14 Feb One Meeting, a Call and A Little Trust
When you look back at TimelyText’s two decades of success, and hundreds of hires and placements along the way, it’s only right that the most important moment comes down to getting the perfect people into the right spots at critical times.
Reflecting on 20 years in business, Ronnie Duncan is smart enough to know that this wasn’t all about a great idea that he had back at the start of 2003.
“You have to get lucky, too,” he said.
Making the Call
If not for a chance meeting, one phone call and a little trust, you might not be reading this.
After Duncan decided to launch TimelyText on Feb. 14, 2003, he enlisted the help of Chuck Arnold, a veteran technical writer who had worked with Duncan at a previous company. Arnold offered Duncan some support to help with getting the business running, and in exchange, Duncan made it his mission to make Arnold his first hire for any work that came in.
Within several weeks, Arnold was working for TimelyText on documentation for Tipper Tie, an Apex-based company that produces the “ties” and the packaging equipment used to package sausage, the legs on turkeys, and dynamite. Yes, dynamite! (Niches make riches!)
Meanwhile, it was Duncan’s decision to attend an STC meeting that ultimately set TimelyText on this 20-year journey, as he ran into Adrian West – a technical writer and a former business partner from their days at Advanced Concepts, later renamed Advacon.
The two hadn’t spoken in a few years, due to a fallout with a third business partner which led to West selling out of Advacon. West told the STC crowd that he was on the hunt for a new opportunity. On the next day,
Duncan figured he’d throw a Hail Mary and call West.
“I called Adrian the next day and said, ‘I know the exit was rough, but you and I never had any problems,’” Duncan said. “I was guilty by association.”
It didn’t go very well.
“Adrian listened for about a minute and said, ‘I don’t think I can do that…” Duncan said. “It was a very short call.”
In the following weeks, West kept going back to what he’d heard in the TimelyText pitch. Despite some hard feelings from Advacon, West decided to dial up Duncan, and the two set a meeting at the RTP Holiday Inn to hash things out.
As it turned out, that was a very good decision for both of them.
“We had the conversation and it was basically like Old Home Day,” Duncan said, smiling.
Not only were the vibes positive, but the two were in complete alignment on how they’d go about building this new company with the things they liked about their previous company while learning from the mistakes.
Building the foundation
In retrospect, there wouldn’t be a TimelyText 20th anniversary without the successes and failures the two experienced together in their original partnership.
West had been a technical writer since 1982, and as business boomed in the Triangle, more companies were going toward bringing in specialized technical writers to handle their documentation needs.
First, West got help from a friend and Delta Tau Delta fraternity brother that would eventually become his business partner.
“There was more work than I could do by myself, so I looked around for people to help me.”
Then, they needed another writer to help. Soon, they realized that a provider of contract technical writing just might be in demand here.
That’s when they put an ad in the News & Observer looking for a salesman to help find new business for their team of writers.
Duncan, was an independent contractor trying to achieve his lifelong goal of owning his own business by selling home and small business security systems. That wasn’t going as well as he’d hoped, so he was looking for something better that would allow him to be home with his young daughters.
After mailing off his resume, he soon got a call from a fraternity brother who delivered some news he wasn’t expecting. It was actually his company that had run the blind ad, and he and West thought that Duncan would be a great fit to join them.
“The only thing I knew about technical writing at that point is that the documentation at the software company I had worked for sucked,” Duncan said. “I said, well, what the hell? Fraternity brother, let’s get together and have a beer and talk about it.”
One beer with a buddy, and 30 years later, you’re an expert on technical writers. Pretty neat turn of events, right?
The company would be named Advanced Concepts, and they’d work out of an old office in Mebane that didn’t have the power to run a coffee maker and copy machine at the same time. All three would soon be partners.
Duncan started in November 1994, and they’d land their first placements at NCR in Greenville, S.C. shortly thereafter.
“We were probably billing $35 an hour, maybe less than that,” Duncan said, laughing. “It was foundational, and now we had some income.”
Soon, an avalanche of business, with West and the other partner stepping away from writing to help run the business.
“It took off fast. It was six or eight months after we started, we had 10 people billing,” Duncan said. “By the end of 1996, we had 30 people billing.”
Establishing a Philosophy
Along the way, Duncan and West decided where they could build a business different from even those serving a niche corner of the staffing industry.
First, they’d truly get to know their associates to understand exactly what they were looking for in a job, in a project and in life. Those goals would guide everything.
After that, it was about West checking in regularly to ensure the staff was supported via his technical writing or business expertise, while getting what they need from their project. Duncan, meanwhile, would get the story from their client to ensure they were getting what they needed from the associate.
This wouldn’t become “keyword recruiting”, and rather, they’d rely on expertise in the field and word-of-mouth to drive excellent people their way.
“That was the birth of what we now call the ‘Two-Customer Philosophy,’” he said. “We philosophically agreed that’s the way we needed to approach things.”
In a world that hadn’t truly learned to value technical writers and understand the challenges of their jobs, it was an immediate hit.
“Back then, there was a real attraction to the technical writers that we were talking to, to work for a company of technical writers, because they were so disrespected out there,” Duncan said. “We understood them, we understood what they were doing, and any staffing company they were dealing with knew even less than they do now.”
West, as a career technical writer himself, respected the craft too much to underdeliver. He had to know first-hand that clients were getting the quality of writing that he expected.
“We had to manage the people that we were putting in there,” West said. “We had to know what we were selling and be able to deliver it. We couldn’t just hire people and say, ‘Go forward and be prosperous.’”
That philosophy still serves as the basis for everything TimelyText does.
Things went exceptionally well at Advanced Concepts, but began running into trouble at Advacon when the dot com and telecom meltdowns happened, leading to a severe recession. Things had gotten a little too big when the company tried to become a managed services provider, which led to some differences in philosophy among the partners.
West was the first to go, and Duncan ultimately decided it was time to make a change in late 2002, which meant an arbitrator would decide on his exit.
Much to his surprise at that meeting, the arbitrator provided two options for the sale of Duncan’s share of the business. One, a higher price, kept non-competes and confidentiality agreements in tact. The other, much lower, immediately dropped any restrictions on Duncan’s future.
Duncan considered several business ideas over the holidays that year, because ultimately, he wanted the flexibility to be around for his three children.
But given his experience and success in the technical writing field, he couldn’t shake the feeling that it was the right place for him, especially at a moment when technology and life sciences were taking off in the Triangle.
“I decided ultimately, sometime in January of 2003, If I didn’t try to do this on my own, I’d go to the grave wondering,” he said.
So, from his desk in a spare bedroom, Duncan went to work on establishing TimelyText.
First, he had a business consultant come up with a few names. Then, a logo and a website. With the help of Arnold, he created some internal templates. Lastly, on Valentine’s Day 2003, Duncan launched TimelyText and started working his contacts.
Although he wasn’t bound to any agreement, Duncan set the rule for himself: he would take no customers from his previous partner.
But that wasn’t without a little anxiety – especially with a growing family.
“I was scared to death,” Duncan said. “Anyone starting over is. The risk was huge; and I could have failed. I had enough confidence in myself to say, ‘I can make a living at this.’ Did I know it could be a really good living? Not for sure, you know, you always have doubts, but I knew I had to give it my best shot.”
Arnold’s short, part-time work at Tipper Tie turned into a 15-year relationship. Soon after that, TimelyText landed a contract with the City of Raleigh.
It was around that time that Duncan was able to persuade West to put his fears aside and come onboard, with both working from their homes and occasionally meeting up at their “office” at Subway on Highway 70.
“I got lucky when Adrian came over, because he understood what I was trying to do,” Duncan said. “We worked together well, he had the domain knowledge around technical writing, and we had Chuck Arnold.
“It’s not like that’s the be-all, end-all, but there was synergy enough and good relationships enough that it was a good set of skills to build off at that lean point of the business.”
Most importantly, Duncan and West believed that they’d built relationships for treating customers and clients well in their previous stop. The technical writing world is small in Raleigh, and word travels fast.
Things felt like they were going well in 2003, but ultimately, TimelyText ended up losing $13,000.
No one was worried, largely, because they’d set the business up to avoid the expenses that they had seen spin out of control in their previous company.
“We knew what we were doing; it was growing and there was no reason to feel like we couldn’t do it,” West said.
Although the deals weren’t there yet, they felt like they were working on a process that would eventually pay off. Take care of your employees, deliver on-time and on-target for clients and make new contacts.
“In the very beginning, you have so little,” Duncan said. “You’re just cobbling together one here and one there, but then by the end of 2004, we were rocking and rolling pretty good. We had gotten some momentum.”
All gas, no brakes
Now, 20 years later, Duncan and West haven’t slowed down a bit.
Hand-delivering checks at Nortel has now become texting with an associate who just got started at Kymanox. Mailing a resume to a client at Glaxo has become hopping on a Zoom to talk about the instructional design possibilities for Wake Tech.
No matter which tools and technology TimelyText is using, it’s still the expertise and personal touch that keeps clients coming back after all these years.
“It’s domain knowledge,” Duncan said. “ We can actually help them – a standard staffing company would just say, ‘Okay what do you need? Get back to us when you have a job description so we can go do a keyword search.’
Your ability to consult, the domain knowledge and the deep network, those are really the keys that make you more valuable to the client. The risk of failure is a lot lower; the risk of failure is very high when they go to a straight staffing company, and they know that.
“They can’t afford it, and we get the jobs they can’t afford to fail on.”
And thanks to that approach, West sure is glad he made that call back in 2003.
“For me, it’s been a comfort factor because of the domain knowledge,” West said. “Technical writing is all I’ve ever done. Not just sitting in the writers’ chair, but mentoring people doing that, so it was a comfort zone thing as much as anything.”