Don't underestimate Jill Gibson. She founded Softech Solutions, which serves as a virtual chief information officer (CIO) to small and midsize companies, after a corporate database developer told her such work was "a little too deep" for her.

What he didn't know was that Gibson, then working as an administrative assistant, had been the only female in her high school binary coding class and had started and sold two small tech companies by the time she was 22 and studying at the University of Minnesota. "No one tells me that I can't do something," Gibson said.

He also had no idea that Gibson, who recently said that she's often described as a "hybrid," can "work on both sides of my brain." That is, she both understands high-level business issues and can develop technical solutions for them.

"I want to fit the application to the company and make sure it supports their business process and how they do business," Gibson said. "That's been my mantra forever."

Understanding data

Far from underestimated now, Gibson sees growing demand from companies needing to develop and refine business process, understand data through business intelligence and analysis, and use intelligence from customer and other data to do strategic planning.

She expects 20 percent growth this year and the foreseeable future. Her 2013 revenue was $500,000 to $750,000, and Gibson said her sales have grown at least 15 percent a year since she founded the company in 2004, even through the recession.

About 65 percent of Gibson's business is out of state, typically with longtime clients and referrals. She may expand her marketing to increase local work.

Softech's virtual CIO services focus on 10 competencies, from data security to branding and market positioning, with weekly reports and comprehensive quarterly reviews. The findings, which can uncover declining sales, faulty sales processes and even slacking employees, can improve sales and customer retention, Gibson said.

Softech regularly reviews its own processes and offerings, including Gibson's weekly call for new ideas. A staffer who suggests a moneymaker gets a share of the new business in what Gibson termed "an investment to be creative and dynamic."

Open-book company

Gibson runs Softech as an open-book company, sharing financial information monthly.

"If your employees feel of value and feel like they're part of the company, they will work like you've never seen them work before," Gibson said.

The company has three employees here and six contractors around the country. Gibson expects two or three hires this year and a staff of up to 25 in five years.

The clients, in such areas as pharmaceuticals, mortgage lending, real estate, financial planning, equipment distribution and food distribution, typically have 40 to 70 employees; any larger and they should have their own CIO, Gibson said.

Gibson's 2004 launch of Softech marked a second incarnation of the company. She initially founded it in 1995 but took a job four years later to get medical coverage for her family. She restarted Softech to avoid inefficiencies she encountered elsewhere. "I just knew I could do it better," Gibson said.

Gibson's business perspective, in addition to her technical skill, is the reason that IdentiSys Inc. is a repeat client, said Debra Ferril, president and chief operating officer of the identity and security solutions provider based in Eden Prairie.

"She's knowledgeable on the business issue that we're trying to address and recognizes that this isn't all about utilizing this software, it's about us running a business and this is simply a tool to help us do it better," Ferril said.

The expert says: Mike Harvath, president and CEO of Revenue Rocket Consulting Group, a Bloomington firm that consults with tech companies on growth strategies, recommended focusing on fewer industries and automating processes wherever possible.

Those steps would improve Softech's already promising outlook. Specialization would improve profits and efficiency as well as help insulate Softech from competition, Harvath said.

"The deeper you go in a market, not only are your clients willing to pay more because you're more of an expert but you're also able to bring a lot of value as a result of your market expertise," he said.

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is