Brian Gill -From IT startup to 50 employees

Interview with Brian Gill from Gillware Data Recovery

Introduction:

In this four part series Jeff from TheTechMentor.com interviews data recovery industry legend Brian Gill, co-founder of Gillware Data Recovery. They are one of America’s leading professional hard drive data recovery companies. We also take a moment to interview Tyler Gill. We ask about his experience when he lost his hard drive data which lead to the business idea. Of course we cover hard drive recovery (a common interest) but there’s a whole lot more.

We cover topics like how they started a brand new business from scratch (to become Gillware Data Recovery with nearly 50 employees).

We talk about how important integrity is in business and to people he works with.

We talk about the computer hard drive recovery business in its early days and see how Gillware made a big difference to professionalism in the industry.

They disrupted others who were not so professionally minded, knocking them out of the industry with quality competition.

We ‘discover’ a university that seems to be generating a lot of computer and tech company start up success.  This is in line with our interest at TheTechMentor.com to help computer industry experts and computer techs start their own IT business from the ground up.

Let’s get started!

Gems for anyone interested in starting their own business!

TheTechMentor.com found Brian Gill to be an intense yet humble man who when prompted at a kids sports game might only say he “does computer stuff”, preferring not to get into how he and the Gillware Data Recovery team have sculpted one of the leading companies in hard drive recovery, solid state drive recovery and now is helping catch criminals and lock them away in a foray into forensic data recovery (more on this later).

  • If you’re interested in business start-ups and getting an edge on the competition, you’ll love this interview.
  • I strongly recommend you plan some time in your day for this valuable read.
  • If you want to know more about professional hard drive recovery services you will learn a lot about the myths and facts of hard drive recovery from this interview.

Part 1:

[Jeff from TheTechMentor.com]:

Thank you so much for your time!  I’m really excited at the opportunity for this interview.

Would you mind for our audience to please introduce yourself, your role at Gillware, what you really do now, and just for something a little unique: a hobby you have that not many people know about.

[Brian from Gillware]:

Founder/CEO at Gillware Inc for 14 years now. Managing partner at Gillware Digital Forensics as well.  My primary functions are product and web marketing, managing about a dozen direct reports, and like any business owner I have HR responsibilities.

I’ve been actively involved in some capacity (active, board seat or investor) with over a dozen start-up companies in the last decade.

[Jeff]:

That’s awesome!

[Brian]:

I don’t have a lot of time for any personal hobbies, but I like to spend time with my family, read, fish, smoke meat and play poker. [Jeff’s note: Family names removed out of respect for privacy, just in case!]

I coach a lot of youth sports as well.

[Jeff]:

Please give me your ‘elevator pitch’. What do you tell someone you meet when you have only a moment?

[Brian]:

I mostly tell people in public I do computer stuff because I find it a lot more interesting to ask questions, talk about our kids and families.

I don’t like droning on and on about the life of an entrepreneur running a tech organization, digital forensics, etc. It’s a lot better for my mental health to talk about the soccer game we’re watching.

[Jeff]:

Totally understand. At TheTechMentor.com we ARE interested in:

Starting-Your-Own-IT-Business-with-thetechmentor.com

The seeds that started Gillware were sown when [your brother] Tyler had a hard drive failure didn’t it? Would you tell us about your experience?

[Brian]:

I’ve been programming since I was about 9 years old when my parents bought me one of the first personal computers and a book on BASIC.

So I naturally got my degree in computer science and went out to the Silicon Valley in the first internet boom. The first boom went bust and I sulked back to Wisconsin.

I was making an amazing living as a software architect for some really boring stuff like insurance payment systems and cheese databases.

I was bored out of my mind and wracking my brain for what was next.

The embryo of a new Start up Business

Tyler, my youngest brother, was going to University of Wisconsin and on the road to a computer science degree like me.  Tyler had the idea to start the data recovery business because he had lost a personal hard drive and had a hell of time trying to find anyone to fix it to recover the data.

He found one company that wanted $2700, which at the time was about the same as his semester tuition.

In our circle of friends were some amazing talents with all the right backgrounds to do it ourselves.

Greg Piefer, Tyler and I started the company in our basement (garage is too cold in Wisconsin).

Greg was finishing up his PhD at UW [University of Wisconsin] and already had probably 200 credits in math/physics/electrical engineering and a bunch of degrees under his belt. He’s gone on to found SHINE Medical Technologies which is an amazing story.

[Jeff’s note]:

For interest, here’s a link to Shine Medical Technologies: http://shinemed.com/ (opens in a new tab)

[Brian continued]:

So in my circle of friends we had all the technical chops (electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science) to reverse engineer storage devices, troubleshoot their problems, and address them. I threw up the website, figured out web marketing, wrote our first CRM while Tyler figured out payroll/insurance/financials and general operations. We were off and running.

[Jeff]:

When was that? Where was Tyler studying at the time?

[Brian]: This was all back in 2003/2004, Tyler was studying at the University of Wisconsin and Greg received his PhD there, I got my CS degree there.

[Jeff]:

Yes the University of Wisconsin-Madison certainly seems to be doing some great things with start ups! I’ll be sure to look into them more. Did you and Tyler complete that computer science study/graduate?

[Brian]:

I did in 1998.  Tyler made the decision to drop out when the business took off.  My mom didn’t talk to me for a few weeks and was pretty concerned, but it was really Tyler’s decision. She obviously understands now.

[Jeff]:

In hindsight we can now all see it certainly was a worthwhile and serious start up business! But we can all understand the concern when starting up your own business. I believe you stand a better chance as a team, and if you are starting a business on your own you’d be well advised to find a mentor who can help.

With Tyler Gill:

[Tyler]:

I loved building computers and spent every penny I had on this build.  The computer was built from a lot of high-end used parts, sourced from the for-sale/trade area on Hardforum.

It had water cooling on the processor, video card, and Northbridge using a small aquarium pump and an integrated water tank/radiator.

It was overclocked to its limits and set up as a RAID-0 using a pair of Western Digital 120GB drives.

[Jeff’s note: See the Info block for an explanation about RAID-0 and click here for more on Raid recovery]

RAID-0-Data-Recovery-Difficulty

To use this info block, just credit thetechmentor.com and link to here

I was in my fourth semester of computer science at UW-Madison and once the drive died I knew I wouldn’t be able to turn in my final project on time.  I was sad about that and also the fact that I didn’t have a functioning computer any more.

Adding insult to injury my hard drive’s warranty expired within days of failure.

[Jeff]:

I’m interested to know how you actually felt when you realized you lost your data back then.

Can you please think for a moment and describe how you felt and what you went through the next few days?

[Tyler]:

I felt panicked.  I immediately jumped on my favorite computer-building forums (Hardforum and Anandtech) to see what my options were.

After doing a lot of searching and reading I gave a few companies a call and wasn’t impressed by their approach and couldn’t even come close to affording their fees.

No one would even look at it for less than a few hundred dollars.

I called another company that advertised a flat-rate, extremely cheap solution, but you paid whether the data was recoverable or not.

I spoke at length with the owner and he revealed that he received dozens of hard drives a day.  His website was horrible and he didn’t sound very technically savvy, but it showed me that there was real demand for a cheaper alternative in the marketplace of data recovery.

[Jeff]:

They say the 5 stages to dealing with loss are:

  1. Denial (something like “This cannot be happening to me!”),
  2. Anger,
  3. Bargaining (or the other way around for the last two)
  4. Sadness or depression
  5. Acceptance and/or resolution to move on.

Can you relate to that and walk us through what you remember experiencing and doing?

[Tyler]:

I can’t remember much denial; I knew right away what was wrong.

The Steps to early Data Recovery:

[Jeff]:

I assume this lead to the need to help yourself. Is this in your nature? What steps did you take?

[Tyler]:

At that point I was talking to my brother who had just moved home about business ideas and asked him if he wanted to give the data recovery thing a try.

Along with our genius roommate Greg Piefer we got our hands on some broken hard drives and started fixing them in our basement.  From there, Gillware was born.

A month later we had 2 employees in the basement and by the end of the year we had signed a lease on a small office with our 5 employees.

We lasted less than a year at that office, outgrowing it rapidly.

We’re now at our 5th official location.

[Jeff]:

Brilliant! This sort of early success and growth does show there was a real need present to support the start-up business.

Again with Brian Gill: “I knew I’d be Starting a Business”

[Jeff]:

What was the turning point, for the recovery and deciding to start a business and why?

[Brian]:

I knew on the 2100 mile drive home from California to Wisconsin I’d be starting a business.

Tyler’s experience proved that there was a market need and not much competition in the data recovery space.  I had a low six figures saved up to throw at some crazy idea. Data recovery seemed to fit a lot of my objectives.

I knew right away that it was going to be very difficult to reverse engineer highly complicated electromechanical devices that had no public design documentation or service manuals.

The barrier of entry seemed high; you need legitimate scientists with backgrounds in 3 difficult sciences.  The need would be very real to the end user so if they could find us there wouldn’t be much of a sales cycle.

And as the handful of existing labs seemed only to cater to large corporations I knew there was a hole to fill. So we filled it.

Low Cost Start up – and Low Margins!

[Jeff]:

Once you were able to learn a little about recovering your data, I imagine there must have been a few others whom you first helped. Would you tell us some of the first stories of people you tried to help out in the first few weeks or months?

[Brian]:

So first we obtained a few pallets of broken hard drives. You can find broken electronic stuff pretty cheap.

We figured out that with what we already knew we could get data back on about 50% of these, and our rate was increasing rapidly with exposure to casework.

We started advertising data recovery services in the $99-$199 range with no charge if we couldn’t help. When people called in we were transparent about just getting started.

Most of our customers had no other choice, because it seemed like we were the only people doing this stuff for less than thousands of dollars.  We were of course losing money at these rates but needed to learn our craft.

I had set aside about 100K that I was willing to burn through to get the company off the ground, so we started burning.

[Jeff’s note]:

There are some really valuable ideas here including being open and transparent with your new (potential) clients. Finances are an important consideration for all business start ups, and in TheTechMentor.com’s course on how to start up and run an IT consultant business (for IT analysts and computer technicians) we go into some detail about how you want to consider and set up your financial reserves or otherwise manage your financial survival during your start up period until you have sufficient incoming cash flow.

See also ‘These 10 Success Levers Show You How to Become an IT Consultant Successfully‘.

If you are in an earlier stage of your career, perhaps just about to start out, you can gain some ideas on how to become a computer technician here.

Next part of the interview:

There is definitely some inspiring and really interesting ground covered in the next part of the interview, so please stay tuned to TheTechMentor.com for the next installment of this interview! If you enjoy this first part (or any part) of this interview please share it, and let others know about it.

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