Jeffrey Smith is President at Synectics for Management Decisions, Inc, a company whose roots date back to 1969 and who, in 2012, focused on Health IT and the emerging field of data analytics, made the official move from small to large business. We spoke with him about the challenges of making the move, lessons learned, how they approach opportunities now and in the future of IT.
What is the Biggest Challenge in Moving From Small Business to Large?
Preparation. You can be lulled into a sense of security as a successful small business. Over time and through organic growth, suddenly many companies find they have graduated according to current Government guidelines, and they now have to compete in full and open competitions and end up playing catch up if they have not prepared for this moment.
I meet a lot of small businesses about to make that next step and I wonder if they’re prepared to compete with the larger firms without the advantages of being a small business. For some business owners, a possible strategy is to stay small. Running a very profitable small business is a viable option that benefits everyone in the company and focuses the team on serving clients well. It’s certainly the choice of ownership to grow but it’s important to understand the risks and what business is like on the other side.
What are Some Lessons You’ve Learned?
We learned, through what we’ve seen and experienced ourselves, that preparing to graduate from a small to a large business is a three-year process that not everyone is able or prepared to do. One of the keys is preparing your internal infrastructure—ensuring your accounting systems are well scaled, human resource policies are in place, and that your technologies are able to support the growth. Most critically, that your business development team is securing the vehicles needed to scale and finding ways to compete in full and open competition. Small businesses really need to be thinking and planning years in advance, otherwise, when they hit that change, they’ll find themselves sliding back and losing value. It can be hard to make up for lost time, so you have to prepare ahead.
We’ve also learned that if ownership wants to grow appreciably, the fastest way to complement organic growth is through an acquisition. While this presents different problems to address, the market does not favor ‘small’ large businesses, and an acquisition can provide that boost needed to stay on strategy.
As a Company That has Made the Move, How are You Proactive in Approaching Opportunities?
We currently have several GSA schedules and NITAAC’s CIO SP3 SB but we recognize the importance of being available through more than one vehicle so we’re working to add more as a Prime contractor.
We also recognize we need to develop and nurture a good set of relationships with larger companies, especially where we can bring something unique to the table. You can’t always view other large companies as competitors and ignore relationships or partnership opportunities because, big or small, we’re all better together.
When you have developed a set of small business partners that is current and covers all of the niches and nuances you might need to access opportunities, you will find some of those companies remain small and some grow into a large business. When you maintain trusting relationships along the way, the size of business matters less than what you bring to each other and what you bring to the table together.
What is the Climate Now for Opportunities?
Things heated up a lot recently and we anticipate a busy year; as busy as last. So far, we’ve seen a very price competitive year with everyone seeking more for less. There are no incumbent guarantees anywhere.
The challenge in all of this is what Federal agencies really need is innovation, not low cost. We all want to do the right thing to support agencies in delivering their mission so it’s a matter of trying to balance that.
We have great hope for the Modernizing Government Technology Act as a great step forward. It will be up to leadership to implement and enact it in the way it was meant but we have high hopes.
Where do You See the Market Going?
I think there are lot of disruptive technologies and business models that will play an important part moving forward. Thinking back 25 years to when the internet evolution moved us away from mainframe and client-server architectures toward today’s web-based technologies and new business models, I believe we are on the cusp of something revolutionary now. I don’t think we know exactly what that is yet—it may be artificial intelligence, deep learning solutions, IoT, or blockchain—but I believe we’re at the edge of another breakthrough that will transform how Government delivers services to citizens and completes their mission. We need to just keep pushing toward that edge until we find that next big thing. Health IT is in its infancy right now compared with other sectors and it’s exciting to watch it play out.
The market sees how important this disruptor will be to the Healthcare side. When we think of the cancer moonshot and the new medicines that are being developed we see a lot of people are pushing the envelope. Maybe it will be a single player, or maybe it will be a combined effort but someone, soon, is going to come forward with something disruptive, something that will change it all.
How do You Get the Word Out to Government About Innovation?
This is where it’s so important to be able to meet with and showcase ideas to clients. We’re very interested in blockchain for instance as it relates to traditional business processes such as the use of smarts contracts applied within the grants management area, and have met recently with an acquisition leader for an agency who is very receptive to these ideas.
It isn’t as easy as it once was, however, to get that audience, so you have to invest and then target opportunities where you can demonstrate or discuss your ideas with the Government. Events like the Health IT Challenge and the HHS Opioid Code-a-Thon are great opportunities to demonstrate both innovative ideas and employees who share a passion for the mission and for tackling some of our important challenges with a different approach. However, it’s still critically important to have that direct meeting with clients. We were recently invited to present in front of a technical review board for an agency to demonstrate a solution Synectics had created and used with two other clients, so of course, you take that opportunity.
How do You Position Yourself When it Comes to IT Modernization?
We are trying to make sure we stay on par with traditional competitors in DevOps in the software development area. We’re also very data centric and are focused on data analytics and making data meaningful for our clients. Our employees get very excited about the opportunity to work in the health field on important initiatives that impact public health or research. There is a real passion there to be part of something bigger, to be able to use that data to make a difference.
Because there is so much data available, the real challenge is understanding what we can do with it. The problem gets compounded when you realize there is structured data, unstructured data, and raw data that ranges from accounting or grants data to PDFs or even medical images.
Government is looking to industry to solve the challenge of looking at data in all its different forms. That being said, more people will need to become data analysts, and they will need to have the tools to make sense of the data to help solve problems or make decisions. The roles of the Data Scientist and the Chief Data Officer will be even more instrumental moving forward, as will the tools from the development side that will help them do all of that.
What Keeps You Up at Night?
The accelerating pace of technology change. I know that sounds trite but we have to balance staying on top of all the change occurring in the market with delivering today’s results for our clients. We know that our clients expect the contractor community to be current with new technology models or solutions. A company that can be a first-mover on a new idea will have a distinct advantage in a crowded competitive environment. Our challenge is balancing the resources applied to these new solutions and evolving with our Government partners in navigating the regulatory and contracting environment to take advantage of new ideas like AI or Blockchain.
Personally, my focus and concern are all about growth—the growth of Synectics and of our employees. I look at opportunities both for organic growth and on the acquisition side. I want to help the company and our employees advance, which means we can’t sit around and wait for single digit growth. Today, at nearly 100 employees we would target growth that pushes us toward 300 employees over the next 3 years.
What Position do You Take as a Leader to Achieve That?
I think it’s important to lead by example and to take care of people. Everything I do now is about helping others in the organization achieve their goals and develop their potential. As a leader, you have to recognize that whatever problems you may be dealing with, your role is to serve the community and to serve your people. You have to give back and the rest will fall into place.
When it comes to dealing with challenges, you have to be the one to take the emotion out of it, to be the calm person in the room, to eliminate any ego that exists so everyone can move forward together. You must be able to determine what you want to achieve, the best way to get there, and whether tackling the challenge makes sense.
Jeffrey H. Smith has more than 30 years of professional experience as an executive in the professional services industry, currently as President of Synectics for Management Decisions, Inc. He is widely regarded as a subject matter expert in the implementation of large-scale programs and project management and is focused on providing technology solutions to a broad range of clients in the Federal Government and commercial sector. Mr. Smith has demonstrated his ability to improve the business performance of large and small companies with a strong record of consistent revenue and profit growth. He is skilled at creating market opportunity and growth through innovative business strategy, process/technology transformation, and implementing complex technology and research based solutions.