Radio interview on Dublin South FM with Robert Phair of COSD

As appearing on Business Eye with Padraic Marren

Interview transcript

Padraic Marren00:00... introduction omitted ...

Padraic01:30 So, moving on to our first guest today, Robert Phair of Computers of South Dublin; welcome to the Business Eye.

Robert Phair01:35 Hey, this is Robert.

Padraic01:37 Okay, first of all, Robert, what exactly does Computers of South Dublin do?

Robert01:42 Well, our business is two-part; the first of two is a computer consultancy for homes, home offices, and small-to-medium enterprises. We focus on an educational approach to problem solving and teaching our clients what they're getting into with computers and how to get out of difficult problems, how to maintain self-sufficiency in the long run.

The second aspect is design services for professionals, business and organisations; trying to allow businesses to reach their ideal customer, through online services like superior web design and online marketing. We have a summary of these services on our Computers of South Dublin web site, cosd.com.

Padraic02:24 And what was your background before forming it?

Robert02:26 Well, I started with computers young, back in the seventies, in 1977 I wrote my first computer program, computers were very simple and a bit like toys back then. As I grew up I watched network services for computers grow up.

I got my engineering degree at the University of California, Berkeley near the Silicon Valley where the risks associated with computers were still very new. It was 1988, when I started at their computer systems department, there was a major virus attack, pretty much the worst at that time up until then, maybe the worst we'd ever had, when computers all over the world were brought down for 3 or 4 days.

I was involved somewhat in that emergency response and continued to learn in that environment for a few years after that, doing similar work for companies in the Silicon Valley like Sun Microsystems which brought us technologies like Java and MySQL, things that a lot of today's Internet is founded upon. I relocated to Boston a few years later and worked at Harvard Business School, using Internet technology to supplement the educational services there.

Padraic03:46 That's quite an impressive background, the university at Berkeley, the Silicon Valley, and Harvard; that must have been a very exciting period in the eighties and nineties for you.

Robert03:55 It was, watching the Internet develop. The interesting thing about my career is it actually coincides at all times with the development of the Internet. When it became something that everybody used, it was a process that I actually got to watch. I've had an email account for 25 years, I was an email administrator for a college and then some large companies after that, so it's been a wonderful experience having worked through all those growth stages & being able to bring this to my clients today.

Padraic04:22 So what led you to form a business here in Ireland?

Robert04:25 Well, I moved to Ballsbridge after I became an Ireland resident about 10 or 11 years ago, and there are a lot of business owners in that community. Many of them, I found out, didn't know who to trust about computers. It started out by making consulting services available just to fix their immediate problems, hoping that if I just got their attention, by being a reliable source, then I might be able to interest them in some of the work I'd been doing in online marketing, and setting up computer services and more fully-featured web sites, in a way that wasn't well-known in the community at that time.

Since 2005 when Computers of South Dublin was established, it's been a matter of building up since then, trying to introduce every individual service that a small business, a home-based professional, or a family computing environment might need.

Padraic05:17 Your web site is quite a detailed web site, very well laid out, let's break it down into separate services, let's concentrate on home services. What exactly can you provide in this area?

Robert05:29 Well, we try to get quick solutions on the spot for software and networking problems, and there's a phone number on our web site that people can pretty much call out of the blue, although we do get a lot of repeat business.

For most of them we're able to offer an educational approach to solving their problem... I assume, usually correctly, that people want some idea of what's going on with their computer when they're in the midst of a crisis. Many times people end up dropping a computer off at a hardware repair place when there's actually something wrong with the software, and they can end up getting into a lot of trouble.

They might not realise that it's more convenient generally to call a software expert or consultant, and have them in the house where they can see everything that's happening, when they don't have to worry about getting back a computer that they don't recognise at the end of the day, or paying to make superfluous changes. They can see how their computer can grow and change over the years that they keep it, and hopefully continue to be a lifestyle improvement instead of just the burden that many people feel it to be.

Padraic06:28 To carry on with what you're saying there, if you've got software problems, don't bring it to a local laptop shop that specialises in hardware?

Robert06:38 Yes: try to get the hardware experts to pay attention to the hardware only, and then treat the software as something that you'd like to develop as part of an ongoing relationship. When someone is changing the software on your computer, you should have a pretty clear idea of what they're doing and where it's going.

Padraic06:52 Right, that's home services. Let's have a look at another area of your web site, that's business services. What can you provide for businesses in Ireland, and what advantage do you have over your competitors?

Robert07:04 Well, in addition to all the things that people might expect from a home computer, we have all these issues happening on business desktops as well. When you're as we do for small businesses, you'll see that businesses have often grown out of people's spare bedrooms and whatnot, they're starting on a low budget.

When they have an issue that they need to face such as "How do I do this?" "How do I publish that?" "How do I get around a certain technical limitation on the computer?" our services are available in very small increments without support contracts. We can get in to fix their immediate problem and demonstrate long-term solutions that don't involve them spending a lot of money.

The classic mistake that we've seen many Irish small business make over the years is putting thousands into a dedicated piece of computer hardware, like a Windows server. There are a lot more options available today than people realise: the computing services that you might get from such a big, expensive, difficult-to-maintain box can be had from something like Amazon Web Services - that's the basis of their cloud computing offering - so they can start & operate at much lower costs.

Padraic08:10 An interesting section of your web site is called Articulated Web Design, what exactly is entailed in this?

Robert08:16 It's articulated meaning flexible, like an articulated lorry: imagine that most web sites you get these days are fixed like a car, it's designed at a certain point by a web designer according to certain specifications, and a business owner might continue to operate that web site for a long time without changing a word.

This is a loss of opportunity for business especially as they need to compete in the recession, because even if they're not bringing in new products and services all the time, then there are new customer messages they need to be bringing in all the time. This means the business manager, or whoever's maintaining a web site for a business, needs to be able to put up new pages quickly, put in new words & phrases that get their pages to the top of the Google rankings, and allow them to introduce advertised pages very quickly.

Padraic09:10 That's Articulated Web Design... something else that's been talked about is responsive web design. Is that "multi-platform?" I mean, I want to make this accessible for listeners here, what I mean is "on a number of different platforms," mobile, like a phone, or a laptop, fixed?

Robert09:30 I'm actually really happy that you heard about the term responsive web design because it hasn't really made the mainstream in Ireland yet. There are designers all over the world that have been dealing with various ways of taking the classic problem of "putting the ship back in the bottle," or whatever analogy you use for it... web sites are bigger than generally fit on a mobile phone, they tend to be wide and the screen on the mobile phone tends to be narrow.

So it's a difficult but not insurmountable challenge to have the web designer come up with something with a little bit of flexibility in it, if you just think of it like that folding ship: the columns disappear, and the things on the web site line up in straight lines, the web links turn into nice big fat buttons for people to press on their mobile phone screens, and you have suddenly a pleasurable experience for a web site visitor to see your business web site.

This actually maintains your customer engagement with the about-fifty percent of Internet traffic, the browsing type of traffic, that's coming through on the mobile phones, and you're basically introducing your web site to a captive audience if your web site is mobile-ready. That's the essence of responsive web design.

It's such a new thing we've only been doing these types of designs for the first time this year, so if anybody has specific enquiries you can go to the web site (cosd.com) and send a request and I'll personally answer it for you.

Padraic11:00 OK, That's an interesting area... what do you provide that your competitors can't?

Robert11:05 Well, in addition to the responsive type of web design, content management is another basis for our web offering... like I said before that businesses need to create their own pages relatively easily.

We've been able to make content-managed design, for which we use the Joomla software (which is more extensive & powerful than WordPress which business tend to outgrow) work well on a mobile phone, while developing web sites with good organisation that allow new copywriting fairly easily, and new pages to be introduced as your business needs them.

Padraic11:48 Right, online marketing, this is a huge area. I get people coming on this show saying to me that "the recession is happening offline, not online." We know that advertising has been seriously hit on radio and TV, but online advertising seems to be going up. Is this where it's at?

Robert12:06 Online advertising is going up, and that's the reason for it. The question is, where's the competition happening? The large companies that sell to perpetual consumers are not really having so much difficulty in the recession, but we have seen a lot more competition among the smaller businesses; we have a greater number of small businesses competing for less opportunities.

People need to buy into an advertising platform very quickly, and that's where the Google AdWords programme comes in. Pay-per-click ads are offered by other web services, but Google makes it cheap and easy for you. We help our clients maintain their Google AdWords accounts, to get started with ad campaigns that correpsond to the categories people would find on their web site.

They end up with a whole system that works really well together: a package of Google Ads that point to a package of pages in their content management system that works well on the mobile phone: there's a strong link between those on-the-go audiences and the flow of ideal customers coming into such a web site.

Padraic13:14Internet publishing: what is involved in that and what exactly are the advantages that you can provide?

Robert13:20 Well, we've introduced the idea of Internet publishing on our web site just based on popular demand. I had a number of clients that had manuscripts kicking around, that either didn't know what to do with them, or things like theses or bodies of technical articles, that they wanted to see in print but didn't know what they could do besides bring it to an Irish printer, to get a bunch of books that they didn't know how to sell or even give away.

People don't realise how easy it is to get their material on Amazon. For the people that don't think they can handle the technical and design issues, we help people produce their written material (hopefully edited by someone that can edit the words) into a good-looking paperback layout. This gets uploaded to Amazon and then it can be sold all over the world.

Correspondingly, I'm sure people have heard about e-books: the same manuscript can be distributed on the Amazon Kindle platform and then reaches e-readers all over the world. So people end up with links where people can buy their original work, and the whole process can be done in a couple of weeks.

Padraic14:27 One thing you stress on your web site is Linux: you seem to be a big fan of that, more so maybe than Microsoft, is that true?

Robert14:33 I admit it's for personal reasons; I've been involved in the development of Unix and open systems since the 1980's. Linux was a blessing that came along in the nineties because it finally gave people a low-cost, well-rounded alternative to Microsoft Windows. If people feel like Windows has let them down for one reason or another, it gives them something else to do besides complain.

Where we come in is helping people make the transition. Ideally we'd like people to understand how to live with the best of both worlds, and Computers of South Dublin has been on Linux for all of its own business operations for about 18 months now, so if people are saying that Linux is "not ready for prime time" that means we're the counterexample to that rule, so it can't necessarily be true.

If our clients were to contact us about a Linux support issue, we'd be able to demonstrate a solution based on our own workflow. For everything you might need Windows for, there's a way to do it on Linux that we can talk you through, and there are many things that you can do on Linux that you could spend a lot of money on software to do on Windows, whereas they come with Linux right out of the box.

So it's something worth any business to investigate, especially creative professionals, engineers, software developers... anyone who produces more than they consume.

Padraic15:53 Right. Cloud computing, it seems to be a term that's bandied around, so first of all explain it, and what can you provide in this area?

Robert16:00 Thankfully Amazon itself, the big provider of cloud services in Ireland, has made it easy to do more than bandy around. They offer a Free Tier of computing services where you can get a fully functioning web server type of computer that you can connect to from your home or business computer so you can see how your software runs on it.

Cloud computing, for those who may be new to it, is availing of any computer resources that aren't on your local computer or network of computers, so you access it over a broadband connection (ed: see Google Apps). You can start it off with no startup costs, you can pay for it as you go, by the hour, by the chunk of disk space.

For businesses, this means you don't have the expense of creating a brand new piece of physical stuff in order to manage either your inside-company IT services or the presence that you're maintaining over the Internet for your customers.

You can get things little by little, and we offer hourly consulting and training, so in the course of a morning or an afternoon we can actually set you up with a cloud server. You can see whether or not it'll work for you, as well understand the migration issues, and most of all the security issues, to know it's safe for your business operations.

Padraic17:24 Did you find it difficult starting your own business here in Ireland?

Robert17:27 Not so much the business aspect, but personally the immigration issues were maybe a little bit more difficult than they needed to be, with due respect to the Irish government! A couple of times it seemed like I might not have had the opportunity to stay in this country and create this small business which has been beneficial to a number of clients in our community.

These are things that a lot of people realise are happening: particularly when small businesses need to hire people with expert skill sets, they're not always from this country. The premise of the new Open Ireland initiative—which we've been supporting from the beginning, and which you can find more about on openireland.com—is that the technical jobs, if people are allowed to come into the country and support the IT marketplace, corresponding jobs, they say as many as 4 of them per technical job, are created in the process and I believe that would be a good thing.

Padraic18:20 Does this stem a lot from The Gathering and other events that have been happening? Trying to make maximum use of the diaspora from Ireland, do you think?

Robert18:29 Of reversing the process? Some Open Ireland supporters think that the population of Ireland should double...

Padraic18:35[laughter]

Robert18:37 ... well, there are a lot of issues that are related to the idea but maybe they're more social than business!

Padraic18:42 What advice would you give to new start-ups?

Robert18:45 Well, it's all about getting the first customer, and a couple of times in my entrepreneurial career I've learned this the hard way. You've got to focus on only the expenses during that startup period that are going to lead to that first stream of revenue, that first identified customer that appreciates your product, service or business presence enough to be able to pay for it.

So, try to postpone the vanity expenses and limit all the other costs, particularly the "fixed" cost of computing, that conventional idea of the Windows server, the big sexy new computer that sits in the office or in the cooled-down room of your small business. Try to get something like a cloud server that you can start up at no cost and pay for pennies at a time, and hopefully delay the decision to get your Windows server indefinitely... and if it's on the way out, let it go out and replace it with a cloud server.

Padraic19:37 Robert, what are your hopes and aspirations for the future?

Robert19:40 Well, the main thing would be open-mindedness about some of the concepts like cloud computing. There are conventional, and some would say defeatist, arguments about how the security problems are intractable, or whatever, but some of these may be coming from vested interests. I'd like to see the Irish public more accepting of the smaller person's point of view.

Linux is another example: people still don't realise how open systems are a viable alternative to the ones that come from the software monopolies, and I think you're going to see that more and more in the business community. And we're happy to lead people in that.

And responsive web design: look at the web through your mobile phone and decide if that's the way you want your web site to be, and know that you can always get help from the responsive web designers that are now becoming available in our Irish community.

Padraic20:34 And finally, your contact information for listeners?

Robert20:36 Our web site, again, is COSD dot com, and my name is Robert Phair with a P.

Padraic20:52 And on that note I'd like to thank Robert Phair, of Computers of South Dublin, for appearing on the Business Eye.

Robert20:56 Thanks, Padraic.