How Technical, Business and Military Smarts Helped DasNet Excel Against the Odds

U.S. Air Force veteran David Salley started New York-based DasNet to maintain services as AT&T was abandoning its Middle East operations. You think your company has challenges? Try navigating Middle East politics.

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DasNet, like most others in the federal arena, encountered many obstacles from the so-called Great Recession of last decade.

The contracting field responded and further imploded with the creating and acceptance of Lowest Price Technically Acceptable (LPTA) contracting as a measure of contract award and success.

This “doubly compounded hammer,” as Salley described it, tightened the market by forcing many firms out of business, causing larger firms to target the work of smaller businesses and creating a bidding frenzy within each market sector (small/medium and large) where every firm underbids the other to try and increase market share in hopes of being able to recoup losses through change orders.

Emphasis on Discipline, Certifications, Management

DasNet’s largest contract is a Saudi telecommunications package that includes satellite engineering to the nation’s phone company.

That job, in addition to its size and scale, came with a number of daunting challenges Salley was able to overcome.

“I had no money and the Saudi government was known for not paying, but I was able to get paid,” he says.

As you might expect from a company run by a man from a military background, DasNet has been built with a strong structure of discipline in place. Its Program Management Methodology (DPMM) is used to manage the company’s program efforts, addressing the entire project lifecycle.

“The use of the DPMM as the management tool supporting service delivery has been effective in our support of projects,” says Salley.

“We have noticed improved service management by increasing government visibility into program operations, increasing accountability at each level, and raising customer satisfaction levels, while remaining flexible and adapting to client requirements as their needs change.”

The DPMM “uses a combination of industry best practices to define and manage the full lifecycle of program and project management, providing our teams with the processes, tools, techniques, templates, and example artifacts to support and enable the effective execution of the tasks assigned,” he says.

“Although flexible and scalable to address and satisfy specific client program requirements, our DPMM provides a consistent approach for managing delivery of hardware support, software lifecycle management, event services and documentation management.

“In addition, the DPMM implemented through our team promotes active participation at all levels of the government, including executive management, business stakeholders, end users and technical staff. Communicating at these levels provides effective scope management, solution definition, and knowledge transfer. This increases the entire team’s performance level, setting the expectation that management and resource planning is needed for effective management,” says Salley.

“I’m a nerd, but I think I’m a cool nerd.”—David Salley

While most of DasNet’s experience has come in overseas installations working for government agencies, the company recently became certified for work in New York City and the Empire State, where it’s on the short list for engineering work.

“Our experience in the federal government has certainly helped us,” says Salley. “We’ve gotten really good at writing proposals. When you’re working in the government market, you continually have to train yourself and keep yourself updated.”

In January, DasNet went through rapid certification and achieved acceptance as a certified minority vendor to provide engineering services to New York City.

By March, DasNet’s team had provided corporate briefings to a quarter of NYC’s governmental offices, met with officials, accepted into its VENDEX program and began receiving its first contract awards from the city.

“The government market for NYC is very competitive and aggressive, yet much less automated than the federal government,” says Salley, adding that DasNet has a strategy to reach ” a modest level of progress we have set for ourselves within the first year.”

Proven Success Sends Its Own Message

Although Salley is not only an African-American CEO with Native-American roots, but also a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, “I’ve never used that to my advantage,” he says.

“I’ve always wanted to be known for my technical skills. Once you prove yourself, race isn’t an issue. I’ve always been able to bridge the gap. I’d like to see more diversity in [USAV]. I’ve encouraged my daughters, nephews and nieces, anyone I can to focus on STEM [science, technology, engineering and math],” he says.

“I didn’t know this world existed when I was in school. It’s interesting and exciting. There’s so much you can do. I am a proud veteran of the U.S. Air Force and I’m extremely sensitive and loyal, if not overly patriotic, to our country. I believe the key to our future in STEM resides within our youth from all reaches of this nation regardless of race or environment; therefore, I live by the motto ‘each one teach one.'”

Government-run customers in the Middle East tend to give companies not run by white people or Europeans low priority when it comes to winning work, Salley says he has learned, and he said his DasNet colleague pointed out to him that he was the only black man at a USAV meeting last year, but it’s not something he spends a lot of time thinking about or focusing on.

“I don’t look at it from that perspective, but I know it still exists,” says Salley. “I’m very proud of what we’ve done and who we are.” 

Any company still has to prove itself, Salley explains.

“We can’t always compete on resources, but we can compete on technical skills. We’re writing a dozen proposals every day, and we’ve been focusing more on the domestic market than we had been in the past. I don’t want DasNet to be known as a minority firm. We have a diverse staff and all of us have the best interests of our clients in mind,” he says.

Robinson notes that when he joined DasNet, “we were in [the Small Business Association’s] 8(a),” referring to the federal program that set aside a certain percentage of government work for small companies owned by minorities or military veterans.

“We were bidding head to head and nose to nose with all those companies,” says Robinson. “We wanted to prove ourselves to be an engineering company that was proficient and could do projects a lot of other small companies couldn’t do. For a small company to be able to do what we’ve done internationally is pretty amazing.”

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DasNet general counsel Lita Kaufman says she “can’t remember a single contract we’ve pursued because of a set-aside. It was always about the project.”

That mentality is still true today, says Salley, although the employee count can sometimes help DasNet win a bid.

DasNet, he says, “operates in a large market with large players using large business methodologies, but from a small business approach with small business agility and dexterity.”

DasNet “has to think of business in five-year cycles,” says Salley. “In order to remain viable and productive within the federal market without having to subcontract to other firms for the majority of your firm’s revenue, the need for contract vehicles is paramount.”

About 90 percent of DasNet’s contracts are through Systems Engineering & Technical Advisory (SETA)-type service contracts with the U.S. military.

Salley calls that “an extremely important source of revenue and repeat business as well as a source for continued strong past performance and case studies for federal contracting officials evaluating DasNet.”

“The most critical aspect of obtaining revenue through service contracts for us is the ability to rely upon consistent steady cash flow,” he says.

A key component of DasNet’s service offerings is its ability to provide certified trained personnel as employees, subcontractors, team members, consultants, and/or vendors to assist clients.

DasNet has an internal training program that has multiple facets, highlighted by the provision of full tuition reimbursement for employees pursuing higher education or advanced degrees, additional certifications related to their field of employment, vendor training and government training programs.

“We also commit to our clients that our staff will be flexible enough to achieve 100 percent cross-training for every employee in each project,” says Salley. “Each employee will learn the skills, responsibilities and procedures of each other’s position/shift.”