Old Dog Learns New Tricks

Silicon Valley / San Jose Business Journal – by Becky Bergman

Robert Douglas, president of PlanetMagpie, is used to hearing people talk about his company’s co-founder; after all, she’s cute, loyal and gives great kisses.

The co-founder happens to be PlanetMagpie the dog, the executive’s 11-year-old black Labrador who earned her title at the Web site design, Internet hosting and back office integration firm by putting in long hours of companionship during the launch eight years ago.

Stuck for a corporate name at the time—Mr. Douglas wanted something fun and comfortable compared to a techno title—PlanetMagpie seemed like a natural winner after his accountant suggested using his new puppy’s moniker.

Although she earned her retirement in 2000 when the IT consulting firm achieved profitability, she still attends corporate sponsored events and photo shoots.

As her celebrity status grew with the addition of each employee and client, the dog also served as a mascot for a corporate culture that emphasizes the dog-like values of loyalty and energy.

In exchange for frequent parties and the freedom to bring their dogs to the Campbell office, the company’s 23 workers adhere to a stringent set of customer service guidelines, which Mr. Douglas attributes to the firm’s success—and its recent accolade as one of the fastest-growing private companies in Silicon Valley.

“Customers with a network in a down state don’t understand the term quitting time,” says the 45-year-old executive. “PlanetMagpie employees make sure the customer is up and running and happy before calling it a day.”

Mr. Douglas is determined to expand the company and hang on to his customer service values at the same time. He’s already transformed the $2.8 million firm from billing systems startup to a profitable one-stop Internet and Intranet networking service.

Although Mr. Douglas named the company after his dog, the corporate version actually came before the furry version.

PlanetMagpie was born out of an electronic billing systems service that Mr. Douglas started in Mississippi during the early 1990’s after college. His firm, InterWare, Inc. recruited 10 developers and implemented or revamped billing systems used by well-known companies such as GTE, America Online and MSN.

At one company, NetCom (acquired by Earthlink), Mr. Douglas was responsible for streamlining the companies billing system so it could process its accounts in one weekend instead of the one month that it was taking.

Amid the Internet’s explosion, Mr. Douglas says his clients and their homegrown billing systems could no longer keep up with the substantial subscriber growth.

It didn’t take long for Mr. Douglas to sniff out an opportunity.
“I threw some clothes and my servers into my yellow defender and drove out to California,” he says. “I wasn’t about to miss the second Gold Rush.”

With six of his developers in tow, Mr. Douglas launched PlanetMagpie as a way to expand his services to include a full-spectrum of Web products.

Being obedient to his core values hasn’t always been easy for the father of three.

In the beginning, Mr. Douglas fought off the urge to spend money the company didn’t have. He used $100,000 from his savings to get PlanetMagpie off the ground and didn’t take a salary for the first four years.

“One of the biggest mistakes I see people make when they start a business is to spend money they don’t have yet or spend money they do have too fast.”

The internet bust tested his resolve again when it prompted many companies to slash their prices. But Mr. Douglas held steadfast to his beliefs and didn’t waver when it came to customer service, for which he believed many were still willing to pay top dollar.

Despite economic ups and downs, the executive has always kept an ear open for clients.

“If you listen to your customers, they will tell you what they need,” he says. “I learned that delivering newspapers at 13. Always listen to your customers and treat them right.”

Trained as a computer programmer—he earned a computer information systems degree and an MBA in New York—Mr. Douglas got his start working nights doing “grunt” work such as filing and coding. From there, he went to work for telecommunications firm Skytel, where he was inspired to launch InterWare.

Now Mr. Douglas has growth on his mind. Last year, Microsoft bestowed the company with its Gold Partner status, making it part of an elite group—only 1 percent of its partners around the globe achieve the gold status.

The company is on track to double its sales this year. By 2010 he hopes to triple the firm’s sales and expects to have 50 workers.

Although Mr. Douglas has his hand in every facet of the business, he recently hired a recruiter who will oversee employee growth. It is part of his plan to step back and let the company go the success route without Mr. Douglas and still achieve the things he conceived.