Dr. Terry Salmon
Dr. Terry Salmon
President and Founder of Computer System Designers, LLC
Founded in 1994, Computer System Designers provides training, information technology, and engineering services predominately to the federal government. In 2004 it was ranked 14th in the Oklahoma City Metro 50 and was a recipient of the Oklahoma Department of Commerce Small Business Award, and the National Air Traffic Control Association's Small Business Award. The Company is a corporate member of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.
What has been the source of your growth in the past few years?
Much of the initial growth came from strategic teaming relationships [often referred to as partnerships or alliances.] I once viewed teaming simply as someone coming in and providing up-front cash for a piece of the company, like venture capitalists. After finding a company that was willing to work with us in a true team environment where each added strength to the other without affecting ownership or control, everything started taking off. Focusing on our existing customers and becoming their provider of choice has been the source of our growth in the past few years.
How did the business get started?
My business vision received a jump-start with the shock and realization of being laid off. I had never experienced that before. Remember the savings and loan crisis? I was employed by a company that provided data processing center operations for savings and loan institutions. Then the government started closing them down without much notice. My co-workers and I were now out of work and there didn't seem to be very many opportunities in the area. At this point, I said, "If I ever have the opportunity to step out on my own, I will do so." I worked a short time for a paper company and then for a government contractor where I started learning government contracting. When the particular contract I was on, ended, I decided to bid on a different contract myself. I was awarded my first contract in '94, with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Did you start an entity?
I had started a small business called Computer System Designers and was its sole proprietor. This was the company name when the first contract was won. I then added on a couple of people / companies to the team and began to focus on quality. This focus provided a way to prove to others that working with a small business has advantages. By doing a good job and providing great service, you're positioning yourself for the next opportunity that comes along. And that's what happened. We started learning many of the different aspects of distance learning and soon this became our niche market - computer based training (CBT).
So you didn't need any start-up money?
Not with the route I took, since I didn't have a whole lot! You do what you know and I knew my company, my job and where I wanted to go. Therefore, I found individuals who also had little companies that did work in areas that I had a weakness. These individuals had other jobs and did much of the work I needed in the evenings and on weekends. This enabled me to pay them after I had been paid for work provided. This teamed approach worked well as the business began to build.
At what point in time did you realize or acknowledge that it wasn't just a job for you, that you really were growing a business?
Actually, a friend of mine, who also owned a business, pointed it out to me. We were talking one day, and he said something pretty profound to me. Profound mostly because I hadn't given much thought to it until our conversation. He said, "Terry, if you really want to step out and become a legitimate business, then recognize, you really need an office outside of your home." Up to this point, I was trying to save money not spend it, but the comment made sense. So I decided to try it for a few months. I rented office space in the same building as my friend. When talking with potential customers it became apparent that an office outside the home made a difference. When customers learned that I had an office in a known business area, the attitudes seemed different and I found a new sense of pride in not having to explain working out of the house.
So, the transition from a home base to a more traditional business location really made a difference in peoples' perception?
Definitely. Perception is one's reality and that was an eye-opener for me. After I made the move to a business park, it became easier to establish communications with larger businesses that wanted to visit before making team decisions. I started teaming relationships that were what I considered a win-win for all concerned. The approached was simple, if I found the opportunity, then I would take the lead. Otherwise I would take a sub role and provide the support requested of us. And that was the incentive: you go and find something and I'll work with you; I'll go and find something and you can work with me. When you have like business cultures this can become a win-win for both entities.
To what extent does your win-win philosophy still guide your business?
That's how I've grown. I've used that philosophy -- When you find something that works, you stick to it. The difference is that now the teaming is more with our employees. An employee agrees to be part of our team and I agree to keep their best interest in mind and provide an environment that will allow them to use their skills to achieve.
One of the questions we often get asked is: as a smaller company, how can you establish and succeed in a partnership with a larger company, like an EDS or an SAIC? What would be your advice to an entrepreneur that wants to grow his or her business by aligning with larger entities?
That's a really good question. You have to find your niche. I believe the only time a large company considers partnering is when you have something to offer that they want. However, there should be mutual benefits that provide opportunities or expertise that you can use as well. As long as you provide that niche and neither side has to give up their own identity. It should work well.
Any last words of advice to fellow entrepreneurs?