Your Stories: My Alarm Center

Today we hear from Amy Kothari, CEO and owner of My Alarm Center. Amy was initially brought on as the company’s CFO, and then became the CEO of My Alarm Center over eight years ago, growing the business from 10,000 customers to over 140,000.  My Alarm Center began as a financing option for the over 14,000 small, mom-and-pop style alarm companies throughout the United States who had little access to capital.  Amy’s role with the company has transformed My Alarm Center from just a financial resource for the industry into a full-service security company.

1. What drove you to start your own business? What was the turning point?
Prior to moving to Philadelphia, I was a banker in Manhattan.  One of the clients I had worked with invested in a company.  They needed some help and contacted me to step in as their CFO to help get their new venture on track.  What began as a consultant role evolved into a much meatier opportunity to help take My Alarm Center in a direction more in line with what the investors envisioned.

The turning point came when the CEO at the time wanted to buy up as many alarm contracts as possible and have it become a virtual business in which the sellers would continue to service the accounts.  I recognized that building and flipping smaller companies would not work and, more importantly, would be a disservice to customers. The happiest customers come from building relationships and nurturing them.  When the investors parted ways with the CEO, I stepped into the role and helped to build an infrastructure with a customer service department, a technical service department, and accounting practices.

2. Who do you admire or look to for inspiration as a business owner?
It’s somewhat cliché, but I would have to say my father. My father was a criminal defense attorney before he became general counsel of a major shipping company. I remember he told me that when he was first approached by the company’s owner, he said “I don’t know the first thing about shipping.” And the owner said, “That’s right! You’ll be so scared you’ll be the best general counsel I’ve ever had.” But that’s a big part of being an entrepreneur. Taking that risk.

3. What are your goals for your business?
We sold the company to a private equity firm in March 2012 and are focusing on growing over the next five years through acquisitions. We’ve also been growing organically  — using advertising and marketing to compete with larger companies like ADT in the industry. We all offer a lot of the same products and services, but our focus is to differentiate ourselves from everybody else. To do that, we have to create the best possible customer experience. I want the customer to stick with us not only because of our best in class home security systems, but because we’re a pleasant, efficient organization.

4. What would you do differently next time around?
I would have had more transparency and due diligence out of the gate. When we first started, we didn’t really tell the customer that we acquired their account. So, there was confusion with the customer which never sat well with me from an ethical standpoint. If I could go back and execute the due diligence that is in place today with all the acquisitions we did in the first four years, we’d have a much healthier base of accounts. Over time, we’ve been able to nurture those accounts and build a really strong business. By having that infrastructure in place to help customers, we have one of the lowest attrition numbers in the industry.

5. What difficulties and challenges have you had to overcome and how did you keep going?
A big part of my business is not just working with the customer, but also developing relationships with subcontractors and business partners. In the past we were so segregated across all of the different companies that were acquired and didn’t have a uniform brand. Making the decision to bring everything together under one brand, plus allowing individual businesses to retain their names was a big switch that brought all of our customers under the umbrella of one consistent voice — the My Alarm Center Family — and allowed us to brand it that way.

6. What legacy would you like your business to leave to the world and your family/friends?
A lot of people doubted me at first. I’d heard through the grapevine that some people said, “Can you believe they have a woman CEO?” I’d like to be thought of as a woman who knew nothing about this industry and came in, worked hard, put her head down and became successful in an industry that historically, was very technical and male-dominated. I’m proud of the integrity, transparency, and customer service that people see in our company. And I’m very proud that our employees still love working here despite how much we’ve grown.

7. What support did you seek out and what difference has that made to your business?
I hired two people who were instrumental in getting us to where we are today: My current COO Gary Welsh who joined in September 2004 and Anastasia Bottos, our head of business development who oversees all of our acquisitions and due diligence, who joined in March of 2005. They understood my goals and quickly became a team. If anything, I work for them. They know the business inside and out and work tirelessly. They inspire me to keep going and always find a way. We’ve done a number of huge acquisitions together and they’re incredibly creative in finding solutions to any problem.

8. How far ahead do you plan and what keeps you on track and motivated?
On the customer service side, you’re planning ahead on a much more short-term basis and it’s an ongoing process. We are constantly identifying customer touch points and coming up with a game plan of how to improve on things, and streamline the process. Longer-term goals involve services that we may want to offer in the future. We’re thinking of proactively offering more emergency response services to customers. It’s a product we sell now, but don’t actively market.

9. What has been one big success that you have achieved in your business?
A huge success for us was making the decision to build our own customer relationship management system (CRM). Many companies outsource their CRM. In the beginning, we outsourced that to a great company that specializes within our industry. Over time, we started to realize that we had outgrown it. It was a really hard decision because of the amount of time and money invested to grow your own, but we did. We hired programmers. Our entire team got involved to find out what customers needed and the biggest problems encountered. It started on a whiteboard and then became a program. We now have a CRM that is fully integrated on the backend with our central station, to track sales, and other business components. New contracts that used to take an hour are now automated and take only five minutes.

10. What piece of advice has had the most impact on your business?
My father always took risks and believed you can apply your existing knowledge and professional experience to figure out any industry. Act like you know what you’re doing and you will figure it out.

11. What are your top 3 tips for someone who would like to start a business now?
1. Believe in yourself. If you work hard, you’ll figure it out
2. Take risks.
2. Don’t worry about what everyone else around you is doing.

12. What are 3 books, websites or resources that you would recommend to other business owners?
Believe it or not, I’m not a big business book reader. As a mother of three, I don’t have much time. I gain more insight from business articles and interesting entrepreneurial stories in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. I’m inspired by hearing what other young successful people have done.

You can connect with Amy on LinkedIn