From B-ball to business
Appian moved from dreams on the court to enterprise developer
- By Gail Repsher Emery
- Jun 19, 2003
From left, three of the four Appian founders : Michael Beckley, Matt Calkins and Marc Wilson.
From their offices in Vienna, Va., the four founders of Appian Corp. can look down on the apartment complex where they lived, played basketball and, in August 1999, began their software and professional services firm.
"There was a lot of time spent mulling our future on the basketball court," said Michael Beckley, vice president of business development. "We all intended to start our own companies but decided that by teaming our efforts, we could avoid having to go to venture capitalists or angel investors. By taking advantage of our skills in different areas, we figured we had a core management team."
The group wanted to build enterprise Web solutions that would handle large volumes of information and target it to individuals, enabling better decision-making. For example, the portal Appian built for the Army has notified individual soldiers of vaccinations they need.
Three of the founders -- Matt Calkins, Bob Kramer and Beckley -- were veterans of MicroStrategy Inc., the McLean, Va., business intelligence software firm known for the meteoric climb and fall of its stock price as the dot-com era came and went. The fourth, Marc Wilson, joined the team from Boston Pacific Co. Inc., a consulting and investment services firm specializing in energy businesses.
Appian now occupies space on the 16th floor of the building that is home to the Tower Club, a gathering place for Northern Virginia's high-powered tech execs.
While Appian, a small business, isn't one of the best-known names in the Washington-area tech sector, Calkins aims to make it so.
"I want us to continue being a leader in high-end knowledge management portal space. We're not on an IPO track, and I haven't a whit of interest in selling the company. It's built for the long term," said Calkins, chief executive officer.
The company's revenue falls between $12 million and $20 million a year, said Kevin Spurway, vice president of marketing. In fiscal 2002, revenue grew 325 percent over 2001. Meanwhile, Appian staff is growing about 100 percent a year, and now numbers 92. Its competitors include Plumtree Software Inc., Vignette Corp. and Documentum Inc., Calkins said.
So far, Appian has escaped the attention of most industry analysts, even as it has won high-profile jobs in the federal sector. It is perhaps best known for building the Army Knowledge Online portal, which has 1.4 million users. AKO is the biggest portal in the world, according to Appian and Army executives. It is a central hub for information dissemination, knowledge sharing and collaboration among active duty and civilian personnel, National Guard members, reservists, retirees, dependents and contractors.
Appian started off in the commercial sector with clients such as Talbots Inc. and General Motors Corp. Unlike many other firms, however, its founders didn't wait until after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to enter the government market.
When the dot-com era came to a close, some of Appian's clients didn't pay the firm. But Appian's executives already had done substantial market research, and they were ready for their next move.
"We had to go where somebody was still spending -- the government," Calkins said.
In summer 2000, Appian got its first federal work: a six-figure contract to build a Web-based business intelligence system for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Calkins said. Its first major software deal was Army Knowledge Online. In June 2001, the Army began buying Appian's services through a contract vehicle awarded to GTSI Corp., a large IT reseller in Chantilly, Va.
"GTSI was able to execute the contract for us and make the Army capable of purchasing our software and services in days, rather than weeks," Beckley said.
By the end of 2001, Appian had its own General Services Administration schedule, making it easier for the Army to buy from the firm directly. The company became the prime contractor on the AKO project.
"It was kind of amazing the Army would trust it to a company most people hadn't heard of yet. We had not done seven-figure business with the government before," Beckley said.
AKO launched in just more than three months. Its key features include personalization, which allows users to arrange the site according to their preferences; an application server-independent framework that allows the easy addition, deletion and modification of applications; and a collaboration tool that allows for sharing and reuse of information.
"We wanted the portal to be the key enabler of the Army's transformation to a network-centric, knowledge-based force. We looked for a company that could produce a portal that would scale up to a million and a half people in a couple of months," said Robert Schwenk, deputy director for the Chief Technology Office of the Network Enterprise Technology Command, Ninth Army Signal Corps.
The Army and Appian are always working to add new features and make the portal easier to use, Schwenk said.
"When we first started, we needed to do an architecture. We learned as we went along. You don't build the world's largest portal and not make a few mistakes along the way," Schwenk said. "We wanted to make it more reliable 24/7, and when somebody comes in, we want to make sure they can find what they are looking for quickly. We are continually working to make sure people are only a few clicks away from the information they need."
Next, Appian's executives parlayed their work on AKO into a job with the Navy, winning a contract worth as much as $3 million to build a knowledge management portal. The contract runs through fiscal 2003.
"There was no better preparation than building AKO," Calkins said. While the Army portal took three months to roll out, Navy Knowledge Online took one month. It went live in January.
NKO, which can support more than 1 million people, has about 85,000 registered users. The Navy wants 600,000 personnel and their dependents to begin using it within the next year, said Lt. Eric Morris, NKO program manager. The Navy looked at large portals built by firms such as Cisco Systems Inc., Boeing Co. and IBM Corp., as well as the Army's portal, Morris said.
"We wanted to find out what mistakes they had made, where they spent money they wouldn't spend money on now," he said. "The stuff Appian built mapped so closely to what we needed it was startling. The Army paid for all of our R&D."
The Navy's selection "made us feel very good. The Air Force is also looking at what we are doing," Schwenk said. "Appian is a young company, but I think they are going to become a giant in the industry. Their corporation enjoys my confidence."
Staff Writer Gail Repsher Emery can be reached at email@example.com.