The information technology field is full of unexpected beginnings, from Bill Gates dropping out of college to launch Microsoft, to Mark Zuckerberg inventing Facebook while living in the hallways of Harvard. Ian MacRae’s journey began in its own unexpected way, right here in the Valley, in a local Parks and Recreation Department’s VCR Repair Class. From the very beginning, he was hooked.
As Ian graduated from repairing used VCR players to hot-rodding computers on a budget (building them inexpensively and from individual parts, but with cutting edge graphics and gaming abilities), an ethos began to develop. Soon, he was surrounded by tall stacks of thick paper catalogs, filled with computer parts and possibilities.
Ian was a people person, and he began accumulating a high school circle of IT friends and programmers. He became the charismatic salesman, with a large “brick” cellphone. In between high school classes he’d conduct IT support calls for clients all over the Valley. He remembers these days as the “Wild West of Technology,” where information trumped age and innovation became more valued than experience.
Today, Ian’s company E-N Computers holds the tagline “Unexpected Solutions.” Perhaps what is most unexpected is their comprehensive nature: from IT consulting, to running a help-desk, to cloud and video solutions, to fully managed IT services for firms looking to outsource their IT department, E-N Computers covers all things technology, all over Virginia and the DC area. From their outwardly humble headquarters in the Basic City section of Waynesboro, they oversee satellite offices in Charlottesville, Harrisonburg and Midlothian, Virginia, as well as inside the beltway of Washington, D.C.
Yet, one has the feeling chatting with Ian that perhaps the most charming part of his solutions is that they were unexpected even to him. His journey from Parks and Rec to Innovative Entrepreneur has been, every step of the way, an adventure in stereotype breaking, experimentation, and surprise.
High Tech in an Industrial Town
Ian shares that being a high-tech business in Waynesboro, where the façade of industrial buildings mark an economic history of traditional manufacturing more than the modern edges of today’s cutting edge technology, can feel incongruous. He acknowledges that his location can make it harder to find a critical mass of large customers within a tight, local radius, and finding sub-contractors for larger contracts often requires going out-of-town and into new markets. But he’s quick to add that these challenges are also part of what has shaped E-N Computer into a stronger, more dynamic company.
“We must be very horizontally integrated,” says Ian. “As a result, when we go into the DC market, we’re tighter, better, more integrated than our competition. All our services are under one roof. That’s because we’ve had to figure out how to do it all ourselves.”
Waynesboro’s industrial buildings, reimagined and reused in his hands, have provided exactly the type of home that E-N Computers has needed in other ways as well. “Waynesboro has price points where it becomes possible to experiment,” Ian says. “We’re also the size of community where you can play, and where you can begin to have a real, unique kind of impact.” Like many of Waynesboro’s industries, brick facades from an older era hide modern, cutting-edge technology that is fueling their growth and development.
The Art of Innovation
Play and experimentation seem to be the hallmark not only of E-N Computers, but also of Ian, his buildings, and the full expanse of his life philosophy. “I’m always asking how to break the rules,” he says.
This mentality makes it hard to pin Ian down. Certainly, he’s a computer programmer and an entrepreneur, and in nice slacks and a button-up shirt it would be easy to end the bio there. But he’s also an instigator of art and community, with his buildings serving as ground zero for the Virginia Street Art Festival. To visit E-N Computers is also to partake in a living museum of art, graffiti, and creativity, born of his own desire to bring new energy and vitality to a side of the tracks too often forgotten in Waynesboro. He is as comfortable talking experimentation and innovation as he is in sharing his continued role as breadwinner, caretaker and now employer of both of his parents. While many of his peers might prefer labels of pioneers or trailblazers, Ian fits no more easily in the box of avant-garde than he does of traditionalist. He stands as his own blend of them all, a confounding and inspiring blend of heart and intellect, continuing to look “past the mirror, and around the box to check.”
Lessons for Fellow Entrepreneurs
Ian is quick to encourage fellow entrepreneurs to play, to innovate, and most importantly to understand the rules of an existing system in order to rewrite them while building something new. “In my era of technology,” he says, “you could pop the hood and see what’s going on underneath. The scary thing about where technology is today, you can’t pop the hood on Google. Experience is increasingly curated, and we are increasingly unaware of how it works.” As with many of the apparent challenges in Ian’s life, here too lies opportunity.
As technology changes and clients increasingly need help not only on technical installations but also on understanding the horizons of the possible, Ian wants E-N Computers and others to be able to respond to this changing landscape. “Set your own standards,” he says. “Get things in writing. When the customer wants to do things the wrong way, push back.”
Also, “Be ready to change.” 1997 and 2007 were both “retail bloodbaths” as demand dropped and cash flow for many of his clients tightened. These challenges yet again proved to be opportunities for transformation, becoming part of what moved E-N Computers from retail into a full-spectrum, managed-service provider.
Perhaps most comforting of all, Ian offers a patient reminder not to be too harsh on ourselves as business owners. While admitting that he tends to motivate himself through a unique style of “constructive negativity” he’s quick to affirm that we are often doing better than we know. “It’s easy to be insecure (about your age, your lack of formal education, whatever it is) when you’re not seeing inside others work. It has often only been when I’ve taken over other’s contracts, to pick up where other firms left off, that I start to see that our team really knows their stuff. You have to drive very far to find someone as driven and responsive as our team.” For entrepreneurs going through change and challenge, these are the lessons that are worth remembering.
For more information on E-N Computers, visit them online at http://www.encomputers.com And of course, check back often at GrowWaynesboro.com for new profiles and updates from the entrepreneurs across our city who are hacking, growing, and reimagining our local economy.