“Bootstrap” is one of RJ Blake’s favorite words when he’s talking about the consulting business that he founded a decade ago.
“We’re pushing 100 people. It was certainly a wild time to start a company, to say the least: two kids in diapers, one just out of the NICU, and not a lot of money. It was completely bootstrapped and kind of the American dream — glad that we made it so far,” he said of the launch of Blake Willson Group, which provides professional services, technology solutions and operations support services.
Blake, who spent seven years in the Army before becoming a CPA and going on to work at KPMG and Deloitte, was able to start his company as a service-disabled veteran-owned small business. That SDVOSB status absolutely helped him found Blake Willson and removed barriers in landing contracts with Defense Department and Intelligence Community agencies, he said during the American Society of Military Comptrollers’ The Business of Defense podcast on Federal News Network.
Today, the Arlington, Virginia, government contractor is in transition and preparing for when it eventually sizes out of its SDVOSB and 8(a) status, Blake said.
“We are deliberate and intentional in our growth,” he said. “But the reason we want to grow is not so leaders can drive around in a Lamborghini, it’s so we can do really good work for DoD and for the IC.”
Blake offered five steps that have helped his business prepare for the transition from small to bigger, if not big.
Transition Step 1: Plan for losing your special small business status well before you do
“Years before you think you’re going to grow out of that status, you have to have a plan,” Blake said.
A key element of that plan needs to be an infrastructure that can support customers’ needs and the business’ growth. And that’s where things can easily go wrong, he cautioned. “If you haven’t figured out by throwing the spaghetti at the wall really what sticks and how to wash, rinse, repeat and develop your infrastructure, things can kind of go south,” Blake said. “You see a lot of small businesses burn out.”
Use that information as the company evolves to plot its future strategy and how it will operate post its small business status, he advised.
Transition Step 2: Develop a sounding board for the business
It’s OK to ask for help, Blake said, adding that people like to help others and share what they have learned. “At every stage, I’m always seeking who’s five, 10, 15 or 20 years ahead of me? Can I pick their brain?”
At the Blake Willson Group, Blake created a board of directors — people who have been executives, “been there and done that” — so that the company can be strategic.
“You hear about where companies get some early success, they grow very quickly and they’re not able to maintain quality. It starts to affect the customers. It sounds like you’re trying to get ahead of that,” noted Rich Brady, CEO of ASMC and the podcast’s host.
When a business is small, it’s typically tactical in its focus, getting the work done and people wearing multiple hats. It’s easy to make decisions that aren’t necessarily big picture or forward-thinking, Blake said. The board helps the company prepare for growth sensibly, which in turns ensures the continued delivery of quality services to customers, he said.
Transition Step 3: Evaluate and make changes to your team
Another challenge as a business grows? Sometimes the staff makeup needs to change.
“Maybe when you get past 50 employees, you get past 100, someone’s not the right leader in that space anymore. You don’t necessarily want to demote them or give them a boss. Sometimes it’s best to part ways,” Blake said, adding that those have been some of the toughest decisions and discussions for him as a CEO.
As the business grows, talent management must become more thoughtful too, especially for managers and above, he said.
Transition Step 4: Create a career growth plan for your employees
Blake Willson Group recently implemented a learning management platform. The goal is to standardize learning goals and certification requirements so that it can provide a path to promotion for its employees, no matter their level in the company, Blake said.
The learning program also includes assessments to ensure progress, some as long as 90 minutes.
“We’re trying to maintain that best value — cutting edge solutions — and that takes really talented people, and they’re hard to find,” he said. That’s why, in addition to helping employees develop their skill sets, the company also has a team of three recruiters to identify and attract capable team members.
Transition Step 5: Redefine what makes your business special, based on your growing staff
Sure, an entrepreneur starts a business with a vision. But as a company grows and gains more employees, it’s important to identify core values that reflect the team not just the founder, Blake said.
Having started in the military, he wanted his business to be based on servant leadership, service to others. “But we needed to look at what the best and brightest was in Blake Wilson Group and define that value set and that vision not off of me anymore but off of the group,” he said.
The values that the company landed on collectively a couple of years ago now still derive from servant leadership: leadership, dependability, diversity, integrity and grit.
To listen to the full discussion between RJ Blake, CEO and founder of the Blake Willson Group, and Rich Brady, CEO of ASMC, click the podcast play button below:
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