What's behind Intelligent Decisions' strong and steady growth?
CEO Harry Martin explains the factors that have driven his company's success
- By Nick Wakeman
- Apr 11, 2011
Harry Martin has seen the hot trends in the government market come and go. Since the founding of Intelligent Decisions more than 20 years ago, customer demands have shifted as technology has improved and new capabilities have come into vogue.
He’s led the company's transition from primarily producing its own line of PCs to becoming a solutions provider that offers a variety of professional services. Many companies didn’t make that shift and were acquired by larger companies or simply faded away.
But despite shifts in the market, the focus for Martin and his company has remained on keeping customers satisfied and helping them perform their missions. As a result, Intelligent Decisions has grown to 400 employees and is approaching $500 million in annual revenue.
Martin recently spoke with Editor-in-Chief Nick Wakeman about the strategy for his company and the important trends that drive the market today.
WT: What was your vision when you launched your company?
Harry Martin: When we started, the PC/server market was just taking off. Our vision back then was to participate and stake our claim in the federal market as it related to the white-box business.
We were building our own brand of PCs like a lot of people did then. All of that was relatively new stuff.
It was a major undertaking to connect a parallel printer or serial printer to a PC and to install programs such as WordStar and WordPerfect. Those were the major undertakings of the federal IT business, let alone doing e-mail and setting up databases and filing systems and communicating. There just wasn’t the infrastructure to do that then.
But the rate of technological change has been phenomenal to say the least. From back then to here, we are light-years ahead.
WT: How has the vision evolved?
Harry Martin: The vision really is the same: provide relevant and solid IT solutions to federal customers and to become one with the agency.
I think we have been relatively successful for three reasons. We focused on measured growth versus growing huge and very fast. We hired smart people who are experts in certain fields. And we’ve cultivated a pretty neat place to work with a real esprit de corps.
We’ve also focused on our processes and created a client-centered approach.
That’s why we’ve grown and continue to grow.
WT: You’ve mentioned the dramatic change the market has undergone. How have you managed those changes?
Harry Martin: The secret has been our focus on the customer. Our customer is arguably the most important customer on Earth.
If you pay attention to the IT market as a whole and provide relevant solutions to your customer’s problems, then you can change and adapt and figure out what works for the customer.
We work diligently with our partners and clients to deliver solutions that make sense within a particular budget and time frame.
WT: What were some of the bigger challenges that you had to overcome as the business grew?
Harry Martin: The most important thing is to have a diverse portfolio so you aren’t overly reliant on any one agency. That has always been a challenge.
You tend to throw all your resources at one customer, your bread-and-butter customer. But it is important to expand and diversify your portfolio. Truth be told, it makes you a better and more well-rounded service provider. But that only comes after you’ve garnered some experiences and qualifications and reinvesting the money you make so you can go and get good quality people.
WT: What are some of the current challenges you face in trying to grow your business?
Harry Martin: Some of the bigger challenges are maintaining quality at the customer set, keeping employees happy and fostering that esprit de corps within the company and the focus on mission and the personal touch, and continuing to foster your partnerships in the community.
Those are the three things you have to service the most. You can easily lose sight of all three of those as you grow larger.
We are small enough and fortunate enough to know everyone in the company and know our customers. We continue to do good, quality work and build our partner relationships.
But with scale, you lose some of that. That is a challenge. You need to improve processes, and you need to find different ways to touch employees. We have offices all over the world and to touch those people is a challenge, but there is neat technology available and we have a robust infrastructure.
WT: What are some of the major trends in the marketplace today?
Harry Martin: There are some interesting trends going on right now.
Cloud computing is the buzzword of the day and is by far one of the IT industry's biggest trends and rightly so. I think cloud computing offers customers and us and our partners ways to increase capacity without significant investment or infrastructure.
That’s important, especially in an economy like this where everyone is looking to cut costs but not cut quality.
WT: How does the demand for low cost but high quality affect your business?
Harry Martin: I tend to think one of the reasons we have been successful is that we have always been about efficiency and driving costs down for our customer.
We don’t have the mantra of some of the larger guys of prolonging the problem because there is a lot of profit to be made in prolonging the problem.
We have traditionally done the opposite. Those have been our marching orders since Day One.
We don’t subscribe to the hourly model. That’s just not the way we operate.
I like firm-fixed price contracts because we can scope a job, give a realistic quotation and get it done. As the customer realizes the value they hoped for, we are able to walk away with a sense of gratification that the customer is extremely happy and will come back to us for job No. 2.
WT: What advice would you give someone just starting off today?
Harry Martin: You have to become smart. You have to understand the topology of the agency, the programs that have been effective, the ones they are consolidating or expanding.
What is the agency’s mission? How do they get the mission done? How do they do business? How do they acquire products and services? You have to understand contracting with that agency.
And then there is old-fashioned marketing. You have to talk to customers and find out where they need help and how you can help them.
All of that takes time.
It’s like a campaign. If you are going after a large vehicle, you have to become part of the community. You have to know the operators and understand their thinking and the mission. You have to understand the budget and the contracting mechanism.
If you aren’t well funded or [don't] have the patience or have some differentiator, you are going to stumble and falter. That can be costly.
Nick Wakeman is the editor-in-chief of Washington Technology. Follow him on Twitter: @nick_wakeman.