Uncle Sam can be a very good customer. But landing government contracts is a tricky business, where red tape reigns supreme and bigger, more established companies have an edge. Try telling that to Sumi Krishan, who landed her first deal as a teenager.
While other kids were busy watching Sesame Street, Sumi Krishnan was learning the ins and outs of the federal contract market. It's a head start that proved lucrative when she launched her own IT firm, K4 Solutions, landing her first government contract in her late teens.
"My father's software company worked on government contracts for years," says Krishnan, now 26. "So I saw that growing up."
Today, her IT services and support company is a major player in technical and administrative contracting, providing everything from help desk and networking engineering support to video conferencing for Air Force bases and other government agencies across the nation, including the Pentagon.
Two years ago, K4 won a five-year, $17 million contract with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, where Krishnan had worked after graduating from Virginia Tech with a degree in electrical engineering. And this summer, she was awarded a sought-after contract to oversee office automation and military personnel administration support for the 88th Communications Group at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, one of the nation's largest military installations.
That's a stellar resume for anyone. But it's all the more impressive given the federal government's preference for awarding technology contracts to larger, more experienced businesses with a proven track record and the contacts that come with it. Unlike Silicon Valley and other high-tech hubs, she says, it's "not always the case that the market is led by younger people" in the government contracting world.
Still, she sees her age as an advantage. To create K4, Krishnan brought together some tech-savvy friends with a range of IT skills and know-how -- not surprisingly, all 20-somethings -- then drew up a list of available services that roughly matched procurement needs. Getting her foot in the door with subcontracts for onsite work at places like the Defense Department, government officials soon took notice.
At the same time, she says, being young meant she didn't have anything weighing her down, like a mortgage or a family to feed. "Launching any business is risky, but for me there really was much to risk," she says. Likewise, as a manager and an employer, Krishnan says she didn't have anything to "unlearn," either from the corporate world or business school.
And when it came to vying for highly competitive contracts among older, experienced business owners entrenched in the federal bureaucracy, she simply refused to let her age be an issue.
"In order to keep moving ahead, I can't focus on it," she says. "There are too many hurdles out there to let age become one of them."
That kind of determination and success has earned her kudos from a range of trade and industry groups, including an emerging leadership award earlier this year from the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association.
Her advice to other young entrepreneurs: "Don't get discouraged too easily. You never know where you're next break is going to come from."
And now that he is retired, Krishnan's father is her closest advisor. "I got the entrepreneurial spirit from him," she says.