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Downturn in economy allows Web services to grow businesses

Small Internet firms in the Buffalo area have not been hurt by the downturn in the economy -- it may even have helped them expand.

As the economy contracted, businesses needed to conserve money while attracting new customers, and many turned to local firms for more efficient use of technology and social media networking.

For I-Evolve Technology Services, a business technology consultant in Amherst, that led to a doubling of its work force in one year and an increase in sales of 133 percent in 2010.

At 360 Professional Services Group, a Web development and design company also based in Amherst, it meant starting with three employees in 2005 and growing to 20 today.

For the smaller Ingenious Inc., a website development firm in Buffalo, the recession reinforced its plan of offering individualized solutions.

I-Evolve's target customer is the small- to medium-sized business that has limited Internet technology resources available, and possibly budget constraints. I-Evolve offers a range of services from web hosting, design and marketing, and voice over Internet protocol to cloud computing, where it moves a company's data to its own data centers, allowing the client high speed access and seamless management.

"We make it work and they use it," said company president Kevin Kelly. "We can provide the service anywhere in the world."

About 70 percent of the company's 20 employees are tech staffers.

"That's our niche," Kelly said.

The firm used to sell hardware to its clients. But a client coming in today who needs a new server probably won't buy the hardware, but will pay a fee to I-Evolve, which will keep the data on its data centers in Buffalo and Los Angeles.

Chief Technical Officer David A. Meller started the company several years ago as DAM Computers. Kelly used to be a customer, then did some consulting work for him until Meller brought him in as a partner. Two years ago, Kelly was the 10th employee.

I-Evolve uses some of the same techniques for attracting business as it recommends to its clients, such as Holiday Valley and Hunt Real Estate.

"I don't know how many people still have sales people who go out and knock on doors," Kelly said. "As a sales person, my phone here rings no less than five times a week just because I market my website well."

He said integration of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, and search engine optimization to improve the number and quality of visits to a website, are areas of growth.

About 70 percent of 360 Professional Services Group's work is centered in Western New York. President Joel Colombo said he believes his company has flourished because it is affordable to small businesses.

360 Professional Services Group developed a program to automate much of the social networking for its clients, who could spend valuable hours Tweeting and updating Facebook.

"It can be tedious and overwhelming," Colombo said.

But with a few keystrokes, information can be automatically updated. Heron's Landing in Irving uses it to publish its gasoline prices daily, reaching all of the station's followers, he said.

"It's a time saver, and it makes sure you don't miss out," he said.

When the social media tool came out, 360 PSG rolled it out to its existing customers at no charge.

With three employees, Ingenious Inc. on Washington Street is the stereotypical website development company that started in the home. Joe Murphy founded the company six years ago when his wife took off work when she had a baby.

"I figured the best way to make up lost income was to have my own business," he said. "I couldn't go into my boss's office and say 'Hey, can you double my salary?' "

Murphy soon realized he needed extra space. He gradually added employees.

"Each year has been better than the last," he said.

Ingenious focuses on the higher end of Web services in a "non-cookie cutter" approach.

"We don't cram technology at our clients," Murphy said. "We don't force them into a specific solution. We like to listen to what they have to say and build a solution around their needs."

That means designing sites for clients like the Albright Knox Art Gallery and Labatt Blue Pond Hockey. While it was a little slow at the end of 2008, business picked up.

"In 2009, the phone started ringing off the hook," Murphy said. "They were looking for a way to spend their advertising dollars that would give them a return on investment."