In business terms, the Internet got off to a bad start. Early lapses in online security led to rampant distrust of anyone conducting business on the web, and it didn’t take long for most online-only businesses to shatter when the dot-com bubble popped. E-companies, consequently, were viewed either as fly-by-nights or flat-out lucky.
So Mort Cohen can be forgiven a certain reticence about announcing that his office has gone entirely virtual. Cohen, founder and CEO of IPA, a software firm that used to be based at 303 Wall Street in Princeton’s Research Park, has given the news to some of his clients, but he is cautious about giving the wrong idea. He does not want anyone, especially his clients and potential clients, to confuse his business with the fly-by-night kind that plague Internet commerce and make splashy tabloid headlines.
Such conclusions are especially easy to draw where consulting is concerned. It is a common joke in business that if you don’t know what a company does it’s probably a consultant. And calling yourself a consultant is easy, which is what makes Cohen so antsy about how IPA is perceived. “Over the years I’ve had friends who aren’t working for the the employers they used to work for,” he says. “Some develop their own businesses, some go look for other jobs. But when people go digital it makes us sound like we’re not legit.”
IPA, however, is anything but fly-by-night. Its largest advantage is that the company has been around since 1979. Unlike start-ups that are introducing themselves via the web, IPA has 23 employees and a 30-year customer base that has known and worked with the company online for years.
Another distinct advantage is that IPA is a computer business. Long before the Internet — even before home modems and personal PCs — IPA was crafting and selling software for universities, pharmaceuticals, and governments worldwide. “For us, technology is where it’s at,” Cohen says. “Going virtual was a pretty natural outgrowth.”
Shedding the physical. The move from Wall Street to a virtual address began about a year ago when Cohen started taking stock of his expenses. Soon the trappings of a physical office became obvious — rent, utility bills, and insurance are costly necessities. Offices also demand that people be present, which means schedules must be set and employee travel time must be considered.
One day Cohen realized that more desks were sitting idle more often. His employees were working remotely anyway. About eight months ago, IPA left its physical office space for good. The transition, Cohen says, was seamless. Many clients, in fact, never knew there is no physical office for IPA.
For employees as well, the transition created no bumps, Cohen says. In fact, the staff that used to drive, on average, 30-45 minutes each way is now spending its former travel time making sales and providing customer service. “I’m getting an extra hour-and-a-half of productivity out of them every day,” he says. “Everyone loves it. They’re saving gas and they get more home time.
Embracing technology. IPA uses an intranet into which employees’ home computers are linked. But the Internet is still where business is conducted at large. Web technology not only allows employees to do their work more efficiently, it allows them to stay connected to everyone with whom they need to be connected. It’s not just efficient, Cohen says, it’s already translated into serious savings.
Consider IPA’s product meetings. Before the Internet allowed businesses to link up electronically, sales reps had to fly to offices many states (or even many countries) away in order to make presentations. Potential sales had to be substantial simply to justify the cost of airfare and accmomodations.
But today websites such as Skype, which provides live video telephone connections, and high-speed Internet connections allow that same sales team to give presentations from their homes or an office space to anyone, anywhere, at anytime, Cohen says. That itself has saved IPA tens of thousands of dollars a year.
Getting over it. Cohen’s decision to make IPA into a virtual office came with its share of emotional baggage. Besides worrying about how his company might be perceived, he says, he was worried about how well it would work to let his staff work from their living rooms.
There was the worry that his employees would spend their days doing laundry or walking the dog. There was the worry over where to bring active or prospective clients for a meeting. There was the worry about where to keep financial records. There even was the worry about how to make out business cards when no two people have the same address.
Cohen isn’t worried about such things anymore. When E-mail was first introduced to offices employers worried that staff members would spend all day writing their friends. Same with the Internet, which brought up fears that employees would be web surfing all day. Letting employees work from home was no different, Cohen says. But what has happened is that yes, employees are doing laundry and taking the kids to soccer practice, and it hasn’t mattered a bit.
Without a set 9-5 schedule, employees working from home tend to work not just more hours but more productive hours. And if they take two hours off mid-day, they now can meet up virtually with clients as far away as India and New Zealand whenever the clients’ schedule is best for them.
As for his personal worries, Cohen says he feared he would not have the discipline to wake up and shave and dress nicely for work without the structured office environment. Turns out he gets up earlier and does all those things anyway. And he doesn’t have to factor in a half-hour drive anymore. His advice for anyone considereing taking an office virtual is simple: Get over the emotional trappings and let go of the old ways businesses used to be run.
“When I started this business,” Cohen says, “I had dreams of having a tall office building with my name on it. “For the first 20 years, I insisted on a shirt and tie from everybody.” Eventually, he says, he came to understand that ties and fancy offices do not make a successful business. With the advantages of doing business in cyberspace — which he admits is slightly easier when your business is IT — the only reason to stay in an office is, for many companies, an emotional one.
How it works. “The volume of E-mail has quintupled,” Cohen says. With E-mail coming to the network, Cohen says he can check anything anytime, but it balances out because the amount of mail is so big.
Middle managers and department heads still oversee their own operations from afar, meaning that communications between staff has ramped up the amount of E-mail (not to mention cell phone calls) too. “My vice president and I are in very close contact,” Cohen says. Other members of the staff use BlueTooth, BlackBerry, and other wireless devices to stay connected consistently throughout the day.
Or night. Once, he says, he logged on at 8:30 a.m. to find three employees had taken care of a problem overnight.
Believe it or not, rather than creating a daunting electronic umbillicus, these connections have eliminated the need to wait for someone to come in and have all but killed the need for meetings. The only real meeting, says Cohen, is the lunch all employees meet for on Fridays. There, work is discussed and employees socialize, allowing everyone to check in and get back to their lives.
Lingering issues. Cohen is still unsure what to do about the business cards, but worries over meeting places and financial record storage have subsided — places to meet clients in person are available and records are stored electronically, remotely.
What Cohen is still trying to figure out is what to do about insurance. While under an office roof, there are certain necessary insurances — fire, theft, worker’s compensation. But with employees working out of their homes, do you need all those things, and if so, can they be modified? He has met with an insurance agent to discuss the matter but nothing has been worked out yet.
Cohen grew up in Trenton and has lived in Lawrenceville for the past 20 years. He earned his bachelor’s in 1969 from the University of Pittsburgh and a master’s in 1972 from Rider.
Cohen’s father was a newspaper advertising manager and his mother was a school teacher. But if his paents couldn’t teach him about computers, they taught him to be socially active. Cohen serves on the advisory board of Rider’s business school, is a vice president of the United Jewish Federation of Princeton-Mercer-Bucks, is a former member of the Governor’s Committee for Children and Youth, and is president of Chabad of Greater Mercer County,
Cohen also is on the development council for the coming Jewish Community Campus, an 81 acre center being built on Clarksville Road in West Windsor.
He began his computer career in the late ‘70s, when he worked for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice. That was about the time that Apple introduced its first personal computer. “When I first saw one, I realized that there was a business idea somehow related to them,” he says.
The idea was that Cohen would offer clients turnkey proposals — they would supply the hardware and his company would provide any required custom software, with the condition that his company would end up retaining the proprietary rights to any software that got developed.
“We found ourselves writing software for many different industries,” he says. “Over the years, as the company evolved the only product line that we focused on was providing software to laboratories doing preclinical testing in and for the pharmaceutical industry. We now have clients throughout the world.”
Innovative Programming Associates Inc. , 54 Traditions Way, Lawrence 08648; 609-924-7272; fax, 609-924-0875. Mort Cohen, CEO. www.labcat.com.