On Launching A Digital Service Firm [From Baltimore]

Delali Dzirasa
On Launching A Digital Service Firm [From Baltimore]
Fearless
from Baltimore, Maryland, USA
started February 2009
1
Founders
150
Employees
642K
alexa rank
1.36K
followers
1.17K
followers
335
subs
market size
$400B
starting costs
$20.5K
gross margin
20%
time to build
180 days
average product price
$5
growth channels
Word of mouth
business model
Subscriptions
best tools
Instagram, Verifigator, Twitter
time investment
Full time
pros & cons
36 Pros & Cons
tips
1 Tips
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I’m the CEO and founder of Fearless, a full-stack digital services firm in Baltimore, Maryland with a mission to create software with a soul - tools that empower communities and make a difference. Fearless has partnered with the Government to successfully launch multiple projects which include:

  • SBA.gov: We run the digital face and all infrastructure that powers SBA.gov. The SBA supports small business owners across the US, and its digital platform is chock full of information and resources.
  • Search.gov: A platform that supports nearly 2,000 search boxes on Federal websites, free of charge. It provides both critical searching capabilities to these sites and key information on trends, queries, and results for administrative users.
  • US Air Force (BESPIN): A center of excellence in digital, mobile, data, and technology. BESPIN collaborates with divisions throughout BES to help them with their transformations, working with them to build teams, platforms, standards, and digital services.

I’m constantly working to make a difference in technology and my surrounding community. I chaired the inaugural DevOpsDays Baltimore and am a founding member of the governing board of the Digital Services Coalition. I’m also the Chair of Hack Baltimore, a city-wide innovation movement that teams up technologists, civic leaders, and city residents to design sustainable solutions for Baltimore’s biggest challenges. I’m most passionate about increasing the rate of city youth heading into STEM fields and have worked closely with city nonprofits to provide funding and mentorship programs in city schools, as well as other education initiatives. In 2019 I even testified to the US Senate Small Business Committee on behalf of the National HUBZone Council for the Small Business Reauthorization Act.

fearless

What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?

I took an intro to coding class in high school that got me hooked. I had always liked playing with computers, but it wasn't until that class that I understood the power of coding. I may have gotten into tech in high school but I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit.

My passion and entrepreneurial spirit started as a kid when I knocked on doors and offered to cut grass, mow lawns, wash cars, or walk dogs. The thrill of landing those few jobs gave me a taste of the entrepreneurial life and I was hooked. In college, I ran a barbershop out of my dorm room and only closed it down because it got too successful and was cutting into my class and studying time. A classmate and I attempted to start what you’d now call a business incubator. We wanted to start a business that helped other people start businesses.

Good companies adapt to shifting market trends. Great companies shape them.

After graduating from the University of Maryland Baltimore County in 2004 with a degree in computer engineering, I had one request when I accepted my first job after college. I would take a software programming job at Raba Technologies, but only if I could learn the business side. When the company won two $100 million defense contracts the next year, and a program manager needed extra help, I got the opportunity. The experience of advancing to a leadership role on a massive contract, with a good mentor led me to build a similar culture at my firm.

Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?

My wife deserves a lot of the credit for Fearless getting off the ground. I had made all of these plans in my head of selling all of our stuff, cutting back on expenses, etc all to fund the company and I didn’t loop her in probably as early as I should have. But when we did sit down and talk about it she said okay, run with it. To cut down on expenses we rented our home, either sold things or put them into storage and we moved in with my mom. Like many tech cliches, Fearless was started from my mom’s basement. I was able to start my dream because my wife continued to work her regular job and provide a steady income for us. The only stipulation my wife gave me when I founded Fearless was that we needed to be financially stable enough to move out of my mom’s home in one year. I had one year to make it work. And I’m proud to say that we were out of the basement in less than a year.

I was Fearless’ only employee for a long time, which meant a lot of late nights and multi-tasking days. It was on me to not only seek out business opportunities and contracts and win them but I was also the person doing the work on the contract. In between business development calls I was writing code to fulfill the contracts Fearless had won.

Fearless’ mission has always been focused on giving back. It took a few years for us to develop our tagline of software with a soul, but making the world a better place through software has always been at Fearless’ core.

I knew the place Fearless could have the biggest impact was within the government. The services local, state and federal government agencies provide touch millions of Americans across all economic levels, geographies, and backgrounds. Digital services touch every part of our lives but civic tools don’t keep up with technology evolution.

When we were a young company of two employees, we became HUBZone certified. Every founder and company talk about giving back when they get to a certain size or make a certain amount of revenue. HUBZone forces you to give back from day one and look at where you’re hiring and invest in the community and give back and support. Having the HUBZone requirements made us think about structuring the company differently than if we didn’t have the certification and requirements. What could be considered constraints, actually helped us in the long run.

From the beginning, we've focused on creating tools and experiences that empower people and change lives.

fearless

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

In 12 years we’ve grown to 150+ full-time positions at Fearless and submitted 100+ roles through contracts with our partners and subcontractors. By the end of 2024, we have a goal to reach 300+ team members and 300+sub team members with a revenue of $100 million

As a Black-founded and Black-owned business, Fearless has always been committed to diversifying the tech industry. We are working towards a 50/50 goal. By 2024, we plan for our member representation to be at least 50% women and 50% minorities. We know technology can be the great equalizer and we have a strategic plan to achieve our goal:

  • Build Talent: Through our community work and partnerships, we are working to create talent, not simply hoard the existing diverse talent in our area. By creating space for the next generation to learn and succeed in this industry, we can create a larger talent pipeline in our cities.
  • Amplify the voices around us: As we rise as a company, we can bring others up alongside us. We want to give the Black voices in our company and our cities the space to share and be heard.
  • Provide exposure: We invite our city’s next generation of leaders into our spaces and share our craft so they are exposed to the tech community long before their first job. When communities of color see themselves in the tech industry, we can begin to break down the barriers and fear of the unknown to make tech feel accessible.

In 2020, Fearless completed an expansion of its headquarters, increasing its space by 10,000 sq ft for a total of 27,800 sq ft across four floors. The project included a series of murals commissioned for the main hall and new large conference room. The murals were dreamed up so that those often left unrepresented in technology fields can see themselves on the walls and imagine themselves in this world. The murals are also intended to serve as a continual reminder to Fearless team members of their impact and the company’s vision to do more than just write code, but to create a better and more equitable Baltimore.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

The funniest mistake I made has turned out to be one of our greatest outcomes - I failed to work with my partner and COO, John Foster, earlier and he was right in front of me. John and I attended undergrad together - he started a year after me and we were both computer engineering majors.

After graduation, I got a job in Maryland. John was also in Maryland but did not get a job right away. He eventually got a job and moved into my basement, but was working in Atlanta Monday to Thursday. I offered to share his resume so he could get a job in Maryland and not travel so much. But he got another job requiring weekly travel, this time to Arkansas. After all that John finally agreed to try working together. It took 5 to 6 years to make it happen but it turned out that my partner was living in my basement for over a year.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We are big proponents of Slack and always have been. Fearless has 350+ channels devoted to specific projects team members are working on, new technologies or interests, and then of course more casual, fun channels for people to blow off steam and hang out.

Our teams use tools like Wrike, Jira, Mural, and Trello.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

There are 3 books that have made a significant impact on me.

The first, Purple Cow by Seth Godin, is the inspiration behind my business culture. If you saw a purple cow while driving down the road, you'd stop to take a closer look, post a photo, and tell your grandma, right? Seth Godin dreamt up this surprising visual in his book, Purple Cow. In a world full of brown cows, a purple cow stands out from the crowd, and people can't help but take notice. It's our goal to be exceptional in everything we do: from defining our ethics structure and turning down opportunities that don't align, to offering our employees a monthly snack stipend, we strive to be a surprisingly different kind of company.

The second is Built to Last by Jim Collins. The book studies visionary companies like 3M, Marriott, IBM, and Disney to understand what makes a business last. One part made me pause and think hard. Those companies that have survived all determined who it is they wanted to be before they determined what to sell. The premise is that widgets change, customers change, but who you are will keep you going.

Finally, The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber, which looks at why a lot of small businesses fail. The example shared is someone who starts a business making pies after years of making them for holiday gatherings. Before long she finds herself doing a lot of different things – PR, sales, daily financial reconciliation – and no longer making the pies. The book emphasizes the need to set up the right systems for the business to operate and allow you to make the best product you can.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

  • Be lazy! Bill Gates was quoted as saying, “I always hire lazy people at Microsoft and give them hard problems. Lazy people always find an easy way to get something done.”

When I was in college, I was lazy. I was bored. I created a program that did my homework for me with a click of a button. As you think about innovation, some of the laziest people have come up with the most interesting innovations in technology.

  • Good companies adapt to shifting market trends. Great companies shape them.

We're constantly pushing the envelope so that we don’t just stay ahead of the tech industry: we drive it forward. We've made it our mission to do more than just build software; we create tools that empower users and change lives. We're committed to building software with a soul, so we don't measure our success just in profits, but by our impact.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

Instead of working for Fearless, consider working with Fearless. Hutch, our digital services incubator, is accepting applications for its next cohort this fall.

Hutch is an intensive 24-month program that gives entrepreneurs a blueprint for building successful digital service firms, by empowering them with the tools, mentorship, and peer support they need to have a lasting impact.

Digital transformation in government is critical to ensuring Americans’ experience with Federal government agencies is simple, fast, and helpful – 93% of large-scale government IT projects fail, costing American taxpayers billions annually. The marketplace needs more digital services firms – those firms for which agile software development is the focus of their business, not an additional service they offer – to scale government digital transformation projects.

Hutch was created to grow the number of minority-owned digital services firms competing in the $100 billion markets. It is one of the few incubators in the country focused on civic tech and the only one that is managed by digital services experts focused on supporting women and minority entrepreneurs working in digital services. Its first cohort graduated at the end of 2020 and a third cohort began in early 2021. On average, Hutch companies experienced a 6.6% growth rate during the 2-year program.

Where can we go to learn more?

-  
Delali Dzirasa   Founder of Fearless
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story

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