Recently FedHealthIT’s Executive Vice President Susan Sharer sat down with Unissant Chairman and CEO Manish Malhotra and President and Chief Growth Officer Ken Bonner to find out how the company has succeeded as a small business, their secret to successful disruption in the marketplace and what they see ahead for 2019.
The Federal Health Opportunity
Starting with a focus on data, Unissant Chairman and CEO Manish Malhotra says the company quickly recognized there was a need in Federal Health for his team’s capabilities due to a high pain point that came from rising Healthcare costs based in part on inefficiency. “We started with a portfolio that was primarily based in the financial industry and stretched all the way to Wall Street but recognized that there was a mission among health agencies that we could align with and where we knew we could bring efficiencies.”
Manish says whatever Unissant does, it is from the perspective of data and managing data as an asset. “The health industry is not yet mature when it comes to data. When we consider digital transformation that is happening now and things like DevSecOps, Healthcare has been late coming to all of that.”
Unissant’s first work in Healthcare was with NIH and then the company went on to add DHA. Now the team works with HHS, NCI and a number of others. “We may be more of a Health IT company but we are also diverse. About 40 percent of our work has nothing to do with health but instead is with DoD, financial services and others. We were just awarded the Seaport NextGen contract and re-awarded a contract with DoD and a Government financial agency.”
While many firms will focus on one or even two primary clients, Unissant has a stability that exists through many clients outside the Healthcare space. As President and Chief Growth Officer Ken Bonner says, “Although many small businesses have grown through a relationship with one customer, no one contract or relationship can sustain a company.”
From the beginning, Unissant worked at building its own proprietary frameworks, pseudo products that could be touched and felt, that provided an opportunity for deep dives to uncover essential truths that could be applied across projects but that also evolved, containing lessons learned and newfound knowledge acquired. “Each aspect of data and DevSecOps has a framework behind it. The frameworks provide knowledge and tools to ensure reliable, consistent, and efficient delivery across our implementations. Our CMMI methodology ensures quality-controlled low-risk execution across all phases of the implementation life-cycle. These frameworks are the culmination of lessons learned and perspective from the view of data. Although each client, each agency has its unique challenges and desired solutions, this starts the process,” says Manish.
Unissant’s Innovation Center is a portal into the company’s thought leadership, prototype solution, and case study content that spans people, process, and platform dimensions. The Innovation Center is where much of the knowledge behind the frameworks comes to life. Manish says that although the center has been around for many years, the company has only recently been marketing it as a resource for clients. “Our innovation center enables our agile approach to solving customer problems because we can test everything here. It gives clients a window to several assets including white papers, past demos and leading-edge technologies. It is cloud enabled so does not require the client to be geographically positioned. It is both an asset for clients and where our own research and development happens. Outside of these walls we don’t want to see failure but here, things can be tried and perhaps not succeed, but we have the opportunity to quickly regroup and try again.”
Success through a Different Lens
Though many businesses define success by their top line or bottom line, for Manish, success is defined by people – by customers who are happy with the success of projects and look forward to doing business with Unissant; and by employees who are successful in their careers and consider the company a good place to work. “If our brand can be synonymous with happy clients and employees, then we have succeeded.”
Nearing the end of 2017, Unissant recruited industry veteran Ken Bonner to take on his current role. Saying that he was attracted by the company’s culture, he also recognized that the contract vehicles the company had access to and its excellent past performance set the foundation for future opportunity. “I’ve never had as many tools at my disposal from an organizational, management or business perspective than here. For a small business to have this kind of foundation is tremendous.”
Ken said Manish understood that growth comes from investment so he set out with an initial goal to build the team. “My approach always had an eye to the culture, so I suggested or brought in people I knew or had worked with who would align with that culture, and the approach of really caring about the customer’s success. The people we brought on are all experts who add value to the team and they all embrace and fit the culture.”
He says he also knew it would be important to ensure synergy within the executive team and that this is made easier when it is formed by people who already know and trust each other. “We were able to move to normal right away. Our last hire, EVP Sean Kelley, was someone who wanted to join because of what he saw within the company. We wanted people who wanted to work for Unissant, not for me or for Manish but who wanted to be part of the good things we were doing and who were committed to doing things the right way.”
The Path of Growth
Manish says it is important for small business to understand that growth takes time and investment. For this company it began with focusing on brand awareness, ensuring customers knew who Unissant was, what it offered and why. “The team had to build a pipeline and that meant looking, not just for opportunities to win, but engagements where we believed we could bring value. We looked for programs where we knew challenges existed and where our frameworks could offer solutions.”
Beyond ensuring the customer, including the end user and contracting official, knew of Unissant’s capabilities and how they can help solve a problem, Ken says a technically outstanding proposal that shows how the solution will solve the problem at a competitive price solidifies the deal.
Going back to Unissant’s beginnings a decade ago, Manish says agencies were very risk averse and interest in small business was low. Now, however, he says the reverse is true and he sees more trust, and a lot more contracts, going to smaller businesses. “In many cases small businesses have a much-accelerated growth compared to several large businesses. There is a hunger to perform that some large businesses lack.”
He says it is a trend they have been aware of the past several years and he anticipates the next five years will offer tremendous opportunity for well managed efficient small business. “Small business offers nimble and agile delivery and response and in many cases it is the smaller businesses, like ours, who are taking their bottom dollar and investing in innovation.”
With Government recognizing that there is significant room for improvement and so many opportunities yet to come, Manish says small business is poised to take advantage. “Across Health IT, agencies are changing ways they manage data, working harder to protect that data and that means opportunity for those who are ready and have the capability.”
Ken says he had seen the pendulum swinging to small business some time ago, noticing that it was harder to win opportunities as a large business. “There was a time when small business had a hard time attracting talent but that is no longer the case. From the business development side and the technical side, it is more common to see talent willing to make the move to small business, as much for the opportunity to grow as for the increased satisfaction in being able to see the personal impact they can make supporting a customer’s mission or the growth of a company.”
Where do You Think the Next Big Disruption Will Be?
Manish says Unissant is working on artificial intelligence and blockchain proof of concepts in their innovation center, including demo work with customers, but he says the immediate opportunity may just rest with blockchain. “We know blockchain has had success on the financial side and there are constraints in Healthcare that must be addressed but when we’re talking about things like fraud prevention, there is potential to be unlocked.”
Advice for Small Business
Saying he has learned a lot along the way, Manish notes one of the most critical was the importance of focusing on culture. The second, he says, is not shying away from investment. “It is very much a case of you get what you pay for. Investment may need to be high for a company to succeed but the payoff at the end, in what you are able to achieve and the good you can do along the way, is worth it.”
He also says that sometimes, risks do pay off. “We took the growth path of only taking on projects where we were Prime as a way to control our own path. We had seen others get hurt by taking on roles only as the arm of a large business. That isn’t the path for everyone and it does involve risk but for us, it did pay off.”
Ken says small business must recognize the importance of culture at every step of their growth. “As a small business it is hard to replace good people and the way you keep talent is through a culture where every member of the team can thrive and grow and contribute.”
He also says paying attention to process is key. “Sometimes small businesses get going and they don’t think about the documenting process and who does what when and how. Behind ISO are processes that define and ensure everyone knows the process and how to do their job. Starting early is critical, as is ensuring everything is documented and well thought out.
Unissant is a Small Disadvantaged Business (SDB) with experience managing large, enterprise-wide IT solutions as a Prime. Unissant is a leading provider of data management and analytics, software development, and digital transformation solutions that empower clients to meet their business and mission goals. The company has deep expertise across the Federal Government, to include sector experience within DoD, national security, finance, and health IT and delivers innovative, cost-effective solutions to help clients achieve mission success. Unissant’s programs are successful because of its Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI) Level 3 and International Organization for Standardization (ISO) based processes that focus on customer transparency and a quality-based project management approach.