Featuring Second Front Systems
Welcome to episode 14 of Students vs. Startups. This week, moderator John Gilroy chats with Jim Tripiano, Vice President of Second Front Systems. Listen to the story of how four veterans continue their commitment to their country in the form of advancing military and national security procurement.
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John Gilroy: Welcome to Students Versus Startups Showdown on the Potomac. My name is John Gilroy and I will be your moderator today. The structure for this podcast is quite simple. We put a leader of a tech start-up in the hot seat. Students ask questions. Find another innovator and then do it again. The founding sponsor for Students Versus Startups is the Radiant Group. If you enjoy solving problems and like to work with bright people, the Radiant Group is the place for you. Contact Al DiLeonardo or Abe Usher at TheRadiantGroup.com.
Well, let’s start off with round one. All three of today’s students are affiliated with Georgetown University’s technology management program. One is a graduate and two are wannabes. Let me introduce those students one by one. Yasir, tell us a little about your background please.
Yasir Khaled: Yes, I’m Yasir Khalid. I come from a marketing, research and insights background. I’m a full-time student at Georgetown.
John Gilroy: Michael, your background please.
Mike Abel : Good afternoon, John. My name is Mike Abel. I’m an IT service delivery manager for NTT data. I studied at Georgetown and graduated in 2012. Now, I’m heavily involved in IT operations, serving multiple government clients.
John Gilroy: Will, you’re also a wannabe graduate, aren’t you?
Wil: Soon to be graduate.
John Gilroy: Oh, soon to be.
Wil: In May. Looking forward to graduating systems engineering. During the day, I’m a federal employee and also a military reservist and also a father of four. Very busy schedule.
John Gilroy: Father of four. Boy, we’ve got a lot of kids at the table and we’ve got a start-up, a lonely start-up on this side. Our start-up today is Second Front Systems and representing them is Vice President, Jim Tripiano. Tell us a little bit about your background and your company please.
Jim Tripiano: Yeah, of course. I had an eight and a half year career active duty navy, that started after graduating the Naval Academy. I was a surface warfare office. I spent nine months also in Afghanistan doing some intel work with the army and then was a recruiter for the navy reserve as my shore duty before I got out. Shortly before I got out, I started business school, flying back and forth from DC to Chicago and got my MBA from the University of Chicago. Then, worked for Deloitte. Right before I graduated, about where you’re at in your timeline with your education, Will, I jumped ship and am now at Second Front Systems.
John Gilroy: That’s interesting. I’ll ask a question I ask all our start-ups. What business problem does Second Front Systems solve?
Jim Tripiano: That is one problem, but it’s easiest to explain that problem in two different ways, our two-pronged approach. First of all, I think many people know that the government can be very difficult to work with, so problem number one.
Problem number two is that they’re really good at procuring services and people and not necessarily products. We fit in an inefficient market and we try to bring products or products as a service to the federal government in the form of, generally we focus on emerging technology, cyber security and advanced analytics.
John Gilroy: I did some research on your company. You call yourself a public benefit corporation. Boy, that’s confusing. What does that mean?
Jim Tripiano: It is a real thing. I think you need to Google it to get a good answer on that. The vision that we have is that we are all former service members, and not that we are always going to be that way, but for us, the mission continues. We care about where we came from.
“We care about the service that we put into our country. We want to continue changing the culture and changing, specifically, the DoD and the National Security apparatus to do things in a way that’s more efficient and do things better.” Jim Tripiano, Vice President at Second Front Systems
Yasir Khalid: I understand you enable services to provide certain products. You make things happen where government needs assistance with different agencies. How does this work? Of course, you’re coming from a military background, you yourself are a veteran, that helps. For Second Front Systems, how does that work?
Jim Tripiano: The business development process is a relationship building process. Is that what you’re talking about?
Yasir Khalid: Yeah.
Jim Tripiano: Yeah, right. We could probably go into our marketing strategy at some point. So far, we do have some creative things that we’re planning on doing. Trying to get in front of the government customer is challenging and, I think, probably different than how the commercial space does it. So far, it’s been very relationship driven. That’s one of the challenges that we’re facing this year, is how do we get away from that or more effectively, build those relationships so we can continue to drive growth.
Mike Abel: You’ve had a lot of different clients in areas that you’ve been focusing on. How has Eastern Foundry helped to develop your business and why is it that you decided to come here, as opposed to one of the other options?
Jim Tripiano: I think we originally came here probably because our founder’s a Marine. Geoff, one of the founders of Eastern Foundry, who is also a marine. I think that maybe how we got here in the first place. They’ve helped us by, one of the best examples I have is one day I was coming back in from lunch with my co-worker and there was some technology company that was trying to look for people that do what we do. He was talking to Geoff and Geoff said, “Come in and sit down” and left. We just talked about how we could probably help each other. That’s still a company that we continue to talk to today. We’re trying to find an opportunity for them to enter the federal space and develop a federal revenue stream.
Wil: Sticking with the military theme, as the Second Front Systems name, you’ve got to give me the background there. Why did you name the company Second Front Systems?
Jim Tripiano: I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that because I don’t remember. On our old website, it had the reason. I’m trying, what’s trying to recall. I don’t know. I think it’s something along the lines with the third offset. I could probably speak more to that because that is something we’re building our brand around. We’ve pivoted away from the origin story and moving towards how we are trying to build upon the third offset, but I don’t know.
John Gilroy: Jim, if i could jump in here. You look like you’re in three different areas, Chicago, Silicon Valley and DC. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from my perspective. How are those things all connected?
Jim Tripiano: We’re a small company. We have a founder and four employees. Our founder is in Silicon Valley. We have one person in Chicago, a classmate of mine. That’s how I ended up here. Three of us are here in DC.
Yasir Khalid: Where do you see Second Front going two years down the road? How do you think of getting it there?
Jim Tripiano: I want a repeatable business development process put into place. We’re working on that. I think at some point that means hiring a capture manager that has a lot of experience because you do need to participate in the traditional business development practices that the federal government relies on. To ignore that, I think, would be a mistake. That’s years down the road. We also hope that there’s more projects that we’re working on. I hope to have a portfolio of projects that we’re managing. Then, grow on the projects that we’re managing right now. Right now, they’re small prototypes and I’d like to take those prototypes and help them expand where they’re at.
It is a linear growth model. We’re not trying to be the next Unicorn. We’re not trying to be a billion dollar company, but absolutely we’re trying to grow.
Wil: I’ve had a chance to manage data centers and security operations centers for some government clients. I’ve tried the approach, the, “Hey, try this new thing. Check out this thing that’s just coming out. Let me tell you about what’s new.” I typically get that glazed look that says, “That’s nice, but give me something tried and true that’s worked out that I can implement with a checklist.” How do you approach those type of clients and say, “It’s worth your time and take a little bit of risk to go with some of these slightly less tested and tried and true products?”
Jim Tripiano: A lot of what we do is emerging technology. I think with that kind of customer, there’s a lot of stuff out there where these companies have been around for decades. They just choose not to participate in the federal market because it’s so inefficient and so difficult. If they give us the permission to go reach out to these companies and possibly be a value added reseller, even though that’s not what we’re trying to be, we can do that. To find a mature company with a lot of commercial customers and all this background experience, then I think that would be a good approach. I would not come to them and be like, “Let’s talk about the blockchain.” That’s something I’d probably avoid.
Will: How do you connect with these different companies that have these emerging technologies and build that trust with them that you have the solution for them to be able to get into the government space?
“We try to be able to communicate the capability gap or the mission or the use case that the government has, and explain that to them and that their technology is something that can go to the mission user, go to the DoD.”- Jim Tripiano, Vice President at Second Front Systems
The only thing that we do that’s technical is integrate two technologies together. Basically, we are just a middleman. It is an inefficient market, so I think what we’re doing really matters. I totally believe in it. I think we need to honest what exactly it is that we’re doing.
Yasir Khaled: With the recent change in government, does that change the business landscape for Second Front? Does it create new opportunities or threats for Second Front Systems?
Jim Tripiano: I think it creates opportunities. It sounds like the new administration wants to increase funding to the defense department, which is probably good for us. One of the indicators that we’re sort of watching is the defense innovation unit experimental, which was established by the former Secretary of Defense. Whether or not things like that, because there’s a lot of things like that, that are experimental, whether or not they’re going to go away. So far, they’re not going to go away. If they keep getting funding, then that means the current culture change that’s happening in the national security space right now, that’s got to be in line with what we’re doing. We think that’s going to stick around. That creates opportunity for us.
John Gilroy: Jim, if someone’s listening and wants more information on your company, is there a website they can go to?
Jim Tripiano: There is. They can go to SecondFront.com.
John Gilroy: Well, that’s pretty easy.
Jim Tripiano: It is easy, yeah.
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 a leader in enterprise cloud computing. Natively converging compute virtualization and storage into a software defined solution. For more information, go to Nutanix.com. Welcome back to Students Versus Start-ups Showdown on the Potomac, round two.
You know, Jim, I was looking up your profile on LinkedIn, as is my wont, and I noticed an interesting phraseology describing your company. The corporate description was “rapid prototyping and procurement.” Expand a little bit on that please.
Jim Tripiano: Yeah, of course. In order to get things done quickly, we try to exist on the fringes of the federal acquisition regulations. In order to do this, we try to create prototypes, things that don’t exist in the national security space yet. If we are able to create a prototype and something new that they’ve never seen before, then per the NDAA, National Defense Authorization Act, another agency can come and sole source that prototype. That, I think, hits on both the rapid acquisition and prototyping.
Wil: Thinking about you and your four staff. You’re trying to really build this model of bringing innovation to our national security space. What does that look like on a day to day basis between you and your four teams? Where you’re fighting this huge giant of government bureaucracy, if you will.
Jim Tripiano: Yes. Yes we are. There’s a lot of partnerships that get put into place. There’s obviously some paperwork that goes into that. Then, reaching out to the people. There’s research that goes into what technology we think is interesting. Then, meeting with people that can verify that this actually is something that’s worthwhile. There’s a lot of business development and a lot of, I’ve started cold calling people, as much as I hate it. I just don’t think it’s effective, which, right. As much as everyone hates cold calling, like stop actually having this be an effective thing, which is not any fun at all, but necessary.
We do everything. I don’t do any technical work. I’m not an engineer. Everything else, I do all that. We do have a smart guy with a master’s in artificial intelligence from MIT that does technical stuff for us.
Yasir Khaled: Jim, you develop solutions for the government for different problems. Of course, you have to bring in third party vendors. Is there any vetting process because some of the information might be sensitive that you go through?
Jim Tripiano: Yes. We created this thing called “the High Technology Council”. It is, so far, a consortium of eight different venture capital firms. If we need to convene a high technology counsel to vet this technology that we’re looking at, or it’s not necessarily that one technology, but it’s vet the things that we’ve found based on market research that we’ve done. We come with a … The government says they have a capability gap. We say, “Okay, we think these things are probably help. Let us get the subject matter experts involved and tell us whether or not that this is correct.” Do they know of any companies that might be in stealth mode that might be in their portfolio, that they can also bring to the table?
That’s the vetting process. It doesn’t just rely on us and our relationships. We try to make it an unbiased approach, so it’s something that can be repeatable.
Mike Abel : Your background is in the navy, as well as consulting in Deloitte. Both large institutions. Clear, career paths and things you could have stayed in for decades and done very well. What made you jump ship and go to a single, smaller company with just a few employees, where you have to pretty much forge your own path?
Jim Tripiano: This is probably the hardest thing that I think I can be doing. I like the opportunity that it affords, but I think I just have this history of signing myself up for something that’s really difficult and see if I can do it. I am that kid that if I’m not being challenged, I’m probably not getting good grades in school. I need the pressure and I need the challenge in order to try to get the most out of myself.
Wil: There’s tons of competition in this space. How do you deal with … How are you positioning yourself to deal with the pressure of those other types of companies that are doing, working in the national security space.
Jim Tripiano: I’m not sure if everyone in my company agrees with what I’m about to say. I believe in trying to be as positive and collaborative and cooperative as possible. There’s other companies that are competitive that are very similar to us. I read once that the craft beer market is the least amount of failing companies because they are all so helpful to each other. I think if we, in this space, that are trying to change the way the government does business, if we work together to make that happen, then hopefully a rising tide floats all boats and we all do well.
John Gilroy: I have a question about “advisory services,” another phrase that describes your company on LinkedIn. That’s a pretty wide range. Advisory services can be strategic. They could be tactical. It could be product selection. Especially advisory services when it comes to innovation and national security. The degree of difficulty’s not low. This is a very difficult field you’ve chosen.
Jim Tripiano: It is difficult. The way that that’s actually happening right now is that we are boot-strapping ourselves. We have not raised any money. The advisory services are to the technology companies that need to augment their business development team to try to get in the federal space. We do that for a few different companies. That helps keep the lights on as we find more government customers. We’d ideally like to graduate out of that. If we can create the successful business development teams and they don’t need us anymore, that’s successful. We would like the majority of our revenue coming from the government.
Mike Abel : What is your target customer and how do you try to reach them? Is it all cold calls or relationships? How is it that you go from your products and your capabilities and finally find out the people that you want to partner with?
Jim Tripiano: To date, I think it’s been mostly relationship driven, but we started doing more marketing activities. Next week, actually, we’re doing this thing called The Offset Symposium. We’re going to have about 200 people there. It’s in San Francisco. In parallel to the RSA conference that draws thousands and thousands of people to San Francisco. We are having, at the Marine’s Memorial Club and Hotel, for two days, various panels, but General McCrystal, General Pace and General Keith Alexander speaking about these topics. Hopefully this is a good way. We do have a lot of the right government people coming, the right organizations and the right military units attending.
That’s a highly curated list that we’ve put together, even though it’s open to anyone that wants to come. We’ve specifically invited certain people. Doing this event, I think, is a good marketing opportunity because it shows us as a leader in this space and provides visibility. This is the new thing that we’re doing. Now that we’re a week out, we’re pretty confident in it. It was a scary risk that we were taking six months ago because it could have bankrupted us. It’s not going to. We’re going to make a little bit of money on it, profit off of it, which is nice. Hopefully it’s something that we can grow from.
Mike Abel : What is the quick elevator speech, in terms of the differentiator that you provide to those people? How do you tell them quickly what your value is and what sets you apart from everyone else?
Jim Tripiano: Because of all this is so relationship driven, we actually have a formal process for creating an unbiased solution.
“If you give us a capability gap in the government end, we have a formal solution that will provide an unbiased report of this is what your solution should look like.” Jim Tripiano, Vice President at Second Front Systems
These are the companies we can reach out to. Maybe these companies don’t want to work with you, but here’s where we start. That technology scanning is a process that we’ve created and there’s a little bit of IP around that. Not that it’s something that we’ve patented, but we closely protect it. That’s what differentiates us, rather than just saying, “I know a bunch of people.”
Yssir Khalid: Have you thought about expanding your market? I know it’s very federal driven. You are a great bunch of people who have very specific skill sets and great backgrounds. Of course, the products that you have done, there might be some similar applications, maybe not in government, in the private space. Have you explored that?
Jim Tripiano: We’ve thought about it and we’ve talked about it. Explored, sort of, but actually done it, no. The answer is both yes and no. On the government side, we need to narrow it down and figure out who specifically we should be targeting because it’s a mistake to think that we need to be going after all of the Navy and all of the Army and all of the Marine Corps.
On the other side, yes because one of the projects we’re putting together and actually executing on right now is with an agency that does investigations. We could basically go pick this thing that will triage hundreds of thousands of pages of documents for analysts and for lawyers. Kind of bubble up to the top the most important things rather than have to read every single one. We can translate these documents that are in a foreign language. It’s all through machine learning and taking unstructured data and creating some kind of insight out of that.
If we take this and go to a law firm, we could probably help them out, save time and money. Lawyers, I think, are notorious for also being as difficult as the government. They like taking their boxes and boxes of documents and reading every single page. We’ve talked about it. We haven’t actually executed on it. I think it’s an interesting idea, but we’re not there yet.
Wil: You’ve kind of talked a little bit about your next move, maybe expanding. What’s your next big risk that you’re willing to take? You have this conference in San Francisco. Let’s say it goes phenomenal and it’s a good business starter for you. What’s that next big thing that you guys are thinking about exploring to try and disrupt some stuff?
Jim Tripiano: It would be actually executing on some project without the actual government money being there. Taking something that we think is really compelling, that’s really helpful, that doesn’t yet exist in the federal space and we know that there’s interest but no money yet behind it. Moving on a project like that. If we generate enough interest, that’s something that I feel like we would consider doing. That would be a substantial risk to invest in the kind of people that can modify some company’s technology or combine two or more together to do something like that.
John Gilroy: Great job, students and great job, Jim. If someone’s listening now, is there a website they can go get more information?
Jim Tripiano: Of course, SecondFront.com. Find my email address and please send me an email or give me a call.
John Gilroy: Great. I’d like to thank our founding sponsor, the Radiant Group, our host, Eastern Foundry, and our monthly sponsor, Nutanix. If you would like to see a transcript of this episode, please visit the blog at Eastern-Foundry.com. Signing off, from high atop a nondescript building in lovely downtown Rosslyn, Virginia. I am John Gilroy. Thanks for listening to Students Versus Start-ups Showdown on the Potomac.