Written by Jay Sanders | Photos by Anthony Harden
After Jeremy Littlejohn co-founded RISC Networks, the company quickly realized it not only could provide key IT services—it could create services that didn’t previously exist.
We live in a noisy world. Every single day, we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data. According to Vcloudnews.com, that’s enough information to fill 10 million Blu-ray discs, or four stacked Eiffel Towers if you were to pile the discs into a single stack. What’s more, 90 percent of all the data in the world has been created in the last two years. Big data comes from a lot of sources: posts to social media, sensors gathering climate information, digital cameras and videos, financial transactions, and email, just to name a few. We each walk around with a small computer in our pockets that is millions of times more powerful that all of NASA’s combined computing in 1969 when Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon. We’re storing the current GPS location of our cell phone, archiving all of our text messages, and recording the changes in stock prices, but how do we make sense of it all?
Jeremy Littlejohn, CEO and co-founder of Asheville-based technology company RISC Networks, has a vision of the future where taming, analyzing, and understanding big data will bring great value to enterprise companies and consumers alike.
RISC’s primary products and services include Solution Mapper, a one-time IT Infrastructure assessment for medium to large businesses that helps solve IT problems and plan for change; CloudScape, which helps organizations create and maintain an application-centric view of their IT environment (use cases include Cloud and Data Center Migrations, Security, Disaster Recovery, and ongoing performance trending); and IT HealthCheck, a turnkey, software-as-a-service IT Operations Analytics platform that allows businesses to help their customers improve reliability, scalability, performance and optimization of their IT environment.
We were the cool house (or something like that)
Growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, Jeremy’s first computer was an Apple Mac Classic II, the quintessential early Macintosh with the ¾” floppy drive on the front and the greyscale screen. As a college professor, his father was one of the first people to get a computer. While most high school students were still typing their papers on traditional typewriters, it was common for Jeremy’s high school buddies to congregate at the Littlejohn house to take advantage of the new word processing capabilities of the Apple. Not only did the computer have a printer, it also facilitated the easy cut-and-paste editing that we take for granted today.
Jeremy graduated from Nashville’s Belmont University in 1999 with a B.S. degree in communications and political science, along with aspirations to make movies. After a brief experience in film school, he returned home where he started picking up odd jobs in the video space. “One day,” remembers Jeremy, “this guy I know with a film production company called me for a gig at the Tennessee Walking Horse celebration in Shelbyville, about an hour outside of Nashville. I’m in the middle of the ring, and I’m the camera that’s working the jumbotron, which is really not that big; back then it was smaller than a modern TV. I’ve got my headset on, listening to the director. As the horses go around, I would zoom in, slide back, zoom in some more… all of a sudden I had an epiphany. I was filming a horse’s ass. I was done.”
That night he went home and started looking for a new career. “There’s nothing better than having a terrible job to get you ready to do something new,” he says. His brief career in video had revealed an affinity for computers. “I had a cousin in Texas who was one of the first Cisco CCIEs [Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert]. He worked in industrial grade computing, like plumbing. I called him, and I said, ‘What should I do? How do I get into this industry?’ So I bought some books, and I went to CompUSA and bought some used computers that had been traded in and started doing stuff in my closet, trying to teach myself and learn.”
Jeremy quickly got a job at Nortel Networks, refreshing leased computers from Dell, and eventually worked his way into the networking group. He was laid off in 2001 at the end of the first dot-com boom, and took a job in Connecticut where he met his eventual business partner, Greg Watts. “Greg was a proctor for the physics lab and had a computer science degree. He came right out and knew what he wanted to do, but I had to find my way there along the way,” says Jeremy.
Current State of Affairs
Founded on February 17, 2007, RISC Networks—which stands for Remote Infrastructure Services Center—was formed as an LLC by Littlejohn and Watts. They had been working at a small boutique agency focused on serving Cisco Systems’ clients, and when that Connecticut-based company was acquired, the pair formed a managed services practice with a recurring revenue model.
“At that time we had bought a commercial, off-the shelf platform to do this—it was called Enable,” says Jeremy. “At the same time, we started doing services for Cisco because we had some specialties around unified communications that weren’t available generally. We got some big clients like Aeon and some others through that.” Cisco brought larger projects to the table, including an IT assessment for Home Depot that covered more than 2,000 locations and all of the network infrastructure to support them. “This software would collect the data. We liked it because we could write our own stuff against it, like our own reporting. If you think about it, we were collecting the data, adding the intelligence, and then helping people consume it.”
While working on the Home Depot contract, RISC was pushing Enable well past its capabilities. Finally, Enable’s CTO contacted RISC and explained that their product was not designed for what Jeremy and Greg were doing. In fact, nothing in the marketplace currently existed to perform the data collection and analysis. Recognizing a hole in the market, Jeremy and Greg went back to the drawing board. Greg went into the lab and designed a whole new analysis product built in the Amazon Cloud, while Jeremy maintained the current business of professional services, consulting, and assessments. “We went through the process; it took approximately a year and a half to build the plane while we’re flying it. We would slowly introduce [the new software] into the running engagements. Then one weekend we turned it on, hoping that it would work, and it did. It didn’t work perfectly, but it worked. It was just a process. A process of figuring out what does and doesn’t work. Where you don’t have a solution [and] creating your own solution.”
RISC was approached by several large technology solutions providers such as CDW, Presidio Solutions, and ePlus that wanted access to the analysis platform outside of Cisco. This led to the creation of a SaaS (software-as-a-service) subscription model in 2012. “We created Solution Mapper and filed a patent on it. Solution Mapper is just a way of looking at the data that [the technology providers] could use, essentially creating a punch list of things that they could go work on with their clients. It is a way for them to get business from their clients, but also a way for their clients to get a list of items that needed to be fixed,” says Jeremy. Solution Mapper took off in 2012, firmly establishing RISC Networks’ role in helping other companies analyze and assess their technology infrastructure, and make recommendations for improvements.
RISC Networks is a firm believer in using its own products. As Jeremy puts it, “You’ve got to eat your own dog food.” RISC engineers work in the platform daily. It is common for them to work with their customers, looking for ways to improve an algorithm or any other things that will make the product better. Working alongside their clients, certain patterns begin to emerge. A lot of enterprise level customers need to improve their systems but are faced with the prospect of repairing and replacing physical servers.
Cloud Computing is the practice of using a network of remote internet servers to store, manage, and process data, rather than using a local, physical server, and has quickly become one of the most rapidly growing and cost-effective sectors of the technology world. Virtualizing a company’s technical infrastructure has many advantages. With CloudScape, RISC Networks has created a powerful platform that automates and analyzes the transition from traditional data centers to modern Cloud computing.
Explains Jeremy, “We see two types of companies making the transition. Those where Cloud is a strategic piece to their business, adding a value that doesn’t have anything to do with the cost. Whether it costs less or more is not really relevant; it helps them do something that they could not do before. Or, that in doing, was so cost prohibitive, that it never made sense.
“Companies who have a lease on a data center that is expiring, and they don’t want to renew the lease, or businesses that just acquired another company but can’t house them at their current data center, these are the externalities that drive this decision. We probably see today more of the second camp, people who have some issue they have to deal anyway, so let’s modernize—let’s do it the new way.”
I don’t look out past two-three years really. It is too hard to know. I would say that our current plans are to grow at least 100 percent year-over-year for the next few years.”
Jeremy sees the application as becoming the focal point of modern innovation, and RISC Networks is built around an application-centric view of the universe. We use applications every day on our smartphones and laptops. An application can be as simple as social media service Twitter, or as complicated as photo-editing powerhouse Photoshop. Although it is common for an application to rely on third-party resources, an application is most importantly a self-contained set of features and services. This allows applications to be portable and moved from one hosting environment to another with relative ease.
“People don’t move servers to the cloud, they move applications to the cloud. So how do we translate the world of servers, storage, and infrastructure into the world of applications? We spent most of 2014 and 2015 really honing in on how we could do that for people, at scale, on an automated basis. We’re typically going to go into a client that has 6,000 servers—some of which they’ve acquired when they acquired another company, and they really just don’t know what they have. It’s just all running.” CloudScape helps solve this problem by providing an automated performance and migration assessment, and creating recommendations to make the modernization of the company’s hosting needs a simple and easy endeavor.
In July of 2016, RISC released CloudScape 2.0. “CloudScape is our award-winning software, and the 2.0 version is light years ahead of where we were just 6 months ago. We are very excited about it and our development team, led by Greg, my co-founder, did an outstanding job improving on what was already an amazing product,” says Jeremy.
RISC Networks expects to double their revenue in 2016. When asked about future growth plans, he replies, “I don’t look out past two-three years really. It is too hard to know. I would say that our current plans are to grow at least 100 percent year-over-year for the next few years. We see that type of runway and we are small enough that we can get those multiples.”
The Nature of Problem Solving
Jeremy Littlejohn, and the entire team at RISC Networks, are constantly asking themselves “What do we do?” This question is not intended to refine the mission statement or craft a new elevator pitch, but rather bring focus to their day-to-day operations. Analyzing the organization of the company and how the work is performed keeps them relevant, agile, and able to deliver true value to their customers. “I don’t want to build a company that’s a one-trick pony,” says Jeremy. “We want to build a process that we can apply to any issue.”
RISC Networks’ signature value proposition is defined by the way they approach problem solving for their customers. While steeped in the focus of the IT world, this four-step process has a universal feel to it. Many businesses can learn and grow from the way RISC evaluates clients’ current situations and needs, and turns this information into actionable results.
[ Step 1 ] Collect Data
RISC Networks CloudScape software scans the network systems of a company’s enterprise environment, collecting as much relevant data about the health and architecture of the entire system as possible. “We have to go and be able to find information that people don’t know is there,” says Jeremy. “We’re IT focused, so how do we parse logs? How do we get performance data from different pieces of equipment? How do we abstract [all of this] so that doesn’t become a difficult thing for you?” During this process, it is possible for hundreds of millions of data records to be captured for analysis.
[ Step 2 ] Add Intelligence
What does it all mean? That is a lot of data; how do you make sense of it all? The core of RISC Networks’ intellectual property is applied intelligence, sorting through millions of data records and identifying patterns. RISC’s proprietary algorithms combine large data sets from multiple sources, finding the stories that heaps of information can uncover when viewed through the proper lens. The real value of the CloudScape application, and the true power of RISC Network’s services, is revealed when the beneficial intersections are used to highlight the mass of knowledge and make it relevant and usable. “The value that we bring to the market is really in the intelligence that we add to the data,” notes Jeremy.
[ Step 3 ] Make the Findings Easy To Consume
Now what? How do you deliver the discoveries in a useful, meaningful, and beautiful way, that is easy for the customer to consume? RISC curates the results, often eliminating interesting results that just obscure the real problem or add noise to the discussion. The organization also prides itself on its vivid and colorful infographics that isolate the important findings, making them understandable on a very human level. “We use color to help signify importance and criticality. The visualizations have evolved over several years and we continue to find new uses for shading as well as size and color. Mostly we experiment and see what we like when we go to use it. We develop products that we like to use and make sense to us as users. If we don’t like it, it won’t get built.”
[ Step 4 ] Provide Clear Solutions and Steps
The future for RISC Networks, Jeremy says, is in the action steps that the data analysis reveals. “The ‘do’ piece is something that we haven’t focused on in the past, but we are starting in the second half of this year. We’ll continue to develop the first three steps, collecting, adding, and consuming, but we have good processes and great teams in there. That’s just a matter of iterating over and over and getting better at it. The ‘act’ piece is one that we haven’t really done much of and now we are starting to say, ‘Okay, we want to enhance what we do here.’”
The ever-changing and evolving nature of technology is opening some interesting doors. The Internet of Things—the network of physical devices, vehicles, buildings and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity that enable these objects to collect and exchange data—provides fascinating potential for RISC’s iterative discovery process. “Greg and I are always looking for places that we can take that kind of intellectual property and apply it to something that is not just IT data. We had a conversation last night about what are the first things that we want to take our model and point it at that aren’t specifically related to IT. So we’re excited about that.”
Jeremy relocated to Asheville from Chicago (“It was a lifestyle move for me.”), where he had been running RISC offices in 2010, and one year later offered to move the rest of his staff to North Carolina. They started with offices on Coxe Avenue but quickly outgrew the space. Now located in a loft space above Olive or Twist in downtown Asheville, RISC currently employs 30 people with hopes of adding 15 – 20 more in the coming year.
“The business community has been great. When I first got here I didn’t know what was going on. Nobody knew about us which was fine because we were just doing our thing. I’m excited about the future since Josh Dorfman has come to town and [Dorfman’s company] Venture Asheville has really taken off… I’m excited about the enthusiasm people have. Asheville has so many fantastic people that either live here or work here. Getting them engaged in something locally is really great for Asheville.”
Jeremy is equally animated about the future and entrepreneurship. He is inspired by the impact it can have and the way it can affect the community. He defines success as being about personal and professional goals and how they change over time, but doesn’t allow entrepreneur blogs and how-to books to characterize him or his process. “Constantly trying to define success based on other people’s goals or metrics is a terrible way to live. For me, right now, success is sustainable growth at a rapid pace while staying true to our vision for the company. I think one good goal for founders is to work towards making themselves irrelevant. That is a goal of mine,” he says.
How many ways can you look at a problem and re-define it? Can we role play and find another solution? We have a lot of healthy debate internally.”
For people just starting new businesses there is no reason to delay. “Start today. Bootstrap for as long as you can and provide professional services to fill your revenue gaps. You have to be able to offer some value while you are getting your product or service off the ground. You can monetize services easier than products, so don’t be afraid to do that. It is also the best way to learn what should be in the product.” Most importantly, he says, “consult, advise, do the work yourself. Ask for help. Get mentors and advisors who can keep you from spending a ton of time making the same mistakes everyone else has before you. I have hired the wrong people many times. I try to get better in the process after each one, but you are always refining it.”
Jeremy also sees agility as being paramount to successful pivots and adaptation. Perspective switching gives a founder the ability to examine an obstacle from many points of view. “How many ways can you look at a problem and re-define it? Can we role play and find another solution? We have a lot of healthy debate internally. My co-founder and I have been doing this for nine years, so while we don’t know everything, we are comfortable with our decision making process.” For outside inspiration and guidance when making choices, Jeremy is a member of the local Vistage group led by Bill Tate. “Bill and the other members of the team are invaluable to me as I make decisions.”
When asked what he has found most satisfying in business, Jeremy’s tone is persuasive, yet contrary. “I think that being satisfied is exactly how you feel right before you go out of business. If you are satisfied you are in dangerous territory. Entrepreneurship is hard, and I have found I get the best results when I am working angry and totally unsatisfied.”
Jeremy Littlejohn and RISC Networks are excited about the future, and are building a sustainable business prepared to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of modern information systems and big data. His endeavors offer positive solutions to advance the technology and entrepreneurship community in Western North Carolina, and his words evangelize both the quality of life in our region and the extremely supportive business environment.
Concludes Littlejohn, “RISC Networks, and many other small companies in the area, are trying to build strong, stable, exciting companies here in Asheville. We are here. Come see us, and get engaged in our community like we are in yours.”
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