By Jennifer Rader
Dumfries-based government-contracting firm FederalConference.com, founded in 2006, is a service-disabled, military-veteran owned and operated company that offers a full suite of event-planning services to governmental agencies. The organization recently placed third in Inc. Magazine’s 32nd annual “Inc. 500,” ranking the 500 fastest-growing private companies in the country in three-year growth from 2009 to 2012.
FederalConference.com’s founders, Manassas residents Paul Trapp and Stephen Davis, have been friends for decades. They met in Cocoa, Fla., are Godfather to each other’s children and both served in the U.S. Army, at least once on the same deployment. (Davis continues to serve.) They credit their training during their military careers in helping them make their company a success.
Each was separately involved in event planning, Trapp as a top recruiter in the National Guard and Davis while a special agent in the U.S. Army and the chief operating officer of a training company in Florida. Each had trouble finding a middle-level event-planning resource that could work with a government agency financially and multiple sites simultaneously. So Trapp pitched the idea to Davis to begin their own company. They started FederalConference.com part-time at first, taking vacation from their full-time jobs to deliver events, they said.
In 2009, Trapp, then a lieutenant colonel, turned down a promotion and retired from the military and Davis relocated from Florida to Virginia because their company was experiencing “a lot of lift,” Trapp said. They also brought on board a third partner, Corey Holeman, as chief financial officer.
What follows are excerpts from Prince William Living’s interview with Trapp and Davis, edited for length and clarity.
PWL: What were keys to starting FederalConference.com?
Trapp: During the part-time days, we were constantly putting systems and operational templates in place, along with a “dream team” to assist in executing the business model. We submitted bids for a couple of large contracts, which we ultimately were awarded.
Davis: It took a couple of months to be notified. So in those two months, Paul and I thoroughly planned out what we had to do. We had service contracts lined up ready to be signed, so that as
soon as we knew we were awarded a contract, we could immediately “pull the trigger.” We had the people we needed to hire, the building, the infrastructure, the servers. One contract called for delivering 3,000 events in 12 months. We had to have everything ready to be executed the second we were awarded.
PWL: What strengths did you put toward building FederalConference.com?
Davis: It ties back to our Army training. Paul was responsible for many different programs within the Army and in developing efficiencies and systems within that world. He carries those talents into our business. We have surge capability. If you’re going to work with the federal government, you better learn how to be flexible. You’ve got to know how to grow and shrink at the drop of a hat.
Trapp: Throughout a 31-year Army career, I spent time in training, administration and operations. You pick up “tools” and fill up your “box” as you go. Steve and I learned leadership principles. We’ve been able to pick and choose what works to grow a healthy organization.
The result is we’ve become a company that can handle the bandwidth. We can surge up to a team of 50 or 60 people full- time when we have to and scale back to 10 if we have to. We can become what the customer needs us to be. We did $49 million in sales last year.
PWL: What challenges did you overcome to get started?
Trapp: Financing. It’s every business owner’s nightmare. It always comes down to funding. When we started to experience our biggest growth is when the economy was going into the deepest parts of recession. After a lot of banks saying no, we secured a $6 million line of credit, which enabled us to find the right situation, the right fit.
This gives me the bandwidth that if the Army says, “Can you do two events for 2,000 people each in two different parts of the country at the same time? And, by the way, I can’t pay you until 45 days after,” I can say, “Yes, I can.” That was what separated us from our competitors.
PWL: What advice would you give to someone starting a federal contracting business?
Trapp: Remain compliant and get lots of education. I want FederalConference.com to be the best event-planning company out there. So as part of our company policy, we pay to get our staff certified as meeting planners. We also pay for their formal schooling, professional development and continuing education to keep them in compliance and up to date with what is going on in the government. The regulations and policies that affect the federal contracting industry change all the time.
Also, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Get multiple contracts because they go as quick as they come. And recruit the right people. Recruiting for us is not an event; it’s a process. We “pipeline” for a swell in business that we anticipate, not a guaranteed contract.
PWL: What would you advise would-be business entrepreneurs in general?
Trapp: It takes three things to be successful: A good idea, a good product or service and something of value to someone else. This is the first core principle.
Second, surround yourself with good people—a CPA, lawyer— who will help you lay a solid business foundation. Go to the outsiders who are professionals.
The third is money. People who are employee-minded versus entrepreneurial-minded are risk-averse. They will have a great idea, great people around them, but they are waiting on the money. An entrepreneurially minded person only needs one of these to get started. If you give me one of these three, and I’m interested, I’ll find the other two.
PWL: Describe your company’s culture.
Trapp: The culture of a company is either by design or by default. If I get it right with my employees, they will get it right with my customers every time.
We have fun with this. We take some of what we earned, and we reinvest it in our team at no cost to us. It’s not factored into contract proposals or our profit line. We leverage industry perks.
We reward an “Employee of the Quarter.” We also reward our employees through bonus programs, and in especially good years, we decided to give away $50,000 through our team members, including a $1,000 check to each that they get to present to a bonafide 501(c)(3) of their choice. Those nonprofit organizations win, their recipients win, and my employees win. Their morale goes up, and they are more engaged.
Everything we do has an impact on our employees. We’re going to do the right thing, have integrity and take care of our people to create a place where we would want to work.
Freelance writer Jennifer Rader is also a certified massage therapist with a background in nutrition, wellness, fundraising and entrepreneurship. She lives with her son and husband in Manassas. Reach her at [email protected].