Running an e-commerce business on a single network without backup is like flying a single-engine airplane: If that network goes down, you're out of luck.
Yet many e-commerce businesses do it, and 75 percent of them fail in part because of these network snafus, according to Gartner Group Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based market research firm. Fickle e-customers have innumerable options and often head somewhere else if a database or Web site crashes.
In the past two years, TimeBridge Technologies Inc. of Lanham has turned this problem into a $100 million-a-year business -- offering to make sure that its clients' networks don't overload or fail.
Two years ago, when TimeBridge started, "we had no revenues, 25 employees, and we didn't have any direction," president and chief executive William S. Strang said. But the staff "had a pretty good vision for the network side and database side" of the business, and "we were at the right place at the right time and some of it, quite frankly, is luck," he said.
Revenue went from almost zero to $39 million last year, and TimeBridge now employs some 200 engineers. Strang said the sheer thrust of Internet-company growth and the inability of many companies to maintain the personnel and technical know-how to keep up with the pace of change means that his company's revenue will continue to skyrocket, to about $200 million next year. "The marketplace is insatiable," so the firm will be able to grow at least 100 percent annually over the next three years, Strang said.
The worldwide market for network consulting and maintenance is about $8 billion, and is widely expected to increase to $25 billion in five years.
TimeBridge has two functions: In its consulting capacity, its staff designs and installs networks for Internet and data systems with alternative routing. The company also closely monitors the health of those systems by installing a box-like device that checks their performance by measuring the volume of traffic or data, and the memory used.
In each of TimeBridge's five regional offices, computer screens that look like airport flight arrival monitors are watched over by techies employed through the night to keep track of those networks. If any of these systems is in danger, the monitoring device alerts the regional office and information is rerouted through an alternate network until the problem is solved.
Many Fortune 100 companies maintain their own technical staffs to accomplish this task, but many more companies are finding that it's more cost-effective to outsource the information technology design, networking and maintenance, Strang said.
David Sykes, executive vice president of nStor Technologies Inc., a San Diego-based computer hardware seller, contracted with TimeBridge for network maintenance eight months ago. A network outage lasting several hours used to cost the company $300,000 to $500,000 or more, he said, but since TimeBridge started monitoring the networks, the company hasn't had a single failure, he said.
Sykes, who is looking to increase nStor's online sales from 40 percent to more than 70 percent in the next few years, says growth would not be possible if he had to rely on his own technical staff, because turnover is high. "It was way too much -- what they took with them is the infrastructure knowledge," he said. Now TimeBridge takes care of the bulk of the system, so the company has fewer worries, he said.
Clients no longer tolerate Internet downtime, said Barry Carney, vice president of VWR Scientific Products Corp., a scientific supplies distributor in West Chester, Pa., that signed up with TimeBridge two years ago. "All of a sudden, our customers are expecting us to operate our Web site like our database, which is always up, always functional," he said. "Our customers in the scientific community are already plugged into the Internet," so a reliable Web site is all the more important.
TimeBridge is the lone division of Sylvest Management Systems Corp. left out of a buyout by Federal Data Corp. of Bethesda in June 1997. TimeBridge is still a private company, but it will go public by the fourth quarter of next year to grow more quickly, said Strang, who owns the majority stake.
Les Rosenthal, TimeBridge's regional sales manager, said the company grows basically through a symbiotic relationship it has with computer behemoths such as Cisco Systems Inc., Oracle Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. It not only resells these companies' hardware, it gets most of its clients -- such as nStor and VWR -- through referrals from them.
Cisco accounts for about 80 percent of the company's business, Strang said, and most of the growth next year will be because of that relationship with Cisco.
Now Rosenthal, who used to have spare time during his day two years ago to worry whether the company was on the right track, works overtime. On his desk are containers of peanuts and candy for stamina to keep pace with incoming client calls.
A Look at . . .
TimeBridge Technologies Inc.
President, chief executive:
William S. Strang
Revenue: $100 million in 1999; $200 million projected for 2000
Branches: Richmond, Denver, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Lanham; will open in Tysons Corner in January.
Source: Company reports