Christopher J. Grouse enjoyed technology from an early age.
“I’ve played with computers since I was a kid. I would go into the King’s Quest program [one of Atari’s first video games] on my Tandy 1000 [one of the first personal computers],” he admits, “and change what the little guy said. My mom says I would ‘program the guy to say funny things.’”
“We were fortunate because we had access to more technology than most people,” Grouse says. Grouse’s father worked for Fairchild Weston Systems which, at the time, was a U.S. defense contractor specializing in defense electronics.
Grouse recalls instances when his father would bring home the latest gadget and how the two of them would play for hours exploring its capabilities. The experiences taught Grouse that exploring new technologies could be fun and his father showed him how innovation could quickly lead to change.
Grouse went on to graduate from high school in 1990 and, though he clearly exhibited an innate talent with technology, took some time to decide just what he wanted to do.
He ended up at the University of Central Florida where, after completing an internship with the juvenile court system, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social work.
The Inner Techie
Desiring to continue working with juveniles, Grouse took a job as a social worker with the 9th Judicial Circuit Court in Orlando. As an aside to his duties as a social worker, Grouse would also tinker with the technology at the courthouse. Over time, he earned the reputation of being the “go-to guy” when the courthouse computers would break down.
In 1997, Grouse was asked to consider a new job at the courthouse. Court administrators wanted to create an information technology department and they wanted Grouse to head it up.
Although Grouse wasn’t sure he wanted to give up social work entirely, he took the job. In two years, he built a new technology department by migrating the court’s computers to new servers. He networked all users to create an interface and developed backup systems in case there was an emergency.
“Many occasions I was the only person at the courthouse until the early morning hours,” Grouse remembers.
This experience solidified Grouse’s ability to make a living at what he enjoyed doing, albeit accomplished through a rather circuitous route.
By 1999, Grouse’s parents had relocated to the mountains of the North Carolina and his brother lived in Huntersville. So Grouse decided to relocate to Charlotte and began working for Cabarrus Health Alliance as a PC technician. He worked hard and within five years, he was promoted to chief technology officer.
Grouse also found time to assist family and friends with their personal computing needs. He developed a network of referrals. So much so, that in 2001, Grouse decided to start an e-commerce store out of his basement.
He called his company Compunettech. In addition to providing computer and system repair service, Compunettech shipped computer and networking hardware to individuals and businesses. It was practically the only e-commerce site of its kind at a time when e-commerce sites were either taking off or dying quickly.
Grouse was in the right place at the right time. His website grew significantly.
In the meantime, he had also met and married his wife, Holly. Holly had a keen sense for running a business and quickly pitched in to help with Grouse’s growing e-commerce store.
Grouse recalls late nights with Holly filling shipping orders in their basement. The couple worked hard to keep up and, in 2005, they decided to quit their “official” jobs to develop the business now known as FireFold.
“We’re a technology firm,” Grouse says. “A one-stop shop for technology needs.”
For years, Grouse struggled with the name Compunettech. He felt it was too long to say and was often misspelled. So Grouse turned to the Internet to gather suggestions from the public. “Pretty much what we were doing was just brainstorming with thousands of people, plus, it didn’t hurt that I offered a cash incentive,” Grouse laughs.
Grouse received hundreds of suggestions but one—FireFold—really seemed to stick. Grouse liked the name FireFold because it evoked images of data traveling like fire through cables with his business in the “fold” of it. After all, the company offers virtually every kind of connection or cable imaginable.
Grouse also envisioned good branding opportunities around the fire concept. “It suggested the speed of communications cables and the ‘hot’ concept, like an electrical current,” he explains.
FireFold consists of three major departments. The biggest department, e-commerce, is an online store that sells products such as cables, adapters and connectors. This department also provides individuals and businesses with website and graphic design service.
E-commerce accounts for 90 percent of Firefold’s business. The e-commerce department ships computer and networking supplies throughout the world. Many accounts are recurring orders. This year, the e-commerce department was awarded a large government contract.
“It made our year!” Grouse exclaims.
Touring the extensive warehouse, it is clear that the e-commerce department operates like a well-greased machine. People are busy packing up orders. Items are clearly labeled in enormous bins that reach the ceiling of the 20,000-square-foot warehouse. Grouse says that in most cases, online orders are shipped the same day.
This sort of efficiency is clearly what has afforded FireFold over 25,000 positive comments on Bizrate.com. One, for example, reads as follows:
“I have purchased from this company on more than one occasion and every order has arrived intact and in a very timely manner. The price of all the items that I have ordered or even thought of ordering can’t be beat by any local retailers in my area which is one of the reasons why I am a repeat customer. I have told several of my friends and family members and they have also ordered from this company as well. In this economy, thank goodness for a company like this with prices everyone can afford.”
The second department, FireFold technologies, accounts for six percent of the business and is growing rapidly. This department handles computer repair, Web and email hosting, cabling, backup system development, and provides IT support.
Grouse added this department because he learned early on that relying on others to fix a problem could delay and/or damage his own product. So instead of waiting on other vendors, Grouse decided to offer the services so he knew the job would get done correctly and in a timely manner. Currently, FireFold Technologies assists over 70 businesses and individuals with their technology needs.
The third department, audio/visual sales and support, comprises the remaining four percent of the business. The Audio/Visual department sells and provides service for home theatres, home networking, whole house audio, construction planning and design consulting.
Grouse says, “What’s happening in this economy is that people aren’t buying and selling their homes. Instead they are improving their homes, so they can justify adding the new TV or surround sound. FireFold can do it all.”
Grouse employs 30 individuals. His management team is made up of his wife Holly, a finance manager, a sales and service manager, an e-commerce/design manager, and a warehouse manager. Each manager supervises a team of employees. The sales and service department is also broken down into four divisions: audio/visual, technology support, customer service and sales.
All FireFold employees are encouraged to share new ideas with their managers and Grouse. Grouse says that many of company’s successful ideas have come from his employees. He welcomes their input.
A Standout Business
There are several reasons why Grouse believes his business has remained so successful during difficult economic times.
“Your product is only as good as the company behind it,” Grouse says. Grouse tells each employee that they must aim to continue the company’s record of excellent customer service.
Grouse has a single manager dedicated to monitoring the company’s customer service so that when a customer calls, they are going to get a live operator with little to no wait time. If the live operator can’t answer a question immediately, they will transfer the customer directly to a technician who can assist them.
Grouse also believes that increased Internet accessibility is what made FireFold’s e-commerce department excel.
Grouse says, “Online shopping is so common now that most people do an Internet search before they head out to a retail store. What our customers are finding is that FireFold simply has a larger selection and charges a lot less for the same product that is offered by the bigger stores.”
FireFold is also committed to educating the public. Grouse recalls the initial release of high definition cable boxes, when FireFold received thousands of calls from people who could see a picture on their TV but couldn’t hear the audio. The customers thought the problem was the HDMI cable; however, FireFold technicians took each call and explained how to program the cable company’s high definition box. Grouse knows that he could have referred people to the cable company, but that is just not the way he does business.
FireFold frequently posts how-to videos on YouTube. “YouTube is a fabulous tool!” Grouse says. “All you have to do is conduct a search for a cat5 or cat6 ethernet cable and you’ll see a number of videos produced by FireFold on how to hook the cables up!”
Lastly, Grouse knows that in order to remain competitive, he and his staff must always stay abreast of changing technologies. Each year, Grouse attends six national conferences to learn about new products. Grouse, a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer, also covers expenses for his employees to receive training towards various certifications.
FireFold’s customer service has not gone unnoticed; it has received some impressive accolades. Since 2008, the company has been selected for the BizRate Circle of Excellence. This distinction is earned by retailers who go above and beyond the norm to provide exceptional service to their online customers.
Additionally, FireFold has been recognized by Inc. 5000 for the past five years. The Inc. 5000 list is significant because it measures a company’s growth based on revenue. In addition to having an A+ rating by the Better Business Bureau, FireFold was designated as the Largest Area Technology Consulting Firm in 2008 and 2009 by the Charlotte Business Journal.
This month Grouse will finalize the purchase of a 28,000-square-foot building. The new facility will have office and warehouse space. Grouse intends to open a separate retail store in another location to promote his audio/visual department. Grouse is also launching a new website which he says will greatly enhance the user experience.
It seems that most successful entrepreneurs possess similar characteristics. They tend to be persistent, optimistic and highly energetic. They tend to think about their business night and day; always striving to become better. They are consumed with providing excellent customer service and believe that their product is the only product that makes sense.
They understand what it means to create something out of nothing which usually means they are compassionate and fair managers. Their collective life experiences guide them to practice their passion for which they often excel.
From all indications, Grouse is no exception.