Inspired By My Father, I Started A $72K/Mo Digital & Management Firm [Baltimore]

Published: July 9th, 2022
Emmanuel Iroanya
Founder, theta.
from Baltimore, MD, USA
started February 2015
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hello, my name is Emmanuel Iroanya, aka "Mannie". I’m the Managing Member & Founder of theta, a civic & government focused digital & management firm based in Baltimore, MD, working to create a world where tech works for everybody.

We take pride in being at the intersection of innovation & technology and its impact on the world. Our position at these intersections allows us to intimately understand these worlds' limitations and develop innovative solutions to unique computing problems.

Our technologists have worked on everything from public-facing web applications to API-first back-end systems and web services with interoperability & functionality in mind. We’ve done massive cloud migrations, built scalable private clouds & almost everything else in between. But most of our services tend to fall into one of these three categories: Digital Integration, Product Development, or traditional Management Consulting.

In the seven years since starting theta., we’ve had the opportunity to serve more government agencies and work on important missions that impact our daily lives as members of this country than we ever could have imagined. Some of those agencies include the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the US Department of Education (ED), the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).


What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

The idea of running a business with a government clientele as the focus was something I learned from my father and his entrepreneurial efforts working with the City of Baltimore municipal government to provide mental health and family preservation services. However, my journey to starting theta. and the focus on tech is a unique onion-like layered story that brings together my passion, a sense of altruism, and desire to be a different thinking voice in the field of technology.

But the AHA! moment clicked while I was working for a large federal systems integrator ActioNet, realizing that I could make a difference working with federal agencies that impacted all of our lives - like during my time supporting federal healthcare systems there. The idea for a company that existed at the intersection of technology and how tech was currently affecting my life and the lives of everyone else that rely on functioning and efficient government and the further implications of having a government not keeping pace with technology all started forming during my time there in 2014.

Luckily, my past experiences being a web operations/site reliability engineer helped get me into the federal tech space and allowed me to learn what types of services the government would purchase; which gave me the ability to validate ideas and approaches in real-time with eventual agency clients and their programs they supported.

Take us through the process of designing your service.

As a civic-minded digital professional services company, we have modeled our services around the Agile Manifesto and the United States Digital Services (USDS) Playbook; a playbook that helps guide us with the use of tech to help our government's policy and programs be more effective.

In following the spirit of those principles at theta, we created a framework we call ta-daas! (theta. agile - discovery as a service) that guides the different types of engagements we embark on with our clients. Our goal is to provide professional digital services that meet their needs while giving guidance on the most effective ways to price and fund engagements - depending on the different types and stages of agile discovery services we are providing.


Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

The best thing I have done since starting my company to help me attract and retain customers was joining an incubator program for civic-minded digital services firms and entrepreneurs called Hutch, which is a Baltimore-based, 24-month incubator program that alleviates the risks typically associated with small businesses by providing minority and women entrepreneurs with a blueprint for building successful, government-focused digital services firms.

Hutch was founded by Fearless: a trusted digital services firm with over a decade of experience delivering transformative solutions to dozens of customers across the Federal Government. Hutch's curriculum is built around this experience, incorporating Lean Startup methodology and the 13 plays of the USDS Digital Services Playbook. In addition, the program features intensive, interactive classes on topics such as agile program management, government compliance, digital transformation, and values-based decision-making.

“If you can establish your “why” personally and “why” for being an entrepreneur and tie those “why” reasons together, you will have an invisible recharge button at the core of your being to keep you going when the times get rough.”

During the Hutch program, I was mentored, vetted, and embedded within Fearless' extensive network (driven by the Digital Services Coalition) to test and hone our ability to deliver to our customers successfully. Government agency clients can rest assured that we have a highly organized and effective back office (from payroll to hiring) to complement our technical specialties in digital integration, cloud and app-based products development, software engineering, and management consulting.

The reason this was so important was that it put me in the thick of things with other like-minded companies looking to solve similar problems in government. With the market we are in - Gov IT services - being very specific and extremely competitive, coupled with a very different path to success than other startup companies and a different incentive structure, word of mouth is so important; so being around the folks you will need to work with to effect change as well as being able to learn from these type of companies and through osmosis find your potential clients through subcontracting opportunities has been vital to our success as a firm in capture, growth, and business development arenas.

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

Today I will say that we are doing good, with aspirations for better. The pandemic was a turbulent time for our small business, but over the last few months we have doubled the number of employees and we are hoping to continue this type of growth trajectory to the end of 2022.

As for the future, while our firm has been chosen as a prime contractor to the government on projects, much of our growth has been as a result of subcontractor engagements; in the future, our goals are to start to level off our revenue to 50/50, between prime vs subcontractor engagements as we continue to grow in the government sector.

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

The second best thing I did for my small business that has been particularly helpful has been getting our firm represented in other small business consortiums and networking organizations, like:

Baltimore Tracks – a coalition of Baltimore-based technology & tech-enabled company leaders committed to increasing opportunities for People of Color in technology.

Or All Hands – a joint project between Higher Ground Labs & Cultivate that helps connect all types of changemakers in fields like tech, digital, and policy with companies like theta looking for candidates like them.

The reason for this, at the end of the day, can be attributed to two different sayings I keep close to my heart “your network is your net worth” and “all money isn’t good money.”

On the outside, these quotes and the need for joining small business organizations like the ones above don’t seem to connect. For me, the intersection of having an expanded network of talent, companies, and entrepreneurs - that carry the same values and beliefs that you do - combined with projects and clients with missions that align with the impact you’re trying to make, scaling the company growth becomes easier. I’m also able to take on greater scopes of work on the programs we support. That helps us further our mission to create a world where tech works for everybody.

I’m able to target, capture, and achieve growth targets that align with our goals as a company and that is always good for business no matter how you look at it, in my opinion.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

All of these tools specifically come to mind when I think about the tools and platforms we use almost daily in some capacity.

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

Reinventing Organizations by Frederic LaLoux (the illustrated version, we are entrepreneurs with busy schedules, illustrations are so useful sometimes).

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

Find your “Why?!” ← the best advice I ever received, and it’s the best advice I give anyone looking to be an entrepreneur. If you can establish your “why” personally and “why” for being an entrepreneur and tie those “why” reasons together, you will have an invisible recharge button at the core of your being to keep you going when the times get rough.

And trust me, those days happen a ton, having that Full Health restore/cheat code of a genuine understanding of what is powering you matters when you're in the thick of it.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We are always looking for Back-end Developers and DevOps Engineers, links to our job board.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!