Brian Curtis sensed a need and acted

Scratching a Niche

Brian CurtisDominionTech, an IT support and service company in Colchester, grew out of Brian Curtis’ recognition that the quality of outside tech services for specific problems was less than stellar.

by Keith Morrill

Brian Curtis and his employees may be techies, but don’t ever call them geeks. Sure, they’re masters of computer service — gurus of server administration — and they’ve even managed to force Mac and PC to get along together under a single roof. What separates them from the average computer geek, says Curtis, is that they don’t speak a language composed of ones and zeros.

Of course, they could talk the talk if they had to, but at DominionTech, he says, service is all about catering to the customers, not confusing them. The company provides small businesses with computer services, desktop repair, and server administration, ensuring that equipment runs smoothly and their Internet connections never falter, regardless of their operating systems.

When Curtis started DominionTech in 2001, he was working as a network administrator for Kelliher Samets Volk in Burlington. His impetus came from experiences he had when trying to bring in outside tech services to solve specific problems. “Either we weren’t happy with rates, or we weren’t happy with quality of service or speed of service,” recalls Curtis. “I kind of got sick of it, and I said, ‘You know what? This isn’t that hard! I can do better.’”

He cites his then-employer’s understanding and encouragement as key to getting DominionTech online. “They were gracious enough to let me work there half-time,” he says — something they didn’t have to do. “They could have just said, ‘We want you here 40 hours a week or we don’t want you here at all.’” While the half-time paycheck eased the transition, it wasn’t a requirement. Curtis concedes, “I probably would have done it anyway.”

That sort of hard-working determination seems to have been a way of life for Curtis. Born in Connecticut and raised in New Hampshire, he went to work managing an Apple specialist store for edusoftA not long after graduating from Mascoma Valley Regional High School in 1997.

In 2000, the owner of the business was looking to open a store in Vermont and hoped to have Curtis manage it. Curtis made the move, but within a few months the business experienced a few glitches.

“It was a bad year for Apple, and a series of mediocre products, compounded by cash flow problems, forced the business to close only six months after opening its doors.

However, he and his wife, Misty — whom he had known since high school and married in 1999 — liked the area, and decided to stick it out for a few weeks while Curtis hunted for work. It wasn’t long before he landed his job at Kelliher Samets Volk.

Despite initially feeling stranded, Curtis now gladly calls Vermont home. He and Misty reside in Milton where they’re raising their three daughters, Natalie, 7; Sophia, 5; and Melissa, 1.

Family played a big role in DominionTech’s beginnings. The business was run from a home office until 2004, when it was moved to a retail space at 875 Roosevelt Highway in Colchester. There he relied on family to keep the space staffed. In the mornings, while Curtis did the service rounds, Misty brought in their first daughter — she was pregnant with their second at the time — and ran the retail space until mid afternoon. While some might argue that toddlers and tech don’t mix, the Curtis family created an atmosphere that drew customers looking not only for computer services, but also a good chat.

DominionTech has come a long way since then. In addition to the wide array of tech services the business offers, it provides computer retail services for its clients, with bragging rights as Vermont’s largest Lenovo dealer. In 2007, sales exceeded goals by 40 percent, and in 2008, they were up 70 percent. In the last three years, the business has attracted numerous clients and added several employees to the payroll. Misty no longer works the retail space in the mornings, much to the disappointment of some of the clients.

Misty Curtis and Juan BarrenaDominionTech was run from a home office until 2004, when it was moved to its current location. Misty Curtis, Brian’s wife and the company’s vice president, has been involved since the beginning. Juan Barrena is network administrator.

Jeremy Wandasiewicz is office manager, but also provides tech services; Juan Barrena is network administrator; Matt Wakeman is a service tech; and the most recent hire is Shannon Gagnon, also a service tech.

During his busy seasons and for special projects, Curtis calls in outside help. He draws on the medical field for analogy. A lot of companies in the service industry are highly specialized, he says — almost like medical specialists. “We’re more of a general practitioner,” he says, “but we’re not afraid to call in a specialist to get the job done.” DominionTech has a strategic partnership with Sterling Communication (which runs the network cabling), and numerous freelance technicians as needed. Even so, finding the right employees can be a challenge, as it’s difficult to hit upon that perfect balance between technical know-how and customer service skills.

Jim Smith, the president of EQ2, a medical software developer in Burlington, thinks DominionTech has done it right. He says the company is instrumental in keeping all of EQ2’s systems and hardware running so the company can still do business.

“There’s technical people and there’s technical people,” he says — “people who don’t work in IT all the time or people who just bludgeon you with too much knowledge. Brian and his team are aware that IT is critically important for everything and everybody, but that it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.” He adds, “They have a way of listening empathetically even though they’ve probably heard it a thousand times.”

Perhaps such client contentment has something to do with Curtis’ ability to adapt to changes in the industry, the most noteworthy of which, according to Curtis, is the increasing “retailization” of services. “People want to know what you’re going to do, what it’s going to cost and they just want that to be the price,” he says. DominionTech has done that with some of its services for some time, and continues to move further in that direction.

Jeremy Wandasiewicz and Matthew WakemanFinding the right people — with the right mix of experience and communication skills — has been a challenge. Jeremy Wandasiewicz (left) is the office manager/technology consultant, and Matthew Wakeman is a service technician.

Most recently Curtis developed a product he calls managed services. “It puts the onus of keeping the network running 24/7 on us,” he explains. Under the plan, DominionTech will charge all clients a fixed fee per computer per server to keep things running optimally, barring upgrades and new purchases.

“It’s a different philosophy from hoping somebody has a problem in order to make some money,” says Curtis, pointing to the way in which the tech service industry in Vermont has been accustomed to operating. “It’s our job to make sure clients have no problems at all.” It’s the way DominionTech has always done business, continues Curtis, who plans to expand this as a primary focus over the next few years.

“Computer service isn’t a glamorous thing,” he says. “We’re very much behind the scenes making things work. We’re not the center of attention, unless there’s a problem — then everyone is looking for us.

“People always hate to see us, and they’re happy to see us go.” •