From modems to the cloud, company adapts
CHAMPAIGN — When Prominic.NET won the Innovation Longevity Award at this year's Innovation Celebration, it marked 16 years in business for the company — and an even longer run for Justin Hill.
Hill, the company's chief technology officer, was a partner in a business selling modems while in high school. Later, the focus of that business changed to software.
His current company, Prominic.NET, provides managed hosting and cloud computing services for businesses, as well as an array of other computer-related services.
In 2012, the company — which has data centers in Champaign and Rantoul — placed No. 4,212 on Inc. magazine's list of the fastest-growing companies in the U.S.
According to the magazine, Prominic.NET had $2.1 million in revenues in 2011, up from $1.6 million in 2008 — forthree-year growth of 30 percent.
Today, Prominic.NET's core business is cloud hosting for IBM applications, but the company is also helping clients work from anywhere, using virtual desktops.
To that end, it's launching STARTcloud, a platform that helps customers lower virtualization costs and eliminate the risk of losing data.
The business is also focusing on hosting services for clients that need to comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which requires businesses to guard the privacy of personal health data.
Both those moves into niche markets were calculated so Prominic.NET's sales wouldn't be gobbled up by big companies intent on making computer services a commodity.
At one time, Hill said, the company got many of its customers through Google. Now Prominic.NET finds prospective clients at trade shows and through community and social networks.
"There was once the illusion that everything (in forming business-client relationships) would be done online," he said. "But we find the most successful deals come from person-to-person contact."
Hill said 30 percent of Prominic.NET's clients are international and the rest are in North America. The company serves segments of Fortune 500 companies, as well as one- and two-person outfits.
But Hill said most of Prominic.NET's business comes from companies with 100 to 300 employees.
Prominic.NET has about a dozen employees on its payroll, with most of them located at data centers in central Champaign and in the former Chanute Air Force Base control and communications center on International Avenue in Rantoul.
The company has four divisions: customer support, data center operations, software development and engineering, and sales.
Though Hill has a background in software engineering, he devotes a lot of time to sales. The 38-year-old Savoy resident said he divides time between Champaign County and Santa Monica, Calif., where he tries to hone his marketing skills at Cross Campus, a collaborative co-working space.
His partner in business — Jon Schultz, the company's president and CEO — works from Burlington, Wis., a short distance north of Chicago across the Illinois border.
Schultz, 35, was originally from the Chicago area. He spent 10 years in the Champaign-Urbana area and decided to move back north when his first child arrived, Hill said.
Both got their bachelor's degrees from the University of Illinois — Hill in computer science in 1998, Schultz in computer engineering the following semester.
Prominic.NET spent its early days in the Technology Commercialization Lab on the university's agriculture campus south of St. Mary's Road in Urbana. That lab — which served as a business incubator — was a forerunner of EnterpriseWorks in the UI Research Park.
Prominic.NET moved to Savoy in 1999, and two years later relocated to Rantoul when developer Joe Warner offered the former Chanute office for an attractive price.
Hill was only in his early 20s at the time, but his business experience extended much earlier.
He remembers that when he was 7 years old, a woman at a garage sale made the remark, "Aren't you the little entrepreneur?" — to which he responded, "No, I'm not. What's that?"
By high school, he knew better. He and fellow student Andy Trick — son of Timothy Trick, former head of the UI Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering — formed a company, Frontier Technology Systems Corp., that ended up selling nearly $100,000 in modems in a year.
When modems began to get "commoditized," the company moved into software, establishing a Frontier Software website.
Another company claimed that name was taken, so Hill and Trick sought the counsel of Champaign attorney Sam Erwin, who advised them that contrived names are the most protectable.
They adopted the name Prominic Technologies and began building custom software for Champaign-based Traco Labs.
Hill said his passion for business kept him from devoting enough attention to his UI studies.
"I didn't want to let the business go," he said.
Hill ended up transferring to Parkland College and then returning to the university to finish his degree.
Later he adopted the Prominic.NET name for the hosting company. Recently, a separate company, Prominic UK Limited, was launched in the United Kingdom to work with clients in Europe.
Hill said he once tried to convince a collaborator to stay in business with him.
"If you stick with me, by 30, we'd be millionaires," he said.
But Hill said that wasn't in the cards. To remain successful in business, he said, you have to continually adapt to changing business conditions and you have to reinvest in the company.
"You never have enough capital," he said.
Prominic.NET could have sought investors to bankroll the company, but Hill said he's determined to keep the business independent and "not beholden to investors."
What it is: Company providing computer support services for small to medium-sized businesses
Services include: Managed hosting, cloud computing, data backup, disaster recovery
New offering: SMARTcloud, a virtualization platform that helps clients work from anywhere using virtual desktops
Data center locations: Champaign and Rantoul
Key leaders: Jon Schultz, president and CEO; Justin Hill, chief technology officer; Douglas Robinson, vice president, customer service
Employees: 12 to 15
On the Web: prominic.net; smartcloud.com