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Business Observer Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020 1 month ago

Accidental entrepreneurs chase $50 million threshold

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The company Lauren Weiner and Donna Huneycutt founded more than 15 years ago continues to outperform both expectations and competitors — and push its founders to overcome more obstacles.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

For several years Lauren Weiner would tell her business partner Donna Huneycutt about her one big worry over the busy federal contracting company they founded in 2004: getting too big, too fast.

“I never wanted us to get over 50 employees because then we would lose control of everything we are doing,” Weiner confided to Huneycutt, expressing a common entrepreneur’s anxiety.

‘You will get a lot of people saying, ‘Don’t do it that way,' or 'Why would you do it this way?’ But you have to believe in what you are about. You have to believe in your unique proposition.’ Donna Huneycutt, WWC, Tampa

Huneycutt had a big worry as well, a cousin to Weiner’s stress. She sought to make sure the business supported the growth with the infrastructure and customer service that made it successful in the first place, another common entrepreneur’s anxiety. In military contracting lingo, that’s the valley of death — getting to big without the troops to back it up. “We want to invest in this business,” Huneycutt says. “We want to make this sustainable. We want to get past the valley of death.”

Their firm, Tampa-based WWC Global, has passed the 50-employee threshold and has also gotten through several death-defying valleys. The next challenges, and valleys, the business will face, both founders say, is to position themselves to work more on the business, not in it. “I’m not comfortable unless I have a plan B, C, D and E for every situation,” Huneycutt says. “The loss of communication as you get bigger impacts how you can plan, so we have to have a culture where people can feel comfortable saying ‘I made a mistake here,’ and you feel comfortable being wrong without thinking you will be fired.”

On major valleys, one big example is from the mid-point of the last decade. That’s when, after four years of hovering between $6 million and $7 million in annual revenue, it jumped to $11.9 million in 2016, up 86% over 2015. The payroll for the company, originally named Wittenberg Weiner Consulting, surpassed 50 people in 2015.

A bigger leap, with more at stake, happened in 2018 at WWC, which handles support services for the U.S. Department of State, Department of Defense and other agencies. The tipping point: WWC won the largest contract awarded to a woman-owned business in the history of the U.S. Special Operations Command, known as SOCOM. The contract is a five-year, $375 million deal that calls for WWC to provide management and subject matter experts to SOCOM special operations forces in all four military branches worldwide. SOCOM is based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

That first year of that contract had a dramatic impact on WWC’s growth, with revenue going from $13.93 million in 2018 to more than $30 million in 2019, up at least 130%. It now has some 240 employees — a small army of field experts who follow the founders’ mission to take a holistic approach to program management, financial management, policy design and more for clients.  

For Weiner, the CEO, and Huneycutt, president and COO, instead of a too-big, too-fast worry, this latest surge is a test of their mettle. And it’s another opportunity for the businesswomen to prove detractors wrong.

Huneycutt says WWC on the cusp of being a $50 million business is akin, albeit on a smaller scale, to Jeff Bezos someday guiding Amazon to a $2 trillion valuation: he’s never done that before, either, just like she and Weiner have never run a $50 million business. “You will get a lot of people saying, ‘Don’t do it that way,' or 'Why would you do it this way?’ But you have to believe in what you are about,” Huneycutt says. “You have to believe in your unique proposition.”

Bright ideas

The unique proposition at WCC, both founders say, is a company of go-getters and quick-thinking problem solvers dedicated to a cause bigger than themselves. That’s the core of succeeding while doing work in 34 locations spread over four continents. “Our staff is our secret sauce,” Huneycutt says. “We have an unbelievable group of employees.”

Many employees are former military people or related to military personnel. That’s how the company started: Weiner, a senior government civilian in the Office of Management and Budget in the Executive Office of the President, left Washington to accompany her spouse on a Defense Department assignment in Naples, Italy. Huneycutt, a private equity attorney, was married to a Naval officer assigned to the same location in Italy.

The budding entrepreneurs soon realized there were many others like them overseas. Not only military spouses but also retired military people with a lot left to offer an entity, just not necessarily in uniform. Yet the arduous federal hiring process discouraged many from pursuing work. With that as a backdrop, Weiner and Huneycutt started their military consulting business, winning work in bits and pieces at first. Unsure of where the business could go, Weiner called her and Huneycutt accidental entrepreneurs.

Battle tested 

Now, 15 years later, they have a flourishing company well suited to survive, even thrive, thorough a pandemic. On one side, they have battle-tested employees who were working from home, or at least remotely, in far-flung global locations way before it was a cool. “For people who are internally driven working from home,” Huneycutt says, “this has been a boon.”

Also, WWC has long emphasized supporting long-range teleworking, managing projects remotely for years. That has been an advantage in winning bids over less nimble companies stuck in an old office way of working. “We knew we were better poised for telework in the cybersecurity environment than other companies in the space,” Weiner says.

For those reasons and more, the founders believe they are poised to grow WWC in a sustainable way, both through enhanced processes and in hiring more top high-level managers. “We want to build out our capacity,” Weiner says, “so we can do more work without Donna and I doing everything at every level.”

Along the way, partially with a forthcoming rebrand and marketing campaign, they hope to win more $100 million-plus, multiyear contracts while also learning from mistakes and missteps to build an even better business. Weiner, in thinking about all that, recalls a bit of wisdom she recently heard from a mentor. “Success is not no problems,” Weiner says. “Success is new problems.”

(This story was updated to reflect the correct revenue figure for WWC Global 2019.) 

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