Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions.
This week, we talk with a business owner about how she launched her IT consulting business, the way she learned to choose the right partners and what her exit strategy is.
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Mariyah Saifuddin grew up working in her parents’ computer repair business. Now, she and her husband own a family business of their own: Innovative Solution Partners. ISP specializes in consulting for large companies that use a particular software package, SAP. Their focus has allowed them to stay nimble; they recruit contractors one project at a time, evaluate vendors and consultants carefully and work remotely with clients across the country.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced some of ISP’s client companies to close temporarily, Saifuddin used the lull to zero in on the company’s mission, vision and strategy. She worked with a business coach, redefined the company’s mission and vision and found the right marketing firm. Now, she feels they’re on solid footing as they look ahead. Their most likely exit strategy is to eventually sell the business, Saifuddin says.
As a business owner, your team includes more than just your employees: it’s your contractors, vendors, consultants and coaches, too. Choosing the right people and companies for those roles can help you maintain a high-quality product or service and level up your business at critical moments.
Network: Join affinity groups, such as the National Association of Women Business Owners, to learn about how other business owners do things.
Find the right partners: Seek out vendors and consultants who really understand your business. The cheapest option might not be the best one.
Let your company evolve: As your business grows, your mission statement and value proposition might evolve. A mentor or business coach may be able to help you with this process.
More about growing your business from NerdWallet:
Sean Pyles: Welcome to the NerdWallet Smart Money podcast, where we typically answer your personal finance questions and help you feel a little smarter about what you do with your money. I’m Sean Pyles.
Rosalie Murphy: And I’m Rosalie Murphy, a NerdWallet writer focused on small business.
Sean Pyles: Today, we have another installment in our Nerdy Business Series, in which we interview entrepreneurs about starting and growing their companies. So Rosalie, who is our guest this episode?
Rosalie Murphy: Today, we are talking with Mariyah Saifuddin. She is the co-owner of Innovative Solution Partners, which is an IT consulting firm based in the Detroit area. And she has been running this family-owned company for about 20 years.
Sean Pyles: Great. Mariyah, welcome to Smart Money.
Mariyah Saifuddin: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Rosalie Murphy: Mariyah, I would love to start at the beginning. What has your career path looked like? Where did you start, and how did you come to launch a company?
Mariyah Saifuddin: I’m a first-generation immigrant, and my parents had a business. And I grew up in their small business, actually. They sold computers when they were about 30, 40 pounds, and took up a lot of space. And so, I spent my summers doing everything from getting the mail and answering phones to helping my mom with accounting to eventually heading up the service department. And that’s where I got my first little taste of business. And then I ended up going to college, and I got a business degree and graduated from what is now Ross, here at the University of Michigan. And my mom was adamant that I have more on my resume so that I could get a job and support myself, depending on what life threw me.
So I ended up getting a job, working in Big Six consulting in downtown Detroit — thought it would be super exciting. And I’ll tell you in the 90s, being a woman in IT and being a woman of color, I was quickly awakened, I guess. I lasted about two years in corporate America. It took me a long time — until probably just recently — when the topic of sponsorship and mentorship started really arising these last couple of years, that I realized I didn’t have a lot of that when I joined that Big Six consulting firm.
And so I left. I really never thought I’d reach my potential the way it was working out for me at the time. And I left, life hit. I got married and, ultimately, my husband was working with SAP, as a particular software package, and a client asked him if he would do some work. And I said, “Hey, my parents had a small business. It’s really not that hard, I think. Let’s just start our business.” And that’s what got us into this where we are today, was that one person wanting an SAP consultant, and us incorporating ourselves.
Sean Pyles: One thing that stood out to me about your answer, just now, talking about your experience, is the fact that you thought that starting a small business might not be that hard. And I think a lot of folks have this impression that it’s extremely difficult to do, and there are some pretty significant challenges. What do you think informed that attitude that it wouldn’t be so difficult for you to do? Was it your upbringing around your parents, who had their own small business?
Mariyah Saifuddin: Yes. For those that are familiar with the family business, I think it’s really hard to draw the line between business and personal life. We grew up around that. It was oftentimes the conversation at home, and it was enlightening because I saw everything, right? You see what it takes to get inventory out the door, what it’s like when things don’t go the way you want it to be. My family has a strong sense of living in possibility. And I think as business owners, we have to be a little bit optimist, realist. But definitely living in a place, a possibility, rather than scarcity.
Sean Pyles: Just real quickly, can you spell out what SAP stands for?
Mariyah Saifuddin: Sure. SAP is actually a German-based company and they are what’s called an enterprise resource planning software. And it allows larger firms to use the software to do everything in one place. From accounting to HR, customer relations, handling your inventory or the services. Everything’s kept in one system, so it makes it easier for an organization to run. Really, what I tell people is that we provide our clients data insights for informed decision making by making these custom analytic and reporting solutions.
Sean Pyles: All right. Can you talk a bit about what your firm looks like today?
Mariyah Saifuddin: The size of our business right now — we’re less than 10 employees. It’s a mix of part time and full time. And what we do is, as we get projects, we ramp up with trusted contractors that we work with and partners. And that’s how we build out on a project-to-project basis. It allows us to be agile and actually allowed us to survive the pandemic, too, because it limits our overhead cost.
Sean Pyles: Yeah. You’re based in Michigan, as you said — do you have an office there? Or is your workforce distributed? How do you structure that?
Mariyah Saifuddin: Even pre-pandemic, we have a mix of virtual and in-house. We did have co-working space before the pandemic, and like most businesses, we reevaluated where we need the space and really what purpose does it serve? Most of our team is spread out across the U.S., and most of our clients are as well. So even though we have a focus here, we do have clients that we serve even out on the west side of the country.
Rosalie Murphy: Yeah. What does a project look like?
Mariyah Saifuddin: It means that there is a need to accomplish X. We need to have this type of reporting solution put in place. For instance, we need to track inventory and we need to know where it’s at, when’s it’s expected in, is it making it on time. So that everybody in the business, no matter where they are, can see what they need. And then we come in and we have what we’ve created as our own focus methodology. And it’s something that we share with our clients when they join us. We start from finding out the requirements going in, and then optimizing a solution that works for them and then customizing it, implementing it.
Rosalie Murphy: How long do projects typically last?
Mariyah Saifuddin: They run anywhere from six months to over a year.
Sean Pyles: You talked about your current staffing a little bit. And what I’m thinking about, as I hear you describe all that goes into a project, is that you have some pretty technical jobs. And I imagine that it could be hard to find people to fill these types of roles. I’m wondering how you have found employees and contractors. And I’d also like to hear about vendors and other businesses that you have relationships with as well.
Mariyah Saifuddin: Sure. Let’s start with the employee piece. I think that’s hitting all of us — no matter what size business we run — really hard right now. We are blessed in a couple ways. One is it’s about six degrees of separation. We’ve been in this business for so long that we know people in this business, and even they know people. And so it becomes a referral process, and a vetting process, on our end. Over the years we’ve had potential employees give us a resume. They put down a project and I’m not sure people really realize, but we do tend to go back and figure out, “Oh, they were on that project, and more than likely, we’ll find somebody that may know somebody that was there.” And that whole idea is six degrees separation.
Sean Pyles: Yes. Maybe some back-channeling about whether someone can fulfill the role that you need them to?
Mariyah Saifuddin: Absolutely. Because it’s easy to put something down on paper, but as a business owner where this is our bread and butter, and really feeding our family, we do an extra level of due diligence. In terms of managing customer expectations, it’s no different than when I hire a vendor. That question about how do we find vendors — and we’ve built out a network. For instance, before I hired my first employee, I kept on meeting a woman who was an HR expert. I just got to know her, and I realized how she worked. And when the time came to hire my first employee, she was my first call. I was like, “Hey, I’m hiring somebody. I don’t know what to do,” and she was the HR expert. And so she helped walk me through everything from the employee handbook to what forms need to be filled out.
And so when I look at vendor relationships now, I realize that most of these vendors have been with me through the ups and downs, like pre-pandemic, through the pandemic. They’re still around, we’re still around. All of our business models may have shifted, but the underlying premise is the same. Meaning, just like we want to be with our clients, as they go through their growth, and all of that. And we’re with them, continue to partner with them. I expect the same from my vendors. And so, cost is always important, but I learned a long time ago, you get what you pay for.
Sean Pyles: Yeah. I’m curious about how you began to build that network. Because at this point, as you mentioned, you have very well-established relationships, but I could see how it could be tempting for someone just starting out a business to go for the first or second person that they come across, who seems like they’ll be able to fit the bill, just to get projects moving. But that could be detrimental to the finished product if whoever they hire isn’t qualified for it. Did you approach this with the same level of rigor when you were first starting out? Or did you kind of take who you could get?
Mariyah Saifuddin: Oh, no. I took what I could get, and then I learned the hard way. If I could go back in time, I would say, do that same level of rigor. When you’re starting, it’s like, “My business is small. I’m not doing a lot. It really doesn’t matter. I just need somebody to get me through this patch.”
But the problem is that when you start that relationship with somebody, they affect your business in a lot more ways than you think. And I think, when I learned the hard way, I joined organizations that were either aligned with what we do, or who I am, so to speak. We’re minority-owned certified, we’re women-owned certified, and all those organizations allow you to go out and meet other people. The state of Michigan has what they call Pure Michigan Business Connect, where they’re trying to support Michigan businesses with larger enterprises. And all those places, you go out, you meet people and you get to talk with people, personally and professionally. I took some business development courses and I think that was very eye-opening because when you work with other business owners, and you see how they think, and how they would choose to perform a class, it’s kind of indicative of how they run their business.
Sean Pyles: It seems like you’re describing a shift from short-term thinking — just hiring who can get the job done — to long-term planning for your business and for your very intentional relationship building. Can you talk about that pivot?
Mariyah Saifuddin: Well, I think it takes a little bit of growing up and becoming wiser about what business is about. When we first started out, it was the typical way a business owner thinks: “I have a great product. Why wouldn’t you want it from me?” And we were lucky when we started out, and we survived for all these years because we do good work, and people referred business to us and referred other clients to us. But when the pandemic hit, all of a sudden, all of those little cracks in our armor became really big. And I — kind of — the writing was on the wall. I just hadn’t moved fast enough. Right? Talk about diversifying from manufacturing. At that time, we weren’t ready. I don’t think I was ready to take in what people were telling me because life was good.
Rosalie Murphy: Can you say more about that? What was your experience like during those first few months of the pandemic in 2020, and what did ISP pursue in trying to diversify?
Mariyah Saifuddin: 2020 March was really hard. I think the first month was kind of denial, hoping that things would be opening up pretty darn quick. And then it became, “OK, this is real.” It became an exercise in us rethinking about who we are as a business. What is it that we want to create? What is it that we’re passionate about? We redid our mission and our vision and we built our infrastructure almost like it’s a startup, even though we’re not a startup.
And so what that allowed us to do was, “OK, we need to figure out what’s next.” And we know that our typical client base isn’t there. We ventured out into medium-size businesses and we were able to secure some contracts and it was good, but we realized that the education needed and the attitude towards IT is all different.
And what I’ve come to realize is that we really work well with clients that see IT as an investment, rather than a cost in their books because the conversation then shifts. And we’ve also learned to shift our conversations in everything that we do. Our website has been redone. We found a new marketing company who understands what we do and our target clients. And we got a lot of good coaching. This whole period for the last two years has been one of rebuild and rejuvenation. It’s almost like a second life for us and our business.
Rosalie Murphy: Yeah. I would love to hear more about your work with the marketing firm. What has made that a pain point over the years, and what results are you seeing from a firm that really gets it?
Mariyah Saifuddin: So I made the mistake early in my career hiring somebody. I wanted to give somebody a chance because I love when somebody gives me a chance, except I never vetted them. And I lost money in that one. And one of the things that changed this time was I had a business coach who was helping us during this whole time, and essentially, upping my game as a CEO. And she shared that I answer RFPs all the time. Right. These requests for proposals, I’m answering them for clients. Yet I was never generating that for my own vendors that I was vetting. The first thing she had me do was create an RFP. And it’s funny because it doesn’t sound that complicated, but when you are on the other side and you talk about the fact that on a typical day, I would say, “OK, tell me what results you’re going to give me.”
I’m not a marketing person, so I don’t even know how to quantify your success. It became those conversations. It became me getting clear of what I wanted. I didn’t need a PR firm. I didn’t need somebody reinventing the wheel for me and telling me how to handle my whole customer side, as well as this. And the biggest issue was I need to find a marketing firm that understood technology at the level that we’re doing. They understood our target market, which is enterprise-level clients who operate very differently than a midmarket, or small business. And who understood the value that we are bringing to the table. In theory, it sounds super simple. In reality, it’s another beast. In this team that we’re working with right now, it’s interesting because their model is kind of similar to ours in that they bring in experts for what they need.
They’re not necessarily an agency, quote unquote, but they get it. They’ve got all the right resources, and all of their people are senior level people. It’s clicked and it’s worked. And yeah, it was really difficult to get where we were. For instance, getting my website, originally, when we did our website years ago, that process took us forever. And looking back, I understand now why because my experience with this firm has been, in two months they got it up. They didn’t offer me a whole smorgasbord menu. They’re like, “This is what we think you need. Does it work for you? Yes, no.” And I’m like, “Wow, this is super eye-opening.” We’ve sped up through this process so quickly because they understood who we were so that the first-round proposal of theirs just made sense.
Sean Pyles: I would love to hear next about what you have in store for yourself, and your company? Where you see you all growing in the coming years.
Mariyah Saifuddin: Well, I’ll tell you, I’m super excited. If you asked me this question even last year, or the year before that, I would’ve been like, “I don’t know where I’m headed,” but I’m happy to say that I feel like our business is on solid footing. We’ve got all the infrastructure in place. We have the team in place. And really, it’s for us, it’s about executing and it’s about being able to share the value that we can bring to our clients. I think at a personal level, I am currently serving as President-elect for the National Association of Women Business Owners here in greater Detroit. And it’s allowing me to stretch some muscles, and grow, in areas that I normally would never have. And it’s a saying that’s going on in business. We are looking to diversify our business and grow in areas that we normally haven’t, but bringing our skillset of what we do super well to those areas, and ultimately taking it to the next level.
Rosalie Murphy: Mariyah, what is your exit strategy?
Mariyah Saifuddin: Our ideal exit strategy is to really sell the business and be able to have our clients really well taken care of, even well past when we’re here.
Rosalie Murphy: What advice would you give, or what advice do you give, to people who are in the early days here thinking about starting a business, or maybe just getting the ball rolling on their idea?
Mariyah Saifuddin: I would say, look at your network. Start reaching out to people. Start joining some organizations. For instance, like NAWBO, or any of these other organizations where you can meet other entrepreneurs and see what the vibe is kind of. What is it that these people talk about? What is it that’s going on in the world? And this day and age, most people are willing to help. If you’re in the beginning stages, I think the other advice I would have is it’s never going to be 100% perfect. So just go with it, be confident, move forward and be ready to adjust and you’ll be OK.
Sean Pyles: Well, thank you so much for sharing your story with us today.
Mariyah Saifuddin: Thank you for the opportunity.
Sean Pyles: And now some takeaways for our Nerdy entrepreneurs.
Rosalie Murphy: First, network. Join affinity groups, like the National Association of Women Business Owners that Mariyah talked about. And just start asking other business owners how they do things. Most people will probably be willing to help.
Sean Pyles: Second, seek out vendors and partners who really understand your business — whether it’s an HR consultant, or a marketing firm, or somebody else. It’s important to lean on a person or a team you trust. And the cheapest option might not be the best one.
Rosalie Murphy: And third, let your company evolve over time. Your mission statement and value proposition might not be the same now as they were when you started. Consider setting aside time for that kind of big-picture thinking every few years — maybe with help from a mentor or business coach.
Sean Pyles: And that’s all we have for this episode. Do you have a money question? Turn to the Nerds and call or text your questions at 901-730-6373. That’s 901-730-NERD. You can also email us at [email protected] and visit nerdwallet.com/podcast, for more info on this episode. As always, remember to follow, rate and review us wherever you’re getting this podcast.
Rosalie Murphy: This week’s episode was produced and edited by me, Rosalie Murphy, with help from Sean Pyles. And here is our brief disclaimer, thoughtfully crafted by NerdWallet’s legal team. Your questions are answered by knowledgeable and talented finance writers, but we are not financial or investment advisors. This Nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes, and it may not apply to your specific circumstances.
Sean Pyles: And with that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.