Fast 50: How Universal Understanding grabbed the top spot

Universal Understanding says it owes its Fast 50 ranking to deep technical expertise and wise use of small-business programs. Here's how they did it.

Universal Understanding has only 52 employees, but the Jacksonville, Fla., communications technologies company boasts distinctive assets that make it a player in the federal marketplace.

Proof: Its revenues soared to $102.7 million in 2011 from $122,698 in 2007, for a compound annual growth rate of 437.9 percent and the No. 1 spot on the 2012 Washington Technology Fast 50.

One major asset is technical know-how. “We feel we’re fortunate because of our deep technical expertise,” said President John Metzger. “There are a lot of companies trying to sell to the federal government, just waiting for money to come in, like it’s a lottery. But it’s very important to try to develop a niche and to get as technically deep into that niche as possible.”

Universal Understanding also has two small-business procurement certifications that give the company an edge in the federal market. It holds certifications for both the Historically Underutilized Business Zone (HUBZone) empowerment contracting program and the program for small businesses owned by service-disabled veterans.

“It’s very rare in the federal government [marketplace] for a company with our expertise to have those two socioeconomic indicators,” Metzger said. “There aren’t a lot of companies out there that can market themselves to the [federal government] the way we do. Socioeconomic indicators are very important in the federal market and are becoming more important in mainstream companies.”

Metzger, a disabled Vietnam War veteran, founded the company in 2005 to sell Cisco Systems services and products to the federal government. Today, it’s the only Cisco Gold Certified Partner to hold both the HUBZone and the service-disabled veteran-owned certifications. In 2010, the company received the Cisco Federal Small Business Partner of the Year award, underlining its core expertise in Cisco engineering, extensive equipment offerings and collaborative communications technologies.

When Universal Understanding was established, it provided training services for Cisco’s customers; its name was intended to convey the aim of that training. As the company’s services and products expanded over the years, Metzger saw no point in altering the name.

“We just never changed it,” he said. “It’s a known commodity. There’s no sense in changing a known commodity.”

Today the company designs and deploys collaborative communications networks across interoperable and open-architecture platforms, incorporating tools such as conferencing, video and audio on demand, IP communications, mobile applications, and social networking. About 90 percent of its business is with federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, NASA, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Transportation Department.

Universal Understanding also works with other original equipment manufacturers, including NetApp, EMC Corp. and VMware Inc.

Looking ahead, Metzger expressed concern about federal budget constraints and big spending cuts and their potential impact on the company’s growth. “Like everybody, we would love to see the federal government actually have a budget and actually award contracts that they’ve submitted for bids,” he said. “We’re very concerned about the whole budget mess and the political environment.… We see growth but just don’t see a lot of it.”

On the plus side, the company has one other asset: loyal employees. “We’ve had only one person quit the company since it was founded, and that was for medical reasons,” Metzger said.