After Getting Crushed By The Rise Of Computers, This Virginia Small Business Has Made A Big Comeback


This post is part of the “Small Business, Big Ideas” series, in which business leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators share their stories of overcoming obstacles and achieving success. “Small Business, Big Ideas” is sponsored by Chase.

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Jason Cohen

People have predicted that technology would destroy Jason Cohen’s family’s company for decades. Document management does sound pretty old-fashioned. But Cohen, recently named Virginia’s Small Business Administration Small Business Person of the Year, has managed  not just to keep his company alive, but also to turn technology into an opportunity.

ILM Corporation was started in 1976 with technology for converting hardcopy materials into electronic files and manage them. As more companies started keeping their own digital files, however, business started drying up.

Soon after Cohen joined ILM in 1992, the staff had shrunk from hundreds to only six people. It was a rough period.

“You don’t avoid the pitfalls,” Cohen told Business Insider. “We all go through them and a good friend of mine once said, ‘tell me what change isn’t bloody, ugly, and messy.'”

Cohen started turning things around after buying the company from his parents in 2001. While technology had killed some jobs, like picking  up The Washington Post at 2 A.M. to digitize it, technology also opened new opportunities.

“Our love affair with paper has diminished somewhat in terms of how we’re using it,” Cohen says, “but the amount of information has expanded exponentially.”

These days people expect that information to be accessible faster than ever.

“Our tolerance for when we call a customer support line, and they’re like ‘we’re going to have to call you back in a couple of days to research something,’ those days are over…. our expectation today is to go online, log in, look at it and download it,” Cohen says.

That expectation means that businesses and offices with years and reams of paper need to get them digitized, which is where ILM comes in. 

The rise of the Internet has counterintuitively made the business more, not less, local, says Cohen.

“Before, we had customers in Europe and New York and California, all over the place, so it didn’t really matter where we were geographically,” Cohen said. “But because of the Internet, people were able to find sources easier than in the past.”

They focused on the advantage of their location, in Fredericksburg, VA, right between Washington DC and Richmond, the state capital. The company is now a HUBzone-certified small business, which gives it preference for federal contracts, and those contracts have become its primary business. 

Finally things are starting to look somewhat stable.

“We’re right on the razor in terms of staffing to what our production requirements are,” Cohen said. “We hold to some internal ratios so that, when certain cost ratios fall out of balance, we know to aggressively start looking towards technology and other partners to bring those ratios back in line. We didn’t really do that in the past.”

In the end, it’s advice that he got from his mother that’s what’s really stuck with him and informed the way he does business. “She said that when you tell somebody you’re going to do something, do it. That’s it. “

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