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Students vs. Startups Episode 4: How Startups Can Overcome Obstacles

Students vs. Startups Episode 4: How Startups Can Overcome Obstacles


Featuring NEOSTEK and Crossdeck

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

First up is an interview with recent Inc. 5000 recipient NEOSTEK, represented by their president and CEO, Amina Elgouacem. NEOSTEK solves complex IT problems for their federal client base.

Next, we speak with Josh Welle, a retired naval officer who started Crossdeck after 12 years of service. Crossdeck helps distributed workforces take advantage of mobile-first technology to enhance daily operations and maintenance.

[audio src="https://easternfoundry.files.wordpress.com/2016/11/students_vs_startups_podcast_episode_4-final.mp3"][/audio]

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John: Welcome to Students versus Startups showdown in the Potomac, my name is John Gilroy. I'll be your moderator today. The structure for this 26-minute podcast is quite simple. You put a leader of a tech startup in the hot seat, students ask questions, we find another innovator, then, do it again. Our founding sponsor for Students versus Startups is The Radiant Group. If you enjoy solving complex problems and like to work with bright people, The Radiant Group is the place for you. Contact Al Di Leonardo or Abe Usher at theradiantgroup.com.

Round one. Our students today, all three of them have attended Georgetown University or are in the middle of the program here. We have Stephanie Aylward, we have Toni Jackman and Madeline Tomchik. Stephanie, tell us about your background, I think you're in the middle of the program, right?

Stephanie: Yes, that's correct. I'm currently a student in the Master's for Technology and Management Program. I also work at Oracle where I manage a business development team supporting the federal Government for Oracle database and Core Technology.

John: Toni, your background, please.

Toni Jackman: Hi, I'm Toni, I am retired military, Army. While I was in the military I actually worked a lot with health information systems and health informatics.

img_7559 Toni Jackman

John: Madeline, please.

Madeline: I work for AIS a company in Weston and we work with Microsoft as a partner and we have done custom applications offers for different commercial and government clients.

John: Madeline, time to brag a little.  You won the Tropaia award. These are fascinating.

Madeline: Yes, I am a graduate of Georgetown. I also won the Tropaia award for most inspiring woman in technology management when I graduated.

John: On the hot seat today is Amina Elgouacem and she is the president and CEO of a company called NEOSTEK. How are you today Amina?screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-4-24-05-pm

Amina: I'm very well, thank you.

John: Tell us about your background please.

Amina: Sure, I come from a computer science background. That is what I studied in college. I'm a software engineer, that was my career before I started the business. NEOSTEK is an I.T. consulting company, women-owned. I'm very delighted and proud to be sitting in front of three very smart women in I.T. management from the masters program.

John: Great, great, great. I'll ask you the question I ask everyone. What business problem does your company solve?

Amina: So we focus one hundred percent on the federal government. We help our customers get the right information to the right people at the right time. Using technology and we have been focusing mostly on taking the paper-based processes and the manual processes and automating the processes. Using technology to understand the business. So this is just in a nutshell what we do.


img_7576 Amina Elgouacem, Claude Jennings Jr.

Stephanie: So how long have you been in business now and what motivated you to start the company?

Amina: So we have been in business for about six and a half years. All seven years we finally made it to the Inc. 5000 list of fastest growing companies in America. At member 604 we almost made it to the 500 but we will get there. What motivated me is I was working for another company that worked in government contracting before I started. I saw them grow from five people to one hundred and fifty people. I've seen them go through the culture change of going from a small business to a larger business.

When we got to that point, I kind of hit the ceiling and I said, you know what, I need to start my own business. I need to do what I do best which is software engineering to solve our customer problems. I was passionate and eager to start a company culture of my own.

Madeline: So who inspired you to start your own company? Certainly as a woman in technology there's not many people we can really look up to so who really got you to do what you're going to do?

Amina: That is a very tough question. I've been very lucky to be surrounded by very smart people, very good mentors that saw potential in me. That kind of encouraged me and gave me a push, hey you can do this. So it is very important to be around the right people that can encourage you to do it because frankly I couldn't do it on my own. I would love to give credit to my partner, my fiance, who has been there with me from day one. Being a woman in I.T., he said "You can do it!" So I started, I did it. I had to figure it out. That was a good question, thank you.

Toni Jackman: Well congratulations on your ranking and with your ranking now how do you plan to market yourselves to actually make it to the top five hundred?

Amina: So in government contracting it's a little bit difficult just because we are confined by the regulations, right? The set asides that the agencies put out there, right? Not being on those IDIQs at the right time, you're not able to prime contracts and I'm sure some of you have probably experienced that within your own companies. Our goal is waiting for that open window, waiting for that time. Get on those big super contracts. Hopefully with this new administration I will be able to see some changes and be able to compete on prime contracts which will allow us to grow much more significantly.

img_7571 Stephanie Alyward, Toni Jackman, Madeline Tomchik

We will make it to the Inc. 5000 again next year but we will probably be number one thousand just because as you become stable as a company it's hard to see that significant growth unless we are given an opportunity to be on those big IDIQs. One of the things I found very helpful as a woman is joining groups such as WIPP, Women Impacting Public Policy. I was selected to be in their leadership advisory counsel for two terms. I started this year. I've seen them grow with their rules and regulations and input on the programming for the women-owned program.

It was actually thanks to this program that I was able to get a prime contract at the State Department. I was the first one, I knew about the program before it was put in place in SBA. As soon as the program was put in place I was waiting for that repository to open. I was putting all my documents there, met all my requirements and then I was waiting. Where is the I.T. contract? Where is the women-owned set-aside. They put it out. I finally found an EDWSV that was a set-aside contract for women-owned businesses in I.T. which was very difficult to find in 2012 at that time. That was at the state department. In my career, I was a software engineer at the State Department so I said, I know the culture! I know this agency but I have to compete. I was given the chance to compete. I competed against fourteen other businesses and I won!

John: Just for our audience, could you maybe tell us what that acronym you said so quickly, so trippingly off in tongue.

Amina: EDWSV is Economically Disadvantaged Woman Owned Small Business.

John: Thank you.

Stephanie: Earlier you were saying you've been in business six or seven years now. I'm sure you have learned a ton along the way. Could you tell us about one of the biggest challenges of hiccups you've faced and how you overcame it and what you learned from it?

Amina: I would say, the biggest challenge was figuring out where are these contracts? It took me eight or nine months before we got our first contract. Up until a year and a half ago I stopped doing billable work. So I'm just focusing one hundred percent on the business. On the operation side. So at the beginning I really wasted a lot of time trying to compete as a prime contractor and as a small business I didn't have the certifications, the qualifications, the bandwidth or the finances. I was actually looking to prime a forty million dollar contract, a small business set-aside contract. I reached out to the billion dollar companies to team up with me, naively.

"But you know what? I learned a lot. Because every single move and every single thing you do, even if you fail I don't see it as failure. I see it as success because I learned something that will prepare me for the next thing"- Amina Elgouacem, President of NEOSTEK

I actually contacted a vice president that was the first contact I made, and the first thing he asked me "Send me your capability statement", and I said "What is that?" So then he taught me about it and I was a little bit embarrassed but you shouldn't feel embarrassed of asking the questions because you prepared.

Toni Jackman: In light of everything that you said is there anything that you would have done differently when you actually started your company?

Amina: I probably would have rolled up my sleeves earlier to focus on subcontracting. I was more focused on figuring out where those contracts were, but then just teaming up with those companies and focusing on subcontracting.

John: Great job students. Great job Amina. Amina, if someone listening wants to find more information on your company where should they go?

Amina: Neostek.com

John: Great. Good spelling, I love that. 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 faster. Welcome back to Students versus Startups showdown on the Potomac. Round two.

Well, you already know students, Stephanie, Toni and the award-winning Madeline. We have a new startup here, our startup is a company called Crossdeck. I think that is a little insider term there. We will find out more about this title. The CEO of Crossdeck is a gentleman named Josh Welle. Josh, how are you?

Josh Welle: Doing well, thanks for having me. xd-logo-_-blue-png-800

John: Well, you're going to meet your mark here. Josh has three masters degrees. We have a student here with two masters degrees. So you have little bit of a battle here tonight I think. So Josh tell us a little about your background please.

Josh Welle: I was in the Navy for twelve years. I had a real commitment to public service, served in Iraq, Afghanistan and served overseas. Then as those wars sort of calmed down I was excited to start a new chapter and being an entrepreneur. So I started a company and came back to DC.

John: As for the question I ask everyone, what business problem does your company solve?

Josh Welle: The business problem our company solves is transforming how service members today, Army, Air Force and Navy sailors repair equipment and conduct their day to day workflow.

Toni Jackman: Well first of all, thank you for your service. I appreciate everything that you have done.

Josh Welle: Thanks miss.

Toni Jackman: My question is when you first decided, because I saw that you did it with other Navy veterans as well. What advice would you actually have for a veteran who wanted to actually get into this particular type of business endeavor.

Josh Welle: So advice I would give other veterans is to really seek mentors early on. There's an entrepreneurial spirit, sort of a drive amongst military members and a “can do” attitude. But that spirit can be undone if you don't have people to give you way points and guidance. Having mentors to usher you through that transition is really important.

img_7582 Josh Welle- Crossdeck

Madeline: So what challenges did you face when you were first starting it? Certainly you have amazing experience to go off of but what challenges did you really come up against.

Josh Welle: So two big challenges we have faced thus far is hiring the right technology team. We are on our second team. The first one was really impressive but I don't think was able to scale the technology as fast as we would have liked. They also came at a very high price point so we were sort of challenged by that. The second time based on sharing equity and rethinking our cap table we were able to get new technology leaders to help us bring this product vision to market.

Stephanie: So I'm not part of the military community but John had hinted that the name of your company may have some meaning. Could you tell us a little about that?

Josh Welle: Sure, “Crossdeck” is a term associated really with the sea services. It has to do with sharing resources at sea. So an aircraft carrier and a destroyer would come alongside each other and transfer store supplies, people or parts. Part of our vision as we think about the shared economy in the 21st century is how we can use AI. and machine learning to share resources more intelligently throughout an enterprise. So Crossdeck is a play off of that theme.

Toni Jackman: In terms of your marketing, you said that you work a lot within the DOD elements. Do you market yourselves to anyone outside of the Department of Defense?

Josh Welle: So we have done some early marketing with distributed teams and nuclear power and solar. We are also looking at concrete companies as well. Construction companies that have distributed workforce that are still using paper based systems that don't have Point of Performance tech manuals. So we are doing more market development there. I think for us as a small company who can't afford a big sales force we do our marketing really through partners, strategic partnerships. So we have to really market ourselves to medium sized and large sized companies and that will bring us new contracts.

Stephanie: So of all the incubators that are in DC., what drew you to Eastern Foundry?

Josh Welle: So Eastern Foundry has been incredibly exciting for us. We've known Geoff since late 2014  when he started in Crystal City. I think what drew us to them is one, they were started by vets as well. They were really narrowly focused on the pain points of federal innovation. So if you look at the Secretary of Defense, Force of the Future, DIUx, these are programs we are intimately familiar with.

"We thought working with Eastern Foundry we would have not only an inside track on how those programs expand, but also the intimacy with a project lead as we looked to scale throughout the different services"- Josh Welle, CEO of Crossdeck

Stephanie: Could you tell us a little bit about a recent project you have been working on?

Josh Welle: So we are very excited about our third contract. We have had about three contracts booked a little close to two million dollars in revenue in the first eighteen months which we were pretty excited about. But this is for a customer in Great Lakes, Illinois. This is the Navy Boot camp. They have just embraced four thousand tablets and they have no workflow software for drill sergeants. So we have done human center design. We have worked with different applications and workflow solutions. We are excited to be a part of the pilot program with them in 2017.

Toni Jackman: Oh that is interesting working with drill sergeants and technology. How do the two even work together?

Josh Welle: Well you would think that maybe when you started your military experience, tablets weren't at the front and center. But not only the recruits themselves who are millennials and generation Z. The learning has changed so how they learn, how they listen, how they improve and adopt their skillset is through their tablets. Also, these are single screen Mobile First generations. Even the twenty-five year old drill sergeants expect to communicate in group chat. They want to access all the references in the cloud, they want to have backend data visualization on how fast the recruits are learning. Everything from push ups to technical acclimate and the rest.

img_7585 Josh Welle, Stephanie Alyward, Toni Jackman, Madeline Tomchick

So we really want to bring that to a Mobile First experience and get smarter on how we are training our sailors and soldiers.

Toni Jackman: How does that work in terms of what you actually use? Now you're saying that you have tablets, what exactly are the recruits using because I know it's not BYOD, so...

Josh Welle: Yes, so the government has procured iPads and surface pros for the enterprise. Most of the early applications have been content. So how do they learn and transom themselves from civilian to sailor. Where we are coming in, is making them think about how do they do assessments. How do they look at physical readiness over the eight week period. How do we capture lessons learned. Thirty five thousand sailors are going through Great Lakes, Illinois every year. With the efficiency and process improvement. So by having Point of Performance technology, mobile first, high joy of use, you're able to capture these lessons and make the large enterprise better.

Toni Jackman: That will transition to any other service?

Josh Welle: So we were fortunate and were lucky to get the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to be on our advisory panel. So he is introducing us to the other services and we think it has scalability to other recruit domains.

Madeline: So where do you see yourself going forward?

Josh Welle: We see ourselves increasing our penetration in the DOD. We are interested in front line civilian workforce at USAID and State. Then we do want to open up commercial business once we have our sort of proprietary workflow software ready to scale. We think that construction, medium sized businesses is a nice place to do that. If it works for the DOD, if it works for sailors fixing ships and aircraft, it should work for your current construction company too.

John: Well thank you very much students. Thank you Stephanie, Toni and Madeline. And thank you Josh. If people are listening to this podcast and are interested in finding more about your company what website should they visit?

Josh Welle: They can visit www.crossdeck.us

John: Crossdeck.us not .com huh?

Josh Welle: Yes sir.

John: That is important to note that. We are 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 as Eastern-foundry.com Signing off from high atop a non-descript building in lovely downtown Rosslyn, Virginia, I am 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