LAW firms are the last bastion of the stand against technology, with many lawyers refusing to have computers on their desks or to computerise their systems. It takes a former solicitor with an understanding of how the profession ticks to persuade them that technology can actually make their life easier.
Scott McKenzie, founder of mxIT, set up his Edinburgh company because he saw a need for exactly that sort of business.
Mr McKenzie moved home to Scotland from Miami last year to set up the firm and target the Edinburgh legal profession. Having spent several years in the United States he had developed business and IT skills on top of his training as a solicitor and could see how to put the combined abilities together to create a useful business.
Mr McKenzie had studied law and worked as a solicitor for several years, first in Edinburgh and then in London. "That’s sort of the natural career progression in law; go and get experience in London and then, eventually, come back to Edinburgh as a partner," he says.
However, while in London, "I realised that law wasn’t really floating my boat, that I was more interested in the business side".
"So in 1998 I gave up my job and went to Miami to study for an MBA. I had a nice year in the sun, looking for a new career direction; it was great."
After finishing the course, Mr McKenzie was snapped up by an internet start-up company to become its chief information officer. He laughs at the memory.
"It was just before the bubble burst. Tiremall.com was an existing bricks-and-mortar business, supplying industrial tyres - tyres costing up to 20,000 each - to customers across Latin America. You can imagine, a lot of clients needed the tyres ultra-quick and so we’d jet the tyres to Bolivia or wherever. The idea was to put that service online."
Unfortunately, the internet boom peaked, and funding ran out at just the wrong time, Mr McKenzie says. While the tyres business is still thriving, the company was so badly burnt by the experience that it doesn’t even have a website, he says.
"It was a good experience and I’m glad I did it. I got the job when they came to the business school, looking for hungry, keen people who didn’t want too much in salary! We all took stock options instead, which of course are worth nothing now. But it was good, and it sparked my interest in technology. I’d found what I was looking for."
Mr McKenzie qualified as a Microsoft certified engineer and set up in business in Miami with a friend from London.
The company, 4SBS, aimed to service small companies that didn’t have their own IT departments.
"Many companies didn’t even have computers at all at that point, so we were giving advice, installing computers and helping them out," he says.
"There was a big gap in the market at the time as the bigger consultancies didn’t want to work with these companies. And their needs are different, they don’t need expensive stuff. So that was our niche."
After five years of building 4SBS into a good, healthy business, Mr McKenzie faced a big decision; should he stay in Miami, possibly feeling trapped as the company continued to grow, or make a break and move back to his native Scotland?
Scotland won. "I wanted to come back and put down roots, and I knew I had to break away before the business became too big," he says.
In February last year, he returned to Edinburgh, ready to start afresh.
His new company is pronounced M.X. IT rather than the variations on "mixit" that Mr McKenzie keeps hearing. "I didn’t really think that through," he admits.
When he started, the idea was to target Edinburgh’s substantial legal market.
"Law firms can be a bit antiquated, with no PCs on people’s desktops. They were really waiting for someone to show them the benefits."
That strategy worked well, and business boomed. But other professions have seen the benefits of mxIT’s services too, and only half of the firm’s business is now with law firms.
"Accountants, consultancies, all sorts of companies have come to us," says Mr McKenzie. "They’re used to providing a professional service and they want that from their suppliers too.
"We are trying to do things a little bit differently, with an ethical side to the practice. We try to be fair and honest. A lot of our customers aren’t IT-literate and they don’t necessarily spot it when someone is pulling the wool over their eyes and selling them things they don’t need.
"We try to build value and long-term relationships. It’s a really simple business strategy but customers seem to find it refreshing."
Mr McKenzie is loving being back in Edinburgh, where he says he enjoys the atmosphere when doing business. "It’s quite genteel and civilised really, and other areas aren’t all like that."
Miami, for instance, was "a very vibrant place, but there’s not a lot going on under the surface. There’s a lot more integrity here, and I like dealing with real people rather than a facade," he says. MxIT has four staff but no formal office as yet. Two engineers are usually out on client sites, and Mr McKenzie and an office administrator work from his home in Granton.
"We probably will take on office space, but more because it presents a professional image than because it’s really needed," he says.
The company does intend to hire more staff as it grows but most will work on-site with clients rather than in the office.
The strongest areas at the moment are in security services, wireless networks and home-working technology, although it turns out that Edinburgh firms aren’t really becoming all liberal about letting staff work at home. Instead, the home access allows professionals to work longer hours because they can check their e-mail and work on any urgent documents during the evening from home.
Growth will be slow, too, as Mr McKenzie is wary of biting off more than he can chew. Finding the right staff, at the same time as finding work for them to do, is a difficult juggling act.
"We’re a bit choosy about the customers we take on as we don’t want to grow too fast. Finding staff is probably the biggest challenge, finding people with the right mentality," he says.
In one way, Mr McKenzie clearly misses the US. Compared to America, it is hard to find people in the UK who take their jobs seriously enough, he says.
"I think a lot of people have the mentality that ‘I go in, do the job and come away at the end of the day’. They don’t think about the job after they’ve left - in fact, they don’t think about the job while they’re at work! We have to get through to them that customers are the only reason they have a job and they have to be there for them," he says.
Rather than just hiring, Mr McKenzie may go down the merger route if he can find the right, similar-minded business. "I haven’t found the right company yet. But I’m always on the lookout," he says.
Road to success at end of winding career path
IT can take a long time to work out what you do in life, and Scott McKenzie, founder of mxIT, has taken a few wrong turns before finding himself in a role he truly enjoys.
Like many young people, Mr McKenzie left school without much idea of who he was or what sort of job would suit him - so, for lack of any better ideas, he went off to study medicine at Edinburgh University.
A year later, having decided that path was not for him, Mr McKenzie gave up medicine and moved to Aberdeen University to train in law.
Some years later, sitting in the London offices of law firm Allen & Obery, looking out over St Paul’s Cathedral, he realised that, in fact, his second choice had been no better than his first. It was time to change direction once again, and this time to get it right.
After considering his options, Mr McKenzie upped sticks and went to Miami to do an MBA course, having realised that business was where his real interests lay. Finally he had found his niche.
"When I was 17, I was trying to make a career choice, and really just did what everyone else does. I just fell into medicine, and then law. It really is a shame you have to choose so early. I sometimes think it would be good if they brought back National Service just so that young people see a bit of the world . . . so long as they don’t actually have to do any fighting!" he says.