Lisa Mitchell is the co-founder and CEO of Progressive Computer Systems in Chapel Hill, NC. She co-founded the business in 1987 with her brother, Mark. Lisa found her way to the Helix family in late 2019 as our first acquired company. In addition to running a business, Lisa is actively involved in the managed service provider (MSP) community. She’s a member of the ConnectWise Advisory Board and IT Nation Evolve’s Peer Group. Here, Lisa reflects on her pathway to entrepreneur, why she sold her business, and why she’d make the same decision again.
Tell me about your background.
Three months after graduating from college at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (go Ramses!), my brother, Mark, and I started our own business. We launched Progressive Computer Systems in1987, and it’s been 35 years since then. At the time, I was young, perhaps a little naïve, and willing to invest 100 hours a week into building something. When we started, I worked in a full-time sales role – chasing leads and building our customer base. Eventually, I progressed into the CEO role, where I’m still highly involved with sales, cybersecurity, compliance, and client support. While I studied business in college, most of my insight came from on-the-job experience. If anything, I learned the most from reflecting on what not to do – either through my own experience or observation.
Did you always know that you wanted to start a business?
No, I had could never have predicted that I would start a business. I always knew that I enjoyed hard work. My parents instilled in Mark and me the importance of a strong work ethic. If we wanted something, we had to earn it. They even allowed us to apply for work permits, so we could work before turning 16 years old. Working was a big part of my life growing up. Even in college, I juggled four jobs. All these experiences prepared me to start and lead a business. You need grit, purpose, and a strong support network to sustain you. Launching a business is full of highs and lows, and the relationships I built along the way made the journey worth it.
You started a business just three months after graduating from college. What made it the right time and opportunity?
In college, Mark and I managed a local IT services branch. For two years, the company never turned a profit. Checks bounced. Customers didn’t receive their equipment. As a company, we continually broke our word and commitment to our clients. Mark and I couldn’t in good conscience continue operating this way. We wanted to improve the customer experience and do it well, and for that, we needed a fresh start. First, we offered to buy the owners out, but the owners refused. They probably didn’t think we were serious since we were so young. This inspired us to start our own IT services firm. We founded Progressive Computer Systems on the premise of integrity and differentiated customer service. We knew the industry from our two years in the space, but more importantly, we really understood our clients’ pain points. That informed our approach to delivering technology services. It just so happens that the timing aligned to post-college. At the time, I had nothing to lose, and I was willing to put in the hours to create something great. It’s been 35 years since then, and we haven’t looked back.
Tell me more about your business.
We’re a managed IT services firm based in Chapel Hill, NC. Our specialty is cybersecurity and compliance. Many of our clients work in compliance-driven industries, so we’ve made a name for ourselves protecting clients’ most sensitive data like payment card or personal health information. Our biggest differentiator is our team. They care not only about our clients and company, but they also truly care for one another. You can see that reflected in our employees’ tenure. We have people who have worked here for 25 years or more. Without our team, we couldn’t have built this business. Our secret to success is simple. We take care of our people. They take care of the clients. And that takes care of the business. For us, it’s about integrity, trust, and doing the right thing.
What do you find most interesting about working in technology?
Every day brings something new and challenging – the constant pace of change is motivating to me. Working in technology is about managing change successfully, or at least trying. There’s never a dull moment. I’m energized by this challenge. Technology pushes me to always be focused on learning. What’s the latest on tooling? What new technologies are emerging? How are current events impacting technology trends and our clients? Just look at how the pandemic impacted how companies work. Technology enabled companies to go remote almost overnight. In our line of work, we have the opportunity to help others navigate these changes well. Technology has and will continue to change rapidly. The technology we started our business with 35 years ago is completely different today. It’s impressive and exciting.
At Helix, we buy and hold companies in perpetuity. We believe in driving sustainable, predictable growth. What does sustainable, predictable growth mean to you?
Sustainable, predictable growth means figuring out how to sell through methods other than principal-led sales. Many small businesses can grow through one strong salesperson, but eventually, this strategy isn’t sustainable. To continue to grow, you need more professionalized sales. This means investing in processes and tools that scale with your business. Personally speaking, I care about growth because I want to create opportunities for our teams. Growth enables us to invest in hiring new teammates. This ensures that our current team isn’t working harder than they need to be to serve our clients well. Growth also creates new opportunities. Employees can grow with us by taking on new responsibilities and roles. This creates meaningful, long, careers for our team. It’s part of why we have so many employees who have been with us for 10, 15, and even 30+ years. Professionally speaking, we like to perform well and be a good business partner. Part of what drew us to Helix was the ability to learn from a larger network and become even better at driving growth.
What challenges were you facing when you initially decided to sell your business?
We were solving for two primary challenges: developing a repeatable sales engine and improving our cybersecurity support. We’ve always had principal-led sales. That’s hard to scale, especially at the level we wanted to grow. We were seeking a partner to help us consistently drive new growth. Cybersecurity risk was another major influence on our decision to sell. It’s tough to be a standalone MSP in today’s word. Cyber criminals have become increasingly sophisticated, and more often, they’re targeting small- and medium-sized businesses. I wanted the support and resources of a larger company to maintain a strong security posture. This has been one of the biggest benefits that I’ve experienced within the Helix and Evergreen ecosystems. We share cybersecurity resources and advice across companies, so we’re collectively protected.
Why did you choose to join Helix?
I chose Helix as my partner for three primary reasons – our shared culture and values, a high degree of operating autonomy, and their commitment to a buy-and-hold model. First, we built a successful business and a thriving culture. I didn’t want to jeopardize those core tenants for us. When we met with the Helix and the Evergreen teams during the deal process, we connected over our shared values, culture, and business strategies. I left the room knowing that this was the right partner for us. They would do right by our team and right by our clients. Second, I really liked the level of autonomy. It was important for me to continue to drive local decisions, and when needed, rely on additional support. Autonomy is predicated on driving results. Together, we set the targets, and then I choose how to achieve those goals. Third, I wanted a permanent home for my business. The buy-and-hold model was very attractive. Most private equity firms sell businesses in three to five years, but Helix holds companies in perpetuity. When you sell your business, you can only pick who you partner with once. If your business sells again, you don’t get to pick the partner. There’s no guarantee that the next owner will uphold the culture, relationships, and business principles that made your business unique and successful. I couldn’t expose my team and clients to that risk. I wanted to sell my business once. It’s been a little over three years since I picked Helix as my partner, and I remain convinced that we made the right decision.
How has Helix helped your business?
To grow the business well, you need to be highly accountable. Helix helps us by keeping us accountable and helping us set lofty goals. Together, we identify the sales and profitability metrics to monitor, so we’re always improving. While my involvement in ConnectWise’s Evolve Peer Group and Service Leadership creates some accountability mechanisms for me, Helix creates additional heat – in a good way. A peer network is powerful, and most businesses owners don’t have this benefit. Helix has also helped us through shared resources like cybersecurity, HR support, payroll, and benefits. With this support, I’m able to focus on where I can add the most value to my employees and clients.
Why do you come to work every day?
My coworkers and clients motivate me to come to work every day. At all levels of the organization, from Progressive Computer Systems to Helix to Evergreen, I work with fantastic people. We challenge one another to be better while also caring personally for each another. I’m motivated to make a difference in others’ lives to pay it forward. My current position is possible because I received the help of a community. Similarly, I aspire to positively impact my coworkers and clients. I might help by facilitating a connection, offering advice, or mentoring a co-worker. Each time I help a client or teammate, I’m reminded why I do what I do. Because I’ve invested in these relationships, I care deeply about this organization. That’s why I’ve sought opportunities to lead initiatives with other businesses across the Evergreen family. While certainly not mandatory, this work has been an integral part of my Helix experience. I’ve built genuine friendships, increased the scale of my impact, and witnessed firsthand the collective strength of our businesses.