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Students vs. Startups Episode 002 "Nantucket Sleigh Ride"

Students vs. Startups Episode 002 "Nantucket Sleigh Ride"


Featuring Sandboxx and Thomas Solutions Incorporated


Welcome to episode two of Students vs. Startups.  Moderator John Gilroy facilitates a discussion with local technology students and entrepreneurs from Eastern Foundry. This is a 23-minute podcast featuring startups with completely different capabilities.

The first interview is with Sandboxx, represented by their Co-Founder and CTO, Swamy P.
Sandboxx helps increase morale in the military by connecting family members with those who serve through their communications app and letter service.

The President of Thomas Solutions Incorporated, Al Thomas, is our next leader in the hot seat.  Although mild-mannered, Al has decades of experience in Special Forces.  He gives real world insight into the challenges of managing growth – he humorously calls it the “Nantucket Sleigh Ride.”

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John Gilroy: Welcome to Students versus Startups: Showdown on the Potomac. My name is John Gilroy, and I'll be your moderator today. The format for this 26-minute podcast is quite simple. We put a leader of a tech startup in the hot seat, students ask questions, find another innovator, and then do it again. Pretty simple format.

The founding sponsor for Students versus Startups is The Radiant Group. If you enjoy solving complex problems and like to work with bright people, then The Radiant Group is the place for you. Contact Al DiLeonardo or Brian Poe at theRadiantgroup.com.

Round 1. We have 3 students on one side of the table. We have a startup on the other side of the table. Our 3 students are: Mike Abel, Scott Thompson, and Fadi Muhsen. We're going to start off and get a little bit of information on each one of these students. Mike Abel, do you really have 3 kids? That's really hard to believe. You're too young for that, buddy.

Mike Abel: I do. I'm outnumbered.

John Gilroy: No voting privileges at your house anymore, huh?

Mike Abel: Very true. Very true.

John Gilroy: A little bit about your background, please.

Mike Abel: My name is Mike Abel. I work for Dell Services Federal Government as a Service Delivery Director. I've been involved in IT for a number of years, after studying initially at Notre Dame and then getting my master's here at Georgetown University.

John Gilroy: Wonderful. Scott Thompson. Scott is our token Floridian. You've got to have someone from the Sunshine State here. Might as well bring in Scott. Tell us a little bit about your background Scott.

Scott Thompson: I try not to claim Florida too often. I've grown to love D.C. Scott Thompson, again, from Florida. I actually work for Foresight CFO, which is actually teamed up with another Georgetown professor, so we've been doing business about a year and a half.

John Gilroy: Fadi, your background please.

Fadi Muhsen: Fadi Muhsen. I have a bachelor's in Economics and Finance and master's in Technology Management. I have 2 startups that I'm running. One in the Middle East, that's a professional networking service for physicians. One here in the States, which is a classified marketplace for consumer electronics.

1058-001-fadi-download Fadi Muhsen

John Gilroy: Now, in December, most people go skiing. Fadi doesn't do skiing. He hops on a plane, goes to Thailand, and practices martial arts. Come on Fadi, you've got to go skiing this year.

Fadi Muhsen: From time to time. I might. I might. A little easier to go skiing than train.

John Gilroy: I'll bet. Our first startup is a company called Sandboxx with 2 X's on it. We have the founder and CTO here, Swamy, S-W-A-M-Y. Swamy tell us about your background, a little about Sandboxx please.


Swamy P: Thank you John for having me here. This is a wonderful panel. So excited to be here. Sandboxx was a brain child of my co-founder, which was Sam Meek. He was a marine for 4 years. We found each other because I've been a technology evangelist for the last 20 years. Always been a part of technology. Had a startup that failed. Was a part of another startup before that. Always been doing that. It was a perfect match made in heaven.

"We spoke on Google Hangouts for literally 30 seconds, we were like, 'Let's do this.' That's how it started."- Swamy

John Gilroy: Very interesting. What you really do, is you create a service to help family members stay in touch from graduation to retirement.

Swamy P: Correct. Since, like I said, it was an idea for the military. The concept is, the privileges that we have with communication, with the toys, the tools that we have, the phones and the tablets and the computers and access to media and channel- that's what they don't have throughout their entire career. Our goal is to make it as seamless as possible. As friction-less as possible, during their entire life. From the day they decide to join until they retire, and they're still looking for jobs and such.

John Gilroy: Sounds like the software development life cycle for humans, huh?

Swamy P: Correct.

John Gilroy: Interesting. I'm going to ask you the question I ask all our startups- what business problem does your company solve?

Swamy P: The business problem we're trying to solve is take the friction out of how hard these families have to go through in order to communicate with their kids, or spouses, or father. Make it so easy for them. You can use the platforms they're used to. We're focusing on social media as the choice for software, so that they can communicate with their loved ones on or off the grid.

At the same time, the features that we built on the app are totally based on what our users want. We're not going about a 10 year plan saying, "This is what we're going to do." We're constantly evolving by asking our users, "What do you want? What do you need?" We have a really good, loyal customer base which is both military folks and their friends and family. We're trying to solve everything.

Fadi Muhsen: Something that I have personal experience with, and I'd love to get your idea and your experience is- how many times did you guys change the idea or the initial concept before you actually deployed it? From the initial conceptualization of what the product is supposed to be, to what it actually was when you guys went ahead and deployed it to the market.

Swamy P: Technically, the company was registered 4 years ago. Nothing came out of it for the first 2 years. The idea, the original idea was a Myspace for the military. We are so glad that we didn't pursue that. 2 years later, I think that's when the original founders, they were still pursuing it. They were actually using a contracting firm to build that out and that's when Sam became a part of it. Then I became a part of it. We were like, it's not going to be a web solution. It's not going to be a web platform. We want to be mobile first. We said we are going to build a mobile platform that's going to work on both iPhones and Android phones.

Since then, every 6 months, every year we are pivoting. We think we know what we're doing, we don't. That's the best part about startups, that you don't know what you're doing. When you're in front of investors, yes, you need a 1-year plan, you need a 5-year projection. You're forecasting the numbers. None of that matters. If you are willing to realize that and are willing to adapt, and willing to constantly make those changes, that's when you'll see the 10 percent of startups that are successful. 90% fail.

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Scott Thompson: One of the biggest things that I'm always thinking about is the one problem that you could have solved earlier or focused on. Like in years down the road, like, "Well, if we knew, we tracked this metric at this time it would have been a lot better," or "If we just thought this way earlier." Just get your insights on that.

Swamy P: Here's the problem with founders and entrepreneurs. They're very insatiable when it comes to doing things. You have to fix everything. That's a common trait that you'll see. What ends up happening is we end up doing so many things, instead of focusing on one aspect.

When we started out, we wanted the entire military to use our app. Not going to happen. Now, 2 years later, the only branch of service that we've captured is the Marine Corp. It took us 2 years instead of realizing that at the beginning, saying focus on that. Focus on that market. Get them on board, serve them right, the other branches will follow. We didn't do that. We went for the entire spectrum, and none of the others are on board yet. That's what we learned.

Mike Abel: You eventually decided to focus on the Marine Corp, which is a pretty tight-knit group, almost family to a degree. What is it about your background that uniquely qualifies you to connect with this group of people?

Swamy P: Nothing. The reason I say that is I'm the tech evangelist. Sam, who's the co-founder, he was a Marine for 4 years. Every member that he's served with before, or the families, like you said, they're very tight-knit community. It's easier for us to penetrate the boot camp or basic training locations in  . . or San Diego or even people who are deployed. They have their brotherhood. You go out there and say, "Ooh-Rah," and all of a sudden they're best buddies. They also have competition amongst other branches. The soldiers are not big fans of the Marines, versus the Seals, so it's all that stuff happening within. That's why we started focusing on the Marine Corp.

Mike Abel: I'm sure the Marines are happy to be first.

Swamy P: Absolutely.

Fadi Muhsen: You talk about co-founders. They say that no one really gets anywhere without the help of others. How true is that, to a certain extent? Not in terms of like how your skills complement one another, but how far do you think you can get without having a co-founder that can do a job that you think you can do at the same time? Does it really help to have someone else on board, to help kind of do other things or other aspects of the startup in the early stages when you're first conceptualizing your product?

Swamy P: Absolutely. You have to know your strengths and weaknesses. If you try to hone in on your weakness and try to improve them, your startup's not going to be successful. The first thing you do is, be aware, mindful, of what you are good at. The only reason that most startups are successful is the initial core team that they build. The first team of 10 or 5. You are surrounding yourself with people who are better than you at almost every single thing that you may have failed at. You have an idea, you know what you're good at.

You bring everyone else to augment that engine, and then you go from there. That's why every time we hire someone, we're like, we want to hire someone who's smarter than us. All we are, we're risk takers. We have an idea. We pursued it. We gave up a lot of things. We sacrificed. Not everyone's willing to do that. You bring on people who are the next level, who are like, I need a paycheck but I'm willing to take a risk with these 2 guys. They have passion. They seem to be perseverant. They are patient. It's been 2 years, we're still trying. We haven't made big bucks yet, but we're still on a path to acquiring more and more users. Our team has gone up like 10 people now. It's exciting.

Scott Thompson: One thing that always comes up is with people thinking they're doing the startup world, they're thinking it's like a bunch of ping-pong tables and stuff, and people aren't working as hard. How do you balance that? How do you live in a culture that's extremely uncontrolled and not governed, and you a lot of reliance on your team to actually do the work? Then balancing, of course, this is a startup, so let's have a little fun as well.

1011-002-scott-cristina-download Scott Thompson

Swamy P: Yeah. I was listening to a podcast this morning about how we work and why we work and was talking about how the whole factory system is what is slowly dying and we're moving into this world where everyone has unlimited vacation. You're not rewarded for being in the office for 20 hours. You're not on a time clock. Everything's changing. Incentivizing your employees or your core team with money is slowly changing.

People want to feel good. They want to see- they want to know they're making a difference. That's what you have to ... it's a tough balance to maintain. Like you said, someone was talking about Millennials earlier- they are- the tech industry's become the new Wall Street. They get paid a lot. They know they're 25 and they're making 6 figure salaries. It's hard to keep them motivated. The only way you can do that is innovating and keeping them challenged, and making sure that they know that they're making a difference.

Mike Abel: You've had a company now for 4 years, and I'm curious what has motivated you along that time and if there's any great success stories you could share in terms of things that have really kept you going as you've been working this project.

Swamy P: There's so many things. It's a roller coaster ride. There's high highs and low lows. Some days you're excited because there's more revenue, employees are happy, everyone's happy. Some days you're struggling to just get through the day because your partners are not happy. It's just a difference between being happy at a big company versus feeling fulfilled that your work is actually changing people's lives, as small as it could be, but it feels great.

John Gilroy: Great job students. Great job Swamy. If people want to find more about your company, what website should they visit?

Swamy P: They can go to Sandboxx with 2 X's dot us, or you can search on Google for Sandboxx with 2 X's. Our SEO is pretty good, so you'll find us, the first 2 pages are ours. www.sandboxx.us

John Gilroy: 2 X's and dot us.

Swamy P: Right.

John Gilroy: Great. We are hosted by Eastern Foundry, a startup hub in the business of forging innovation in the government marketplace. For more information, go to www.Eastern-Foundry.com.

Our monthly sponsor is SAS Federal. Through innovative analytics, business intelligence, and data management software and services, SAS helps government agencies make more informed decisions faster.

Round 2. Welcome back to Students versus Startups: Showdown in the Potomac. You already know our students, Michael Abel, Scott Thompson, and Fadi Muhsen. Our second guest here is Thomas Solutions Incorporated, represented by president Al Thomas. Works in many different areas, including defense, special forces, and intelligence. Tell us about your background, Al.


Al Thomas: Thank you very much. Pleasure to be here for the showdown. My background is basically I went straight into the military out of high school and started in West Point. From there, I went straight into what we call the combat arms field artillery. Spent 20 years of service with Army Special Forces, retiring at 20 years of service and starting my own company, Thomas Solutions Incorporated, where we now provide support to defense special operations and defense intelligence.

John Gilroy: Good strong background. I'll ask you the question I ask everyone. What business problem does your company solve?

Al Thomas: Our business problem that we solve is support to first the defense intelligence community, where we provide subject matter expertise to the office of the Secretary of Defense. Also, we provide a very niche training for the United States Army Special Operations Command, in their SERE, which stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Training.


Fadi Muhsen: Thanks again for being here, as the professor mentioned, very impressive background. I kind of want to know how you feel your background in the military and West Point helped influence the ideas and just the discipline and what you built throughout that time to bring you to where you are now. Did that serve a big enough role that you think actually matriculated up until this point?

Al Thomas: Absolutely, Fadi. Thank you for that question. Actually, it's funny. My military background after 20 years of serving in various places overseas including combat, I was ready for a real change into the private sector, and taking what I knew and translating that into very difficult regions around the world to provide, maybe, logistics support, and training and assistance. Things that I did in the military, but translating them to the corporate world.

1035-002-al-thomas-download Al Thomas

What I found was my demand signal and my background put me right back to the Defense Department. It's where we started right back into work that required security clearances and our niche capabilities that were well known. That was where the demand was immediately for us to get started. I had to go where I could pay my bills and get started and we've been growing in that space. I still have a goal of expanding more into the humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and other capacity building efforts globally to help other governments and security forces.

Scott Thompson: How do you think about growth and scalability? It's always on the back of the minds of startups and things like that. How do you actually grow and cross those big numbers?

Al Thomas: Absolutely. That's at the forefront of my mind right now, Scott, I'll tell you. There's a movie out right now based on hunting the great white whale. I watched it and I related it very closely to my company since we had our first big win this summer, 

“..which took us over 10 million dollars in contracts. When you hit that whale, then they go for what they call the Nantucket sleigh ride.” - Al Thomas

It was one of the most stressful times in the company, going from a couple people on direct to over 30 people on our contracts. All of the things that go into that.

The first couple years of the company, we were getting rehearsed on pursuing, and so we were getting kind of good on our systems for pursuit, and what I call the hunting phase. We hadn't broken through yet, to you know, what do you do now that you caught it. That took us in a whole new direction for the first time. It was very interesting.

Mike Abel: As you're continuing to grow, at this point in the company, what are the biggest challenges that you expect to face in the next 6 months as you take that next step up?

Al Thomas: Yeah. Some of the challenges that we're really looking at is just kind of getting our baseline for where we are now. We've gone on to where we're doing multi-million dollar work, kind of see what that really means, what that looks like for the company. We're buying new office space, hiring new people. We've got people in multiple states now, different security clearance requirements. It's very complex for the things we're doing. Keeping that all in balance, we're getting ready to have our year-end tax strategy. As you look at all that, the scale has gone up for us and it's a first time for us to really look at that.

Fadi Muhsen: Now that you've got your big win, I'm assuming the challenges internally have changed. Now, are they significantly different from when you first started out? Is it easier now that you have this big win to actually facilitate your business going forward?


1055-002-group-download-1 Mike Abel, Scott Thompson, Fadi Muhsen

Al Thomas: That really reminded me of a little conversation I like to have called fire starting. I also like talking to other startups because I'm still learning as much as I can. I still don't even know what I don't know. That's what I like to say. When I talk to other companies that are starting up, I like to talk about fire starting, because there's a very big difference between starting a fire or building a fire, and continuing the fire.

A lot of smart people that we had in the company when- we're only about 3 years old now. We started off with that initial team, they were very brilliant people, great backgrounds in so many different areas, but we were lacking the ability to start the fire. Where a person could bring in a big log, a big idea, they could bring in connections, it's kind of like if you just throw that on a match, it just kind of doesn't do anything for you. Really, finding that first spark and being able to grow a spark into a small flame, and then growing that flame into where you have little twigs, and then being eventually to bring in smaller sticks until you can get to a log, it's kind of a whole process of really starting a fire.

Internally, we now have that fire starting. We're still- we're not quite to where I think we're throwing real logs on that fire, but we have a great understanding of the size of businesses and the size of processes that we need to be successful now that we kind of achieved just the first phases of getting going.

Scott Thompson: I kind of asked this question last time, but I guess a big thing is what's the one thing you wish you knew, or skill set or even knowledge base that you had at the beginning that if you knew this was- you were going to be down this path today, what would you have done in the very beginning to kind of set you up for success?

Al Thomas: So many things. There are just things that you really don't know and you can't know everything. I often will say that if there ever was that place, if there was that magical library that could've walked into and it was all laid out and said, "You just need to do these things for your company, and you'll be good," I probably would have been overwhelmed and discouraged and gone right back to where can I submit my resume for my next job?

We just didn't know so many things. There's aspects of your company you need to be- 2 years old before you can submit for an African- American like myself, could submit for what they call the  8a program. Say, okay, you need to be 2 years old to get there. I'm only 3 years old now and well on my way to not needing that, per se. You need 2 years for financing. There's different requirements that you need for security work. Is all that in place? Have you considered that? I really had no idea about what it would mean for me as an individual in my line of work requiring the high levels of security clearance, how are you going to do that when your company has to have a clearance? What does that mean? Your company has to have a clearance. You have to have one so you can hold for your individuals. All of this was foreign to me. There's so many things I wish I had known.

I started pretty close to when I retired, so I spent a lot of the first couple years just learning some of the basics.

Mike Abel: After 3 years, what's the biggest change in your company's mission from the time you started this and had grand ideas to today when you've taken the next step and gotten a large contract and are trying to avoid being pulled along by that whale?

1009-002-mike-download Mike Abel

Al Thomas: Right. That's great. In government contracting, it's a very unique line of work, because I also equate that a lot of times to NASCAR. You have a large group that's going after one prize. Then, you might have a breakaway group of about 5 teams, and then in the end only 1 gets it. Like Ricky Bobby said “If you ain’t first, you’re last”.

That's really what it is. When you take on an effort, it doesn't necessarily align- it may not align directly with your vision. Hopefully it's in your wheelhouse. In our case, it was in our wheelhouse, some of the things we've gone after. Then you're teaming, or for us definitely teaming because you have other challenges, like what is basically your resume of past performance to make you competitive enough to be the best choice for the government in order to secure that win.

Scott Thompson: What has been your single biggest differentiator between you and your competitors?


Al Thomas: I like to leverage my teams based on the work that we're going after, so that answer would vary depending on each piece of work that we're chasing. I would bring in my special operations defense intel background, strategic work that I've done, and continue to do. My work in- for . .  I'd bring that in. Then if, depending on the work, I'd find the right corporate teams, which we are- we have dozens and dozens of corporate relationships at this point, so we can leverage those guys and call them up and build teams, the right team. They're in the same business of winning, and build the right team for that to where we think it will be the one team that wins.

Fadi Muhsen: When you first rolled out your service, how hard was it to acquire your first hundred customers?

Al Thomas: Wow. I think I'm still in that process.

Fadi Muhsen: Okay. We'll tone it back. How hard was it to acquire your first one, in terms of your marketing? Was it more SEO? Was it more about being found on the web? Was it more about former contacts in the military and the government that you had built over the years?

Al Thomas: Yeah.

Fadi Muhsen: How did that play out for you?

Al Thomas: For us, because we're not, since we are- our customer is the government. We sell services essentially to the government. Really, to get started, I partnered with another company that had work in the government and we started after what they had in defense forensics and biometrics. Then, I also was able to leverage my experiences that I had in the office of the Secretary of Defense doing defense intel work. I was able to come back in my own corporate capacity and start in there. That kind of got my first little- my 2 that kind of got me going, with just the 2 full-time employees, and then I just began pursuing it after that.

1063-001-group-with-ef-logo-show-download Mike Abel , Al Thomas, Scott Thompson, Fadi Muhsen

John Gilroy: Great job Al. Great job students. Now, Al, if the listeners want to find out more information on the company, how can they find your company?

Al Thomas: I would Google Thomas Solutions Incorporated. We're located in Springfield, Virginia and you can see us come right up there.

John Gilroy: Great. It looks like we're running out of time here. I'd like to thank our founding sponsor, The Radiant Group, our host, Eastern Foundry, and our monthly sponsor, SAS Federal. If you would like to see a transcript of this episode, please visit the blog at www.eastern-foundry.com. Signing off, from high atop a nondescript building in lovely downtown Rosslyn Virginia. I'm John Gilroy, and thanks for listening to Students versus Startups: Showdown on the Potomac.

If you are interested in participating in Students vs. Startups as either an entrepreneur or a student, please reach out to Associate Producer, Dan Bowman at Dan@eastern-foundry.com