From Hope to Tech Help

Mat Nguyen and Mike Harris could have started their info tech firm anywhere. Nguyen grew up near the epicenter of the arts world in Paris, France. And Harris hails from Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan, one of nation's most distinguished institutes of higher education.

So, for these two young, talented, and worldly guys, mixing in with the global computer crowd and pursuing a career in super cities like San Francisco or Chicago likely would have been no big thing. But the two Hope College graduates decided they liked their chances in west Michigan.

“We knew the area and the people so that made it easier to get our foot in the door,” said Nguyen, who came to Michigan with his family in the early 1990's. “Starting a business at 21 is tough enough. You’re more comfortable when you’re in an area for awhile.”

Nguyen and Harris founded Worksighted in Holland, MI in the fall of 2000. What started out as a two man show six short years ago today has grown into one of the more prominent technology management and planning firms in the region. Worksighted now maintains field offices in Grand Rapids and Carmel, IN and services a significant client base in the metro Detroit area.

The company also is a prime example of the increasingly important role that west Michigan's college graduates play in the success of the economy. While a number of studies show young people fleeing the region to start their careers, the existing workforce is growing older. And often times the older workers do not possess the advanced degrees necessary today. So developing and retaining talented young business leaders like Nguyen and Harris is critical as the region evolves from a manufacturing-based economy to one driven more by knowledge and new ideas.

Indeed, small businesses like Worksighted seem to be at the very heart of west Michigan's shifting economic culture.

Attracting Human Capital
The company's spacious loft-style office is located on the first floor of a renovated brick building. The space has high, exposed ceilings. All staff members work on the same level and there are no private offices, just an open, decentralized area of desks. Maintaining a fun and flexible work environment is a top priority, Nguyen said, so there are games, plenty entertainment, and employees regularly gather as a group when the work day is done.

“We want to give our staff an environment they enjoy working in,” Mike Harris said. “Corporations are used to employees’ job hopping. We want ours to get here and stay here.”

“Sometimes it’s hard for the staff to differ between colleague and friend relationship because everyone is so close,” Nguyen added.

Despite all the gloom and doom about the college graduates fleeing the state, Worksighted does not seem to have a problem attracting and keeping young workers. The company targets well-rounded people who are able to interact with clients, Nguyen said, and work experience, social skills, cultural competence, educational background, and problem solving ability rank among the top criteria for new employees.

“We've gotten lucky and been able to attract those types of workers,” Nguyen said. “The average age here is 27. They don't always work here because of how much they get paid. In fact, no one has quit since the company began.”

One Stop IT Shop
Nguyen and Harris came up with the idea for Worksighted while serving as interns at Johnson Controls. The traditional structure of the corporate IT department tends to be highly bureaucratic, the pair quickly realized, and problem solving is generally a prolonged and impersonal process.

“The helpdesk structure is like being on hold all the time,” Nguyen said.

“We wanted to be fast, agile and flexible for the customer,” Harris added.

Thus Worksighted was born. The goal is to help businesses improve and maintain their computer networks and harness technology to gain a competitive advantage in their particular marketplace. Unlike many of their own competitors, much of the decision making at Worksighted is decentralized. One engineer is assigned to each case and works on-site with the customer.

This allows Worksighted employees to get to know the individual businesses and employees they are working with, which tends to accelerate resolution time. Nguyen said it also enables their firm to build a more personal relationship with their clients.

“We’re a one-stop-shop for IT needs,” Nguyen said. "We're a hold your hand from beginning to end, full suite of services company."

Most large companies already have an internal IT staff to handle their problems and only hire additional help on a per project basis. Nguyen said the structure and services provided by Worksighted make it more cost effective for small to medium sized companies.

“Worksighted tries to fill a role in companies that have about 75 to 100 people, right in the range where IT departments are needed but are difficult to afford,” he added.

The strategy appears to be working. Even as some IT firms in Michigan have struggled in recent years, Worksighted continues to experience stable growth. They measure progress by market share and revenue, which is a result of quality service, Harris said.

And the two entrepreneurs are happy to continue growing their young business in west Michigan. What's particularly attractive, they said, is the region's entrepreneurial spirit and tradition of civility.

“My wife and I enjoy living and working in Holland,” Harris said. “The community is so driven, involved, and supportive.”

“What really is retaining us here is the business ethics, the community, and the way people deal with one another,” Nguyen said.


Mat Nguyen and Mike Harris

Loft office space creates a nice work environment

Matt Nguyen

Mike Harris

Fake grass garden provides a whimsical backdrop to Mike Harris' office

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

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