As a communications consultant in the U.S. Air Force, Ivory Robinson traveled the world before settling in D.C. He had no intention of launching his own IT business, much less locating it in Buffalo. However circumstances and a chance visit led him back home.
That visit led to him becoming the founder and CEO of HarpData Solutions in 2016; the company is an information technology (IT) consulting and advisory firm.
Robinson grew up on the East Side of Buffalo and joined the U.S. Air Force after high school. He became a communications consultant, and honed his technical skills. His Air Force training led to a number of opportunities in civilian life.
“After traveling the world while in the Air Force, I settled in (Washington) D.C. , and started my business. But it wasn’t going as well as I’d anticipated it would,” he says. “So, I took a trip to Buffalo, to see what type of client base I could establish there. Surprisingly, Buffalo was very receptive.
“Coming back and seeing so many of the changes that have been made really got me invigorated about the city,” he adds. “Also the level of networking that we were able to do and find some large clients made it a no-brainer that Buffalo was ‘calling’ me.”
Robinson believes Buffalo is unique for startups because there are so many programs designed to help them. Not only does New York State require state contracts go to minority, women, and disabled veteran-owned firms (Robinson is both a minority and a service-disabled veteran), local networking opportunities and expertise are plentiful and of high quality, he says.
The day he visited Buffalo, he met with a representative from Erie County Medical Center, which offers classes for small companies going through the process of becoming certified minority-owned businesses. Robinson was able to quickly get certified and start landing new clients, thanks to the direct assistance he received.
HarpData has also received support from the Beverly Gray Business Exchange Center. Staff there set Robinson up with networking opportunities and organizations such as the Buffalo Purchasing Initiative. This gave the firm an opportunity to pitch to large clients including Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Wegmans, the University at Buffalo, ECMC, and Moog.
Success for Robinson means providing customer satisfaction and earning repeat business from clients.
One such client is Hector Rosas, head of economic development for the City of Dunkirk. Rosas engaged HarpData when he wanted to improve data collection around festival attendance, in service to multiple goals, including further increasing attendance at their waterfront events, marketing and promoting their events, and applying for funding to support their efforts.
“It’s been wonderful working with HarpData and CEO Ivory Robinson,” says Rosas. “They supplemented Dunkirk’s small IT unit, with apps, equipment and expertise. They advised us on the purchase of a drone, taught us how to operate it, and also shot and delivered video footage for us. With that collateral and information, we can apply for grants and sponsorships.”
With a growing roster of clients and projects, HarpData’s revenue has increased exponentially. Robinson says, “We had 2,000% growth from 2017 to 2018. And we're now at over 100% of what we did last year. So the growth is huge.” Even so, Robinson isn’t ready to declare victory; he feels there’s still much to be done.
HarpData’s fast rise has brought its share of challenges.
Funding remains an issue; he started with self-funding, and despite multiple applications, has not yet found an investor, whether a bank or other type of funder, willing to partner with him.
He will not be deterred; it only means that he continues to “inch” forward rather than the leaps he’d rather be growing by. With capital from some “big deals” in the bank, and 18 employees on his payroll, he is confident that the revenue from more clients and projects will keep the business running.
There are also outside challenges. “The largest issue we’ve faced up to now is not necessarily the skills of the competition, but the lengths that they will go to undermine us,” says Robinson. “Early on, seeking a collaborative opportunity to grow and learn with a larger company, I agreed to partner with a national firm that does the same thing we do—they had one large client in this area. But instead of helping us and working together, I felt they were dishonest and unethical—trying to take our employees and clients.”
He still sees the potential for partnering and collaborating, and emphasizes the core value of “sticking to it.” “I like to surround myself with people who are successful; it helps on many levels,” he says. “I can learn, improve and even, through partnerships, save money for our clients. With that attitude, we spend less time worrying about the problem and more time focused on the solution. So, when things come up, we continue to persevere.”
Robinson believes maintaining a positive company culture and good customer relationships help HarpData retain both talented employees and valued customers. “We continue to deliver for our clients, continue to build our great relationships, continue to build the trust amongst our clients and our partners,” he added.
Robinson admits to having made some mistakes, but says he’s learned from them—and vows to never make the same mistake twice. The biggest piece of advice he’d give potential entrepreneurs is to understand how much capital you need to start a business. Write a business plan and calculate your costs before you launch.
Robinson has ambitious plans for HarpData. “I want it to continue to grow, and I want to start expanding,” he says. “I want to be an IT superpower with a global presence—and I hope that someone recognizes the opportunity to partner with us as a positive force within the Buffalo community.”