH magazine.
How did you get your start in the IT service business?
My dad brought one of the first black and white computers home when I was a kid, and I just couldn't get enough. It was an immediate passion for me from the first time I touched it. I started doing things for people on my own, and then worked for a small IT consulting shop in Manchester in the late 1990s, and really saw what corporate IT services looked like, but also saw a lot of the frustration.
Technology support is very challenging, so traditionally it tends to burn people out. There can be a lack of empathy for the client's challenges and their needs, and a lack of understanding. I felt I was just responding to emergencies and fixing issues, without an understanding of the client's business.
I did some tech school, went to a Bible school, and became their de facto IT person. I chose not to go for a formal four-year degree because honestly things change so fast in technology, and I had so many opportunities. What is really valued in technology is experience and certifications, so I did a nontraditional college route, taking some classes, pursing Microsoft certifications and getting the real-world hands-on experience with a lot of self-study. You have to own your own education experiences in technology because there is so much to know and it changes so quickly.
How did Mainstay get started?
I moved back to the area after going to school out in Kansas City, and my phone rang and it was someone from a small private school that I knew well, and they said, "Can you help us?" So I fixed all their issues. I understood what their challenges were. I was their hero, and I got paid at the end of the day, and that's how I started Mainstay.
In 2007 I hired our first employee, and then the next four. We got to about five people in 2007, and are now over 30 people, and are on the Inc. 5,000 list for fastest growing companies, with about 200 clients, including nonprofits, municipalities, businesses and schools.
How would you describe your business model?
It's really providing the small- and medium-sized business market with the power of higher-end IT services that often aren't available to them. We tend to focus on businesses between 10 and 200 employees. Their typical choices have been having the one-man IT person in-house, who has a very lonely job, or using the PC shop down the road or somebody's cousin or uncle. Providing them with an enterprise-caliber IT team is what we exist to do.
We want to be business consultants who understand technology, and not just IT guys. It's very important to us that we partner with our clients on their team, which is why we do innovative things like not making any money on hardware or software. We charge for our time of course, but we don't make money from hardware or software, which is very unusual in our industry. Ten years ago, selling millions of dollars worth of hardware and software to a company was how you made money.
We see the next evolution of our industry moving to the cloud. We're going to be doing even less hardware support, less back-end support, because we can outsource it to these large companies who operate data centers and are providing infrastructure as a commodity.
What has been the major contributor to your growth?
We've had very significant growth, and it's been continuing at about 40 percent plus per year for the past five years. We've been blessed. Our business model really has resonated with the small- and medium-sized business market in New Hampshire.
Our first client was this small private school that had all these connections. Those relationships started the company and are still our most important asset. Beyond that, we believe that business, when done right, gives and blesses everyone who is involved, and does not take from anybody. We choose first what's best for our clients, then our team, then our company, but they have to be in that order.
Why did you choose Portsmouth for your third office?
We really see that as an area of opportunity and a way to drive into Northern Massachusetts; it will also help with our recruiting. If we can continue to grow in Portsmouth, we can pull from Southern Maine and the Northern Mass. area.
Aren't you in a crowded field?
There are a lot of people in the market, but there is such a growing demand, this industry is so big, that there is a lot of room, and so within that we don't feel a lot of competitive pressure. Our biggest challenges are making sure that we continue to evolve well, anticipate the needs of our clients and stay agile.
The great thing about a small business is we can make changes very quickly.
Are you finding it difficult to hire the right talent?
It's hard to find good people who have the technology experience, who have the same kind of core values, who have the willingness and desire to be a part of something like this, and are really going in the same direction we are.
Its hard to hire technology professionals in New Hampshire. There are a lot of people, but finding the right fit is the key. If we could hire faster, if we could hire the right people, we would actually be growing faster. Our growth is limited by our ability to find the right people because we are very careful about our culture and our values.
We're starting to hire younger, right out of college, being mentors with longer training and job shadowing for them. As we grow geographically, we get to pull from a wider area. We have to be creative about our hiring strategies. We just hired two new people this week that we are just thrilled about.
How big do you want to be?
A year from now, I'm anticipating we'll be between 40 and 45 staff, and in three to five years between 60 and 90. That's really where we want to go. If we get too big, then we split to keep teams a certain size and put the right people in charge. I never want to be that big business owner who deals with all those layers of management and doesn't have his ear to the ground.