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Episode 6: Marsha Minervini

LISTEN TO THE OFFICIAL EPISODE:

We sat down with Marsha Minervini this week, who is an absolute joy. If you weren’t passionate about up north real estate before you listened to this episode, Marsha may just change your mind! We discussed not just what she loves (and finds difficult about) running her real estate and development business here in northern Michigan, but also how she’s set up systems and processes with her technology to make her business run smoother and, ultimately, help her gain more profits.

For more information on Marsha, give her a call at 231-947-1006 or send her a message

Show Transcript

Marsha Highlight (00:41):

I always feel that we have a common goal and that goal is to have everyone feel good about their transaction. It doesn’t always work that way, but, but that’s the goal.

Ruthy (00:53):

Hello, and welcome back to Terrapin Small Biz Connection with myself, Ruthy Kirwan and Tim Gillen. Our guest this week is Marsha Minervini of Remax Bayshore properties in Trevor city. Marsha was an absolute joy to talk to. And we discussed today everything about how the internet has affected real estate customers, who shop before they view her dealings with connectivity out on the road and the systems that she’s set up. So her data is protected and she saves time while working Marsha and her husband Ray were instrumental in the development and revitalization of the village of grand Trevor’s comments. And she’s been selling real estate here up North since 1993. We packed a ton into this episode. So I’m just going to hand this straight over to Tim so he can welcome our guest Marsha Minervini.

Tim (01:38):

Well, hello again, and thanks for joining us for the Terrapin Small Biz connection. We’re here with a friend of ours from here in Traverse City, very successful real estate agent, and part of the neat development over at our State Hospital, as well as just around town. Her name is Marsha Minervini, part of Marsha Minervini real estate and Remax here in Traverse City. Hello, Marsha, how are you?

 

Marsha

Good, Tim. How are you?

 

Tim

Good. Thanks. Thanks so much for joining us.

 

Marsha

I’m looking forward to it.

Ruthy (02:09):

Thank you so much for hanging out with us this week. Marsha, I wanted to ask you, can you tell us just a little bit about your real estate business? And I know that a lot of real estate agents tend to have a type of specialization. Do you have one?

Speaker 3 (02:21):

I guess I wouldn’t say I have a special specialization. I do mostly residential real estate sales, but I also dabble in some commercial too. And a lot of that is because of the Village at the Grand Traverse Commons.

Ruthy (02:36):

And so that’s where you would do the majority of your real estate sales are within the Grand Traverse Commons?

Marsha (02:40):

No, I always say that my real real estate is outside of the Commons. My passion tends to be at the Commons because we build a lot of condominiums here. We have quite a neighborhood that feels part of the downtown Traverse City area, but I sell all over the five county area.

Tim (03:01):

Marsha, tell us a bit about the Commons.

Marsha (03:03):

Oh, the Grand Traverse Commons is a former state asylum. For many years it, it closed in the, in the eighties or so. I think it even closed earlier than that. I’m not sure on the timing

Tim (03:18):

Seventies, early eighties. Yeah.

Marsha (03:20):

But we, we took over here about 2002 when we bought it. And our goal was to save the major, the main building, Building 50. So we’ve been working on it all these years and we not only surpassed the goal of a beautiful renovation of Building 50, but we have many of the other buildings also have been saved and we continue to work and we’re not done yet. We’ve got a long way to go, but we have a great neighborhood. My husband likes to call it the Fun Zone. It really is.

Tim (03:58):

It’s a spectacular development and they’re wonderful old buildings from the early part, late part of the 19th and early part of the 20th century. If I’m not mistaken, they’re terrific. And they’d fallen into some disrepair.

Marsha (04:13):

Nature disrepair. Yeah.

Tim (04:15):

Yeah. And so the Minervinis involved and Marsha and her husband Ray, and, and started this longterm development project, which has been just outstanding. And it’s a mix of residential and commercial, their stores, their shops, there’s a senior living center. There’s just a little bit of everything on the spectacular grounds. It’s really, really been something for our town.

 

Marsha (04:42):

Yes. Are children are involved in it too. Actually our whole family. So we’re a small family business, but we’re a proud of what’s been created here. People used to say, who’d want to live in a mental institution?

 

Ruthy

I would.

Tim (05:00):

Yeah. And you get inside those buildings the way that Ray and Tony and everyone has, has redone those. And they’re pretty cool.

Marsha (05:11):

We like to remind people that asylum also means refuge.

Tim (05:16):

There you go. Yes, it does.

Ruthy (05:20):

You know, I have so many memories. I grew up just down the street from the state hospital and months in and everything. So I have a lot of childhood memories of walking around the grounds, and some high school memories of coming into a couple buildings. I think most kids who grew up in this town would have the same types of memories. And I was just… I was there the other day with my mother and we were just talking about how incredible it is to walk around those grounds, and have memories of it in so many different ways throughout my life now. And to see it so revitalized and continuously and moving and changing and evolving is …I think it’s such a boon for the city. It’s an amazing space. It really is.

Tim (06:04):

It’s pretty significant. It really is.

Marsha (06:06):

Yeah. We love hearing the stories. You know, we have all the tourists here now and a lot of the tour guides either had a parent who lived here or had a very close connection when they were in high school to the building. So each tour it’s very specific and very different to the personality of the guides. So we’re having a lot of fun with it. Oh, I love that.

Tim (06:28):

And Marsha, you have used then, that as kind of as a springboard on your real estate. Were you involved in real estate prior to you folks taken on the Commons area? So how long have you been doing that?

Marsha (06:40):

Well, originally I had a construction company in the Detroit area, so I owned Mann Contracting for 18 years. And when I moved to Traverse City in ‘88, ‘89, it was a very difficult time for women in construction to break into it in Northern Michigan. Although I had been doing it for a long time in the Detroit area I had a great teacher and Ray had his own construction businesses for many years. But when I moved here, I decided I needed to try something different. And real estate seems like the perfect opportunity to segue from selling construction jobs, into selling real estate. And I’d have to say, it’s the best decision I’ve ever made because after 27 years, I still love what I do. That’s amazing what a blessing. Yeah. I love the diversity of real estate, both of people and of places from first time, home buyers on a tight budget to high end waterfront, and obviously condominium buyers because they’re at the Village and everything in between, you know, and I’m not a sales agent. I always say I’m a matchmaker. My goal is always to listen to a client’s wants and their needs, and then to try to find the perfect match for them. So it’s fun.

Tim (07:59):

It really is at its core what real estate is supposed to be about, isn’t it? Oh, absolutely. And you just got to try to find that mix and find that complimentary fit for them. Way more than trying to talk them into some,

Marsha (08:14):

Oh, you don’t talk anyone into anything. You have to listen and you have to watch,

Tim (08:20):

You have to be able to watch how they react when you take them on a property, that kind of thing. Yep.

Marsha (08:26):

Someone will give you exact specifications of what they’re looking for. And they’ll walk into a house that maybe has a newel post that reminds them of grandma’s house. And all of a sudden this house that has very little of what their need list was, turns into the perfect house. You just don’t know unless you’re quiet enough to let them walk through, feel it and fall in love or not. And you usually know really quickly if it’s not the right.

Ruthy (08:56):

This is a common question that we ask a lot of the small business owners on the show. What do you love about running a business in Northern Michigan? And I would say that real estate is, is definitely a unique thing to do up here with the beauty of our area. So is there anything in particular that you love about running your real estate up here in Northern Michigan?

Marsha (09:11):

That’s the easiest question you could ask. The people here are special. We smile a lot. Real estate is always local. So an even in our five county area, the diversity of the small towns, or somebody wants a walkable community or country living, or somebody wanting house and up North Michigan, it’s, it’s so different in, you have to go through all the steps to find out why, where, and when, when you’re trying to sell find a home, not you’re, you’re never trying to sell a home. You’re trying to find the right match.

Tim (09:52):

Yeah. So that goes back to, we’ve had this conversation before on our little show here that this is kind of a special place up here. Isn’t it?

Marsha (10:02):

It’s a very special place. We feel very blessed to be here. We have ran, I have five children and all five of our kids have made their home in Traverse City, even though they weren’t all raised here, which means that all six of our grandchildren live here.

Tim (10:17):

Yeah. Nicely done. Lucky woman. I want to go back a step then. You’re actually a Yooper

 

Marsha

I’m a Yooper, yeah.

 

Tim

Why don’t you tell us a little bit about that? You grew up in Escanaba?

Marsha (10:31):

Well, actually I grew up in a little town called Isabella, which is more of a farm community. I actually did not have indoor plumbing until I was 12 years old. So very exciting thing. When we were building our house here, I had the great big video camera and I filmed the first bathroom that worked in our house. And I said, Dad, check this out, push this button. And everything disappears! I went from having no bathrooms to having four. So it’s come a long way.

Tim (11:05):

Yeah. But that’s a real U.P. story

Marsha (11:07):

I’m also a polio survivor. When I was a child, I had polio. So life was very different than the UP. When I was 12 years old, we moved to Escanaba. And then I went from a class of eight kids to a class of well, over 300 kids. So it was quite the experience and learning to adapt.

Tim (11:30):

I bet it was. And then you, you ended up staying in Escanaba through your high school years, and then you ended up coming down below the bridge at some point, was it became a troll.

 

Marsha

I became a troll!

 

Tim

And so you ended up down in Detroit, down in Southeastern Michigan.

Marsha (11:48):

Yep. We lived in Clinton township and East Detroit had a wonderful experience down there. It was a great place to live. The city of Detroit was, was really fun and it’s lovely to see it coming back.

Tim (12:04):

It is. Isn’t it? Absolutely. That’s good for everybody. Good for the state. And so you ended up here at Northern Michigan in the late eighties. And let’s swing back to the just to your real estate side of things and the development, both. What would you say are some things that those of us in the community and maybe policy makers and maybe even your clients really don’t understand about some of the challenges that you might have in both as a real estate agent and on the development side?

Marsha (12:36):

It’s a big question. You know, I think probably the time and the effort that real tourists invest in their business and in their clients is not understood. It’s far more complicated than just showing houses. You have safety issues, you have legal issues. And time management is often a struggle. You know, people often say, Oh yeah, one week of classes and you’re an expert. You’re a realtor. No, our association here in Traverse City offers classes year round from everything from safety issues to septic systems and classes are usually filled to capacity. So if you’re going to be a realtor, you have to know that you never stop learning. There are learning opportunities out there every day, both for classes and just learning when you’re out there doing the business.

Tim (13:34):

And I think people do overlook that on what it takes to be a real core, all the work you have to do to keep up with you here you are up here. Here’s five counties and there’s five. Those are just five big municipalities. And there’s all the villages and townships each that have different zonings septic summer on sewer most are not. There’s just a lot to it that maybe gets overlooked.

Marsha (13:56):

People don’t understand it. Well, we appreciate in this town, how all the agents and all the different real estate companies, we really don’t look at each other as competition. We work together so well and we forge friendships and we gain trust with all of us, having the common goal of representing our clients and our brokage brokerages. In the most honest manner, I always feel that we have a common goal. And that goal is to have everyone feel good about their transaction. It doesn’t always work that way, but that’s the goal. We’re also talking about internet though. You know, we all, we’ve all heard how the internet is going to take over the real estate businesses and real estate will no longer be necessary. We are a people business. So the internet has changed our practices, but so much of it is actually positive. We’re seeing smarter buyers because of the internet.

Tim (14:58):

And I would imagine less time wasted. I mean, instead of running people around and to get five no’s, I mean, information is always a positive for any of us, but the expertise is still the expertise. And the expertise comes from wisdom. Wisdom comes from knowledge plus experience, right? So someone who’s done something for a while. It has a better feel for it. That’s your, your expertise, your, the fact that you’re an expert in this combined with an informed buyer makes everyone’s time better. You’re not just throwing darts. You’re not trying to pull something out of somebody that would be a real, that’s actually a benefit, not a negative.

Marsha (15:38):

I think how that the internet documents, the way signatures can be dated and timestamped all of this helps us be more accountable and more accurate, you know, life is constantly changing. So I would, we imagine that the real estate business wouldn’t change.

Tim (16:00):

Okay. But the core of it is the same. The core of it is your, your ability to be a matchmaker. I talk about this with folks who might say, man, this, my industry has changed so much, but the fundamental of it, invariably has not changed. There’s web MD. There’s all these things you can find out about drugs, but the doctor still has a level of experience and, and knowledge and the ability to put it all together that we don’t have.

 

Ruthy

And then there’s the human connection that top of all of that.

 

Tim

The human connection on top of all of it. And the only thing that technology does is just help make that happen. Yes. So how would you say then, I mean, we can cut this kind of dovetails on that. You have found them technology from a standpoint of your access to the listings and being able to electronically sign documents as they’re passed back and forth and do all that securely and be able to work from home, be able to work from a property site, that kind of thing. That’s probably been pretty significant over the last 15 years, I would imagine,

Marsha (16:56):

Oh, it’s totally changed. The way business started. I got my real estate license in 1993. And the first thing I did was buy a computer. And the first thing I did was get a time management and data management program, which was not common in 1993. So I learned real estate using the tools that were offered at the time. It was a difficult transition from people who had huge books that they depended on and those books had every house listed in it. And they were paging through those books to figure out where they were going to go show a house. So by buying into technology at the time in learning it, as I went along in the business, I think it’s been an advantage for me.

Tim (17:45):

It’s not insignificant. When we try to keep it at length, it doesn’t usually work. This stuff will make things easier for you. If you pull a little time and we say often here, the technology is all about spending some time, so you can save time. And so right. And so you get this, you get this time management and customer, client relationship management data, and you get your clients in there and you make a point when you get that first call to get them in there takes off just a smidge longer, but then everything just flows after that. And you’re able to keep track of, so spend a little time upfront, let yourself learn it. And man, what a difference it can make.

Marsha (18:25):

We’ve found that the, the learning of the technology systems help us in our business. So we used to have file cabinets and tons and tons of documents and papers. And we had to keep it all for seven years. Well, now we have, we have files that are electronically saved and we can click on it and we can get every transaction that in the entire process in front of us. So we go, Oh, we did that agenda, but that didn’t work. And we did another agenda. And then we did this and you can just see what your whole progress was from the beginning to an end in a transaction. And it’s there at your fingertips. You’re not having to be in your office and going through your file cabinet my file cabinet, I’m down to one drawer.

Tim (19:14):

Yeah. There’s not, yeah. There’s not much over there in the way of, in your office in the way of file cabinets. That does lend itself to the critical part of a secure setup, because obviously you can’t have that floating around, but the ability to look at some transaction from four years ago, the last time you dealt with either that property or that client and see the entire flow of it all right there without having to route through downstairs in the, the 2008 files or, you know, whatever it might be. I mean, that’s pretty significant.

Marsha (19:46):

I’ve been lucky in my business that much of my, much of my new business is referral from old, old business from past clients. So maybe a past client, I’ve got a couple of sell that buy and sell a house every three years. They live in a house three years and they give me a call and say, guess what? We’re going to sell the house. I can instantly pull up online, all the information on the house that they’re going to move out of. And I already have a feel for what they’re going to look for in a new house. So as you build your business, the longer you stay in it, and the more you work with with the same people or referrals of the people you’ve worked for in the past, that the easier it becomes. And quite honestly, the relationships you build are so important. Many of my clients have become close friends. Can I ask Marsha

Ruthy (20:39):

Can I ask, Marsha, what changes do you see coming down the pipeline in  real estate? I mean, I’m sure that you’ve seen the business change a fair amount since 1990. What do you see coming in the future?

Marsha (20:48):

Well, I think the biggest challenges we’re seeing right now are our short term rental debates and how it affects property rights, personal property rights. There’s obviously something real tourists are very concerned with. Again, how to keep our clients safe and understanding the industry changes with both listing and showing properties. Especially after a pandemic, you know, it has changed everything and none of us, this is beyond anything, any of us imagined other than good science fiction writers now today. So it’ll keep changing. The biggest change that we’ve seen recently is the demand for condominiums over, you know, the houses in the country. And you think that that’s going to keep going more, that, that, that the trend towards condominiums is, is going to keep growing well. You know, we also are an aging society and as we age people, people want to stay active.

Marsha (21:54):

They want to be involved. And if they’re in a strong community, like here at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, we find these neighborhood groups form and they go on walking trips, they go hiking, they have breakfast in the morning. They have coffee out in the lawns and it’s, it becomes a really tight neighborhood. They take trips downtown by bus to go to a movie when they could drive, they’ll walk downtown, have dinner and a cocktail, and then take a bus back home. So when you’re within the city of Traverse City, it’s easy to do that. It’s just interesting to watch how relationships change both with how a neighborhood works and how people interact with each other. It’s just something to watch because you have to keep an eye on it. I find myself often saying I don’t have a magic 8 ball although some days I wish I had one for an immediate answer.

 

Tim

Well I don’t think you really want one because I might’ve told you about this pandemic event. It’s nice to know.

 

Ruthy

Well, Marsha, if listeners want to get ahold of you, what’s the best way that they can do that? Is it just by giving you a straight phone call?

 

Marsha

Call me (231) 883-4500.

 

Ruthy

Thank you so much for being with us today. We really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us for a bit.

 

Tim

Thanks again, Marsha.

 

Marsha

Thank you goodbye.

 

Ruthy

And now for Tim’s Takeaway.

Ruthy (23:32):

Hello and welcome back to Terrapin Small Biz Connection. I am Ruthy Kirwan, joined here with my cohost Tim Gillen. This is our Tim’s takeaway section of the show. Marsha has left the chat. It’s just the two of us now. And I wanted to talk with you, Tim, about our conversation with Marsha that we just had right now. And she brought up something really interesting, I thought in terms of how she runs her business and that’s all the different ways that she utilizes technology. Can you touch on that a little bit?

Tim (24:00):

Yeah, I think there was a really good almost lesson there for all of us, me included all of us. So Marsha got her real estate license in 1993. She said her first purchase was a computer. I was selling computers back then. And it was a little different buying a computer now was quite an investment and they were quaint and by today’s standards, of course costs a lot more money, took up a lot more space, all of that kind of thing. And right away, she got one and she instituted a contact management and a way to keep track of data. And this is long prior to being able to do electronic signing of documents and all that. Everything was still handled by fax machine and, and paper files. But the lesson there, I think the takeaway for all of us is that and we mentioned it briefly in the show, is that technology for the, for any of us, but especially for those of us in business is generally about spending time so that you can save time. It’s really what it’s about.

Ruthy (25:03):

I love, yeah. I love that. You said that in the show and I think such a smart saying. It’s a good way to put it

Tim (25:10):

Well, it’s, it’s unavoidable for all of us. Any of it takes a little bit of time to set up, but once you do it and if you’ll do it right and make it secure, all these things have to be in place. It’s a mammoth time-saver and what we always look for, for example, in any kind of a company, when it comes to data, you want to just touch it. If someone takes my name, Timothy Gillen, and my address and my phone number, my vitals, whatever you might want to consider that, and they want to put it into their system once and not have to type it eight times. You want to always be able to just deal with it once. So think of the time savings. That is, you set up a system where when a call comes in and you’re a real estate agent, and now you can just put in the name and the details of someone brand new, let’s say, and then you are able to track in there, the properties that you showed them, and then you close a sale.

(26:04):

And then they move into a property. Five years later, they want to move for whatever reason, downsize, upsize, whatever it might be, they call you back. Cause you took good care of them five years ago. This is what Marsha was talking about. And they say, hi, it’s us again. We want to think, and we want to sell this house and buy a new house. Marsha can now quickly go back without rooting through a bunch of files and notes and whatever else. And now when that phone call comes, she’s not thinking of the back of her head. Like sometimes we do as business people. This is great. I’m glad they call it buy. This could be a lot of work to dig out everything. I got go down to the basement and find the file. She has not think any of that.

Tim (26:40):

It’s all right there in front of her. Now we’ve, we’ve taken care of Marsha’s stuff for several years. She is all over using technology. We have everything available to her where she can be anywhere and see all of her files. There’s firewalls in place. She uses share sync to be able to use her laptop, which is out in the field. It’s been painless, but it took, it did take some time to set up. And so we don’t always look for it to be just magically easy because when it’s overly magically easy, it’s usually not as robust as you might want.

Ruthy (27:12):

And she’s utilized technology to set up that system. I mean, she said that from the very, from the very beginning, she used a computer. Even when everybody else wasn’t into the computer thing, she saw that from the word go, how much it could help her business propel her, how she could use technology to propel her business forward. And that’s what we always talk about on this show, how technology can propel a small business forward in ways that you might not even think about at first, but once you have that, that starting point, and she had that starting point of a computer and she was able to build out systems that worked for her business from that point. And I think that that’s why she’s been so successful and why she’s going to continue to be success. So successful is staying open to that, that technology propelling her business,

Tim (27:54):

I think exactly. And one of the things that any real estate agent will tell you how I know several, lots of paperwork and people don’t get into real estate because they like paperwork. They’re going into real estate because they want to get into real estate because they want to connect with people and help people and properties come together. And Marsha is a real people person, as you could tell, that’s what she’s there for. So the way that you, that you saw from the blow of that paperwork is through automation and through technology. That’s how you do it. And that way you don’t have to have at the end of every day after sit there for an hour and a half retyping, a bunch of stuff from notes that you can do at once when you’re out in the field and you’re done with it, it just helps you be a real estate agent more, if you just think about really, but it’s no different if you’re an accountant so different.

Tim (28:40):

If you’re an attorney, it’s no different. If you’re making widgets in a machine shop, none of that’s any different, the data part we want to deal with as little as possible so that we can actually use our expertise where people want us for. And again, any of us who got into the end of any business, whether it’s being a real estate agent or making widgets for the big three down in Detroit, we did it because we liked the other stuff, but the paperwork has to be done. And especially in real estate, there’s all the legal ramifications. It must be done. So to set up a system to minimize that and automate that, so you can go out and be a real estate agent. That’s a big thing. And that’s what Marsha has done.

Ruthy (29:16):

Well, I think that’s actually all the time that we have today to hang out, Tim. Let’s hang out again next week. Okay. Sounds good to me. Thank you. All right. Thanks. Have a good week

LISTEN TO THE OFFICIAL EPISODE:
BONUS MATERIAL:

Our guest this week is Tim Gillen, of Terrapin Networks. Yes- that Tim! He’s

taking a step back from co-hosting as Ruthy asks him about the early days running Terrapin Networks, what lead him to business in Northern Michigan, what his customers have to understand (as so many do) as far as the particular ways he runs his company, why he loves living and working up north, and the changes he sees coming for technology in the future.

Tim was an obvious choice as our first guest on this new season of our show. He’s been in the tech industry for over 30 years, which is no small feat in this day and age. His experience and attention to detail, as well as his innate understanding of how business and technology intersect, make Terrapin Networks a valuable part of the Traverse City economy.

For more information on Terrapin Networks, or to schedule an exploration call, head to our What We Do page.

Show Transcript

Tim Hi there, Tim Gillen here at Terrapin Networks, Traverse City, Michigan. Thanks for joining us for this week’s edition of Michigan Small Biz Stories. 

You know, I’ve been involved in small business my whole working life, even going back to my parents and grandparents.

And I’ve always been fascinated with those who start and succeed in running a small company. Small companies are special and, I’d say, largely overlooked. It takes a special person, a special team and a certain kind of grit to make it all work. And that’s what we’re going to talk about here each week on Michigan Small Biz Stories.

Together with my cohost, Ruthy Kirwan, we’ll have conversations with other small biz owners in Northern Michigan. And we’ll talk about the particular challenges and joys that come from running a business up here. Why did you start your business? What customers do you serve? How has your business changed since you started? What changes do you foresee? All that kind of thing, as well as the nitty-gritty, how policymakers might be affecting how you run your business and local ordinances, all that kind of thing, and do your customers and even competitors really understand what you actually do. That’s a good conversation to have.

 

It’ll be interesting people and interesting companies. We’re going to have a new one each week and Ruthy is going to introduce them. So let me turn it over to my cohost, speaking to us from Queens, New York, most weeks. Ruthy Kirwan. Hi, Ruthy, who we got this week?

 

Ruthy Hey Tim. How are you this week? 

 

Tim Very good, thank you. 

 

Ruthy  Good. I’m very excited this week. Uh, it’s our first episode of this brand new season doing Michigan Small Biz Stories and I’m pumped. So our first guest on this brand new season, this is somebody is a native, someone who is originally from downstate, grew up in East Lansing, moved up north at the age of 13, where they were involved in small business from a young age.

 

And then eventually in 1990 started a computer repair company in this small den in their house, on Front Street in Traverse City. This person, at the time, realized that computers were a game-changer for small businesses and that getting into the computer industry was a smart way to help small businesses succeed, especially up in here in Northern Michigan.

 

And over the last 30 years, they positioned themselves as a leader in the tech services industry in this area, has been a frequent guest on many, many years of WTCM NewsTalk 580, which is our parent station for this show, and has hosted a morning tech segment on TV7&4.

They’ve mentored students from the career tech center and computer studies programs at NMC as well as countless employees. This is just my little pitch here because – surprise!- our first guest is….you!

 

Tim Well you know, I thought that story sounded familiar. Didn’t hear all that before. 

 

Ruthy So let’s get into kind of the backstory of  Terrapin Networks, which we’ve touched on now a couple of times already. Start from the very beginning, you had mentioned that you’ve got grandparents and parents and that small business has really been present in your entire life. So can you go back and tell me a little bit more about that? 

 

Tim Yeah, actually. Growing up as a youngster, we were down in East Lansing and Lansing. My father was in professional services did not have a small business, but my grandparents did on my mom’s side. Growing up then my grandfather had a company down in Niles, Michigan.

Who did TV and appliances, back when t was common to have a particular store that did that. He had actually started a store in the late forties, Gimbel’s Department Store. They sold a lot of people into the fifties there, in that neck of the woods, their first TV, because that was when TV was just coming out.

He was right in there at the forefront of moving from radio to television, which was kind of a big deal. And he had a long history in retail prior to that. 

Then we moved up North here. My father bought a marina out on Glen Lake. And we moved our 6 kids, I’m right in the middle of all those siblings, up to Glen Lake.

I went to high school at Glen Lake and we had a marina, a small business, and I worked there from the time I was 13 until one of my older brothers and I ended up being in the process of purchasing it from my father. And then we all sold it in 1982 and I got another small company.

I was a Snap-On Tools dealer. 

Many of those listening who know me, know that I drove around one of those trucks and sold tools to mechanics. This was largely in the automotive field, but also in that marine field, and engineers and factories and that kind of thing. And this is part of the origin story for Terrapin Networks because I got a computer system in the mid-eighties in order to run Snap-On. 

 

Ruthy In order to run your business

 

Tim Yes, exactly. I was one of those early adopters. They had had a couple of companies that had come out with a system, in the mid-eighties, for those of us who were Snap-On dealers, to computerize. And so I got involved in it with a system that was so quaint by today’s standards.

It was basically what’s what was referred to then as a ‘Turbo X T’. It wasn’t even an ‘A T’, it was an old ‘88 processor. Which is, for those nerds out there, we’re talking early PC days. And it had a handheld unit not unlike what UPS and FedEx use now, very similar, that kept all your inventory.

And then at night, you sync that with your computer back in your office, though an old school modem connection through a DB9 connection, just really old stuff, that would transfer all their transactions you’d made during the day. And everyone’s updated inventory and then transferred over to the main thing.

Then when you receive stock and they put on your truck, you put it into the inventory and it was a process actually worked quite well. And it became really obvious to me, that that was going to be a big deal in small businesses. I just saw it as what was, to me, just a really obvious next step.

 

Ruthy What led to the transition of moving from Snap-On into Terrapin? Was there a moment where you thought, you know what, this is where I want to take the direction, or was it kinda more gradual? How did that happen, moving from a retail-style business into the little baby that Terrapin Networks was when you started? 

 

Tim Well, that’s a really good question. I started to do more and more on the computer. I started to add a bunch of programming to the system. I started working with these guys down in Memphis who sold that system, helping them make some tweaks in the software,  and I just realized that I really liked it.

All my friends who were other Snap-On dealers would spend the weekend working on their dune buggies and their race cars, which is what most of us gear head types are doing, because I’m absolutely that too, but I just found myself every night and every weekend screwing around with my computer. I saw I hadn’t had a knack for it and really liked it, and seemed to pick it up pretty quickly.

Even the programming, the electronics part. I had been interested in that type of thing going back to high school and at our marina. I just really came to the conclusion over a couple of years that my future was probably going to be in this. 

And then part of the origin story, a lot of people know this, they’ve heard me talk about it over the years as usually happens, especially happened a lot back then, my computer broke.  My hard drive broke. 

 

Ruthy On the computer that you used for your business. 

 

Tim Exactly. And so I had a backup, I was fine there, but I was otherwise out of business. My handheld will only store so much info. Don’t forget, this as the old days. So I could go for a few days with it without transferring it, but that was it.

After just a few days got really clunky and the balances would be out of whack, and the inventory would be out of whack. That was the whole point of syncing every night. So I had taken the computer over to a local computer shop.

There were only a couple of them in town back then. You took your stuff over to them. 

 

Ruthy Just physically took it in there.

 

Tim That’s how it worked, carried it all over and say, okay, this is broken. You fix it. And for several days, I just couldn’t get an answer out of these guys. It was just really obvious to me that they didn’t get that this was really crippling my company. They were just tech guys.

They were like, we’ll fix it. Yeah. And the thing that stuck in my head, if you asked what was the thing that really keyed it in for me at that time. I remember standing at a payphone booth. Again, this is in the late eighties. And I call them and ask, Hey, any progress?

He goes, No, we haven’t gotten to it yet, man, we will, don’t worry about it. 

I said, Oh man, I’m really stuck here. I’m on, you know, this is day four or whatever it was. I‘m completely getting to the point where I won’t be able to even run my business here, man. I mean, can you give me any better updating?

He said, Buddy, we all got problems. I’ll get to it. I told you that. 

And I just hung up like, Okay. These guys just don’t get it. 

 

Ruthy So it was like a crystallized moment for you. They didn’t understand the importance of this computer to your business. And whether they understand it or not, they don’t care. It’s not important to them. 

 

Tim I don’t know if they didn’t care. I would think it’s more like what you said the first time. They really didn’t get it. As so often is the case in business, so many successful companies, someone figured out here’s this one thing – we’ll say it’s A, and here’s this other thing B, and if I can make these two things work together better, I could probably have a company.

And sometimes people are really good at the A, or they’re really good at the B, but they don’t get the way the two might connect. But that’s what I saw. I was dealing with small companies every day. I could see people who really understood how to run a small company. These guys on the tech side were probably really good at fixing computers.

They were probably really good at running a computer company as far as to the degree that what their job was to do was fix computers, but there was a particular need here. That was pretty obvious. That someone to bring those two things together might be kind of a big deal because these guys didn’t get it.

It was just obvious to me. It just occurred to me, man, if you can make sense of both ends of this. Wow. And I knew right away to me, what was interesting about it would be on the business side. I wasn’t even interested at the beginning of doing consumer stuff. Now we did some of that over the years in the early days. Cause we were many things in the early days. 

But it’s very different when you can’t run your business, there’s a whole different feel to what that technology actually does and what you might use at home. When things don’t work at home for a few days, it usually doesn’t stop everything. When things don’t work in the business and payday’s Wednesday, or you have to get those checks out to your vendors by Thursday or they don’t ship on Friday, that’s kind of a big thing. 

With anyone who runs a small business, there are all these deadlines that you’re very used to working with, all these timelines you’re used to working with.

Again, the payday payroll has to be sent to the payroll service people by Wednesday, if they want to get paychecks on Monday, all those kinds of things have to stack up. And so you get really used to those kinds of deadlines and timelines. They might be seasonally based. They might be just a regular week.

You get used to that. And so your surface vendors have to be willing and able to dial into that for you. So if you’re running your business, you don’t care about the other guy’s deadlines. I mean, you’re thinking of your own deadlines. Hey, listen. My, my pay time has to be in by Wednesdays, if I want to get people, their paychecks for Monday. That becomes a big deal.

 

Ruthy What did you have then that you don’t have now? How has the business changed in the last 30 years? 

 

Tim Well, the business has changed of course so much because technology has changed. The kind of stuff that we needed to do is drastically different. Well, it’s the same thing. Only different, I guess I’d say it that way.

 

Ruthy What do you think that people, your customers, people who are looking at your business from the outside, what do you think that they might not realize about what Terrapinn Networks does as a company? How do you think that their perception of the business is, compared to the way that you run your business really internally? How do you think that people perceive your company?

 

Tim To be fair to our customers, especially our longterm ones, they actually really understand this. Because what we do, we do a lot of stuff behind the scenes. We really push that. You don’t want a relationship with your tech guy where you just say, I’ll call you if something breaks.

That’s a disastrous thing to do. If you’re interested in that, I don’t do it. And what’s more, if that’s what you do, you really need to get some education. I get really blunt about it. If you’re a small company and you’re doing that, you better be really good at technology. That’s a really silly thing to do. I just really believe it because I’ve seen it blow all sorts of companies up.

All tech people will complain about this, everybody thinks that what we do is just what any knucklehead can do it. I’ve loaded software. How hard could it be? And you know, any profession, thinks that. Any accountant thinks Yeah, you knuckleheads with TurboTax. You think you know what I know. Any doctor thinks that Great, you went out to web MD and now you’re telling me how to do your knee replacement surgery. Any professional deals with this, especially now with information out there, like it is. But that’s true for us too. 

There’s a whole lot that we do that actually matters that may not affect the end-user experience. And it really matters. And so we keep an eye, we do server updates manually. We do them every month, we monitor firewalls and antivirus and stuff daily. I have people who put eyeballs on all this. Every day. We send out this elaborate system for alerts of things, with all our different companies that are all set up differently. And by companies, I mean, our customers, that are all set up differently because each company has their own gig and their own corporate culture and we fit into that. We do a lot of things behind the scenes with backups with things that nobody cares about until they really need to care about them. And that’s a big part of what anyone who does what we do does. If they’re any good at it, they will put the time into it and put the resources into it.

We tech types are famous for, if something breaks, where we’re good at fixing things. I like to say when there’s smoke coming out of the back of it, we’re great. But some of that grunt work that has to be done to monitor and make sure that the backups and do a restore test on the backup on a regular basis.

In our line of work, it’s functionally the equivalent of mopping the floor. 

 

Ruthy It’s unsexy stuff. 

 

Tim It’s kind of unsexy. It’s kind of grunt work, but boy, if you don’t do it, you’ll pay a price, you know.  We make a mistake sometimes as a business owner, when we think of technology, that if I can not write the check, that’s a win.

“If I could spend $0 million this year, that’d be awesome. This stuff has always cost me money, it’s driving me nuts. I just want six months where I have to pay anything.:” It just doesn’t work that way. 

I like to say, you would never hire your staff that way: “Okay. Here’s a check for 40,000. I’ll talk to you in a year, stay out of my way.” That doesn’t work well. You pay monthly, you pay them twice a month, you’re involved in reviews. You’re involved in what they do. You want to help them get better. You want to make sure that they’ve got the tools they need to get their job done.

And technology is part of that. It’s kind of a living breathing thing that needs a lot of care and feeding, even in a small company, especially so in a small company, as well as a large company.  Large companies, however, as a whole, will have a tech department. If you’re in an accounting firm with seven or eight accountants, you’ve got some CPAs, you’ve got some junior accountants, you’ve got some support staff, they all have different roles.

 

Ruthy And that’s really the concern. Isn’t it? Because you know, a shop like that is clearly not the size of, say, Haggerty, where they would have their own chief technology officer and people working underneath them. They might not be big enough to be considered by large tech system service companies who are looking for a bigger account, like an MSP, but they’re also too big to have the 18-year-old down the street be doing their technology. So Terrapin slots into that opening there. 

 

Tim Yeah, absolutely. That’s that really is what we do because, and we were this for a number of years, too, I mean, to be fair. An MSP, as a managed services provider, it’s a thing in my line of work, it means you basically support device. You have sales team sales staff, often called an account manager, whatever it might be. And your whole thing is to get seats. 

 

Ruthy Butts in seats. 

 

Tim Yeah, as often referred to as “seats” in the tech industry. And for those kinds of companies, anyone would rather have 40 seats than four.

 

Ruthy Right.

 

Tim And they’d rather have 40 seats of a single 40 seat, then 10 of four or four of 10. And what ends up happening is if you have 4, you have 10, and they’re really not interested. They’ll take you. But man, you’re an afterthought. They are geared towards getting 40, 60, 80, 120 seats.

Those are where they try to supplant the internal IT department. And it really becomes difficult if you’ve got eight or 10 or 12 employees, I’ll say, computer users, you might have more employees than that if you have a shop floor, delivery staff and that kind of thing.

So it’s not necessarily headcount completely, but it’s certainly, we’ll call it computer users. I mentioned a factory might have seven or eight employees, but there’s 12 or 15 that are using computers in the office and maybe a couple out on the factory floor. And that’s it. It’s really difficult to find someone who will actually pay attention to you at that size.

Or, you can find the person working out of the back of their car, which is fine, a one-person show as we call them. That’s fine. But those people tend to be kind of overwhelmed, and they don’t have the time to actually chat with you about that new software that you might want to look into.

They tend to be much better at putting out fires. And as I say for the small business owner, that’s not a good way to go. So what’s on the other end? You’ve got a large outfit that wants 40, and you’ve only got 8. So they’re not really interested. They’ll take care of you, but you can tell when you call that you have a different person every time, because that’s all those companies are built. The “manage” really comes from that same phrasing we use in healthcare, which used to be called “managed care”. Isn’t used as much anymore. But it essentially means, let’s keep all the costs down by treating everybody the same. And so what I used to say about managed care when it comes to, you know, the same with managed services provider, the whole point is to keep the cost per device down to a bare minimum.

Well, with Terrapin, we support your staff, the devices are really secondary to us. You may have, depending on the staff member, 3 or 4 devices, depending on iPads and laptops they take when they’re out in the field, any number of things, but we’re supporting users, not devices. Devices are part of it. We protect the devices.

We have utilities that protect the devices, but what we’re really looking after is the people.  Because that’s what makes your company go. It’s your staff. And so if you’re keeping all the pricing down by doing this managed stuff, it becomes like that lousy managed care.

Now managed care is great for the insurance people. If I’m the person writing the check for grandma’s care, that’s great that it’s managed care and I’ll keep the cost down. But if it’s my grandma who needs some health care, I’m going to want individualized. It’s really great if you’re in the insurance company, it’s not so great if that’s your grandma.

So this concept of the managed services where I was starting from is very common now, that’s historically how you grow a company that does tech services. That’s how you grow. It is by getting seats. And man, you’re not going to get very far if you’re taking on a company that has 8 people. So we found this middle ground. In the last five, six years here, especially, we have decided, you know what, we’re going to forgo those 40 and 80 seat factories. I turn them away. We get the requests but I don’t even talk to them. We used to do a lot of municipal governments, for years, they continue to reach out to us and we just don’t do it. We do only small companies, because man, that is a forgotten chunk there. Again,, if you’ve got eight, 10, 12 computer users, you don’t have many options. You’re largely overlooked by the big guys. And the small guys are hard to even get ahold of, so you end up being the dispatcher because you have to call them so often to get ahold of them. So we sit in this middle spot where we bring a pretty high level of sophistication, but all designed and built for a small company, and priced for a small company. And the neat thing about now in 2020, as we record, this is a lot of stuff that wasn’t even remotely available to us even five years ago, for small companies, is all this that’s available with the industry that you’re in now, cloud-based, etc. 

 

Ruthy You can work on companies all over the country, all over the world, if you wanted to, but really focus your attention locally. What do you think are the particular challenges, joys about staying up here to run your business? Why do you continue to focus largely on Northern Michigan? Is there a particular reason that you stay? When your business could expand anywhere,  you choose to stay close to home. 

 

Tim Yeah, that’s true. And, and, you know, I’m like a lot of us up here, I live up here cause I like to live up here. And I could have moved my company or expanded on to Grand Rapids or Southeast Michigan, and we’ve had several opportunities to, and I’ve never actually done it. Because we love Northern Michigan and there’s a particular type of person up here and there’s a particular type of small business person up here.

It takes a particular kind of grit, particular kind of persistence, to run a business up north. We have seasonal issues here that can be kind of crushing. We have long cold winters sometimes. We have years like this one we’re in now, where the seasonal people are really getting hurt because of the coronavirus pandemic, what challenges are they going to have?

There are very particular things to northern Michigan. And then how that affects the rest of the economy, even whether it’s tourism adjacent or within the tourism instance. A lot of our customers up here, a lot of the companies we support up here, have their own customers downstate. So we have a lot of very particular set of circumstances because of that.

And the type of people who are up here tends to really like the outdoors. That’s one of the reasons we’re up here also. A lot of hunting, fishing, outdoor boating, activities that people are involved in, hiking, skiing that is a consistent thing we found with our customers.

Not everybody takes part in it, but most seem to. So I find there’s a particular set of circumstances that we have. Our cost of living is such that some places are crazily expensive and some places aren’t. We’ve got rural issues with internet connectivity. That’s become a challenge that we have to deal with a lot. 

And so a lot of our Northern Michigan has particular challenges that make that just a little more difficult to work with. And yeah, the winters get a little long sometimes, into April, that gets a little tiresome. I’ll be the first to admit that. But my goodness, we love the winter generally. We’re skiers from a long way back, used to do that professionally before we started this business.

So I don’t have a negative feel for it, It’s a net positive thing for the winters. There’s nothing more beautiful than driving across Northern Michigan on a site visit after a big winter storm. It’s just, it’s gorgeous. You gotta have a vehicle that’ll do it. So we have a little higher expenses there for all of us to deal with. 

I like the resiliency of the people up here. We tend to have a very high resiliency. And don’t get quite as shook up about things like some folks might in certain parts of the state or the country. We get our share of challenges just living up here because we’re off the beaten path.

And it’s beautiful and all that, but, but we don’t all have the economic opportunity up here. Any of us can make more money working downstate. We all know this. Even people who have done quite well know that they could probably do better if they want to put themselves in the middle of Southeast Michigan or Grand Rapids any of the larger population areas. But we live up here for a reason because we will make some of those trade-offs. And I like that. The people that we work with, I like that. It fits well with my own personality. And always has. 

 

Ruthy If there’s one main takeaway that you want people to take away from our conversation today, about how you run your company, what do you hope that they would take away from that? 

 

Tim My work in life, even back in the eighties, was revolved around my having a business that was working with other people who were in business. Even when I was selling tools to mechanics, they were free agents in a way that’s they were buying their own tools.

I just found that that collaboration is huge. You can really do a lot in a small company when you collaborate with the right vendors. When you treat them like a vendor, like just some mule, who’s supposed to do their job and you’ll give them a check and they’ll get out of your hair, that doesn’t work. I have just found the people I’ve had the most success with on both sides.

Even the people who work with my company too. I have vendors too. I have accounting firms. I have all sorts of things that we have to work with. That collaboration means everything and that when you can connect with a person and let them in a little bit. And so that the two of you can get better because people who want to work with you want to work with you.

We’re afraid we’ll spend too much if we let them in. And I think that’s a mistake. And the takeaway I have found is the people who don’t do that, who are willing to collaborate, get a lot more done.

 

Ruthy Well, I think that’s all the time that we have to talk today, Tim, we’ve covered a lot of grounds. Thank you so much for being our first guest on our brand new show! If you’re interested in learning more about what Tim and his team can do for you over at Terrapin Networks, you can head to terrapin.tech on the web, or give them a call at231-941-2100.  

We’ll be back with a new guest next week. If you were interested in being a guest on our new show here and having a chat with us about your business up in Northern Michigan, send us an email at small biz that’s bizz@terrapin.tech. Yeah, thanks again, Tim, and have a great week. Okay. Thank you so much.

Tim I appreciate it. Bye-bye.

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