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news By Harry Bhatia as told to Plain Dealer reporter Marcia Pledger

The Company: Net Activity Inc., a full-service IT company that offers computer support and voice over the Internet telephone systems for small businesses. Founded in 2002 by Harry Bhatia, the Valley View company has nine employees.

The Mistake: When we started an IT support company to service small businesses we understood the need for reliable technology to stay connected to customers and staff because we're a small business. The computer field might be the only industry that evolves so drastically every 18 months, so you're always looking ahead. But we missed the mark on not offering Internet-based phone systems sooner.

Six years ago, transmitting human voices over network cable was in its infancy. At the time, our company strictly focused on computer support, but we knew that the trend was moving toward merging phones and computers.

We started investigating different IT options and quickly found it's not easy to become a reseller for some companies. In order to be a vendor for industry giant Cisco, training requirements for more certifications would have cost us six figures. That was cost prohibitive for a company our size. We ended up buying a telephone system that we never offered to any of our customers. In-house testing proved the technology was faulty and had too many limitations. If the Internet was down, the entire phone system would crash.

After that we didn't spend much more time or effort looking into other options. Our company was just a few years old so we continued to try to build the business through IT support and disaster recovery. We didn't realize we gave up too soon.

The Fix: Three years ago we started changing our approach to building business by attending industry conventions. We started networking with similar companies in other cities and one of those firms led us to a telephone system solution that changed our entire operation.

Now 40 percent of our sales come from telephone systems. Had we found the solution six years ago - and it was available then - we would have had substantially more growth.

The new VOIP service allowed us to target mid-size corporations and organizations. Until then, we had no reason to approach a larger business. Their technology departments were bigger than our entire company.

Growth didn't happen just because we found a new system. Building any business takes time. It took a while for us to get new clients - longer to ask a few to take part in promotions for the service. I can talk up services like having voicemails to the office transferred through e-mail to a smartphone, but there's nothing like a satisfied customer to speak on your behalf. Most customers are primarily interested in cost-effective technology that makes their businesses more efficient.

We started gaining momentum by going to companies asking them to show us their monthly phone bill. If it was $6,000, we could say with confidence that we could get it down to $4,000 with the latest technology available including the price of leasing the system.

We just couldn't talk like that regarding the information technology part of our business. Computer support is a necessity, but clients look at it as a cost.

When you run a small business you're always weighing costs, whether it's financially or time away from your core business. After our experience, I don't underestimate the importance of research or participating in industry conferences.

Don't be afraid to share your struggles, not just your success. You'd be amazed at how small businesses in other markets are willing to share information that you can adapt to help your customers.

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