Jay Sunny Bajaj has been making work fun since he was a 12-year-old being dragged by his mother, Kavelle, to the office where she was building a technology company.
“I was sorting and delivering mail, then I graduated to the copy center and did prints for the job proposals,” said Bajaj, 37. He was paid minimum wage and worked weekends and summers.
He got comfortable with the profit motive and the bottom line early on, watching his mother scratch ahead and hearing business and accounting terms early on.
“When I was in college, I knew more about business than most college graduates. I had heard it all, and it helped me pull together a holistic view of how business works.”
He has put that holistic view to work at DMI, the 12-year-old everything apps service provider whose revenue is soaring, thanks to the rush to mobile devices and the million demands to service them. Those demands range from security lockdown to consumer marketing to location trackers that pinpoint the devices in split seconds.
DMI is short for Digital Management Inc., whose 200-plus clients include major federal departments, ESPN, Anheuser-Busch InBev, the U.S. Coast Guard and even the rum-maker Bacardi.
Let’s say you want to locate all of your employees immediately and ask them to ping you to let you know they are okay. DMI manages that application.
Or what if you leave your mobile device on the Metro and you don’t want someone to read your spreadsheet. DMI wipes it clean, remotely.
The business has scale: One giant retailer hired DMI to manage 100,000 employee devices.
It can be fun. The Bacardi account yielded a cocktail app. ESPN wanted overseas sports scores. Anheuser-Busch hired the firm to build its World Cup soccer app. An app for Brand Vegas allows users to buy tickets to Cirque du Soleil or the latest Las Vegas show.
“All the cool stuff, that’s where it’s at.”
The company expects $320 million in revenue this year. It has 1,800 employees around the world, from Barcelona to Burlington, Mass., and from Phnom Penh to New York City. Employees earn on average $110,000 annually, not including health care and a 401(k) match. A cadre of investment bankers is circling, awaiting a public stock offering that could come as early as next year.
About three-quarters of his business is government contracting, and the rest is commercial. Bajaj owns 70 percent of the company
His fun factor is evident just walking through DMI’s headquarters, located on two quiet floors in a leafy Bethesa office park. It reminded me of a couple of other companies I have written about: Applied Predictive Technologies in Ballston and Dulles-based Orbital Sciences, both of which do super-serious stuff while having fun doing it.
Like some bosses, Bajaj doesn’t sweat that someone, somewhere might be cracking wise.
“The people work hard, but they get to relax a bit. It’s not stodgy, dull and insipid,” he said. “I do a lot of things to make this employee-centric.”
The walls alone tell you that.
Sports memorabilia is everywhere, including a Chris Cooley Redskins jersey and a basketball shoe autographed by Washington Wizards guard John Wall. There’s a Nascar plaque and a Capitals Ovechkin jersey hanging on walls. Rooms are named Touchdown and Power Play. The cafeteria is the End Zone. The sports vibe extends even to Bajaj’s top aide, a former star guard in women’s college hoops.
Employees line up to party in the corporate suites Bajaj buys for Wizards, Capitals and Redskins games. But it’s not all sports: There are top-chef cookouts on the company terrace, free turkeys at Thanksgiving and free tickets to movies.
And then there’s the official DMI company drink: tequila. Bajaj is all over tequila. There’s a DMI-own tequila brand in the works (for internal consumption only). The annual holiday party includes tequila conveyor belts.
“We keep the culture young and fun, adding levity to the office,” he said.
Bajaj’s father is Ken Bajaj, who is a legend in Washington tech circles after building and selling two technology companies, including the $2.1 billion sale of AppNet to Commerce One in 2000.
Bajaj sits at his desk, a humidor on the credenza behind him stacked with his favorite cigars. Above is the treasure chest, filled with liquor bottles that include an expensive aged scotch called Macallan 25, with the number denoting the age.
“My marketing person told me not to show you this,” he said, swinging open a liquor cabinet.
Sounds like a riches to riches story. But Bajaj is remarkably down-to-earth, comfortable in his own skin and — well — mostly unassuming. He does drive a tank-sized Hummer. He does know the best restaurants in the world. He even married a model.
“You can be a bright leader, but you don’t have to do it in a suit and tie and use big words.”
Although he is a child of privilege, he went the public school route, attending Winston Churchill High School in Montgomery County because his parents feared that private schools would be a bad influence.
He went to College Park, and joined AppNet — “I worked my butt off to justify my existence” — after a brief flirtation with investment banking. He didn’t have to do this. With his father’s fortune, he could be running around the Mediterranean on a yacht and staying at Relais & Châteaux digs.
“I’m good at what I do. I work hard. I’m confident in what I do.”
He launched DMI in May 2002 in a basement of his — yes — parents’ pool house. He used a desk and chair from Price Club, and started with $25,000 from mom and dad.
It took more than a year of cold-calling to nail his first contract, which was a $40,000 job to explain standard operating procedures for the Small Business Administration.
“Lots of doors shut in my face,” he said. “The Army shut me down. I didn’t have security clearance.”
The big hit came in 2004, when the Department of Health and Human Services contracted to pay him $2.1 million over three years to oversee the software that manages the agency’s travel and reimbursements. The HHS contract provided a reliable stream of income that freed him to think about strategy and growth.
By then he had 14 employees.
“I just hustled. Speed, speed, speed. That’s the key to business. You have to be decisive.”
It took about four years to show a profit. The company has been on a revenue tear the past five years, propelled by a slew of acquisitions that moved DMI from being an ordinary government contractor to an innovative high-tech company. The move into the commercial sector has the double benefit of higher margins and diversification.
I asked him what came of his mother’s company, where he started out as an adolescent.
She sold it in 1996 for $200 million.
“She made out well,” said Bajaj. “It supported her shopping habit.”