Students vs. Startups Ep. 17: How to grow a successful information technology company

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Featuring Eminent IT

Welcome to Episode 17 of Students vs. Startups. This week, moderator John Gilroy talks with the Vice President and CTO of Eminent IT, Issac Barnes.  Isaac’s emphatic attitude shines through while he tells us about his experience in the military, and how he “grew up” in the Federal IT space.

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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. Believe it or not, we have finished 16 episodes and we’re starting number 17. Let’s have a round of applause for everyone who’s willing to sit in a room with me for a half-hour.

Oh that isn’t fake applause like fake news, this is real applause here. We have a table in the room at Eastern Foundry, which is a community in Rosslyn, Virginia right across from Washington, DC. And we meet here once a week and we have students on one side of the table and a startup on the other. And they have a nice little conversation, and everyone learns a little bit about what it’s like to be a startup, and maybe the startup may be engaged more with the student community and find out where the trends are, what’s some of the interesting aspects the younger people are thinking these days.

 

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Madeline Tomchick, Ikenna Nwankpa, Connie Chan

 

So on my left we have a group of students, I will introduce them individually, and then I will introduce our startup. To my left is Madeline Tomchick, who is a graduate of the School for Continuing Studies at Georgetown University, she has a master’s degree, and you won an award there didn’t you Madeline?

Madeline T.: I did, my graduation I won the Tropaia Award for Most Inspiring Woman in Technology.

John Gilroy: Well, let’s see if we can inspire this Marine to have some good answers for you?

Madeline T.: Oh, it’s gonna be fun.

John Gilroy: And our second student Ikenna Nwankpa how are you?

Ikenna I’m good. Thank you, John.

John Gilroy: So what are you studying? When do you plan to graduate, please?

Ikenna I’m studying technology management at Georgetown and I finish the program in May.

John Gilroy: Oh, gonna graduate on stage and everything. Wow, that’s gonna be fun.

Ikenna Yep.

John Gilroy: And our third student is Connie Chen. Connie, tell us about your background and what you’re studying please.

Connie Chan: I have a background in pharmaceuticals and I’m studying technology management, hoping to graduate by the end of this year.

John Gilroy: Oh, great. So we have two wannabes and one graduate of the program. On the emin-logo2other side of the table, we have an actual live, not a wannabe, a real Marine who owns his own company who’s a startup, and he’s a great opportunity for the students to go back and forth and find out some of the challenges that Isaac’s faced and where he sees himself in five years and why he even started this company to begin with. And our startup this week is a gentleman by the name of Isaac Barnes, and his company is Eminent and spelled E M I N E N T. Isaac, how are you?

Isaac Barnes: Doing fantastic, how are you?

John Gilroy: Real good. I went to your LinkedIn profile, I took notes earlier today and you’ve done a lot of things in a short life.

Isaac Barnes: I have. I have.

John Gilroy: Lots of activities in the Marine Corps and loads of paragraphs of information of all you’ve accomplished in your short life. Tell us about your origins and how you wound up with this company, please.

 

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Isaac Barnes

 

Isaac Barnes: So, my career started off in the Marine Corps. I was 19, I was fresh out of high school, and I was trying to figure out what to do with myself. I knew I wanted to do something in technology, but that was as far as it went. I actually was in college at the time, and this was right around the time when 9/11 happened. So I was watching it take place, I watched it happen, and I was actually already signed up to go into the Marine Corps at this time, and so the day 9/11 happened, I was literally supposed to be on a plane that morning, going to boot camp.

John Gilroy: Ah.

Isaac Barnes: Yeah, so that was the beginning of my journey. So at that point, I decided this is the path I have to take, and for me it was- I saw a future for myself. Right? I saw it clearly, I just didn’t know how it was gonna happen or when it was gonna happen or where I would be. But I knew what I wanted to do, and that was in technology. Right? So I joined the Marine Corps and out of all things I ended up being a computer programmer in the Marine Corps. That led me to being stationed in Quantico, VA and I actually served with some of the highest marines in the Marine Corps at the time, I was the lowest guy on the totem pole with some of the highest guys in the military.

It was a very shocking experience, it was like culture shock for me being basically a teenager still. I learned really quickly, became very familiar with how the military operated and how the Marine Corps operated specifically, and during that time I ended up creating one of the largest portals, which was a website back then, it’s basically the equivalent that the Marine Corps had at the time, and that led me to traveling throughout the Marine Corps, training people, teaching people how to use the technology that I built. It was a great experience, but four years later, that came to an end. I decided to go to the contracting space. I ended up being a contractor working for the Secretary of Defense. At that position, I basically was responsible for doing the exact same thing that I did in the Marine Corps. I ended up building one of the largest portals for the Secretary of Defense at the time. We had 30,000 people using the system that I produced with my team.

From all that experience, I ended up getting in that company promoted to one of the highest levels in that company. I was 25, 26 and I was managing seven contracts for this company. Through that experience, I learned the game, I learned how to play the game of a government contractor and how to do business with the government, and how to build products for the government.

John Gilroy: That’s what we want to know. So you got together with a colleague of yours and you started a company. So what business problem does your company solve.

Isaac Barnes: So, our company-one of the things that we solve was that product development was very shabby in the government space, and what I mean by that is there’s companies that build products but they’re not product companies. Right? So they’re not necessarily focused on providing solutions across the government. They’re looking at individual silos and how to figure out how to solve problems for those specific customer bases. So our company, we wanted to do something different. We wanted to create a company that was focused on not just providing services, but we also wanted to provide products. So we’re an enterprise software and services company that primarily focuses on government agencies.

John Gilroy: Great.

Isaac Barnes: So that’s the problem we solve.

John Gilroy: I’m gonna open it up to Madeline to ask the first question. Madeline, please?

Madeline T.: So when you started your company, what made you decide on Eastern Foundry as the place to start?

 

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Madeline Tomchick

 

Isaac Barnes: So that’s a very funny story, so actually Geoff, he’s one of the owners of Eastern Foundry, one of the founders. I met him at an event probably about six to eight months before they started Eastern Foundry and he was telling me about the idea and I had the exact same idea, but I just knew I wasn’t-

John Gilroy: Ah he stole it from you! He stole it from you!

Isaac Barnes: I’m not gonna say he stole it from me, but he did borrow a little bit of the mojo from me.

John Gilroy: Still, he borrowed it.

Isaac Barnes: Exactly. So basically, I met Geoff. He told me about the idea that he had, and I told him “come check out Crystal City”, cause we were already in Crystal City, we had a space with Vornado at the time, and this was very early on in our company. So he came and checked it out, next day, he was like “this is it, this is what we need”, he contacted me probably about a few months later saying “we did it, we’re in Crystal City”, I said “where are you guys?” He’s like, “we’re right in 2011 Crystal Drive” and I’m like “we’re in 2011 Crystal Drive, where are you.” So it ended up being the exact same space where I had already been and he didn’t even realize that it was the exact same space so I decided to stay with Eastern Foundry because, like I said, we were there before they came, but we decided to stay because what they were doing and the service they provided, I’m an extremely strong believer in, one, the federal government contractors get into this space and educate them about this space. So for me it was a no brainer.

John Gilroy: Connie, do you have any questions please?

Connie Chan: Can you talk a little about your products and services?

Isaac Barnes: Yeah, so our primary product that we have is called Revamp, and I’ll get into this a lot more later, but basically it’s a solution.

“We created a web-based platform for people that hate PDFs.” – Isaac Barnes, VP & CTO at Eminent IT

That simple. So if you hate PDFs, if you hate having to fill out long forms to sign up for classes, to sign up for a driver’s license or whatever it may be, we built a solution that can replace those, and that’s what we’re doing for the federal government. Right now, our primary customers are the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Army, and the White House.

John Gilroy: Ikenna?

Ikenna What would you say is your, is your company looking to grow by adding any more additional products and services?

Isaac Barnes: Definitely, so this is just the beginning?

Ikenna Could you discuss some of the ideas you guys have going on?

 

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Ikenna Nwankpa

 

Isaac Barnes: I don’t want to give away all my secrets.  I can talk about Revamp cause it’s protected, but I don’t want to give away all my secrets but basically, what I said before is where we’re headed. There’s a need for products that can solve problems across multiple agencies, and that’s the problem we want to solve. Right? We’ve figured out one problem, we’ve figured out several problems, but we figured out how to solve and provide a solution for one of those problems, and that’s what our first product is doing, but that product-

We have protected IP under it, that we’re going to leverage to expand into other areas. So one of my idols is Steve Jobs, single handedly. He’s the king of products, and then Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, those guys. I look up to those guys, and I look at it as Silicon Valley has been where all the innovation has happened in the tech space, and then this area has been primarily integration, where people have taken what they’ve created and they’re integrating it into solutions for customers. We see ourselves being able to be one of the innovators in this space.

John Gilroy: Madeline.

Madeline T.: So now that you have all these products, or well, ideas of products, you have one that you already mentioned, and you want to expand into other agencies, why would someone want to get that product, besides not having to deal with PDFs, what makes you better than the other guy?

Isaac Barnes: For one, we know this space. Most of our competitors aren’t in this space, they’re not focused on this space, this is not their primary concern. We were basically, we became men in the government. We understand the problems, we’ve been doing this for a very long time, and so the products we’re creating are right in the sweet spot of what the government is looking for.

 

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Isaac Barnes

 

John Gilroy: I have a question about this product, is this something that Seamless Docs does? This little PDF kind of forms management that you have?

Isaac Barnes: So Seamless Docs, their primary concern is with taking what is there and allowing you to kind of augment it. We want to completely replace it.

John Gilroy: Hmm.

Isaac Barnes: Making the entire process more efficient, and we’re doing it at a lower cost than anybody else.

John Gilroy: That’s interesting. We have to take a little break here. If people want to find out more about your company, Isaac, where should they go?

Isaac Barnes: Our website is www.emin-it.com. That’s the easiest way to get in touch with us and to find out more information about the company.

John Gilroy: The founding sponsor for Students vs. 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 Di Leonardo or Abe Usher at theradiantgroup.com. We are hosted by the Eastern Foundry, a community of government contractors who are bringing innovative solutions to the government marketplace. For more information, go to eastern-foundry.com.

Welcome to Students vs. Startups showdown on the Potomac, we’re back! We have students on one side of the table and we have a startup on the other and we’re just going back and forth asking gentle questions. As we learned from earlier in the show, we have Madeline, we have Ikenna, and we Connie on one side of the table, and we have the Marine Corps represented by Isaac on the other side of the table. Isaac’s got a startup, and Isaac’s got a partner in the startup and I don’t think we’ve asked the big pink elephant in the room here question and IKenna, let’s jump in here and ask the obvious question about Isaac’s partner-

Ikenna Yeah, I’m curious about your partner as well, could you talk about that? Could you also talk about how long you all have been in business?

Isaac Barnes: Yeah, okay, so the story behind how the company was founded, so my partner is Jose Risi. Him and I both met in MOS School, which is your Military Occupational School in Twenty-Nine Palms, CA in 2001. So him and I, we basically were in the exact same class, we were in a class of 11 people out of 150,000 Marines at the time, and him and I hit it off immediately. We’ve been best friends ever since that day, that first day we met and at this point, that was 15 years ago now. So he was doing the exact same thing at Joint Chief of Staff that I was doing at Secretary of Defense and both of us were like, “we’re doing this for other companies, could we do this for ourselves?” It started off as curiosity, right? We wanted to know if we were able to basically build a company and do what we saw our bosses doing, cause they, I’m not gonna call any names out, but they made it look really easy. Right? And that’s how it all, it always looks like that from the outside looking in you’re like “man, I’m doing all this work and this guy’s-,” but they made it look really easy.

So what we did initially, him and I both were talking about this, we were like “we should just do it. We should do it.” But we didn’t have the foresight at the time to say, “let’s do it together”, we both said “I’m gonna create a company and you’re gonna create a company, and then whoever gets there first, we’ll just merge those companies together.” So that’s how this started. So that conversation we had was in 2010, 2009, somewhere around there. So he started his company, I started mine, and then we both ended up getting approached by a customer that we both had about coming to do some work for his agency. Right? So at that time we were like “all right, it happened”-

John Gilroy: The fates-

Isaac Barnes: So we decided to merge companies and that’s Eminent.

John Gilroy: So Connie, you have a follow up question please.

Connie Chan: So it sounds like you guys converge on an idea over the years but do you see you guys going down the same path in the next five years?

 

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Connie Chan

 

Isaac Barnes: Definitely. The vision is our vision. It’s both of our vision. It’s not mine, it’s not his. It’s both of our vision. We both see the world the same way, and we both come from the same background so it’s a no brainer for us to execute on what we’re executing on. Our goal is 100 million dollars, we want to be 100 million dollar company, we want to have 100 million dollars in annual revenue. That’s where we’re headed and our way of getting there is through products and services, a combination of the two.

John Gilroy: Madeline, please.

Madeline T.: So if you could go back and tell your younger self something about creating a startup what would it be? Like what was the lesson that you would try to warn him not to do, or do this this time, what would it be?

Isaac Barnes: There’s two things: patience and trusting yourself and believing in yourself. To elaborate on that and to give you more context, patience, when you’re in your twenties, and John can attest to this, you want everything to happen fast, even when you’re in your thirties you want everything to happen fast, but you have to learn to be patient and to understand the path that you’re going on is gonna get you there, and that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Right? When you come out the gate as an entrepreneur, you’re hungry, you want it now, cause you can see it, you can see it vividly, and nobody else sees it but you, right? And it’s true for pretty much any type of innovator or anybody trying to do something with themselves, you have a vision somewhat of what you want to do and what you want to accomplish, but this brings me to my other point, which is a good segway is, you have to have self-awareness.

“You have to believe in yourself, and you have to know what you’re great at, and you have to find what you love and do that.” – Isaac Barnes, VP & CTO of Eminent IT

Right? That’s the advice I would give my younger self is instead of paying attention to what they’re great at and what they love to do, focus on what you love to do and getting better at that, and both of those two things come together.

John Gilroy: I have a question about this Founder Institute, tell me about that.

Isaac Barnes: So the Founder Institute is an incubator. They’re more focused on tech companies and they have-

John Gilroy: And you’re a product of the Founder Institute.

Isaac Barnes: Definitely, definitely. So I decided to go to the Founder Institute because I knew, going back to self-awareness, that there was areas that I needed to improve on to become a better person all around, leader, entrepreneur, speaker, father, husband, whatever. Right? I knew I needed to become better, and I saw the Founder Institute as an opportunity for me to do that. What it is is like Toastmaster’s on steroids. That’s how I describe it to people, it’s literally like Toastmaster’s on steroids. You have to have an idea, you have to present that idea every single week to a room full of strangers that you don’t know, and investors and you have to try to convince them that what you’re doing is great, then you have homework to go home and do on top of it. So it was a great experience and I learned a lot from it.

John Gilroy: Ikenna, any questions?

Ikenna I actually want to know about you and your partners strategy when you’re building a team. Like, what type of people do you look to hire, also do you kind of take into mind diversity and inclusion. You know we hear a lot about women and minorities being left out of the tech world so do you guys kind of consider that when you’re building a team?

Isaac Barnes: Definitely. I know for myself, as a Marine, I see green. What that means to us is we look at character at the end of the day. That’s what matters the most to me, so when I hire, I hire for character. I’m looking for your work ethic and I’m also looking for the type of person you are, right? And what level of self-awareness do you have and are you confident enough to admit that you need to grow some.

 

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Isaac Barnes

 

There’s a combination of people that we hire, we hire people that are experienced and then we hire more junior people, just because we don’t want people, we want people that can come into our business that we can kind of mold and see things the way we want them to see it and the way that we see it. Right? Because we feel that we’re generally good people and we want to surround ourselves with more good people. So that’s what we look for. As far as the minority inclusion part of it, or the inclusion part of it just in general, like I said, I believe everyone is capable of doing great things, as long as they know what they’re great at. That’s what matters most to me, and I look for that when I hire.

John Gilroy: Hmm, Connie.

Connie Chan: Speaking of knowing your strengths, what happens when you come across a weakness that you feel like needs to be attended to?

Isaac Barnes: Me personally?

Connie Chan: For you or your team?

Isaac Barnes: So typically for myself, I know what I’m good at. There’s things that I’m good at and one of those things is product development, the other thing that I’m really good at is business development. Everything else I outsource. Everything else I hire other people to do it for me. Right? So when you’re building a team, it’s similar to the analogy that I like to use is like, when you see an ant farm and there’s the ants that go pick up the leaves, there’s the one defending, the one’s taking care of the-, everybody has their specialty, and you have to understand as a leader, you have to know what people are good at, and the only way you can know that is by trusting them initially, right?

Trusting them enough to allow them to develop into the person that they’re gonna be, because nobody comes into an organization, unless you’re really senior, you don’t come into an organization knowing what you’re doing, you’re coming in there with your basic skill set and you build upon that. So I allow people to one, be themselves, right? I learn how they work using empathy and paying attention to them and actually spending time with them, and I work with them one on one as much as possible initially, and then I let them fly. It’s worked out really well for us.

 

John Gilroy: Earlier you said one of your heroes is Steve Jobs, now a lot of people hated that guy.

Isaac Barnes: I know.

John Gilroy: You read the biography by Isaacson, I was amazed at how many people hated him, but look at the things he produced. So do you want to be like that guy too, I mean that’s not a . . 

Isaac Barnes: At the end of the day, I want to be myself. I want to be the best version of me I can possibly become. That’s what I strive towards. I look at these other guys as inspiration on people that were themselves 100%. That’s what I look at it. I don’t judge him for his actions cause I don’t know what situations he was put in and what those other people put him in, or put him through. His path is different than mine. So at the end of the day, I look up to him. I look at him more than I look up to him, put it that way.

John Gilroy: Madeline, please.

Madeline T.: So earlier in that last question, you talked about how you see green, the military helped you do that. What else has the military helped you, especially in starting a startup, how has that experience benefited you?

Isaac Barnes: Fearlessness.

Madeline T.: Straight up fearlessness. You’re not afraid of anything now.

John Gilroy: That simple, huh?

Isaac Barnes: It’s very simple, so-

John Gilroy: There’s a lot of fearless people that jump off cliffs, you know, jump out of airplanes-

Isaac Barnes: But if you think about it, what you just said is a great analogy.

“Starting a business is equivalent, in my mind, to jumping off a cliff. It is. The only difference is you have a parachute on.”- Isaac Barnes, VP & CTO of Eminent IT

John Gilroy: And it may or may not work.

Isaac Barnes: Exactly, it may or may not work, but you have one on.

John Gilroy: But it’s there.

Madeline T.: Well then would you give any advice to any other people that are in the military if they were having this idea, what advice would you give them? Besides don’t have any fear.

Isaac Barnes: The idea to start a business?

Madeline T.: Yeah.

Isaac Barnes: I think it’s the same as what I said before. The advice I would give myself when I was younger, it’s the same advice. Trust your instincts is another thing that I would add to that. Coming out of the military, they equip you with a certain level of-

You experience so much that they give you a foundation of character traits that you don’t get anywhere else. Right? So once you establish that it’s just about trusting your instincts at that point. You’re not gonna know everything, nobody knows everything coming out. When I first started this, I didn’t know everything. So I would say focus on trusting your instincts and execution, work your butt off.

John Gilroy: Now wait a minute. This is gonna be front page news for the Washington Post. Isaac Barnes doesn’t know everything?

Isaac Barnes: I don’t know everything.

John Gilroy: This is a shocker.

Isaac Barnes: I do not know everything.

John Gilroy: If people want to find out more about your company, Isaac, what website should they visit?

Isaac Barnes: They should visit www.emin-it.com.

John Gilroy: Wonderful. We’re running out of time here, unfortunately. If you like the podcast, please give us a review on iTunes. I’d like to thank our founding sponsor, The Radiant Group, our host, the Eastern Foundry. Signing off from high atop a nondescript building in lovely downtown Rosslyn, VA, I’m John Gilroy and thanks for listening to Students vs. Startups showdown in the Potomac.

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