Identifying an overlooked market need can lead to a lucrative new line of business. For Applied Development, such a discovery came about by luck, happenstance, and a willingness to take a risk.
The Baltimore-based company launched in 2011 and received its very first federal contract four years later: a nine-hour-per-month job providing sign language interpretation services for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. It came through a referral from a former client who wanted to help married co-founders Kimberly Citizen and Biffrey Braxton. The problem? Applied Development was an IT consulting startup. Neither Citizen nor Braxton had any experience hiring sign language interpreters--or, for that matter, with sign language at all. In need of revenue, they said yes anyway, and worked to learn on the job.
The move paid off, and since then Applied Development has pivoted into related work full-time. In 2018, the company had $2.1 million in revenue, a 329 percent increase over 2016 that landed it at No. 27 on this year's Inc. 5000 Series: DC Metro list of the fastest-growing companies in the Washington D.C. metro area. Today, Applied Development has 25 full-time employees, 300 part-time sign language interpreters, and contracts with 14 U.S. federal agencies across 23 states, including the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense.
Think of the company as part staffing firm, part PR firm, focused on providing services for the disabled, exclusively for government agencies. Applied Development is also notable for its diversity in leadership: It's the only company on this year's Inc. 5000 Series: DC Metro list that's led by a black female military veteran. Citizen, the company's CEO, served for three years in the U.S. Army, and has been a government consultant since 2001, including seven years as a senior manager at Booz Allen Hamilton and Accenture. "I wasn't satisfied with my experience in the larger organizations," she says. "I felt very much like a number."
Even so, it took three years for Braxton--Applied Development's COO, and a former IT director and consultant in the real estate industry--to persuade Citizen to launch their own firm. Once they got started, the IT work they specialized in was proving hard to come by. Meanwhile, that tiny sign language contract was growing--and while it wasn't enough to sustain the entire business, its profit margins were noticeably high.
So, midway through 2016, Citizen and Braxton did some market research. They quickly realized they'd stumbled into an untapped niche: Almost every single U.S. federal government agency was in need of disability-focused communications experts. Applied Development could provide internal services from sign language interpretation and captioning for the hearing-impaired, to social media and public relations for disability-focused advocacy events like the DOD's Warrior Games, an annual competition for disabled and wounded military personnel.
Near the end of that year, the founders made the pivot. Braxton notes that their backgrounds helped them quickly get up to speed in an unfamiliar industry. "As consultants, knowing exactly how to do that business was less important than knowing the things that we would apply to that business to make it both effective and efficient," he says.
It helps to have guidance from someone who's been there. For Citizen and Braxton, one such mentor is Rodney Thomas, whose Silver Spring, Maryland-based Thomas and Herbert Consulting ranked near the top of the Inc. 5000 list in 2004 and 2005. The trio spends roughly five hours per month working through Applied Development's largest obstacles together. The experience has made Citizen and Braxton want to return the favor. They've already started their own mentoring efforts, working to support other veteran and minority women entrepreneurs.
Citizen's long-term goal is to launch her own venture capital fund and incubator for women veterans of color. If her revenue projections for Applied Development are accurate, that could happen sooner rather than later. She says she's expecting the company to make $6 million in revenue in 2020, and double it to $12 million next year.
But that's only if the company can surmount its most immediate obstacle. Citizen says she's currently stuck waiting for funds to come in from ongoing contracts, while repayment will soon be due for the lines of credit she used to get Applied Development off the ground. "We're a proven entity, we have millions in revenue, we're continuing to grow rapidly--you would think [cash flow] would be easier, but it's actually a little bit harder," she says. "It's one of the most challenging parts of being a business owner, especially when you're growing very rapidly."