Michael Pittman isn't a born entrepreneur; he just knows a good idea when he sees it.
He is the founder and CEO of Connected Solutions Group, a company that sells smartphones, tablets, and other wireless gadgets. Based in Mechanicsville, Virginia, the bootstrapped business generated more than $23 million in revenue last year, a 12,701 percent increase since the company's founding in 2015. That helped it hit No. 8 on the 2019 Inc. 5000, a list of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S.
Pittman didn't grow up loving electronics. The liberal arts major wanted to be a history teacher and a high school basketball coach. It was a summer job he took more than a decade ago that led him to starting a business.
"I found that I excel at sales," says Pittman, whose business partners with telecom companies such as Verizon and MetTel. "That's what started moving the ball downhill."
In 2005, Pittman took a summer job as a building superintendent in Richmond, Virginia, where he met the owner of an end-of-life electronics recycling company called 2nd Solutions. Back then, BlackBerry was the go-to device in corporate America. The business owner bought batches of used BlackBerry phones and resold them on eBay. Pittman was so intrigued by the concept that he asked for a shot at selling phones on a commission-only basis. "I volunteered on weekends, and I started emailing people aggressively looking for wholesalers," says Pittman. He started generating enough revenue to negotiate a salary and quit the superintendent job. Within two years, he was bringing in more than $1 million in revenue and earned a VP role. "That was my dive into wireless," he adds.
Ten years later, Pittman had developed an encyclopedic knowledge of wireless devices. He knew which tablets worked best for back-seat advertising in cabs, and he knew where to get them. He had also built an expansive network, amassing an email list with more than 10,000 buyers.
It was around that time that he realized there was a gap in the market that he says nobody had filled yet. "Instead of just selling a cellphone or a router or a hot spot, the industry was looking for resellers who could bundle services with [the device]," says Pittman. That meant pre-installing software on devices, blocking apps like YouTube so employees wouldn't abuse the company's data plan, and drop-shipping the gadgets to their final destinations so the customer wouldn't have to. "I could deliver a box, a widget, a router, a phone, and I could provide a service around it instead of just providing the box," he adds. That's when Connected Solutions Group, or CSG, was born.
While CSG is just four years old, it has managed to stand out from more established competitors with a simple strategy: Its CEO rarely says no.
CSG has installed tablets in golf carts and programmed smartphones to track popcorn vendors inside a stadium. It also created a gadget for a logistics company to track its snowplow driver's whereabouts and whether the driver was spreading salt or plowing snow. "If a customer calls us for something that is outside of our standard capabilities ... we'll adapt," says Pittman. For the most part, he adds, "I can't turn down business if it's available to us."
That inclination to say yes led to an entirely new revenue stream for CSG. In early 2018, the company received a request for a rugged compact device that could provide connectivity in remote areas or an emergency situation. The team spent seven months devising a setup to pack two phones, a standalone battery, antennas, and a router to connect up to 168 laptops--all inside one carry-on suitcase. The client didn't buy it. Pittman and his team were so impressed with what they had built, however, that they went ahead and marketed it anyway.
Their invention, dubbed a mobile command center, or MCC, is now a patent-pending product line that has become an entirely new division inside the company. Pittman sells the rugged gadgets to first responders and municipalities for a little under $2,000, and claims his price is less than half of what other providers charge for similar products. "This is a small part of our overall thing here. But a growing part for sure," says Pittman, who expects to book $26 million in revenue by the end of this year.
While rarely saying no has helped Pittman's business grow, it's also led to management headaches. The company currently has 80 employees who work full time on everything from product build-outs to sales and procurement. Yet when a project comes through on a deadline, everything has to drop to meet it--even if the original scope of the project has expanded. Often, Pittman says, that means employees will need to work overtime.
"We're going to find a way to make it deliverable to the customer even if it means that we lose money," Pittman adds. "That's just the way it works."
Pittman's work ethic is strong, says Nick Jones, founder and CEO of North South 804 Apps, an app development shop that works with CSG in Virginia. "He expects a lot and demands a lot," says Jones, who counts Pittman as a close friend. "But I also think that he's the first person who would do anything for any of his employees."
In July, Pittman gave each of his employees a surprise $100 bonus because he woke up "feeling grateful." He wrote a $1,000 check to an employee who looked like she was having a rough day and told her he appreciated the work she does for the company. In 2017, he instituted company-wide Taco Tuesdays.
Pittman says employee turnover at CSG is actually not that significant; just five or six people have left voluntarily since 2015. Still, he strives to make it a place where people want to work. "If I lost the culture that we have here, I would never be able to survive the work volume," he adds. "If I lost that, I would get rid of this company--it's non-negotiable."
Corrections: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the nature of Connected Solutions Current business and its relationship with Verizon and other telecom companies. The company mostly sells new wireless products to its clients, not refurbished, and Verizon and other telecoms are its partners. Additionally, the story misstated Pittman’s education record. He did not graduate from college.