Federal Contracting Q&A: U.S. Navy Veteran Shares Secrets to Procurement Success
Ahmed R. Ali, Founder and President of TISTA Science and Technology Corporation, is a U.S. Navy veteran and a veteran of the federal marketplace. With over 350 employees, and over $100 million in annual revenue, TISTA continues to grow and win prime contracts across the federal government. TISTA has received a number of awards, including annual recognition on the Inc. 500/Inc. 5000 list – and in 2016, Ali was named SBA Person of the Year for the state of Maryland. Read on to learn about Ali’s veteran entrepreneurship journey and find out what top tips Ali has for other veteran business owners who want to start and grow in the government marketplace.
Name: Ahmed R. Ali
Military Status: Veteran – U.S. Navy, six years
Current Position: Founder and President
Business Name: TISTA Science and Technology Corporation
Years in Operation: 13
Q1: You spent six years in the U.S. Navy. What skills did you learn in the military that prepared you to be a small business owner?
A1: The military taught me valuable technical skills, not just in information technology (IT) and engineering, but also personal skills that are critical for business ownership. Management and leadership are two that translate directly into the business world.
Q2: Can you describe your business? How long have you been in operation?
A2: TISTA Science and Technology Corporation is a cybersecurity and health IT company, providing a range of services to federal, state, and local government. These services include application engineering, consulting, cybersecurity solutions, data science, infrastructure, and mobility support. We’ve been in operation for 13 years (and counting), and in this time, have grown to over 350 employees and over $100 million in annual revenue. We have secured prime contracts in over a dozen Federal agencies, and are humbled to receive numerous industry and government awards and recognition. We’re proud to be recognized in the Inc. 500/Inc. 5000 for the seventh year in a row – and strive to maintain this honor through our high quality work.
Q3: What challenges did you face that ultimately led you to leverage SBA services/programs?
A3: To put it briefly, obtaining financing and securing prime contracts. Selling to the government is not as easy as you think. There are so many intricacies that you may miss if you try to figure out the landscape alone. In terms of general business ownership, I hoped SBA would be able to provide guidance as to what I needed to succeed in business, elaborate on the tools available to me as a veteran business owner, and provide assistance navigating the contracting world.
Q4: How did you not only overcome, but embrace these challenges to progress your business?
A4: I began by reaching out to individuals at my local SBA District Office, who shared their knowledge and referred me to other services and programs within their network. For example, I applied for, and completed, the Veteran Federal Procurement Entrepreneurship Training Program (VFPETP), which is delivered by the National Center for Veteran Institute for Procurement (VIP). There are three different VIP programs available depending on how much contracting experience you have. I wanted to learn how to break into the federal marketplace, so I took VIP START.
My local Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and SCORE chapter also provided invaluable guidance about how to effectively operate a business. For anyone seeking expert advice, I’d definitely recommend SBA’s Mentor-Protégé Program. You’ll learn from others who have been down your path before.
Q5: Sounds like you completed a lot of training and reached out for guidance. Any lessons learned?
A5: The diversity of these resources positioned me well in government contracting and business ownership overall. I learned how to confidently structure my company in an effective manner, how to grow my company, and how to invest in the right resources. For example, focus your company to a specific technology skillset and targeted area of growth. I also have a better understanding of how the federal government procures various contracts and am able to best position TISTA to pursue and win government contracts. On a business ownership level, my District Office led me to critical loan programs like Patriot Express and SBA’s 8(a) program. Since then, we’ve grown significantly and have experienced continued growth year after year.
Q6: What are the most important takeaways from your experience? Can you share any tangible examples?
A6: First and foremost, learning how to win prime contracts. These prime contracts have opened the door to continued business, and the strategies and tactics I learned during VIP START really set us up for success. During the course, I learned the foundations of government contracting, and was able to build upon this knowledge through continued guidance and mentorship from SBDC, SCORE, and my local District Office. I also learned how to take more business-related risks and approach problems with business-related solutions.
Another example that’s worth noting – during the 17-day government shutdown in 2013, my company was able to support 60+ employees that were directly impacted. Our entire executive committee, myself included, donated our salaries and vacation days into a pool of funds that was distributed among our affected employees. SBA’s various mentor and training programs all emphasize the importance of employees and clients – they are the success of your business. We took this lesson to heart and decided to invest in our employees, their future, and minimize any risks to our projects and clients. I’m proud to say that through the shutdown, we retained all of our employees, and even received recognition from our clients, which ultimately led to more business. Our employees are the backbone of our company, and the knowledge and support we have gained through SBA has really led TISTA Science and Technology to its success today.
Q6: Where do you see your business in five years? In ten years?
A6: In five years, we strive to be a 1000-person company supporting over 20 federal agencies as prime contractor. We hope to continue this growth so that in ten years, we’re able to mentor other small businesses, enter into the Mentor-Protégé program as a mentor, and establish a few joint ventures. We also strive to expand into the commercial sector, and develop our own suite of solutions and products.
Q7: Do you have any advice for a service member, veteran, or military spouse who is considering starting, purchasing, or growing his or her own business?
A7: Take the time to work in the industry, whether civilian government service or in the contracting field. Go to school to complete your degree, and augment your educational background with obtaining further professional certifications. Work for both small and large companies to gain a better understanding of the business landscape. And lastly, leverage the services provided by SBA to learn more about how to start a business and what tools are available to assist small business owners. Make an effort to find a mentor in the industry, and surround yourself with individuals who are experts in their fields – for example, the Business Opportunity Specialists found at your local SBA District Office.
To learn more about the resources available for existing and prospective veteran business owners, visit sba.gov/ovbd. If you’re a military spouse or member of the National Guard or Reserve, you may also be eligible for the same resources as your veteran and service member counterparts.
If you’re a current veteran business owner looking to explore the federal marketplace, learn about your options through SBA’s contracting website or the Veteran Federal Procurement Entrepreneurship Training Program (VFPETP).
OSD CEO & Executive Director Glenn Banton is an appointed member of the Advisory Committee on Veteran Business Affairs (ACVBA) providing an independent source of advice and policy recommendations to the SBA administrator, SBA associate administrator for the Office of Veterans Business Development, Congress, the President and other U.S. policymakers on programs affecting veteran-owned small business from all segments of American society.