Featuring The Intelligence Community
Read Time: 15 minutes
Welcome to Episode 52 of Students vs. Startups. This week, moderator John Gilroy talks with Graham Plaster, creator of The Intelligence Community. With a goal of attacking the fragmentation of the defense industry through social networking and meetups, The Intelligence Community has over 100,000 members.
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John: Welcome to students versus startups showdown at Potomac. My name is John Gilroy I will be your moderator today, let’s have a big round of applause for show number 52. Wooh! Yeah! Yeah! And some people think that’s my IQ, no it’s in the 60’s for sure.
Here we are sitting in the offices of Eastern Foundry, we took over a conference room here. On one side of the table we have graduate students from Georgetown University, on the other side of the table you have a startup, we’ll have a little 26-minute conversation we all walk out of here fast friends. Kind of an interesting way to have this exchange here on the banks of the Potomac.
Let’s start off with our students, our first student is a gentleman named Rahul, Rahul tell us about your background please.
Rahul: Sure thanks John, happy new year to everybody Rahul Bardwaj graduate student at Georgetown University. I have a background in applied math from the University of Chicago as well. I have various different roles in different companies from telecommunications and investment backing as well. I’m happy to be here, thank you.
John: And Nathan Wallace.
Nathan: Hi, I’m a web developer at Georgetown University as well as a graduate student at Georgetown University. About four years ago I made a transition from the fine arts industry into technology. I’ve been doing that for the last five years.
John: Math background and you’ve got an arts background, this should be a good conversation. Mr. Phil Crawford please your background.
Phil: Hey good evening everybody. My name is Phil Crawford it is my fifth semester in the technology management program at Georgetown University, I am a consultant with the federal government helping federal CIO’s do IT better. Helping them set up data centers, procure identity management services, make an accessible website.
John: Well that’s great good background, and our startup today is a gentleman by the name of Graham Plaster and he works for an organization called The Intelligence Community.com. If you want to take a look at the Washington D.C. area couldn’t get a better group of people on the table here huh? All kinds of backgrounds, Graham tell us about your background please and your organization the Intelligence Community.
Graham: Sure no problem. Graduated from the Naval Academy in 2002. Did 11 years active duty including deployment to the middle east and around the world. Got out in 2013 and launched this business the Intelligence Community Inc and the Intelligence Community.com as a social network for people in defense and intelligence, we do a lot of different things including crowdsourcing, staffing, next-generation networking for the defense sector.
John: My My my, it seems to me it would be very difficult to just meet someone at an event and tell them what you do. Let me ask you a question then. So what business problem does your organization solve?
Graham: So it solves a number of problems but I think in the name you can hear the word community, I think one of the things we say unofficially is we put community back in the intelligence community. If you look at the 9/11 commission report, there was a critique on the fragmentation and cold war mentality that was inherent to the defense industry.
So one of the things we do is we do monthly meetups and events and we attack the fragmentation through social networking and that creates a lot of new opportunities for crowdsourcing and also helping small business bid on government contracts through surrounding them with a cloud of expertise.
John: We’re probably going to L.A here in June and all kinds of entertainment in the entertainment community out there, only makes sense to have the Intelligence community here. It’s kind of a different application here isn’t it?
Rahul: Yeah absolutely. It’s interesting so you’re developing a very focused ecosystem, connecting folks with a common background to solve what specific problems in the public sector? So the question is how does the business model really work for your organization and how does the deal typically flow if you’re aggregating a bunch of different contractors so to speak? Or not. . .
Graham: Yeah there is a number of different business models that we are utilizing currently. I think the most interesting one is actually a very traditional one, which is defense contracting as a subcontractor, where we come alongside another small business that wants to prime on the contract, so they bid on the Government contract maybe they have a set-aside category like 8A or veteran-owned small business. Then we are sub-contractor but because we have a large social network of people in the defense sector we enable a small business bid very confidently on pretty much any kind of defense contract.
We have a social network of about 100,000 members and we are growing about a thousand new members every month. If you can imagine a large defense contractor having to keep everyone on the bench or on the beach all the time on overhead we can enable small business to compete with that by coming alongside and surrounding their business with a virtual bench of talent.
John: So Nathan when I was your age I moved into town here, next door to me was someone who worked in the intelligence community and they would even tell me where they worked. It would seem like this is a tough sell.
Phil: Yeah what was really the catalyst for you to start the social network for this type of audience.
Graham: I was working on a Master’s degree thesis back in 2010 where I was looking at the blogging phenomenon in Iran and what I saw was there was a lot of unofficial groups in social networking that were springing up and they were not necessarily connected to official organizations. So for instance in Iran, you had a lot of blogs that were starting to become prevalent but they were not endorsed by an official government entity or group, and I saw the same thing happening in the United States.
A great case study is a national public radio’s Facebook page in which the unofficial page grew to several thousand I think 10,000 members before NPR thought to create a Facebook page and so what they did was offer to take over the unofficial one and the guy who was the moderator made a stay because he realized that all the work he had been doing wasn’t for nothing. They partnered with him, so I saw that the defense sector and the intelligence community would probably be the last ones to take advantage of this type of merger acquisition plan of social networking.
But I was connected to a number of senior leaders in defense and intelligence and I saw that some of these organic groups springing up online could be connected between unofficial and official groups. So what I did was started taking over some of the unofficial groups and started offering them as a resource to people that were in positions of authority in the government. Looking for ways to solve that 9/11 commissioner report problem, which is the fragmentation of the intelligence community.
John: So this is a fascinating concept isn’t it?
Phil: Yeah absolutely and I think it gets back to something you were talking about with identity. I was kind of curious so on the intelligence community website I think it’s the social side there was like a LinkedIn group you guys had from like 2008. I was kind of curious what was the strategy for that group on LinkedIn? How do you guys keep it cultivated, do you have any strategies for it in terms of that platform? How does intelligence federals even have profiles on LinkedIn?
John: That’s the real question
Graham: We use the term intelligence very loosely because if you think about the information age where information is currency and we’re looking forward into a new future in which security really has to do with information dominance and information security. Both in government and for the military in the intelligence community and private intelligence and business intelligence. So the intelligence community with a small “c” is really about that whole continuum between the private sector and public sector for information operations.
And so I would like to create a wider on ramp and off ramp between people who served in government or the military and doing something in the private sector, or coming from the private sector and coming into the government service. So I use that moniker the intelligence community as a centerpiece as a conversation piece to draw certain types of people. But we are very inclusive, which I see as being pretty counter-culture to be so inclusive. It’s an international network, and we typically have people from other places offering to help the United States in different ways and that creates interesting referral networks.
But the LinkedIn groups that we run and there are 11 of them currently they map to different specialties within traditional “ints,” intelligences specialties – – but we would like to expand that indefinitely and continue to grow up groups as they merge and be creative and open-minded about how those should actually evolve.
John: Those who listen should know that Graham has pretty active twitter account @Grahamplaster. I went there and hashtag change agents, hashtag innovation, hashtag discovery, this is what it’s all about, it’s all about creative new ways, getting new people together and looking at perspectives different and really sounds like an exciting group to be part of. And where else than Washington D.C. right Rahul
Rahul: Absolutely it’s a very interesting and very fascinating concept and I wish you all the best. So you have 100,000 subscribers or members in the community and I think you touched on what your growth strategy is, how do you on and off create an on ramp and off ramp for people to engage with government so to speak. So the question I have is you also talk about cutting-edge security products, are you looking at investing or facilitating or creating unique IP, is that another strategy for growth or?
Graham: It is, actually one of the Eastern Foundry email newsletters that came out just today talks about the importance of OTA’s in next strategy and one of the things we’re looking to do and we just launched this year is called TIC consortium, if you’re familiar with Other Transaction Authorities and how they are typically constructed there is usually a management firm that oversees the coalition or consortium I should say and so we would like to become one of those firms.
Because we already have a social network of 100,000 people we would like to partner with government agencies that would want to use that network and start sourcing technology sourcing ideas. And we see our network as something that could reach outside Silicon Valley and outside D.C to bring in some really new stuff.
John: You know Nathan if you do your homework and listen to an interview six months ago with Camron Gorguinpour and he talked about OTA’s and exactly how can you bring innovation to the federal government, first of all, you have to have some tools. The OTA’s a tool, and how you going to make people aware of it, so it fits in perfectly with Eastern Foundry and innovation the federal government technology.
Nathan: Yeah and of speaking of start-ups what kind of funding does it take to grow a community to that size?
Graham: Well a lot of it can be done with Guerrilla marketing. I’d say start early, dominate a platform early so Gary Vanderchuck likes us I guess, as you know this LinkedIn group started in 2008 and it is called the intelligence community so if anybody hasn’t already claimed some sort of presence on something like Snapchat or a newer platform you could probably get in there and do that. But I think you know I’m a big proponent of finding out who already exists in the space and offering to help them and then over time maybe there is an opportunity to take over. That’s what happened with me and with these groups.
John: How can I help you, we’ve heard that before haven’t we Phil?
Phil: Absolutely. And I guess in your view who do you see as your biggest competitors in this space?
Graham: Well it really just depends on, which business model you’re talking about, because we are still a startup and we’re raising money right now so we got a number of business models at play, so we’ve done some staffing I wouldn’t say our major competitors are the staffing companies but we’re making money that way. We are in a sense doing some of the things the trade associations are doing AFCEA, NDIA but we don’t take dues we do, networking events like they do and we have an internship program with about 300 interns in it. And they are virtual, we had an intern in Australia or is over 80 years old.
John: There’s a headline story!
Graham: Yeah and we have had interns in Iraq and Afghanistan program. That’s really interesting network, we treat that like it’s a fraternity, sorority type of group rather than a traditional internship program, it’s called our fellows and associates program.
So what we want to do is take a large, rapidly growing social network and we want to create concentric circles of trust inside of that as people kind of graduate up through those circles they can assume more responsibility and obtain more opportunity, and as we build that sticky network of professionals I believe we are going to discover a lot of business opportunities for ourselves. So we’ve operated very lean from day one, we started making money after three months of operation, and we’ve never made so much money that we can employ somebody full-time so our whole company is still so lean that we’re all still volunteers and part-timers, that’s why we’re raising money right now.
But we have had some business opportunities in the last year that could be very large, government contracting opportunities so we’re trying to scale to meet that.
John: You know I’m a big believer in face to face networking. In fact, Eastern Foundry has face to face networking events here, and your twitter feed looks like there’s a lot of face to face you have. It looks like, look I hate to say it but they’re having fun, their getting together and creating new things.
Graham: Yeah we just, we do monthly happy hours, mostly they are designed to do matchmaking between job seekers and recruiters or job seekers and CEO’s of small businesses. We’ve had people come to our happy hours and not have a clearance and walk away with an opportunity to get sponsor for a top secret clearance and polygraph, which is pretty unique. And we’ve also had recently a happy hour with about 150 people over near Eastern Foundry in Crystal City and our guest of honor was J.J. Snow. Who’s the dawn of innovation officer for SOCOM. So that’s Special Operations Command.
So that attracted a lot of innovators in the defense space and our questions to them really involved, how do we bring more and better and faster innovation into government into the intelligence community. And I think there is a lot of excitement around OTA’s and I think there is a lot of excitement around defense innovation board, which was meeting the same day. And there is a lot of excitement around DIUX and MD5 and hacking for defense and a number of those programs, but beyond that I think it all comes back to the personalities that are really interested and willing to work together to make these things reality.
John: You mentioned Hacking for defense. Nathan here is participating in the Georgetown hackathon, isn’t he?
Nathan: Yeah, we’ll be working on some projects around social innovation and using some data source and coming up with a novel way to simplify the way people can access information for social good. And speaking of social good it sounds like the community is very participatory and collaborative so how has it had an impact on you personally?
Graham: Serving 11 years in the Navy, I had a number of leadership opportunities, but because it’s such a large organization you don’t really get to flex your creative muscles until you get to run your own thing. So getting out in 2013 was an opportunity for me to take something over and drive it the way I wanted to drive it and that’s been the most rewarding thing for me, I must say.
I really loved leadership challenges, and I love the possibility of mentoring people and that’s one of the reasons why I launched that fellows program I mentioned. That’s been one of the most rewarding things although there is no money in it per se. It’s been one of the most rewarding things about starting this business and running it is having the opportunity to mentor people who are up and coming in their careers.
John: I get up every morning and try to keep up with technology, I fail everyday. I mean think about the people in the Pentagon with these huge budgets and innovations coming and poring in every single window, it’s difficult just to keep up. I think this is one opportunity in the community environment to, have you heard of xyz? Because you can’t even, some stuff isn’t even printed it just comes out through twitter it comes out through informal sources.
Rahul: So it’s 2018, we’re at the beginning of the year. So what are some of the, from your vantage point, what are some of the low hanging fruit or the gaps that you see exist in the current relay with the government, today that maybe you could fit or fill in the near future.
Graham: I think for the last several years there has been a trend to try and get small businesses to do more work for government. And so, for instance, hub-zone companies there’s a lot of T’s to cross and I’s to dot in order to get a company that does something well into the category of hub-zone so that they can start winning contracts a little bit more easily.
And I’ve heard of some companies in the defense sector having an 8A status, which I don’t know how much you know about that but, having an 8A but not knowing how to use it to actually win work. Or a company that does great work is very innovative but doesn’t know anything about defense contracting, and I think that’s a space where organizations like Eastern Foundry and our company and our networks can really help each other, by paring a company that has an 8A status and can win contracts and prime and a company that can subcontract and has a unique technology and that can happen inside of an OTA, consortium structure or just at a networking event informally.
John: Graham when I read the description about the organization, I thought it was going to be a dot org, I wrote out intelligence community dot but it’s a dot com. So it’s a for-profit organization?
John: So where do you see your profit-making opportunities to expand in the next four to five years?
Graham: You know I think that there are opportunities both in the public and private sector for open source intelligence contracts. Because we’ve already done one contract that was crowdsourcing for an intelligence agency a couple of years ago. And we’ve got about six other contracts out for potential award. Two of them are starting to firm up pretty well. One of them with the United Nations, so we’re looking at those opportunities to see where that will take our company, but I think open source intelligence and crowdsourcing is really interesting.
But I’m cognoscente that in a lot of the attempts to do crowdsourcing there has been a lot of gamification so I don’t know if you’ve participated with anything like what’s the new Amazon HQ2 there’s a number of initiatives to get people involved with crowdsourcing for micropayments or awards or bounties. I’m cognoscente that our company has emerged out of a LinkedIn community a lot of people that are in our groups are motivated based on career opportunities.
And really what I would like to do is follow in the footsteps of uber and lift and other eco-systems that have been able to create a fair wage opportunity for people rather than just points and pennies, I’d like to be really offering people a secondary income or maybe even the possibilities, ideally the possibility of geographic arbitrage. Where you could have somebody get out of the military and choose to live anywhere in the world and do part-time or full-time consulting online or services and continue to support a family. And my dream for a long time has been to create new ecosystems all across the Midwest, for people that are transitioning out of the military for a time, especially wounded warriors, for a time maybe you though oh what are they going to do for their next career and for that to not be a question anymore, but to say their knowledge will be valuable wherever they live.
John: Phil’s taking a course right now in social media marketing tactics, this whole idea of a LinkedIn community and springing up from there, it kind of flips it in reverse doesn’t it. It’s kind of fascinating isn’t it Phil?
Phil: Yeah Absolutely. And I guess you kind of hit on an interesting point that it sounds like a lot of people kind of organically found out about the LinkedIn group but you sort of hit on this potential other customer base, which is the person who just came out of active service. Do you have any strategies for reaching those folks or have you guys just more focused on organic growth and developing that?
Graham: So it’s been, you know burning the candle from both ends kind of strategy. You know I saw that the groups were springing up organically, and I saw simultaneously that a lot of institutions especially government institutions were creating their own official programs that were not connected to the unofficial and so for instance in the military you have something called TAP or TAMP.
Transition assistance programs, so when someone gets ready to get out of the military they typically go through a week or more of programmatic training to go into the civilian workforce and a couple years ago it might still be happening but we had people that were sponsoring our company, advertising with our company they would go in and they would be teaching during the TAP program and would be mentioning our company and our resources at the class and that was happening because we had done so much legwork to build this organic network. So the two were meeting, now would it be nice if the government turned around and hired us on a contract to go run a TAP class? Yeah sure, and we’ve talked about it and we’ve looked into that, it’s a possibility.
John: Students great job, Graham great job, now if someone is listening Graham where can they get more information your organization?
Graham: TheintelligenceCommunity.com or .org or .net
John: Oh you got all three so I guess my esp was good on that one. We’re running out of time here, if you would like show notes, links and a transcript visit the Oakmontgroupllc.com.
I would like to thank our founding sponsor Radiant solutions, if you are interested in getting involved with GeoSpatial projects contact Radiant solutions.
We are hosted by Eastern Foundry a community of government contractors who are bringing innovative solutions to the government marketplace, for more information go to Eastern-foundry.com
If you’d like to participate as a student or a startup contact me John Gilroy at the Oakmontgroupllc.com and thanks for listening to Students vs. Startups showdown at the Potomac.