Fast 50: AbleVets embraces its growing pains

From a small start to explosive growth, AbleVets has kept focused on its mission: Help veterans and active-duty service members.

The AbleVets team is preparing for some welcome growing pains. What started in 2015 as a service-disabled veteran-owned business with five workers is on track to have 375 employees by the end of its next quarter – “a daunting task,” said Wyatt Smith, the company’s chief executive officer.

But the company is prepared. It has streamlined the onboarding process and honed its culture: “Everybody understands the mission – that we’re out to help the veterans and active-duty” service members, said Smith, a veteran, physician and former deputy chief information officer at the Military Health System.

In fact, AbleVets is no stranger to fast growth. Its cybersecurity sector went from 10 employees in 2016 to about 50 today, said Chief Operating Officer Jim Dolatowski, and “we expect to continue that growth.”

This is not to say that the company’s other focus areas – cloud, agile engineering, analytics, and strategy and transformation – are stagnant, Smith added. “It’s not that we flattened out in our software engineering piece of it, but it’s really that cyber just took off,” he said. “It’s really important to protect personally identifiable information and…protected health information, so being in a health IT-focused industry, we’re taking on that role of protecting that health care information.”

AbleVets earned the No. 3 spot on the 2018 Washington Technology Fast 50 list of the fastest-growing small businesses.

The company uses three core contract vehicles to bid on work: The Veterans Affairs Department’s Transformation Twenty-One Total Technology Next Generation acquisition program, the National Institutes of Health’s CIO-Solutions and Partners Small Business governmentwide acquisition contract, and the General Services Administration’s GSA Schedule 70. In March, it became eligible to bid on GSA’s Veterans Technology Services GWAC.

Hildi Pineda, AbleVets’ chief growth officer, said many factors fuel the company’s growth. One is a team of subject-matter experts who understand the needs and priorities of the VA, AbleVets’ main customer. Another is its focus on quality.

“The quality piece…is really important,” Smith added. “I look at it as you deliver well, you deliver on time, on budget quality products, and the government wants you to do more work, so we’ve grown a lot based on the quality.”

“In general, all of us are firmly committed to the mission that we’re supporting, and so we’re very much about putting the client at the center, and I think that culture has really resonated with our clients,” Pineda said.

Internally, the company’s culture is supportive, Dolatowski said. For example, AbleVets offers mentorships, community of interest presentations at which subject-matter experts speak on various topics and AbleLabs, where employees – mainly software developers – can test and innovate.

“We’ve spent a lot of time trying to make sure that this is a good place for folks to work,” Dolatowski said.

Now, AbleVets is looking to diversify by leveraging its capabilities beyond VA to the Defense and Health and Human Services departments. For instance, DOD recently tapped the company for cyber work, Smith said.

“We’re going to focus on what we know and offer that to other agencies,” he said.

This is where Pineda’s role as CGO helps, too. Her job is to define growth strategies in new markets while sustaining current work. Smith considers the latter a success: “Some evidence of sustaining of our base is to this point we’ve successfully received all of our option years for all of our contracts to date.”

But AbleVets isn’t looking to do the same work on repeat. “We’re focusing on solving the problem,” Pineda said. “We’re not looking to be in there for 20 years addressing the same thing day in and day out. We’re looking at after we solve this problem, what’s the next problem.”