Novitas’s Chris Taylor makes his connections count to win government work
Chris Taylor gathered his staff in the temporary one-room office outside Washington that he rented on Wednesdays. Desk lamps were missing bulbs. A whiteboard was covered with chicken scratch from the previous day’s occupants.
Taylor didn’t mind. He had just landed a big break that he was sure would launch his federal contracting company. Someday, he believed, it would be a $1 billion business.
“This is huge,” he told his team.
They leaned forward in anticipation. This was why they had signed on to a start-up company with zero revenue.
When Taylor started his company, Novitas, in late 2012, his plan was to work his connections, hire the right people and find something big. The end of the wars and deeper-than-expected federal budget cuts this year were making it harder for start-ups, like Taylor’s, to win government work. But the government was still spending nearly $200 million a day on contracts in the Washington area. Most people didn’t have the connections or insider knowledge to get at this money. Taylor was one of the few who did.
Taylor’s 10-person staff packed the small room. It was a peculiar and remarkable group; one that made sense only in Washington. The middle-aged man in the blazer with the salt-and-pepper goatee was Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., the former director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service. He was best known for his controversial decision to destroy secret videos showing CIA interrogators waterboarding suspected terrorists. Rodriguez was working on a deal for Taylor in Mexico. Next to him was a Navy SEAL who had spent most of the past decade at war or in the shadows. His final assignment was carrying the nuclear codes for President Obama. There were four government contracting experts. Among them, they had a combined 75 years of experience in the industry. Taylor’s wife, Shella, was there, too — sitting on the floor because all the chairs were filled.
Chris Taylor, big, blond and ruddy-faced, was about 50 pounds heavier than he had been as a Force Reconnaissance Marine in the 1990s. His years of jumping out of planes had left the 47-year-old with a bad back, perennially sore knees and special status as a disabled veteran, an advantage in federal contracting.
He had recently partnered with a tiny Northern Virginia company that was adapting software used by the CIA into a tool that veterans could use to find jobs. The previous day, he had shown a software prototype to a U.S. Special Operations Command colonel who was struggling to find good post-military careers for the command’s wounded warriors.
Taylor was well known to senior Special Operations commanders from his work as a senior executive at the private security firm Blackwater Worldwide and as the former chief executive of a firm that supplied linguists to the military. He wasn’t an A-list insider. He didn’t have the connections of a four-star general or a former Cabinet secretary. But he knew those kinds of people and sat on boards with them.
The colonel invited Taylor to pitch the software at the command’s annual industry conference in Tampa. That was the big news he had for his team. It was their first big shot and they would have 45 minutes to deliver. They would need to run a live demo with the résumé of an actual soldier. Maybe a low-ranking infantryman? The trigger pullers, after all, were having the hardest time finding work.
First though, he needed plane tickets and hotel rooms in Tampa. Taylor’s wife started searching for something that was walking distance from the convention center. Most rooms were going for $400 a night.
“How about small-business prices?” she said to herself. She found three rooms at $288 each.
“What do you think?” she asked her husband.
“This is huge,” he repeated. “Book it.”
A joyful name-dropper
Chris Taylor is the guy in the XXL shirt singing “Let’s Get It On” in a loud, off-key falsetto before he walks into a big presentation. He’s the guy with his own wine locker at the Morton’s steakhouse in Reston, Va., where the bartender spots him and calls out, “It’s CT! Let the games begin!” He’s a shameless, joyful name-dropper whose contacts include generals, Cabinet secretaries, the Bangladeshi prime minister’s son and a 7-foot-tall parliamentarian from South Sudan.
He is the sort of person who dives into conversations with everyone he meets; who texts his wife a dozen times a day, his fingers flashing over his phone, he says, “like a teenage girl.” His preferred sign-off on e-mails to his staff is “BOOM!”
His sudden rise traces the massive growth in post-9/11 defense spending and Washington’s economic ascendance.
After 14 years as an enlisted Marine serving in the Philippines, North Carolina and Virginia Beach, Taylor left the military for the College of William and Mary’s business school. Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he took a summer job training sailors in shipboard defense for Blackwater. Soon he was traveling as many as 200 days a year pitching the company’s services to presidents and ministers of defense in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. He moved out of his shabby Virginia Beach apartment and bought a $1 million home nearby.
Taylor was learning an important lesson in the ways of Washington. Blackwater, under the leadership of its combative chief executive, Erik Prince, was hurtling toward trouble with Congress and the State Department. Taylor began to see Washington as a place you had to manage carefully or it could destroy your reputation and your business. He left in 2007 for Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, which assigned Sarah Sewall, a professor and human rights expert, to investigate whether it was ethical to accept him given his ties to Blackwater. “You may not like what he did,” she concluded, “but there’s no good reason not to admit him.”
At Harvard, Taylor was recruited by a headhunter for Mission Essential Personnel (MEP), a small Ohio-based defense company that had just landed its first large contract supplying interpreters to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The company, founded by two former Special Forces soldiers, wanted someone to open its Washington office and win more big contracts.
Taylor was quickly promoted to chief executive. To raise the company’s profile in Washington, he assembled an advisory board and stocked it with big names, such as Michael Chertoff, who had run the Department of Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration, and retired Adm. Eric T. Olson, a former head of U.S. Special Operations Command. Sewall, the Harvard professor, also joined the board. The advisers were paid $50,000 to $100,000 a year.
Taylor also spent $100,000 to sponsor a fifth- anniversary party in January 2012 for the Center for a New American Security, a defense think tank. Senators, ambassadors and a former defense secretary came to the W Hotel overlooking the White House and listened as the Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, sang “Happy Birthday” to CNAS in his warbling Irish tenor.
The best moment for Taylor, though, came at the beginning of the night, when the crowd was still waiting for the ballroom to open. Ashton Carter, the Pentagon’s second-highest-ranking civilian, descended the stairs with his handlers. Carter, who had been Taylor’s adviser at Harvard, wrapped an arm around his shoulder. In a room full of 400 of Washington’s most-influential national security officials, Carter gripped the back of Taylor’s head, pulling him close. “Great to see you,” he said. A photographer captured the embrace.
Six days later, MEP fired Taylor. The company declined to explain its decision, but four former MEP executives said the owners in Ohio wanted to scale back Taylor’s ambitious plans and cut expenses. Taylor was sure his strategy was working. MEP’s annual revenue had soared from about $185 million in 2009 to $730 million three years later, largely because of the booming linguist work in Washington.
The company had won slots on several multibillion-dollar intelligence contracts, an area where it could grow as wartime spending dropped.
Taylor sloughed off the disappointment, took out a line of credit and plunged $300,000 of his savings into starting a new defense business. By the spring of 2013, Taylor was back in the game and headed to Tampa for his big Special Operations Command presentation. The earlier brainstorming session had produced a presentation illustrated with stark black-and-white images of soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. He wanted the pitch to feel “Spielbergesque. ”
Taylor downed two bags of peanuts for breakfast and eyed the banquet hall where he would be speaking. About 200 people filled the room.
He started off a little scripted and stiff, explaining what made his Vet Connector software different. Most search engines, like Google, look for keywords. His search engine uses algorithms to find words that are conceptually related in millions of pages of text. He typed the phrase “airplane mechanic” and the search engine looked for job listings with words such as “transmission,” “overhauls” and “reinstalls.”
A woman in the audience asked whether he had taught the software to make the word connections. “We have built no taxonomies or ontologies,” he said. “It just learns by itself.”
“That’s awesome,” she said.
Taylor started to relax. “This is my favorite part,” he told the crowd. He loaded a Marine infantryman’s résumé into the search engine, which returned about 20 job listings. Taylor highlighted a sentence in one of the descriptions and a box popped up asking him whether the words matched his interests. He clicked “no” and the search engine fine-tuned the results.
Someone asked when the site would be ready to launch. Taylor wasn’t sure. In his answer, he sought to bolster his credibility by not-so-subtly mentioning his dinner the night before with Olson, the former head of Special Operations Command.
Taylor finished his pitch and wiped the sweat from his forehead with a paper towel. He and the Navy SEAL on his staff split up to get a sense of the post-speech buzz. A lieutenant colonel who handles the Special Operations Command budget asked him how much money he would need to finish the prototype of the site. A good sign. A rumored meeting with the current head of the command never happened. His schedule was too packed. A worrisome sign.
Landing the first contract is always the toughest. Federal contracting officers fear risk and favor companies with a record of past performance. If he could win one, other opportunities would follow. That was the way Washington worked.
Running short of cash
A month after the Tampa trip, Taylor met with some members of his advisory board. The company was running short of cash. Taylor knew that some of his employees were whispering that they were in trouble.
“How far away are you from revenue?” one of the advisers asked.
“I’d say about 90 days,” said one of Taylor’s executive vice presidents.
Taylor couldn’t afford to wait that long. “Don’t say that,” he groaned. “Please don’t say that.”
Taylor and his team were calling down to Tampa on a weekly basis to see whether there was any movement on the Special Operations Command contract.
Other potential sources of income had shown promise only to fade. Big defense contractors routinely asked for Rodriguez’s help setting up meetings with CIA officials. Taylor hoped the introductions would lead to revenue for his company as a subcontractor. Rodriguez set up the meetings, but the jobs never came.
“You guys are pimping me out for nothing,” Rodriguez teased Taylor.
Taylor’s biggest doubter was his software designer, Trevor Morgan. Whenever Taylor talked about building a $1 billion business, the designer’s face grew flush. He desperately wanted Taylor to narrow his ambitions and pour all his energy into finding near-term revenue. “I really like you, and I don’t want to see you heartbroken,” Morgan said. “I’ve seen people crying in the bathroom when the company fails.”
“I am not going to be heartbroken,” Taylor replied curtly. “I am not going to be crying in the bathroom.”
By mid-summer, Taylor was burning through his personal savings to make payroll and weighing whether he would have to furlough some of his staff. He had yet to take a salary.
A successful pitch could solve all his problems. He lined up a conversation with a major U.S. retailer that had pledged to hire thousands of veterans. Taylor sang a few bars of Led Zeppelin — “Gonna give you my love” — to warm up for the phone call.
A few minutes into the demonstration, the site froze. The retailer’s executives, who were watching remotely, grew bored and frustrated.
Taylor was asking the chain for $1.75 million to finish the site. In exchange, the retailer would get access to Taylor’s database of veterans to fill open jobs. The goal, Taylor said, was to build a community of more than 10 million veterans.
“What makes you think you can get 10 million?” one of the executives asked.
Taylor talked about his connections in the Pentagon, Special Operations Command and the Department of Veterans Affairs. They would all push veterans to the site.
“Can I be as honest as possible here?” the executive replied. “This is now the third or fourth time we have been approached with this kind of program. You are all operating in the same space. I hear everyone talking about the same relationships.”
The executive suggested that Taylor think smaller, much smaller. Maybe he should pitch his site to local manufacturers trying to fill a few hundred jobs?
“I just don’t see us partnering with you,” the executive said. “I see no likelihood of that happening.”
“I got to tell you I really appreciate the honest feedback,” Taylor said. “Thank you and have a great day.”
The call ended with a click, followed by silence.
Taylor stared out a window and ran his fingers through his hair. “I am fine with that,” he said.
The days of little companies, like MEP, striking it rich with giant defense contracts were finished. But Taylor was sure he would find something. His connections at Special Operations Command insisted that they were still interested in contracting with him.
After the call, Taylor’s employees let loose a string of profanities. Taylor, normally the loudest guy in the room, allowed his team to vent for a minute. Then he abruptly ended it.
“Who cares?” he told them. “Boom. Put it out of your mind. What’s next?”
A deal all but sealed
Taylor plunged deeper into his savings. He hired another part-time software designer to help improve the site’s look. He spent tens of thousands of dollars for a service that collects the latest job listings from the Web. More than two months had passed since the Tampa presentation. He was in for more than $500,0000.
In late July, the command issued a draft “request for proposals” to companies for a Web-based job-search engine. Taylor cut short a staff meeting and scanned the 30-page document. The proposal called for a tool that used “Latent Semantic Indexing” technology, the special kind of software that drove Taylor’s site.
“I don’t know who else can do this,” said Scott Kubic, an executive vice president.
Taylor smiled. Months of work. Dozens of conversations and e-mails with Special Operations officials. The request for proposals was pretty much made for Novitas.
The final call for proposals came in early September and added one critical requirement: The winning company had to be owned by a disabled veteran. That all but sealed the deal. Now Taylor just had to prove to a panel of five Special Operations Command officials that the technology worked.
He flew to back Tampa. This time, Taylor chose the $90-a-night La Quinta by the Hooters and the Iron Rose tattoo parlor.
“I don’t want us to walk in the room and act like we have this in the bag,” he told his team. “We can be derailed 900 different ways. It doesn’t matter how hard we’ve worked or how tight the relationship has been.”
Taylor had come to Tampa with Matt Maasdam, the Navy SEAL from his staff, and Morgan, his software designer. The night before the presentation, they met in the hotel’s breakfast area and made one last run through their pitch. Taylor’s hair was mussed and his eyes were red. Before heading off to sleep, he issued one last order: “Laptops will be fully charged. Projectors will be fully charged.”
The presentation at MacDill Air Force Base lasted about two hours. When it was over, Taylor was uncharacteristically quiet, replaying the panel’s questions in his head, searching for even the smallest sign of doubt or misgiving.
“Is there anything we could have done better?” Maasdam asked.
“Not really,” Taylor said.
“Then stop worrying,” Maasdam replied.
By the time they hit the La Quinta, Taylor had already begun to loosen up.
“See you next trip?” asked the clerk behind the counter.
“When we come down to sign the contract,” Taylor said. “That’s exactly when we’ll see you.”
He and his team downed double tequila shots at the airport bar to celebrate.
“How are you Babes?!?!” his wife texted.
“Hookin’ and jabbin’,” he replied. She would know that meant the presentation had gone well.
In the airport lounge, Taylor and his business partner started running through people they knew at Veterans Affairs. More than 1.5 million troops would be leaving active duty in the next few years. Taylor guessed that a VA contract could be worth more than $1 billion. A Special Operations contract win would help sell VA.
His flight took off for Washington an hour later. There he was at the front of the plane. He was the guy with the connections; the one who kept pushing. Twelve days passed before he got the call from Special Operations Command offering him the $3.5 million contract. Chris Taylor was on his way.