Students vs. Startups Episode 3: Guidelines for Collaboration in a Harsh Environment

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Featuring Kastling Group and Silver Sword

Welcome to episode three of Students vs. Startups. Moderator John Gilroy facilitates a discussion with local technology students and entrepreneurs from Eastern Foundry. This is a 18-minute podcast featuring some of the brightest minds in the D.C. area.

The first interview is with Kastling Group, represented by COO David Lee. Kastling helps companies modernize their IT systems while constantly thinking about future strategy.

Silver Sword enters the hot seat in the second half, represented by president, Eli Senter. Silver Sword works to rapidly deliver software to their federal customers in the hopes that the government will strive to use cutting-edge technologies.

If you would like to get weekly updates sent straight to your phone, you can subsribe below on iTunes!

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Thanks to our sponsors:

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Transcript:

John Gilroy: Welcome to Students vs. Startups, showdown on the Potomac. My name is John Gilroy and I’ll be your moderator today. The structure for this 18-minute podcast is quite simple; we put a leader of a tech startup in the hot seat, students ask question, we find another innovator and then do it again. The founding sponsor for Students vs. Startups is The Radiant Group. If you enjoy solving complex problems and like to work with bright people, the Radiant Group is a place for you. Contact Al DiLeonardo or Abe Usher at theradiantgroup.com.

Okay. Here we are. Round one. Our students today, one has a master’s degree and one is in the middle of technology management program from the School of Continuing Studies at Georgetown University. Our first student is Stephanie Aylward. Stephanie, tell us about your background, please.

Stephanie: Sure. I’m currently a student and I also work full-time. I work at Oracle where I manage a business development team that covers the Federal Government. My team calls in prospects into the Federal Government to find sales opportunities.

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Stephanie Aylward, Phil Crawford

John Gilroy: Good. Phil is an experienced podcaster. Phil, you have an interesting background, Phil. Tell us about your background.

Phil Crawford: Yeah. Absolutely. I work for the Federal Government as an IT consultant, I’m also a student at the Georgetown Program, I actually work for section 508 of web standards, people with disabilities. If you have low vision, you’re able to access technology as you need it, as one example. Happy to be here.

John Gilroy: Good. Our third student is Madeline Tomchick who graduated just recently, is that right?

Madeline: I did. I graduated in May, 2016 from Georgetown.

John Gilroy: You might as well tell people about your Tropaia Award because you should be bragging about that.

Madeline: Yeah. I did get the Tropaia Award from Georgetown as an inspiring woman in technology management when I graduated. I’m pretty proud of that as well.

John Gilroy: Our first startup is a company called the Kastling Group, that’s with a K. The Chief Operating Officer is David Lee. David, give a quick background on you real quick, please.kastling

David Lee: Hi, my name is David. I’ve been in the IT consulting industry about 10 years. I started as a software developer, but now more into the architecture side of it.

John Gilroy: Good. Good. Good. Actually, the question I ask all of our startups and then we’ll have the students ask, what business problem does your company solve?

David Lee: Kastling Group is an IT modernization consulting company. As we all know, federal agencies have very large existing software products that they use and it’s very different from creating new software when you have to replace existing software. We specialize in analyzing the existing business requirements and converting them into a new product using the latest technologies.

Stephanie: What motivated you to start the business and to solve these problems?

David Lee: I started working for large companies and I felt a little bit … I don’t know, like trapped? I don’t know if that’s very right . . but limited so I learned a lot and I think there’s actually a lot of benefit in the structure that large companies provide. As I started to grow and can learn about the different aspects of government contracting, I realized that I felt like I wanted to expand. That’s where I expanded to become an independent consultant to start. My wife and I also … She’s also an independent consultant, and then we decided that we want to start a company with a vision.

There a lot of issues in society that we felt that needed to be addressed at the corporate level. We wanted to be that difference and try to start a company to address some of the issues that we’re seeing in the larger companies and try to incorporate those values and see where it goes. That’s where that aspect came in, but also try to see what’s out there without being put into a specific position.

Phil Crawford: Great. Going back to your origins, Kastling, kind of interesting idea. Beyond the name of your company, does that have any other significance or meaning for you guys?

David Lee: Not really. The meaning is important though. Kastling is a move, it’s a strategic chess move where the rook and the king switch positions at the same time and the rook is sort of protecting the king. Our core foundation of our company is all about strategy. We love strategy, we love thinking about the different aspects, analyzing what the situation is and trying to figure out where to go next. If the king piece represents our clients’ vision and we are in the rook piece protecting the clients’ vision, so we try to execute a vision. That’s where the meaning came from.

If the king piece represents our clients’ vision then we are in the rook place protecting the clients’ vision, so we try to execute a vision. That’s where the meaning came from.- David Lee, COO of Kastling Group

Phil: That’s great.

Madeline: You said that there are some companies that you kind of like their vision, were there any that you’re trying to emulate when you were starting your startup?

David Lee: Yes. I started to work for large companies and then I eventually tried some medium-sized and smaller companies. I really like working for the smaller companies and we were trying to emulate that small atmosphere. We mention the five-year plan where some people might want to grow very large, but we want to remain very small. I think there’s a magic number to get that culture of a small company, I think it’s like 125 people or something that. We want to make sure that we keep it within that range and to maintain that culture, to make sure that we have family-like, like a close culture, a close-knit culture. We want to emulate that and that’s one of the main things.

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David Lee- Kastling Group

Madeline: How do you hope to keep that idea of that close-knit almost family-like where you can go and get the information you need without going through that over large corporate feeling?

David Lee: I’ve been reading a lot of books and I’m getting a lot of conflicting thoughts as what I initially thought. Maintaining company culture is very difficult and you have to continuously iterate and that’s one of the things that we’re working on. I know large companies, I know Epic Systems, they have a monthly all-hands meeting with everyone in the company. Everyone has to live within a certain radius of the company and that’s how they’re maintaining their culture. I really think that something like that is necessary for a small company as well. It’ll be a lot easier and we want to make sure that we have regular all-hands meetings, close-knit.

What we do is we have dinners every week actually. We actually have a dinner today, but I’m delaying it a little bit. We have weekly dinners to make sure that everyone can express their thoughts and maintain that close-knit culture. We also try to meet whenever we can. We have some side projects that we also work on. Just like hanging out, spending time together and getting to know each other, understanding who we are as a person. Not just the good parts, but also the negatives and trying to work together.

Stephanie: Can you walk us through a recent customer you’ve worked with and what you did for them? If you can’t show that, maybe an example of a type of project you guys would do.

David Lee: We have a lot of projects but specifically among client-side, the whole time, full-time. I’m currently at the USPTO and we’re working on a project to modernize the patent filing system. That’s a very large project. There’s so many systems, there are a lot of inefficiencies that I wanted to solve as a small company and there’s nothing a lot of inefficiencies within the company itself. When the agency is very large and there are so many systems and you start realizing each system is maintained by a separate contract and they have different periods of performances, each team has different contract vehicles and they have to make sure that this type of work has to go to this type of vendor. When you start dealing with that, it becomes very difficult.

A part of what we want to make sure if make it as easy as possible for the federal agency to execute their work. Because it’s very difficult and no matter how many people they had, it’s always been really difficult to solve. We just have to make it as easy as possible for them, help them navigate how to even split out the work. Sometimes you might think that, “Oh, as a vendor, I just have to do this. I just have to deliver my product, but it’s really about helping you, helping me.” It becomes a very close team structure across vendors, across contractor and buyers.

Phil Crawford: I love the chess analogy and if your company is the rook and you’re protecting the king, what are some of the things you’re protecting your client against? Some examples.

David Lee: Very good point. There are a lot of common challenges that companies experience and we specialize in IT modernization, because many companies get into modernization without really understanding what it means. You might just start off a project, you might have an agile project, agile is a popular process that’s going on but is so flexible. There’s so many ways to organize, there’s so many ways to use the tools in different structures with different team members, different team sizes. Every decision is so significant yet if you were just starting it, you may not realize it. That’s where we kick in and we have already tried a lot of these methodologies and we’re constantly thinking about them. We’re actually writing a book on the process.

We’re trying to figure out a lot of the common structures and the decisions that people make and what the impact is. That’s where we want to help them expedite those decisions and be confident with the decision that they make to get the project started earlier.

John Gilroy: Great job, David. Great job, students. Great job, David. David, if listeners want to find out more about your company, where should they go?

David Lee: Our website is kastling.com, K-A-S-T-L-I-N-G.com.

John Gilroy: Thank you very much.

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David Lee, John Gilroy

John Gilroy: 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. 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.

Welcome back to Students vs. Startups, showdown on the Potomac. Round two. Allow me to introduce our next startup because we know our students already. Our next startup is a company named Silver Sword and we have the president, Eli Senter. How are you doing, Eli?

John Gilroy: Doing great. Glad to be here. As you know, we have our three students here. We have Stephanie, Phil and Madeline. What we’re going to do is ask you some general questions about your startup and some of the challenges you have there. My first question to you is, what’s been your most recent accomplishment you want to share with us?4s

Eli Senter: We survived our first year which is pretty good. We’re on our second contract year, so we got our first option “let”and we’re up to 10 FTE.

John Gilroy: Full-time employees?

Eli Senter: Right.

John Gilroy: FTE. Great. Sometimes in the radio it doesn’t come across. I’ll ask you the question I ask everyone in the world and the question is, what business problem does your company solve?

Eli Senter: We deliver custom software to the Federal Government, specifically the DOD and we started the business specifically to have contract agility to go with software agility, development agility. I worked with a lot of federal customers and everything takes forever which drove me real crazy, especially since sometimes because of compliance or just understanding of products, you have to deliver old technology. If you deliver old technology and it takes a long time to do it, then the government stays way behind the curve. I wanted to combat that.

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Eli Senter- Silver Sword

Stephanie: Congratulations on your first year. I’m sure that wasn’t easy, so you could tell us maybe one of the biggest challenges you faced during that time and what you learned from it?

Eli Senter: Sure. Hiring as a small business is way harder than you think it’s going to be. Just because you like a small business enough to start one doesn’t mean it’s easy to convince people that your 10-person firm is going to be a smart place to work. Right? That’s been exciting. Slogging through resumes in this market hasn’t been the most fun thing to do, especially in technology which in this region is pretty hot, job-wise. Finding the best candidates has been a challenge.

Phil Crawford: You talked a little bit about your origins and working with the DOD, I’m just kinda curious, does Silver Sword have to do anything, the meaning, have to do with your work and what you’re trying to accomplish?

Eli Senter: Sure. We’re a native Hawaiian organization-owned 8A. A Silver Sword is this … It’s not really a cactus, but I say cactus. It’s this little silver-fronted plant that grows up on the top of volcanoes like Haleakala Mauna Loa and it grows where nothing else will grow.

It’s like this desolate Martian-looking surface and then there’s this weird silver-fronted cactus growing out of the ground and occasionally shooting up flowers and procreating. It adapted to a really harsh environment and I thought that was maybe apt for software development in the federal space.- Eli Senter, President of Silver Sword

John Gilroy: That’s a good one.

Madeline: With your customer software that you do for the government, is there certain platforms that you like to use? Do you stick to Microsoft, or Apple or Google? What do you like to use?

Eli Senter: In the DOD, we do a lot of .NET development, so C Sharp, .NET. It’s very comfortable for our federal clients and it’s become very adaptable for platform development, especially for web applications. You can come around pretty quick, but we’re using a lot of products that are cutting-edge. We’re looking at graph databases, we’re looking at BPM platforms that are robust, top-quadrant BPM platforms, different technologies to fit different problems. The key for us is really to stay flexible and to stay fast to delivery.

John Gilroy: BPM, business process management for some of the listeners.

Eli Senter: Sure. Alphabet soup is part of the world.

John Gilroy: I know.

Stephanie: Can you tell us about a recent project even you’ve been working on?

Eli Senter: Let me see, what will my NDA will let me say. We’ve been working with health data for secondary use. The DOD, for instance, collects a lot of health record data and they have a lot of responsibility to improve care, so they want to look at that data in different ways. They want to collect it in different ways and process it to do best practice analysis or look at continuity of care over time. We’ve been working on this contract and in my previous roles for a number years to do just that, like repackage the data, get it into a place where you can do research on it. Research is a little bit of a no-no word, but to look at the data in a way that lets you improve care.

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Stephani Aylward, Phil Crawford, Madeline Tomchick

Phil Crawford: What made you choose Eastern Foundry as an incubator?

Eli Senter: It’s kind of a cheat question, I was there when it was Power Space and it was just some really dark vampire chic hotel. I stayed there because they do a really good job of putting us together with other interesting people and they’re focused on the work we do, the federal government work. I don’t have to explain the horrifying long alphabet soup nature of the job that ruins coffee and dinner parties.

Stephanie: Right now you’re with the Federal Government, do you ever see yourself in the future switching over to commercial?

Eli Senter: Sure. I think if you want to keep good developers, sharp developers, then you have to also be doing commercial work. Because the best developers want to be on the edge of technology, they want to be using new products, updating their skills, staying with the power curve. You don’t always get to do that in the federal market and if you don’t do it, you lose your best people. You lose the people who really could be doing something else because they’ll go do something else. Yeah, I think in the long-term … In fact, I sneak in commercial work whenever I can do it just to make sure that we’re doing interesting things. We recently did an augmented reality project for navigation on personally-owned boats.

Stephanie: On that note of thinking toward the future, where do you envision the company will look like in the next five years?

Eli Senter: In five years … It’s funny. Before the show, somebody mentioned the $20 million mark. Well, the size standard for a small software development firm is 27 1/2 million. If we’re approaching that 17-20 million in five years, I feel like we’re on track to where we should be at the end of nine years where you alleviate a programming and you have to go commercial and you have to be ready to succeed. That lets you be at that small business size where you can innovate, but you can know who’s in your company, that hundred person mark.

Phil Crawford: A couple of years when you’re first thinking about starting this company, when you think DOD, did you do any market research to tell you that DOD was the client to focus on first? What kind of made you go that way?

Eli Senter: It was partly that I’ve been working in 8a organizations, so that’s a small disadvantaged business designation, for the past 7 to 10 years at various 8a. I know that part of the business and when we started researching it, there weren’t that many 8as in the software development space. Of course, when I was in my starting class of 8as, there were like 14 in the room. The competition has really blown up which is great for the programming, great for local businesses and a little tough on each of us individually. Yeah, I looked at it. I looked at it real hard.

Madeline: Do you have any true marketing plan then of that market research or do you …?

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Madeline Tomchick, Claude Jennings Jr.

Eli Senter: No. Right now, it’s my network in direct marketing and word-of-mouth. I came out of a sales environment but it was consultative sales and that’s where I’m comfortable. I’m comfortable with the plus up in the next job. The cold-call in the straight marketing, that’s a little harder. I try and keep our brand consistent and look like its designed with intent but now, a straight marketing plan is way outside my comfort zone.

Phil Crawford: In the next couple of years, you talked about recruiting as a challenge, going into the business challenge, but any other risks that you foresee in the horizon?

Eli Senter: Sure. Making that transition to a prime contractor, that’s a whole another sort of risks that … It’s way easier to manage when the only payments I’m really worried about are payroll. When I’m worried about paying vendors and partners, subcontractors, that’s another level of risk. It’s not just mine, it’s whoever I’m partnered with.

John Gilroy: Great job, students. Great job, Eli. Eli, if someone’s listening and wants to find out more about your company, where should they go?

Eli Senter: Sure. That’s 4s-llc.com. That’s numeral four, letter S-llc.com.

John: Great job. We are running out of time here. I’d like to think our founding sponsor, The Radiant Group. Our host, Eastern Foundry and our monthly sponsor, SAS Federal. If you’d like to see a transcript of this episode, please visit the blog at easternfoundry.com. Signing off from high atop, a nondescript building in lovely downtown Rosslyn, Virginia, I am John Gilroy and thanks for listening to Students vs. 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

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