Stealing Lessons from Goliath's Playbook
"One of the primary goals I have is to get Google to be a big company that has the nimbleness and soul and passion and speed of a startup." -- Google co-founder Larry Page, upon assuming the CEO role in 2011
Forget for a moment that Page and cofounder Sergey Brin met in graduate school just 15 years earlier. Forget that Google is younger than Amazon.com and, for that matter, every other company on the Fortune 100 list. Because the point here is not that the company grew from "Don't be evil" to the world's most visited web site in the blink of an eye. The point is that Google wants to act more like a startup.
And it's not alone.
"There's a quiet revolution happening in corporate America. Big companies are applying startup strategies and tools to jump-start innovation," writes Soren Kaplan in the 2012 Fast Co. Design article "4 Innovation Strategies from Big Companies That Act Like Startups." "It's not about pontificating on the innovation process. It's about being lean, focused, and maniacally strategic."
Allow us to repeat that: lean, focused, and maniacally strategic.
If you asked us to use any three adjectives to describe IT services company nfrastructure, those would be they. A member of the Build 100 list of sustained-growth companies, nfrastructure has nearly doubled its workforce in the last five years and now employs 250 people with revenues topping $55 million. More importantly, this company that you've probably never heard of competes with behemoths like IBM, HP, and AT&T for projects in seven carefully chosen and clearly defined industries.
"We want to build this from a $100 million company to a $1 billion boutique at the high end of the middle market," says nfrastructure CEO Daniel Pickett III. "We've made that goal clear, communicated, and universally understood by our people."
But here's the rub: nfrastrucutre's lean, focused, strategic growth is not a byproduct of its startup roots (Pickett began the company in a liquor store basement 21 years ago). It's a direct result of the company's ability to think and act like one of its larger, more powerful competitors. Here are three big-business strategies that have propelled nfrastructure to sustained growth.
First the good news: The IT services industry is bursting with opportunity. The bad news: The IT services industry is bursting with opportunity -- and not all of it's good. Evaluating new opportunities to determine where an investment in training, development, and sales will yield the largest long-term revenue stream is hard work -- and vitally important. Chasing the wrong rabbit could mean the difference between life and death, especially for a relatively smaller competitor like nfrastructure.
"We have to look at the white space -- big data, cloud, mobility, the Internet of Things -- and ask, 'How are we going to play with those things?'" Pickett says. "We're looking for the markets that have the largest growth potential for us where we can capture admired brands as customers. The competition is going to be fierce. We really don't care about that; we know who they are and we like what our roadmap looks like."
Pickett says nfrastructure pursues big projects with big clients in just seven industries: healthcare, technology, communications, public safety, financial services, retail, energy, and the government sector.
"Are there projects that we don't go after? 100% yes," Pickett says. "We have a very defined list of industries and services. Outside of those, we say 'No.' Period. If we didn't, it would be a recipe for disaster because it would distract resources from our key capabilities."
"You can't just do things right," Pickett says. "You've got to do the right things right."
Judging what is right for the company in the long term takes more than entrepreneurial smarts and passion; it takes lots and lots of industry experience and insight. And that is why nfrastructure recruits its top talent from one primary source: its biggest competitors.
"We've got hundreds of years of IBM talent here at nfrastructure," Pickett says. "If you look at what's leading our growth, it's really those master resources."
He says nfrastructure is able to steal top talent by offering them a lead role with major impact on the bottom line. They share the company road map, and the three- to five-year journey for each top player so that they can clearly understand their objectives, goals, and contributions to the bigger picture.
"We work hard to engineer out the complexity and bureaucracy so everyone has a clear line of sight from customer success to company success to their own success," Pickett says.
For a midsize company, nfrastructure lays claim to some very large and important public-private partnerships. Perhaps most notable is the nfrastructure Center of Competency in Information Technology (NCCIT) -- a partnership forged with the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at the University of Albany and SUNYIT focused on devising technology solutions for higher education, state and local government, and the healthcare industry.
A component of this partnership is a workforce development program that funnels the best and brightest college graduates directly into jobs at nfrastructure. Students who complete two consecutive nanotechnology internships at nfrastructure's new $127.5 million, state-of-the-art facility on the SUNYIT campus are guaranteed jobs after graduation.
"nfrastructure has an impact on the students'; curriculum," Pickett says. "The students get paid internships as a way to offset the cost of college, and when they graduate they can say they learned it and actually practiced it on the job. It's a terrific partnership for all players."