GovBizConnect Founder Tom Skypek told Innovation Destination Hartford about his innovative startup, which provides an online professional network for government contractors and contracting officers.
INNOVATION DESTINATION HARTFORD: You founded the startup in 2015. How did you develop the business concept?
TOM SKYPEK: We’re solving a pain point I experienced first-hand when I worked as a defense contractor in Washington, DC. The federal procurement system both requires and incentivizes small and large companies to partner on bids.
The problem is that that until GovBizConnect came around, there wasn’t an efficient way to find a teaming partner. The system for finding teaming partners is stuck in the 20th century. Much of it remains dependent on the good ol’ boy network, which is simply ineffective when there are tens of thousands great small government contractors.
We believed we could leverage data and technology to solve this problem. So we built GovBizConnect, which is the first and only professional social network connecting small and large government contractors. After a limited beta release, we’re getting ready to release the next version, which has a number of new features and upgrades. We’re looking forward to the launch.
IDH: Have you always had an entrepreneurial drive?
TS: I’ve always been interested in making things—processes, organizations—more efficient. To do this, oftentimes you need to run the organization or start a new one.
When I was an undergraduate, I rebooted an organization that had become defunct and helped turn it into a vibrant organization. I’ve done this a few times in a few different forums and I’ve always enjoyed taking an idea and working with passionate people to make it happen. So, yes, I’d say I’ve had an entrepreneurial drive since I was young.
IDH: Can you share something you’ve learned along the way in your entrepreneurial journey?
TS: One of the things I learned is that a lot of successful folks are willing to pay it forward and share their advice and counsel—even if you don’t have a long personal history with them. But you have to ask them. You can’t wait and hope that the right advisors and mentors find you. You need to be proactive and find them.
People in my network were happy to talk. But I was genuinely surprised by how willing some second and third connections were willing to help as well. I’ve found that the old adage—it’s who you know—isn’t the entire story. Rather, it’s who you get to know—and you can always get to know more people. The old adage makes it sound like you don’t have any control, and you do.
IDH: Why does someone need your solution?
TS: It solves a real business problem for people who work in government contracting. GovBizConnect makes their lives easier.
We built the product from customer’s perspective. I was a former government contractor, so I was intimately familiar with this business problem. We then refined it by speaking with more than 75 early users of GovBizConnect to learn which features and functions they wanted.
We had about 500 businesses sign up for our beta release, which this was incredibly helpful in two respects:
- We got real feedback from users
- We received further validation of our market
IDH: What’s the biggest challenge your company has faced as a startup?
TS: Time. There’s just never enough time, so you have to constantly focus on the highest-impact items and not get distracted. A lot of noise creeps in. As you gain traction, especially, the noise can increase by way of phone calls or inquiries. Some of these are important and others are just noise. Some tasks and initiatives are broadly helpful to growing the business but are lower priority. You really need to work on prioritizing.
IDH: Describe your best day as an entrepreneur.
TS: It’s really all about the small victories that accumulate over time. Seeing the persistence payoff is always rewarding.
The first time we received press and saw our user sign-ups increase significantly overnight was a great feeling.
Starting a dialogue with a new strategic partner is awesome, too. Anytime you see your persistence pay off it’s a good day and helps your forward momentum.
IDH: Any advice for others launching a startup?
TS: A few things: Take Steve Blank’s free Udacity course, How to Start a Startup. Follow the lean startup model. Spend as little money as possible to test your idea. If it looks like people believe there is a problem and your solution will solve it, then take the next step. If there’s little interest, you probably should go back to the drawing board. We’ve been following this approach throughout GovBizConnect’s development.
I’ve also found Paul Graham’s writings very helpful.
Lastly, don’t forget that funding is a means to an end—that end being building a profitable business. We had an offer from an institutional investor for a seed round of financing and passed on the offer. It was tempting but it wasn’t a good fit. We opted to continue to bootstrap instead. This was the right call.
It’s easy to get caught up in the whole funding world and I think some startups forget that the objective is building a profitable business, not just raising a round of financing.