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From Printer Parts to the Cloud: 8(a) contracting Helps Business Evolve, Thrive

Earl Overstreet, Founder of GMI

From Printer Parts to the Cloud:
8(a) Contracting Helps Business Evolve, Thrive

Earl Overstreet, General Microsystems Inc (GMI)

Today most of us carry a high capacity digital storage device in our pocket or purse every day.  The device, a smartphone, can store over eleven gigabytes of our favorite photos, music, and other digital content.

Thirty years ago, that kind of storage capacity was rare and extremely expensive.

Earl Overstreet, owner of General Microsystems Inc. (GMI), describes how the need for high capacity digital storage created an opportunity for his firm.  “The University of Washington Applied Physics lab bought a computer system to take to the Arctic for some oceanographic experiments.  The project hit a snag when they realized they would be collecting eleven gigabytes of data.  No storage device existed in 1984 that met their requirements.  They turned to GMI, a business that had only been around for about a year for a solution.”

“We integrated commercially available hardware with custom software developed for us to create the first high-capacity storage device for real-time Unix computers,” Overstreet said. “It became a product line that we spent the next ten years marketing under GMI’s name to customers throughout the US and internationally.”

Overstreet never saw himself as a small business owner.

“I grew up in Cleveland, and my uncle owned a very successful grocery store.  I admired his accomplishment, but I also saw what a big time and financial commitment it was to run the business,” he explained. “It did not feel like the path for me.”

About the time Overstreet was preparing to go to college, in the 60’s, he said that opportunities were becoming available to African-Americans that had not been available to prior generations.

“At that time doors were opening to African-Americans in the corporate world that our parents never had access to,” he said. “I wanted to focus on getting an education and pursuing a corporate career.”

Overstreet earned a degree in engineering and an MBA, and spent fourteen years at GE and Wyle Labs Electronic Marketing Group in a variety of manufacturing, sales, marketing, and management positions, rising to sales manager and then division manager at Wyle.  He lost his job during the 1983 recession.

“I knew I loved the Pacific Northwest, and wanted to stay in the area, so I turned down a transfer to California and took a long overdue vacation before deciding what to do next,” Overstreet explained. “On the trip I caught myself by surprise when the idea came to start a small business.”

And so he started GMI in June of 1983.  After a rough start, then finding success with the University of Washington, Overstreet said he found the key was reinventing the business as the industry evolved.

“We reinvented ourselves a number of times and kept pace with industry changes,” he said. “Another one of those reinventions came when we started the 8(a) program with the SBA.”

The 8(a), or Federal Contracting Program through the U.S. Small Business Administration, helps minority or financially disadvantaged businesses gain access to some of the required 23% of set-aside contracts by the federal government.  It is a 9-year program designed to help small businesses grow and thrive through that access to federal contracts.

“We joined the 8(a) program in 1991.  We had great success in it, but we found that success by evolving to keep up with customer needs,” explained Overstreet. “We had commercial, state and local government accounts, but now we had to deal with the requirements of federal government contracting.

After GMI completed the 8(a) program in 2000, the company charged forward, moving into data center products such as servers and data storage arrays. Today they are evolving and reinventing the business again as the information technology world moves to the cloud.

“We know that mobile users and mobile infrastructures (cloud) are placing new demands on our customers.  We are ready with the technology and services to help our customers respond to the opportunities and challenges of 21st century organizations.” Overstreet said.

Overstreet says the last 33 years have had some hard learned lessons, but it’s the lessons learned that have gotten him to where he is.

“My education and large company background helped, but creating and running a small business was harder than I thought it would be,” Overstreet said. “There are limited resources and lots of hats to wear.  It has been my most challenging and rewarding job because we have come full circle, applying education and small business agility to the needs of large customers.”

He said it was that reality of the harder times that keeps him in check, and is something that every small business owner needs.

“Optimism is good, but it needs to be balanced with a dose of realism,” Overstreet explained. “A small business owner has to be prepared, persistent but also patient, which are opposites. You have to find that balance of persistence and patience to be a successful small business owner.”

Company Name: 
General Microsystems Inc (GMI)
Bellevue, Washington