Neelu Modali is CEO of SM Resources Corporation (SMRC), a company founded in 1991 with the catch phrase, “We embrace science to engineer a smarter, more sustainable world.” Modali took on the role of CEO in 2004. He pursued his higher education at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Modali spoke with WashingtonExec about SMRC, why he began his own company, successes vs. failures, the next big trend to hit federal IT, his favorite app, and more. He also recently gave us his outlook for 2013.
WashingtonExec: What made you want to start your own company?
Neelu Modali: I started the company in 1991 while I was in college. And the truth is, I had absolutely no clue what I wanted to do. I was providing some basic IT skill sets to small businesses. If someone needed help with a task, I helped them and they paid me hourly for it. We’re talking about making pocket change type of money for a college student, certainly not a big entrepreneurial pursuit. Nonetheless, I had a small company, and the grassroots started through more of a personal pursuit than a rationalized decision to build a business. I think it was something I was wired for in terms of a larger desire to build something and hopefully build something large. I then spent 10 years failing at a number of things, learning, and then trying again.
WashingtonExec: Was SMRC the original name for your company when you started it in college, and how has it evolved since your college days?
Neelu Modali: I actually started a website in the early nineties to promote club events in DC. The company that owned the website was SMRC and ultimately, that is where I cut my teeth on some web development skills. I took those skills to other places. At the same time I was working as a programmer for federal contractors in the DC/MD/VA region, learning more technically, but rapidly gaining exposure to Government Contracting in general.
WashingtonExec: Do you think you’ve learned more from your successes or from your failures?
Neelu Modali: Definitely from the failures. The anecdotal story I tell people all the time is that when I first got a sizeable piece of work, I was living in Houston and was working in the energy sector when we landed a small project. A few months later, that company went bankrupt. That was Enron.
“I learned a lot of valuable lessons as soon as Enron went south because we lost our entire project, lost everything that we had, and literally had to reinvent who were going to be and what we were going to do.”
So, I spent about a good five years trying to find a way for SMRC to survive and continue to build. Just about every day during that period of time was about the right time for me to choose a new career path, but I never did. And then I started looking at the Small Business Administration 8(a) program. I was familiar with the Government Contracting world, so I started traveling to DC to explore. Although it’s premature to label it a success, I certainly feel like we navigated the 8(a) program well and definitely didn’t fail!
WashingtonExec: What do you think is the next trend to hit Federal IT?
Neelu Modali: The next trend is what happy hour talk is made of. “Hey you know so what are you doing about web mobile, social, Big Data, etc., etc.” As for me, I think it is data driven government solutions where contractors are leveraging cleansed publicly available data to build smart solutions to assist the government with making decisions.
Over at NOAA, we had a grant about 3 or 4 years back to develop what’s called the Vulnerability Assessment Support System for them. And it’s essentially a prototype of a decision support system. The tool helps the government make smarter decisions and assess risk caused by natural hazards, and prioritize climate change vulnerabilities to a customized fit of local biophysical and socioeconomic context of needs. There are a bunch of different data sources we could leverage and get information from. There’s NOAA, there’s FEMA, gathering all sorts of data points. But none of these data points are integrated to be able to provide any actionable intelligence. What we’ve done with that project is develop software to help them make some decisions.
WashingtonExec: If you could change one aspect of the federal procurement acquisition process what would it be?
NM: I think there should be a blueprint for small businesses in government contracting. As a small business, let’s say hypothetically we want a team with a HubZone company or a SDVOB that has a presence with a specific type of skill set at a specific agency. How do identify that specific partner? There’s nothing in the procurement process that enables that, but yet the data is there. I don’t think most small businesses are going into FPDSNG and taking a look at FedSpending.org to understand which companies are getting those dollars. As a small business, it’s often difficult to identify those prospective teammates. It would be great if there could be a focus group put together around developing a successful blueprint for how to build a small business in the Federal space. I spent the first four years in the 8(a) program really trying to digest and understand it, and lost valuable capture time!
WashingtonExec: Do you think smaller companies are able to better adapt to future cut backs in federal contract awards?
Neelu Modali: In theory, being smaller should yield a more agile business that can make adjustments to survive these cuts. In reality, being smaller means any small cut back could sink you! It is important to be adaptable to the change that is going on in the federal sector, and focusing on the mission critical items your customer needs you to focus on. We are doing our best to stay as informed as we can in an environment where speculative rumors and information is everywhere. How can we best adapt? Focus on delivery to the customer, and communicate with our employees.
“Simply put, we are focusing on the basics. In general, we’ve maintained a conservative approach to operating our business and I’m confident that we’ll adapt well.”
WashingtonExec: Do you have a favorite spot in the DC area?
NM: I love Rasika in Penn Quarter. Getting a table there isn’t easy, but maybe they’ll read this and get me streamlined for a faster table. I love coffee; I’m a coffee hound. I like going to small coffee shops in Arlington, and that’s usually where I’ll camp out, instead of in DC. So I like going to Northside Social. In Tysons Corner, I go to the Piazza di Giorgio over in the Galleria all the time since it’s an easy in and out.
WashingtonExec: Do you have a specific app that you found that gets you more productive at work?
NM: My new addiction is Basecamp. It’s a project management tool. We’re moving to our new office right now, and I’m using it right now to execute the move. We’ve started using it to track several projects. It’s a mobile app, as well as a web-based application, and allows me to assign tasking. I like it so much, I was telling my wife we should use it at home to manage the house. She hasn’t quite bought into that yet.