With data breaches filling the headlines and digital technology shaking up many industries, IT remains a top priority for many business leaders. Robert Cioffi has been on the front lines, guiding hundreds of companies in the TriState area on how to navigate the fast-changing world of technology as COO and cofounder of Yonkers-based Progressive Computing.
The company, which has a satellite office in NYC, was founded in 1993 by Cioffi and business partner/CEO Ugo Chiulli and has won many fans with its approach over 25 years. Along the way, the firm has grown to 28 employees and is on pace to break $4 million in revenue in 2018 while turning a profit.
One secret to the firm’s success has been nurturing long-term relationships with its customers, typically organizations with 10 to 125 computer users. “We have some customers who have been with us since the mid-1990s,” says Cioffi, citing Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts as one example.
Cioffi believes part of this comes from a shared cultural tradition. “My partner was born in Italy,” explains Cioffi. “My parents were born in Italy. Relationships are very, very important to us. It wasn’t just ‘Let me come and fix your computer.’ I genuinely care about providing you with a service.”
Progressive Computing started out as a two-man firm and remained that way for its first five years of existence, with Cioffi and Chiulli personally serving every client. They met as students at Charles E. Gorton High School in Yonkers but really got to know each other as undergrads at Iona College, where Cioffi and Chiulli both majored in computer information science. “We ended up in every single class together for the last four years,” says Cioffi. “That’s where our friendship started to develop.”
Both men had a knack for computers and discovered they shared the entrepreneurial bug. During school, they picked up side projects, like writing computer programs and helping people set up new computers. “Being a computer whiz-kid meant you were sometimes sought-after,” says Cioffi.
After college, Cioffi got a job with General Electric Capital as an associate systems engineer, while Chiulli served as a computer technician for the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). About three years later, they decided to go into business together. “We pooled the handful of customers we had on the side and started the company,” says Cioffi.
Setup for the business was pretty simple. They invested about $15,000, to cover costs like office equipment, computers, and software, then set to work. “My first business card didn’t have an email address on it,” recalls Cioffi. “You communicated via phone or fax.”
Their one big startup expense was a laser printer, which cost $5,000. It was a luxury item at the time, but they needed it to print their proposals. “I guess it would be like buying a 4K TV today or a high-end electric vehicle,” says Cioffi.
“We’ve probably gone through five iterations of our company over the past 25-plus years. What we were doing five years ago isn’t necessarily the same thing happening today. If you don’t keep up with change, you’ll find yourself being replaced.”
—Robert Cioffi, COO and Cofounder, Progressive Computing
The duo quickly discovered that even when they combined their clients, they didn’t have enough business to sustain themselves. It wasn’t a sound business plan, Cioffi confesses: “It was fueled by confidence and optimism.”
To drum up sales, the partners turned to advertising in The New York Times. “That and word of mouth were really how we started to build momentum over the first couple of years,” says Cioffi.
Still, the cash took a while to flow, and the company struggled for a few years. They kept costs down by operating from Chiulli’s basement in Yonkers. Within a year, the two moved into extra office space at their accountant’s office in the same community, helping him out with his tech needs.
“One hand washes the other,” says Cioffi. “When you’re twentysomething, you do what you have to do to make it happen.”
The two stayed in that office until ’95, then moved with their accountant to a new building in Yonkers, where they rented space for about 15 years at a “friend’s discount.” Today, being larger than ever, Progressive Computing has moved into space on Smart Avenue in Yonkers in a building that Cioffi and Chiulli own.
“Our company has always been in Yonkers,” explains Cioffi. “There’s a pull to keep the business here.” The nexus of roadways in the area makes it easy to get to customers around the Tristate area, he explains.
As the business gradually gained traction, the founders hired two employees, now their senior technical account managers. The company took the same approach to building strong working relationships with employees as it did with customers. “Those two individuals are still with us today,” says Cioffi.
The biggest challenge facing Progressive Computing throughout its history has been how quickly technology has changed. “It’s constantly moving,” says Cioffi. “You have to develop a stomach for the ability to adapt and change almost at a moment’s notice.”
Early on, for instance, the company shifted from writing software, as off-the-shelf programs got popular, to focusing on providing IT services instead.
“We’ve probably gone through five iterations of our company over the past 25-plus years,” says Cioffi. “What we were doing five years ago isn’t necessarily the same thing happening today. If you don’t keep up with change, you’ll find yourself being replaced.”
Today, Progressive Computing acts as a managed service provider, offering B2B IT services to clients for a flat monthly rate that provides recurring revenue. “We’re your virtual IT department — everything from a help desk to a chief-technology-officer-type of service,” says Cioffi. “We’re an extension of our customers’ businesses.”
As anyone who follows the news would imagine, Progressive Computing is fielding an increasing number of questions on cybersecurity. “Now that people have become completely dependent on technology, this dark side of hacking and malicious activity on the Internet has raised an alarm among our customers,” says Cioffi. “They realize they can’t just leverage technology as a strategic advantage. Now it becomes a liability if it is not being managed well.”
As the Internet has become more important to reaching customers, Progressive Computing has invested in online advertising, such as Google Adwords. But the company hasn’t abandoned analog-era methods of evangelizing about technology, which brings in business. The firm has been very involved in the Business Council of Westchester, where Cioffi wrote a column on technology for the organization’s magazine from 2003 to 2009. “Over time, your reputation starts to build, and you’re who they think of when they think of technology,” says Cioffi.
Cioffi also does public speaking about his areas of expertise. “I forced myself to bring the human connection to technology,” he explains. “That’s the thread I use when writing or presenting. My objective is for you to walk out of a room with a better understanding of technology, in a way that doesn’t frighten you.” (Or, if it’s a cyber security matter, he says, “I want to frighten the heck out of you!”)
Given the risk of burnout among entrepreneurs, Cioffi and Chiulli are big on work-life balance. They have focused the business on taking a proactive approach to clients’ technology, so emergencies are kept to a minimum, and their team doesn’t have to be on call 24/7.
“My life is not defined by my business,” says Cioffi. “Business is a component of my life. If it means I’m working 24/7, I’ll shut the whole thing down and sell hot dogs on a street corner in Manhattan.”
There are no signs that it will come to that anytime soon for Progressive Computing. The founders’ minds are brimming with future plans for advanced security-monitoring services and educating technology users. “The world of IT security is only getting more complex and dangerous,” says Cioffi. “The way you respond to that is additional strategies, tactics, and best practices. It’s really a collaborative effort.”
Freelance writer Elaine Pofeldt is a frequent 914INC. contributor.