As told to Andrew Park
After flying with the U.S. Navy, Dan Kerning is used to a fast pace. He quit his first civilian job as a computer engineer to start WebHouse in 1997. He designed websites and peddled computer equipment for nearly a decade. Then, he struck gold selling and servicing data storage gear. Last year, revenue rocketed to $14.7 million, up from just $265,000 in 2004.
I graduated college with a math degree. I had a choice of becoming a teacher or finding another career. My dad had been in the service, so I said, "I'll give it a try."
I did eight years of active duty. My last tour overseas was Desert Storm. I was actually in the first plane into the war. I was the mission commander.
The plane I flew in was a radar surveillance plane, basically a big computer with wings. Because we were carrier-based, the planes took a pretty good beating, and we would have to fix the electronics in midair sometimes. On our downtime, we were building PCs. You're in the middle of the ocean. You've got nothing to do.
When I got out, I started working for Nassau County, New York. After a year, I realized civil service was too slow for me. It drove me to entrepreneurship.
We started out as a Web hosting and Web design company at the beginning of the Internet boom. Later, we became a jack-of-all-trades for office technology, getting companies into computers and telephone systems.
I had a second business, a private investigation company with a couple of partners. We had retired cops doing the work, but I sometimes took jobs when there was nobody else. I was working crazy hours, and it didn't take too long to figure out that if I put all my time into WebHouse, it might work.
Once all the dot-coms were failing, you had all these people with computer skills scrambling to find work. All of a sudden, every Tom, Dick, and Harry had a computer company doing the same thing as us. There was no longer anything unique about us. I said, "I'm going to take the gamble of focusing on data storage."
We picked one manufacturer, NetApp (NASDAQ:NTAP), and became the go-to expert. Between reselling equipment and providing service, we managed to grow consistently year over year.
The one thing companies never downsize is their data. People may come and go. But the data stays and grows.
Everybody in this industry calls themselves value-added resellers. In reality, they're all box hawkers. They don't have any value-add. We're the opposite. Our ratio of engineers to salespeople is 7 to 1.
At some point, I had to choose whether I wanted to be an engineer or an entrepreneur. There are lots of guys who can be engineers. There are not a lot of guys who can run the company. But I do miss being in the weeds with the guys.
I can train anybody to do what we do. I've pulled guys from deli counters and kitchens.
My goal is to start hiring kids coming out of the conflict in Iraq with disabilities. Being a vet, I know the importance of what they give. It's a little payback for those guys.