Chon Nguyen, 30, was always interested in computers. In high school, Nguyen found a way to transform that passion into a job. He started slowly, fixing printers and connecting PlayStations. Thanks to a growing demand and a natural knack for networking, he turned those odd jobs into a business. Now he balances Digital Aspire, his own company, with a startup, 212 Digital, that partners with some of the area's top restaurants, including Lee Roy Selmon's, PDQ, Tijuana Flats and Carmel Cafe. Nguyen spoke with Tampa Bay Times staff writer Caitlin Johnston about how he went from in-home techie to the startup founder.
How did you start your computer business?
I started in high school. I got a certification when I was 16 and started doing some consulting with some people my dad knew. And then after I graduated high school, I started writing an article in World of Westchase, which is a neighborhood master planned community, and the developer of that neighborhood read that article and said he needed some help. So I started working with that group, and they were actually the group that was doing some of the downtown redevelopment stuff. I did IT work with them and sort of just started building clients around that. I started off doing a lot of home stuff and then transitioned into what we do now, which is more commercial managed services.
When you say "home stuff," what sort of things were you doing?
That would be like fixing grandma's printer. Spyware removal. Any sort of general "your computer's broken, I'll come and fix it" kind of thing. So I started off just myself and then had a couple people working for me and now there's three of us at Digital Aspire.
How did it develop from this in home, one-on-one with individuals to now working with corporations?
I think just sort of building the business at Westchase, it lent itself to a lot of people that own their own businesses. So they would say, "You know, do you do commercial support?" And that's just a much better gig. Once that floodgate opened, that's pretty much all we do now is commercial support.
What are some of the biggest differences transitioning from individual work to commercial support?
We do managed services, so a lot of our stuff is contracted, so the revenue is a more recurring, predictable cash flow, as opposed to that sort of "break-fix" model where we're just waiting for the phone to ring. We do a lot of proactive support. When we're under contract, we're able to just have a better relationship with our customers. We probably take on fewer customers, but the revenue's larger so we can give them better support and attention.
What sort of work are you doing with restaurants? It sounds like it's really going to change how restaurants operate.
Yeah, so I have three different companies. Digital Aspire, which is the managed services. There's three of us there. I have 212 Digital, which is a company that a buddy of mine and I have formed that's basically an application development company. Our main product is an iPad application, and it allows multi-unit restaurants to manage their recipes and bills. It's like a digital kitchen solution. We mount iPads in the kitchen, so the culinary staff is able to make changes to their recipes and then have it all in synch across the different units. They can print food safety labels from there, and all their training videos and photos are available on the iPad. It's like a paperless kitchen solution.
Where did the idea come from? Was it something you came up with from being around the kitchen or was it something they asked for?
They were on paper, like many kitchens are, and they just said, "There's got to be a better way." So we just started iterating it. The first version was very simple and kind of just a quick go at it. We saw there was an opportunity and we built on it.
What are the two of you hoping to achieve on a larger scale with your startup?
We're just trying to create a digital kitchen solution. Take it to completely paperless. Now a multi-unit restaurant, when they're doing things like checklists and prep sheets and things like that, because it's not digital, they don't have a good retention policy. We're able to archive this data and give them above-unit insight into issues and problems that may arise. So if a manager in a location that's kind of far away is consistently having issues prepping an item, they're able to communicate that above store. And then they're improving consistency too. So even though they may not be able to get into every kitchen all the time, they're able to distribute this material in a way that's kind of new and unique.
Now that you've done something in the food industry, can you see coming up with solutions for other industries?
Yeah, certainly. One of the reasons why I like what I do is because it allows us to be involved with a lot of different vertical markets. Hospitality is something we're seeing a lot of growth in. But we have doctors, lawyers, manufacturing clients, too. We're really broad, with a lot of different business that we get to impact. So we see a lot of opportunities there.
What has been the most complicated part of moving from home-based to commercial support?
I would say it's actually a bit less complex. It has simplified things, just from a business standpoint. There's a lot less when you get into the small- to medium-sized businesses and even some of the larger companies we do work for. It allows us to put different controls and processes in place that actually make our life easier, as opposed to with a home user, you don't know what you're walking into.
What's the funding side of things like? Have you ever gone through the process of looking for investors before?
I've been self-funding it with my partner. It's new ground. I lean on a lot of my customers that have done that in the past and have experience there, so I kind of bounce ideas off of them. I've been able to find a lot of really valuable mentors. People who have done this sort of thing. And the nice thing is, they're open to giving advice. Any time I run into questions, I have a handful of people in my inner circle I can bounce ideas off of.
Normally when you hear "startup," the average person thinks Silicon Valley and California. How friendly is the bay area to startups?
They're doing a lot of exciting things downtown. They have the Tampa Bay WaVE center, you know, the startup incubator. I would say when I travel to San Francisco or even New York now, their scene seems to be much more developed and there seems to be a lot more infrastructure to support startups. I haven't been super active about pursuing it, that's just my thoughts on it. But there certainly seems to be a lot of talent around here.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.