The VAR To The Stars

Angela Bassett and her husband Courtney B. Vance are one of Hollywood's power couples, but to Frederick Johnson, they're also a small business -- and an opportunity.

For the last three years, Johnson's company, Affluent Technology, has recruited entertainers and athletes as any other commercial customer. Similar to small businesses, celebrities have employees and other associates that need to send and receive e-mail and cell phone calls while other data needs to be accessed, stored and secured. It's a niche market, but one that can be very lucrative, and filled with fringe benefits, said Johnson, who has attended the Grammy Awards, ESPN's ESPY awards, movie premieres and other high-profile events courtesy of his celebrity clients.

He started Affluent Technology in late 2004 as a spin-off from his day job as president and CIO of Ross-Tek, a 10-year-old solution provider based in Cleveland, Ohio. Growing up, his parents worked for Don King's boxing promotion company and he had some access to boxers and other VIPs. A few years ago, he sought to find a way to meld his IT background with his celebrity connections. Affluent Technology was born.

"Basically, I wanted to leverage the relationships I've had in sports and entertainment industries from early on. It had never occurred to me that I could provide technology consulting IT type services to that industry. But it's a natural fit," Johnson said.

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When he started out, Johnson recruited a few friends in the industry, business managers and attorneys, as an advisory board that helped him build the business model.

"When we first started out with Affluent, we wanted to be the technology consultant to that industry. A lot of people in the [entertainment or sports] industry have outside business interests, whether it's a restaurant, an Internet media deal or a production company. They want someone to be part of their team that has good technology sense, good business sense, who can lay out what are the pain points are from a technology standpoint and then fix those pain points," Johnson said.

For example, Affluent Technology has helped the Oscar-nominated ("What's Love Got to Do With It") Bassett and "Law and Order: Criminal Intent" star Vance with their personal IT needs as well as the needs of their production company Basset/Vance Productions.

"Courtney and Angela are independent, successful celebrities. But they also have a company, a staff. We're responsible for the assessment, procurement and implementation of the [technology]: mobile devices, servers," Johnson said.

The couple is moving into a new home and Johnson is working with the builders to ensure their personal and professional IT needs can be met efficiently and economically, Johnson said. "We introduced Windows Home Server so they could have better segementation of the work stuff and the personal things like photos, music and household-related data," he said.

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Affluent Technology has worked for about a dozen clients, including Indianapolis Colts star Dwight Freeney, actor Chris Tucker and boxing promoter Don King. Having some celebrity connections helped the business initially, but Johnson also travels the country networking at different business events, aiming to forge relationships with the celebrities' lawyers, business managers, agents, anybody who will get him in the door, he said.

"One of the things in that industry, it's very hard to access people. They have a lot of gatekeepers. The business opportunities truly are based on a relationship," he said. "Rarely do I interface or have an initial conversation with the entertainer or athlete. Ninety-nine percent of the time you're dealing with their circle: their agent, attorney, financial adviser. At that point, they're going to introduce you into the circle."

Celebrities want to protect their data at least as much as a small business, if not more, he said. "They want to make sure their information is not compromised. When you're looking for IT consultants in that realm, you're not going to look in the Yellow Pages. It has to come from a very trusted source," Johnson said.

Solution providers often strive to be their customers' trusted IT adviser, but in the case of celebrities, trust takes on a whole new level.

"We don't want to hire anybody that's star struck. We can't have any clients' info end up on somebody's MySpace page. It wouldn't be hard to find where that leak came from," Johnson said. "Aside from the fact they have other business ventures going on, they need to stay connected, to make sure their information is secure, and more than most people they want to make sure the infrastructure they put in is going to be efficient for them. Regardless of where they are in the world, they want to stay connected and secure."

For example, if a client uses a smart phone, Affluent Technology can remotely wipe the data from the device to reduce the chance that it could get leaked.

Affluent Technology offers services including Web site development, implementing and managing networks, and marketing.

"We've also done some data recovery work. And you do it one time and your name's in that Rolodex now," he said. "I'm a freelance photographer. A lot of our clients hold private events, they want to hire a photographer. I make sure their photos are secured. We have clients that have multiple PCs in their home with an array of home movies, family photos. We're trying to introduce Windows Home Servers a solution to that problem."

In one recent project, Affluent Technology helped a client who was moving from one house to another. The client also conducted some business from home, which required moving a couple of servers, PCs and a NAS device. The VAR helped the client get up and running at the new location.

Although it's technically a side business, Johnson faces the challenge of balancing the growth of Affluent Technology with that of Ross-Tek. "I realize Ross-Tek has provided us with our lifestyle all these years. I'm not going to totally abandon [Ross-Tek] in any way," he said.

But he points out that Affluent Technology will likely have to be relocated from Cleveland to the West Coast or East Coast once the business becomes more sustainable. Johnson foresees a day soon when Affluent Technology could have 50 clients. "If we are going to grow [Affluent], realistically we can't do it in Cleveland," he said. "If we get to 50 clients, that requires bringing on maybe two more people, as long as they're based within that area."

The company also has to further define its strategy for clients, he said.

"Right now, we're a little all over the place. How is Affluent Technology going to be identified in a conversation. Not just 'these are the computer guys?' That's a disservice to us. We want to be essentially the trusted adviser from technology perspective," he said. "Clients never make a legal or financial decision without trusting their attorney or financial adviser. We want to be that from a technology perspective."