President and CEO Sri Devi (left) and Business Development Director Mike Fisk of Guru Alliance outside their Omaha office.
They're already known for their agility and ability to compete on price when it comes to finding software and technology solutions for their customers in the commercial world. Their next goal is to tackle the tough federal government marketplace, and to that end they're counting on a team from the Nebraska District Office and the Procurement Technical Assistance Center to help.
Guru Alliance, a software development, technology services and staffing company with offices off 72nd Street in Omaha, has branched out around the world, with business in Canada, Singapore, and Chennai, India, the former home of company president and CEO Sri Devi.
"As a company, you always look to expand," Devi said. "For us, the federal government is a natural progression. We've worked as a subcontractor, so that exposed us to working with the government."
Tackling the energy sector with passion and innovative products
With one of their signature products is a tool which enables petroleum producers, marketers and blenders to comply with federal mandates for renewable fuels set by the Environmental Protection Agency, Guru Alliance would seem to be a perfect fit for taking advantage of the prospect to grow the small business through the biggest buyer of products and services in the country.
Devi bought out her partner some seven years ago, and with a passion toward application development, "we thought we could bring high value to the energy sector with our diverse skillset." But there's more to the story than that.
"We have a passion for what we do," Devi added. "We want to contribute to society, to help the environment. We know our renewable fuel tracking is a wonderful concept, so we really wanted to help businesses be in compliance with the EPA. Sure, there are other factors, our customers can benefit from it, they can make a profit, too, not just by tracking the renewable fuel as it process through, but by marketing themselves as good for society. We want to have an impact on the environment in a good way. You know, this is the society in which you live, and we always as a team work to contribute something back."
Looking to leverage contracting opportunities
A couple of years ago, Guru Alliance certified as a Minority-owned Business Enterprise with the Great Plains Minority Supplier Development Council, leveraging the company's strong commitment to diversity to expand the company's market share. In the future, the company will apply for certification by the SBA as an 8(a) firm; they're already a self-certified Small Disadvantaged Business.
Then there's the new SBA initiative, the Woman-Owned Small Business Federal Contract Program. In the room during a rundown of the program at a seminar at the Nebraska District Office in September was Mike Fisk, Guru Alliance's business development director. After almost 20 years with a large technology company, and several years working with large and midsize federal contractors and directly with the federal government, Fisk came aboard last July to help Guru Alliance better compete in the federal marketplace.
They're quick to credit the SBA, and the Procurement Technical Assistance Center on the University of Omaha campus. Fisk credits Roger Johnson, who has served for the past three years as a counselor with PTAC, for "hitting the bulls-eye” in helping us structure how our innovation and custom application development capabilities should be aligned in government related databases. “There are thousands and thousands of federal, state, and local government opportunities. How do you navigate that landscape, and focus on the best matches at any given time? “Roger and I have worked hard to get things lined up just right. We continue to work closely to keep things aligned appropriately with Federal and other Government databases.”
Devi agreed: "When we incorporated, we just focused on private sector. PTAC made me realize the potential for companies like us, and Roger was very patient with me and helped me understand the process."
To complete in the in the government marketplace, Guru Alliance had Kathleen Piper, the district office's 8(a) business development specialist, on their side. Piper helped the firm pursue solicitations for contracts, and help guide the process learning about capability statements and pre-solicitation preparation. In addition, SBA Procurement Center Representative Dwight Johnson offered key feedback on positioning the company for progress in the federal marketplace after seeing a demonstration of Guru Alliance's software products and capabilities.
"After having worked with PTAC, with Roger, Mary Graff, directly with the government, and the SBA, I understand the bright light shining on small business," Fisk said. And when other companies who want to work with Guru Alliance call Fisk with questions about the contracting process, Fisk knows the right buttons to push. “Our goal is to compete effectively with key players and the government marketplace, and at the same time partner effectively with key players in that same marketplace”, says Fisk.
Getting attention from other contractors in the area
As a result, others in the federal marketplace have taken notice. Bellevue headquartered The Garrett Group is one of four firms across the country which won a right to compete on pieces of a $277 million contract with the Defense Department and Defense Intelligence Agency; as they win work, Guru Alliance will serve as a subcontractor for The Garrett Group.
Pretty good testimony to Guru Alliance's ability to do the job. “The Garrett Group sees us as innovative, agile, with price points that are very competitive. They have assembled a cadre of team members that deliver best of breed services”, Fisk said. “They are a top-notch company, great people. We’re on board, and happy to be part of The Garrett Group team.”
Devi said another local partnership was a perfect fit with the company's goal of giving something back. SCOLA is a non-profit educational firm which receives, translates and retransmits news, information and entertainment programming from Italy to Africa and Asia, and every place in between, to its cable TV watchers across the country. The organization, headquartered in a small Iowa town about 18 miles northeast of Omaha, needed a partner to help re-design and develop their online offering and build up its application modules, and provide ongoing technical support, and Guru Alliance was a perfect fit.
"We're being sought out for our core strengths, especially in mobile device applications," Fisk said. As far as the company's future says Devi: "We have an excellent track record and plenty in the pipeline with commercial, government, and 8(a) firms."
Mitch Meyer (center, wearing dark hoodie) and the crew at Mail Order Comics in Gretna, pose with some of their wares.
Mitch Meyer, the comic book fan, knows his Daredevil and his Punisher, his Dark Knight and his Green Lantern. But in his alter-ego as a successful businessman in Gretna, Meyer also knows his “margin” and “efficiencies” and “tangible value.”
Early in 2011, Meyer, with the help of his parents, bought the Comic Book Supermarket retail store and its attached warehouse business, Mail Order Comics, located at an outlet mall just off busy Interstate 80 southwest of Omaha. With his fresh energy, in less than a year, even in a tough year with turmoil in the comic book industry and fits and starts with an updated web site, Meyer said the business already has made $1.9 million in revenue.
Mail Order Comics, for one, is proud of being the fifth-largest distributor of the popular Marvel Comics brand in the country, and is a source for collectable fantasy figurines, statues and game cards. Customers can pre-order comic titles two months in advance using the web site.
Truth, Justice ... and providing great service to its customers
Meyer's eight full-time employees and 17 part-timers make sure the business can ship "two or three pallets a week," he said, with the largest group working two shifts on a single weekend from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. to do most of the work.
"We have one employee who writes his paycheck back to the business just to pay for his comics purchases," Meyer said with a laugh. "I think we’re almost making a profit on him working for us."
Five percent of their business is to foreign customers, such as Argentina and Pakistan. He's become an expert in vicissitudes of export diplomacy, noting his business has to be careful how to package and ship comic books to ensure customs agents let through the merchandise to his customers without delay.
"Our guy in Argentina usually spends $8,000 a month," Meyer said, before checking his order statistics on a nearby computer. "... Actually, he spent $10,000 in December."
Meyer said many of his retail comic store customers order through his warehouse because of their competitive discounts.
"We offer a 38 percent discount off the retail price," Meyer said, "where the bigger guys offer 35 percent. Plus we offer occasional specials like half off to 75 percent off merchandise. We scoop up some of the smaller retailers the other distributors skip over."
Meyer also is honored to participate in Operation Shoebox, a non-profit effort out of Florida arranging for morale shipments to troops in Afghanistan, donating an entire pallet of comics for troops in the field.
Every great business comes with a story of its origin
Every great comic book character starts with an origin story, and Mail Order Comics has one just as worthy of telling.
It starts with the company's previous owner, a collector of miniature statues himself, who started the business out of his basement more than a decade ago as little more than a hobby. He sold comics over the internet part-time, eventually growing the operation out of his home to the outlet mall and into a retail store; by 2008, Meyer nabbed a job running it.
But when the owner got a promotion at his day job at Omaha Steaks, moving up to an executive position in the marketing department, he sought to cash out.
"My folks were the ones who were trying to convince me to run this business," Meyer said. "You know, I was running the retail store, but that was only about 10 percent of the whole business. And that's a lot of responsibility for someone just 26."
Meyer's father, a former pilot, was looking for the next chapter in his life, so he joined his son in offering a letter of intent in Nov. 2010 to purchase the store and warehouse.
The SBA to the rescue
With a down payment from his father, and an SBA-backed standard 7(a) loan through Wells Fargo approved Feb. 22, 2011 for $472,000 to purchase the business and provide $40,000 in operating capital, Meyer found himself in the comic book business.
"Sure, the process of getting the loan was frustrating sometimes," Meyer said. "I’d provide one thing to the bank, then they’d ask for 10 more things."
One big sticking point to get the SBA guarantee was a requirement for the owners of the mall to provide the business with a lease with a three-year option, a provision designed to protect small business owners who obtain SBA financing. The owners weren't comfortable with that requirement since they had begun redeveloping the shopping center, and after much back-and-forth negotiation, Wells Fargo got the SBA to waive the lease requirement, and Meyer got the loan.
"Our whole family is involved in the business," Meyer said. His younger brother Mike helps with operations, and a family friend handles the books and orders.
"Mike has a college degree, but he'd rather be working here," Meyer said.
Destined for the comic book business
And to think, but for a single pull-up, Meyer would be wearing Air Force blue rather than leveraging the new storyline for the X-Men for more business.
As he neared high school graduation, Meyer looked to follow his father and become a pilot. With good grades and test scores, and a recommendation from then-Sen. Chuck Hagel, only a physical training test stood between him and the Air Force Academy. But even after three times, he couldn't master the pull-up portion.
"I passed everything else, and I went back and worked on that, but then I got bronchitis, so I bombed it and didn’t make it," Meyer said. "On the third try, I did two quick ones, and I was just one pull up away from going, but it was weird, almost like someone put their hand on my head, and I couldn't do the last one. So I kind of think I was destined or something not to go."
After high school, Meyer tried a bunch of majors at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, "but nothing worked." As a freshman, he got a job at the airport as a lineman, flagging in planes and gassing them up. He also worked as a cook at a half-dozen local restaurants before getting the job running the retail comic book store, getting experience which eventually led to the purchase of the business.
Rebooting the Mail Order Comics operation
One of the first projects Meyer undertook taking over the operation was updating the mail order web site, making it easier for customers to find what they want; eventually, he'll merge the separate sites for the retail store and warehouse. That's one part of leveraging technology to expand the business.
"We have a customer who runs a podcast and does advertising, and he said he’ll do social media for us," Meyer explained. "We’re working on optimizing Google searches for the web site, and we're finding new things focused on how we do things to fulfill orders, and improve efficiencies."
Mail Order Comics is already on Facebook, promoting their special deals, spending lots of time just talking comics, timing the conversation to leverage the arrival of the new Avengers movie.
Then there was the challenge last July when the popular brand DC Comics elected to "reboot" its entire line of comics, giving its roster of characters from Superman to Batman and beyond entire new background stories.
"Whenever you do a relaunch, when you do any changes, it's scary, especially in the comic book world," Meyer said. But any anxiety about the editorial content changes of his merchandise were quickly dispelled as the media attention brought to the reboot meant "our sales went through the roof. Customers were even upset because we couldn’t keep them in stock."
While Meyer is enjoying the business' current success, he's on the alert for future challenges and opportunities, such as new technology offering comic book fans a chance to download digital copies of titles to e-readers for instant enjoyment.
"Marvel and DC want to appeal to digital downloads, and my brother has already gotten in contact with a digital download distributor to see if we can sell some of those," he said. "I don’t want to be left behind."
Privately, Meyer doesn't see an immediate challenge to his business selling hard-copy versions of his merchandise.
"Sure, if you’re getting digital downloads, you can scan them and read them, but a big part of the fun of collecting comic books is having a physical, tangible value," he explained. "You can’t trade them at conventions, you can’t sell them, you can’t have the creators and artists sign the books. That's a big part of the whole fun."
Besides, he often sees younger collectors brought into the retail store by parents looking to pass down the enthusiasm of comic book collecting.
'Almost like fate, finding the store like that'
And to think that if his brother hadn’t chanced upon the comic book store location one day, none of this success story might even have happened.
Growing up a comic book fan, Meyer worked at different jobs since he was 15, and spent his spare cash on his stash at area stores every chance he could get.
However, it wasn't until one day his younger brother and fellow comic fan Mike found the store, and excitedly pointed out the outlet mall location to him that Meyer realized the large shop, crammed with long boxes of the latest titles, even existed.
"It was almost like fate, finding the store like that, like I was supposed to be here," Meyer said.
Need a status update on the latest player in marketing? Lincoln-based Hurrdat Social Media ready for a breakout
Four years ago, Blake Lawrence was an outside linebacker for the Nebraska Cornhuskers; his teammate, Adi Kunalic, served as the football team's kickoff specialist.
Today, the company they started in August 2010 is an up-and-comer in the hot social media market. Lincoln-based Hurrdat Social Media (the name comes from a streetwise pronunciation of "heard that") has worked with 45 mostly small businesses in 35 different industries throughout Nebraska and beyond. Some of their clients hail from Kansas City, New York City, and even Australia and the United Kingdom, riding the crest of a global wave in cutting edge marketing.
"Here's the value of social media," Lawrence said. "I can talk to you here right now, but once I’m out of here, our communication stops. But if you’re part of social media, you’re still part of the conversation. We're teaching companies they have to use both to get their message across. The big thing is, we tweet, we blog, we post on Facebook for our companies every single day."
What started with an internship led to starting own firm
A Kansas City native, Lawrence came to Nebraska on a full scholarship, and started seven games in 2008 and 2009 for the Blackshirts before being sidelined as a junior from the effects of suffering concussions. Still, he left school not only with an undergraduate degree but an MBA, and after graduation took an internship with a Lincoln-based document management solutions firm. His task: create an online community around the firm's brand. The company's managers knew the firm needed to be part of the fast-moving conversations out there.
"Social media creates an opportunity for these brands to no longer be a sign on the wall or a sales caller," he said. "It's a chance to create a one-on-one relationship with their target market to help grow the brand, and ultimately have more loyal customers."
In six months, Lawrence's model for social media marketing created $600,000 of new leads and $200,000 of new revenue for the company. After he returned to Nebraska after an internship in New York City working with some of the top marketing firms there, he sat down with his business partner, Kunalic, who had an idea to break out on their own.
During his internship in NYC, Lawrence hungrily devoured everything he could on creative marketing, strategy development, and analysis, and learned something crucial when it came to selling their services to small businesses.
"If their clients loved their campaigns, loved the way it looked and felt, but if it didn’t deliver quality results they weren’t going to invest," Lawrence said. What he brought back to Hurrdat from his Big Apple experience was a method to determine the return on a company's investment, an important metric to convince otherwise conservative businesses to take the plunge into social media marketing.
Hurrdat's first client? The same Lincoln document management solutions firm which employed Lawrence as an intern. But the CEO did more than just sign Hurrdat up to do its social media work; he provided them office space in Lincoln with internet access, a phone line and tech support for as long as the start-up needed it.
Lawrence and Kunalic sought as many ways to keep costs low for his business as he could, bartering social media marketing to an event venue in Kansas City in exchange for free office space there, and similar efforts to a KC law firm for help with contracts and setting up the start-up's incorporation documents.
The firm has seen some impressive growth, hiring their first employee in January 2011 to handle technology development duties, graduated a couple of interns to full-time status four months later, and by May 2011, wrote the company's first payroll check. Three more hires by late summer brought the team to nine.
'This is what social media looks like'
Lawrence also is the perfect picture of a Millennial generation entrepreneur--sport jacket, button down shirt worn outside his jeans, even down to his tennis shoes. That's his uniform when meeting with businesses people, bankers and clients.
"This is what social media looks like," he said. "This is where we're coming from. Our oldest employee is 25 years old. Our work for our customers is the most serious thing we do."
And they've already become a name in town; Lawrence was on Lincoln's KFOR-AM business program "Pursuit of Success" recently to explain how his company has enjoyed quick success with facilitating two-way dialogue between customers and a company's brand image
"They asked 'how do you define success?' Everyone is going to point to dollar figures, raising a lot of money, revenue," Lawrence said. "I define success as a happy company culture, where when people come to work they enjoy it. The biggest thing is providing environment that they enjoy what they do."
SBA helps bail Hurrdat out of a bind
But not all was smooth for Hurrdat Social Media; for a while this fall, the nascent firm struggled to find an answer to a vexing cash flow problem. The lag in accounts receivable and need to bring full-time employees on the payroll put the company in a bind. They turned to US Bank, and the lender turned to the SBA to get Hurrdat into a loan to help.
"We had no credit history, and there were some things we needed to do," Lawrence said, "so we went to our bank, said, 'here’s our books, here’s how much we’re making, here’s how much we’re waiting to collect.' And they saw it as an opportunity to help a small business."
The firm was approved Dec. 1 for an SBA Express financed line of credit.
"If we had not gotten an SBA loan? We would have been freaking out," said Lawrence, who added they're also looking to raise some investor capital this year. " You know, we're still dependent on our customers, but as a young business to be seen by the SBA as credible, and to know if we ever got to a point where cash flow wasn’t there, we have this for us, it's comforting."
Social media bringing endorsements directly to fans
Pursuing new markets may also prove to be crucial to Hurrdat Social Media's growth. They've spun off a subsidiary that offers about 120 pro athletes an opportunity to engage with their thousands of fans all over the internet -- and make some coin in the process.
"We work within social media to connect brands with these athletes to create social media endorsements," said Lawrence, adding his company can knock the cost of a commercial placement way down for a business client. "We realize these athletes have influence on their social media pages, possibly influencing thousands of customers so we have a platform where your business can pay athletes for an endorsement. You can go to our site and tell us that you want this product, this athlete, what you want them to say, and the endorsement happens on that athlete's Twitter, Facebook, whatever, right away." It takes less than a week, sometimes as little as 24 hours to approve a message; Hurrdat is careful not to clutter an athlete's social media brand, limiting endorsement posts to three a week.
"People will pay for that contact," Lawrence added. "Fans are the most engaged with athletes." In fact, they deliver for their advertising clients a click-through rate from a social media post about 10 times than other online marketing efforts.
And Lawrence knows this generation can sniff out a cynical post by their favorite athlete designed to sell something, so his firm spends hours studying a particular athlete's "voice" on social media to make sure the endorsement seems like the natural flow of the conversation.
Hurrdat also has teamed with Husker Sports Marketing as their social media partner, offering another important outlet beyond their ability to market brands to the university's sports fans through radio, TV, in-game signage and program guides. Hurrdat provides the social media platform and the athletes, and Husker Sports Marketing sells that access to their corporate customers. The arrangement has worked so well that the goal for Hurrdat this year is to reach out to all 72 similar entities partnered with university sports across the country; Husker Sports Marketing manages millions of dollars in contracts, and with the social media firm involved in about 10 percent of that, "you can see where we can have a high growth potential in the next year."
But Hurrdat faces a turning point this year in the loss of its co-founder Kunalic to another organization: the Carolina Panthers of the NFL.
"We were sitting down talking about our business plans for the new year," Lawrence said, and a week later, Kunalic signed a three-year contract as the NFL team's kicker.
Not too many small businesses have to compete with the NFL for its talented employees.
Regardless of the challenges, Lawrence and his Hurrdat Social Media team seem poised to leverage a growing demand for that two-way dialogue between a business and its customers.
"On the internet, everyone becomes their own brand, with an ability to create their own identity, and everyone’s an expert when it comes to their own online brand," Lawrence said. "There’s a demand and we believe we do it right. We’re good at one thing, social media, and focus on that and we’re going to become very good at it."