Tom Crowley is quite proud of what he’s been able to build at MBX Systems and the opportunities that lie ahead for his business. But being an entrepreneur wasn’t his first passion.
“I had grown up being a musician, that was my total dream,” Crowley says. “My father always said, ‘You can do whatever the heck you want. But you’re going to finish college first.’ I said that was fine, but I kept playing in bands throughout college.”
When he finished college at Loyola University in 1984, it was time to play. His band, Idle Tears, landed a gig as the opening act for a Fourth of July concert in Washington, D.C. featuring Three Dog Night and the Beach Boys.
“That kind of kicked off that part of my life,” Crowley says. “We ended up moving out to California in 1985 and we started to make a record and do the touring. So my dream early on was to play music full time. But like a million band stories, we made the record, did the tour, it did not succeed and the band broke up. I was not literally on the street, but the band was broken up and I had to go find work.”
The band experience didn’t work out, but it was Crowley’s shot at pursuing his dream. It also connected him to a cousin who just happened to be an entrepreneur.
“He had been doing very well and I got to spend time with him,” Crowley says. “It got me intrigued with the idea of having my own business. I got to work with him and see how he worked and learn what it took to have your own business. I also got to see the rewards, which looked very attractive.”
Crowley may not have realized it, but the future founder and CEO of MBX Systems was on the verge of launching a groundbreaking business around the design and manufacturing of server appliances.
Open to opportunity
Before he started MBX, Crowley had a couple of other business opportunities come and go in the Chicago area.
When he learned of a small computer components company in Lake County that needed someone to run it, Crowley was game to give entrepreneurship another shot. It was a startup being funded by a friend of Crowley’s, a friend who quickly decided he didn’t want to be involved with it anymore.
“I was very excited about it, saw an opportunity and just took it,” Crowley says. “I ended up purchasing it from him.”
The growth opportunity for the business came out of a change in the way customers purchase software.
“Back in the day, you would buy software that was on a CD,” Crowley says. “That’s where the appliance model came from because it was very difficult for a lot of people to load up software. So they came up with the idea of an appliance where you could have the software on a working server and it’s ready to go.”
Crowley credits Scott Kelly, one of his account managers as well as a top salesperson in his young company, for supplying the motivation to capitalize on this potential.
“He was just a maverick,” Crowley says of Kelly. “Customers would call us and ask for crazy things and he would say yes. Unfortunately, he has since passed away. But back then, he was really pushing us to be open to new opportunities. It turns out there was a big market for this appliance.”
As the customer relationships started to evolve, MBX started building hardware for other software companies and found out that these software companies would rather write code and stay away from their hardware.
“So we started introducing more services that would take over the entire operation of getting their products to market and to their customers without their customers ever knowing that we were involved,” Crowley says. “So all of a sudden, we became a hardware arm of them. But MBX, our name was nowhere on any of this hardware. It was all their name.”