Chris Gladwin thought his Chicago-based company Cleversafe’s data storage product would be ideal for the government.
But having a good product isn’t always enough to get a federal contract.
Enter MissionLink, a nonprofit networking group that convenes chief executives, many of them from small companies trying to get their foot in the door with the government, for monthly panels and meetings with defense and intelligence leaders. The program has now graduated 180 chief executives.
Even as federal spending declines, MissionLink’s organizers say they continue to field interest from technology and services companies. Indeed, they are now sorting through about 200 nominations for the next class, set to start in October.
MissionLink has carved out a niche among chief executives, particularly those running companies with $100 million or less in revenue. The group insists on operating by nomination and only accepts chief executives, rather than business development executives or chief financial officers.
It has also found a spot organizing day-long sessions, known as TechConnect, for federal agencies to hear direct pitches from companies. Defense and intelligence agencies — the organization declined to identify which ones — have had five one-day meetings with dozens of companies invited to give five-to-10-minute pitches. While some MissionLink members are part of TechConnect, the group is far broader, according to the group’s founders.
Gladwin credits MissionLink with helping him learn the language and meet the people needed to get federal work. His company is now selling in both the government and commercial markets.
“The government in general, and the intelligence community in particular, has just got its own vocabulary and its own protocol,” he said. “If you don’t know it, you don’t know it.”
The program is organized by Jeremy King, managing partner for the federal practice at Benchmark Executive Search; Kevin DeSanto, managing director of McLean-based investment firm KippsDeSanto; and Andrew Lustig, a partner at the Reston office of the law firm Cooley.
As MissionLink moves into its fourth class, its founders say they’re seeking more chief executives from Silicon Valley. Traditionally, about half of the companies have come from the Mid-Atlantic region and about half from the rest of the country.
And they say the government is increasingly receptive to new ideas, particularly as it seeks to become more sophisticated in areas such as big data and cybersecurity.
Still, while they agree that the introductions provided to chief executives are useful, the founders maintain that the group is not providing unfair access.
Gladwin said his company still is working its way through the process of finding government work. “It’s not like you show up and here’s a contract,” he said. “It’s this process of a lot of learning and evolving and trying.”
Pamela Arya, who heads big data software company Optensity and also recently graduated from MissionLink, said the sessions helped her find an advisory board member and a product partner.
“We did have federal business when we joined the group, and we have more now,” she said.