This Former US Navy Officer Started A $6M/Year Big Data Company

Pat Mack
Founder, PVM IT
from St. Petersburg, FL, USA
started October 2010
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This Former US Navy Officer Started A $6M/Year Big Data Company

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

My name is Pat Mack, and I am the founder and CEO of PVM, Inc. We offer software engineering services related to big data storage and analytics to customers in both the private and public sectors, ranging from local police departments to statewide public safety departments, to federal agencies like the Department of Defense and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With this diversity of clients, we've gotten to work on some pretty exciting projects. They include:

Public Health: With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, this federal agency requested that we urgently integrate mapping for the COVID-19 CDC response. Despite a host of challenges—including substantial database migration, the delay of a production deployment, and an unprecedented global pandemic—e continued to enrich the new environment and assist with COVID-related enhancements by providing this public health agency with state-of-the-art capabilities for exceeding mission success. For this job, we received an internal award from the client and were publicly recognized with the 2020 NCEZID Honor Award for Information Technology.

App Development: We were tasked with developing a tool that seamlessly integrates massive amounts of data into an intuitive process designed to enhance and expedite workflows in the Palantir system. Users who had both Palantir and LexisNexis wanted their data within the Palantir system, while also allowing for full reports to be run. Within six months our software engineers developed an application that allowed users to quickly sift through data and pinpoint the information most relevant to their queries. In addition, we created mechanisms around data privacy so that users had to adhere to rules and could filter and exclude irrelevant information that may otherwise be caught “in the net”. We called our tool the Accurint Helper.

Additionally, we don’t have a flagship product, but flagship/enterprise partners. We are 1 out of 6 of Palantir’s preferred partners, we are partnering with Amazon to offer their cloud computing services, and enjoy a great partnership with MicroFocus and their Vertica platform. Our partnerships enable us to provide our global base of clients with support and maintenance, technical training, infrastructure services—like the migration of applications from data centers to AWS, cloud computing. We’re big data nerds who don’t shy away from tough problems.

We’ve been extremely lucky in that we’ve seen tremendous growth over the past few years. Our company, which started with just me, has now grown to nearly 50 people and we’re planning to hire more engineers this year.

We’re actively pursuing an 8(a) certification, which is a federal government certification intended for organizations that are owned and controlled at least 51% by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. It is a nine-year business development program to provide training and assistance to small businesses to help them grow and thrive. We expect this certification to open us up to new clients and opportunities and look forward to tackling new challenges.

Additionally, we plan to continue to build upon the deep relationships we have with our existing clients—our average length of tenure with a client is seven years.


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

I founded PVM after serving nearly 25 years on active duty in the US Navy. I will forever remain a grateful, proud retired Naval Officer, but when reflecting on my last five or so years in uniform, it was a frustrating chapter for me.

Before my final tour of duty, I spent almost 14 months working in Iraq. The work was challenging. The team that I led was responsible for rebuilding all the Iraqi defense infrastructure (military bases, ports, police stations, etc.) that had been destroyed during the war. This was before the insurgency. The work was exceptionally hard, the sacrifices many, and the positive outcomes few and far between. At this stage in my career, I had crafted my sense of what was important and what was purely bureaucracy.

I returned to the U.S. tired but committed to making things better for folks doing the hard work at the tip of the spear. What I found back home was a work culture that I felt was completely disassociated from the tangible, focused, and impactful work environment I had just left. I felt like I had entered an organizational environment that was lacking the context and urgency of problems their “customers,” the warfighters, were facing.

This business-like culture seemed to be focused squarely on an internal set of very hard problems: budget processes, unrealistic schedules, and pet projects. I say that without passing any judgment or negative sentiment; people were working hard. The problems were challenging, and the efforts were very much needed, but from my perspective, the outcomes weren’t aligned with the problems the warfighters cared about.

So, I committed myself and worked as hard as I could to refocus my part of the organization. When it was time for me to retire, I decided to create PVM in 2010—the only place that I have ever worked outside of the Navy. I founded the company to provide a place where I could work on problems that I was extremely passionate about, with the goal of making it better for my friends still fighting. It was a way to continue working with the technologies that were exciting to me but focused on the goals that I thought mattered most—adopting the mission of the end-user as our own.

The best business strategy is deceptively straightforward. It’s not a life hack. It’s not an elaborate scheme. It’s very, very simple—delight your customer. Empathize with their needs, and then meet and exceed those needs.

PVM was founded on the heels of arguably the worst recession the country has experienced in living memory. I started the company without the “benefit” of any outside funding and bootstrapped it myself. This made the work harder, but there was a silver lining that proved more and more essential as the business grew. When it came to our priorities, we were beholden to no one but ourselves and our end-users. This is exactly the low-bureaucracy, a results-focused arrangement I wanted.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

PVM's first product was just me, my skills, and my willingness to work hard.

I developed a passion for solving impactful, data-driven problems that I was lucky enough to grow into a viable business. My love of computer science first started in graduate school and then I became a computer science instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School. Professionally, I was a Naval Engineering Duty Officer which involved a cadre of tech and business duties. This combination of skills and drive was key to my success when starting PVM.

Our work involves understanding the challenge first from the perspective of the customer—and I was a previous customer, uniquely suited to answer them. PVM’s first set of service offerings was focused on addressing the set of problems that frustrated me while in uniform. Primarily, how the best commercial IT products should be applied and utilized for military problems.

Many of the obstacles I faced in the early days were non-technical. I encountered institutional inertia and unfounded fears associated with commercial technology. There is a lot of trepidation in the military about being locked into a particular vendor or technology.

In the early days of PVM, I addressed these challenges the same way we do today—by helping the customer bring it back to the mission. Data-driven enterprises all have a set of common IT tasks. They must all collect, organize, process, and store volumes of disparate data. These functions are the same no matter what the mission of the enterprise.

Most organizations attempt to build these systems from scratch instead of leveraging best-of-breed commercially available products. In doing so, they miss an opportunity to focus investment on the things that make them unique. They miss the opportunity to focus the investment on their specific mission. Our product is our people—we deal with the details so that our customers can focus on their mission.

Describe the process of launching the business.

Launching PVM was the quintessential leap of faith for me. I believed in the tech and the approach. My launch strategy was to first identify a coalition of the willing.

My initial customer was an organization that I had worked with for several years both as an engineer and then as part of the leadership team. I went back to the basics and started as a contracted low-level engineer while I established engineering credibility. I actively sought out mentors and business leaders—a practice I continue today.

I started in the federal space, which is a different animal than your traditional B2B sales and marketing cycle. Not only is the time to close a contract much longer—about a year or longer—but trust and relationships are key.

My strategy was to build upon these existing relationships I had to establish that trust not only with people in the government I already knew but with potential new clients. Word of mouth and proof of quality work is what helped me succeed with new clients in the early years. We also continued to pursue contracts that were a win-win for both us and the client. I also understood the tech challenges within the federal government space intimately, having left that world after 25 years with direct experience on the front lines, which further served to build trust.

I tried to optimize my available financial resources by keeping overhead low, but I invested in great accounting and legal support. My accounting team has supported me from the beginning and has been a key component of our growth.

As a black tech founder, sadly I encountered many of the problems that have historically plagued minority business owners. Even with the backing and support of the Small Business Administration, the common refrain I heard from lending institutions was to take out a mortgage on my home to finance the business. The unavailability of capital forced me to grow the company slowly but with a great foundation, identity, and intention. We know our why and have achieved great product/customer fit.

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

The best business strategy is deceptively straightforward. It’s not a life hack. It’s not an elaborate scheme. It’s very, very simple—delight your customer. Empathize with their needs, and then meet and exceed those needs. Don’t just convince them you’re the hero they need; step up and be that hero.

I’ll admit, it’s not a strategy for the most rapid growth, but it is a strategy for the most reliable growth. We acquire about 1-3 new clients and/or contracts a year. Our sector is a bit unique in that you can, and should, retain your client while adding on additional work within the many different departments in one federal or state agency. In our business space, retention is almost more important than a new client. The connections you forge with this approach will last for as long as your business does, will mature with you, and will lead to new opportunities until one day you wake up utterly astounded by how much you’ve achieved and how much is still on the horizon.

Yet, I have a bit of a confession to make. I’ve always viewed marketing as a bit impersonal and distasteful. My perspective on marketing was shaped by products promising a quick fix, pyramid schemes, and spokespeople hawking a product. PVM will not ever engage in those types of sales tactics.

I shied away from traditional marketing for most of PVM’s growth. But, recently I discovered a term and practice that encompassed what we were already doing as a company—inbound. To be inbound with your marketing strategy, you stay focused on being truthful and helpful, and honest with what you have to offer. These core tenants of transparency, authenticity, and efficiency are what we’ve always done at PVM, and being inbound has allowed us to wrap more structure around them.

This past year, we embraced inbound and created a marketing department. And our marketing team is growing! Having writers on staff to communicate our message of passion and commitment to our industry has been an enormous boon to the company. Recently, our top performing posts have been more localized; we’re opening an office in the new St. Petersburg Maritime and Defense Technology Hub in St. Petersburg and getting more involved in the community. While we have blog posts about the technology we work with every day, it’s the human-focused approach that works best—and makes the most sense to us. We want our communications to be as authentic as possible.

I could tell you about SEO, social media, or advertising, and that’s all very interesting and useful. But truthfully? The most important advice I can give about attracting and retaining customers is to offer a great product or service and emphasize that over everything else.

We don’t get our customers by cold calling or advertising on Google. None of our methods are conventional “marketing”. We just use relationship marketing. Of course, like any company going after work in the federal or state spaces, we track RFPs and apply for new contracts that align with our business principles and skills. But, we’ve found that you win that work usually based on the strength of your relationships, not the strength of your writing skills.

Business ownership continues to teach me that people and relationships matter. If you’re the owner and you’re the smartest person on the team, you should reevaluate your team composition.

For anyone getting into this field, I would suggest doing what I did—finding mentors and business leaders in this space and working on creating truly authentic relationships with them.


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

Every day I wake up, and I can’t believe how many amazing opportunities we have coming up. Every year, I say, “We are about to have our best year yet at PVM,” and it keeps continuing year over year.

This year, our most exciting new venture is our partnership with AWS. It is increasingly clear that cloud solutions are a staple of our sector, and we are thrilled to be involved in leading the industry as this technology gains more and more traction in the coming years. The cloud is a more cost-effective, more secure, and more innovative space than its predecessors on the market. We are determined to make all the benefits of cloud technology available to our clients.

As an AWS partner, PVM will have access to a new suite of cloud storage solutions as well as an AWS-certified workforce. Everyone at PVM, from our engineers to HR, will be trained and certified in AWS systems and services. As an AWS partner, we will have access to tools that provide a foundation for rapid innovation and a workforce full of experts ready to assist with our customers’ needs.

Additionally, we are growing rapidly! We expect to grow to well over 50 employees this year and are actively hiring for several positions. We are also expanding our office space in St. Petersburg, FL at their new Maritime and Defense Hub in the city’s Innovation District. We hope to collaborate with other companies within our office space on new projects and will also look to provide value and impact within our local community.


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

Business ownership continues to teach me that people and relationships matter. If you’re the owner and you’re the smartest person on the team, you should reevaluate your team composition.

I also work hard every day to create an environment of authenticity where people can be their true selves. I want PVM to be a place where people feel valued and supported above everything else.

Your customers, not you, will define a job well done. Your actions with them, or with your employees, are more powerful than your words.

Failure is inevitable, but will only occur if you quit. I choose to see failure as a lesson learned along the way to success.


What platform/tools do you use for your business?

I’m not sure that I have a favorite tool—we use a whole host of tools. We have been a work-from-home/remote company from our inception, so we’ve relied heavily on collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack. We use Mavenlink for project management and the Atlassian suite for software development. Our marketing team primarily uses HubSpot and Canva.

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

They Ask, You Answer by Marcus Sheridan was the book that opened my eyes to inbound marketing. It helped me understand that the best marketing is the kind that provides genuine expertise, instead of personal gain. Folks don’t like to be sold, but they love having an expert answer their questions honestly when they’re thinking about making a purchase. It’s a style of marketing that allows you to have integrity in how you run your business, and that was the game-changer for me.

Caste by Isabel Wilerson perfectly encapsulated how hierarchies can be so destructive. The reason this matters to my business—aside from the obvious, being a black man myself—is that I want my business to reap the benefits of incredible talent where talent isn’t always being looked for. We aren’t just black-owned, we are also majority women-run. My staff is extremely diverse, and we’re better for it. You have to be the change you want to see in the world.

As we are a company full of nerds, myself as the lead nerd, we all love superhero movies. “Black Panther” is hands down my favorite. He’s a fantastic role model—an African king with the best sci-fi technology in the Marvel universe, striving to lead with honor and tackling issues that are relevant to our times. He’s exactly the kind of superhero I wish I had as a kid but I’m glad that my kids can look up to. We even included touches of purple in our branding as a nod to the character.

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

Know why! Understand why you are starting your business and its purpose. These facts will sustain the business as long as the business's actions remain aligned with the mission. Next, get a mentor! Identify companies with similar “missions'' and learn from them—both the good and the bad.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?


PVM is growing fast to meet the rising demand for our talents. We are looking for software engineers with AWS experience, as well as engineers with government clearance, and we are expanding our marketing department. Apply here.

Where can we go to learn more?

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

Pat Mack, Founder of PVM IT
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story
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