Today, we’re highlighting the work and wisdom of Michelle Cole. In the first part of a two-part interview with our Xtern, Anna Carpenter, Michelle discusses her time as COO at Envisage Technologies, how vital their work is to first responders, and the realities of running and growing an innovative technology company that also is a government contractor.
“What do we do? Envisage technologies is a software company that builds software for first responders. We have many federal customers that we work with, as well as many state agencies including the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. All of the firefighters, EMTs, and police in Indiana that work in first response are part of the people we track and help to improve readiness.
“Envisage has kind of a fun origin story. Ari Vidali was originally a concert violinist and came to Bloomington to continue his studies. He developed an injury that caused him to give up the violin as a professional career. He turned his hobby (computers) into his profession. After working at SPEA with Brad Tubbs, Ari decided to start a computer business. He recruited Brad to come and help him. They founded Consultech, which eventually rolled out several other companies, including iproperty.com in the late 1990s, and later, Envisage in 2001.
“At the request of Brad’s old roommate’s mother, we started doing work for a Federal agency. The agency had asked Envisage to look at a system that somebody else had built because they weren’t sure if it was a good fit for their particular needs. When Ari and Brad reviewed the system, they found that the agency had a bunch of documentation and a database diagram, but no actual code. The agency asked if Ari and Brad could build the system for them, and after a lot of discussions, they ended up saying yes. That was the predecessor to our current product, Acadis.
“After September 11th, Ari thought that he was going to have to close down the business. He thought no one was going to spend money on training and software systems, but it turned out that the Federal government needed a lot more training to expand the programs that were already in place. I would say that 9/11 was actually a big turning point in the organization in terms of setting it on its mission to focus exclusively on first responders and high liability training.
“It has been interesting learning more about what first responders need and trying to solve it through software. There are disconnects that some first responders have. They face terrible things every day, but then they go home and function with their families like nothing big happened that day. That creates a lot of dissonance in their lives and there’s no good outlet to help bridge that. There’s also a lot of politics in the world of first response, so I want to help them feel great and I want to create the software that helps make their lives a little easier.
“In the software, there are two product lines. The first is our Acadis suite, which is academy automation with which we try to help the academies be more efficient. This would basically be the testing, housing, scheduling and all of the things that you would need if you were a university for first responders. A lot of times a first responder has ongoing requirements that they’re required to maintain as part of keeping their job. If there is a situation where something goes wrong in first response and there’s a lawsuit, they’re going to want to look at how the first responder was trained, if they were prepared to do this, and if they were maintaining their completion of ongoing requirements. Our software helps to track all that from when they’re hired all the way through their retirement.
“Our FirstForward suite is a tool that helps individual first responders keep a digital shoebox of papers, awards, and certificates. If they move from one department to another, for instance, their papers are usually sitting in their closet and we’re making it electronic so that they can easily take it with them as they move in their career and see their career grow because we’re giving them the tools they need.
“Additionally, something new that we’ve been able to do with our software is track exposures that firefighters and other first responders have had when responding on site. Firefighters have a much higher rate of cancer because they come into contact with a lot of carcinogens and toxins in high heat. Sometimes it’s very difficult for them to get medical benefits because it’s hard for them to prove their illness is work-related. Now, we’re tracking all of their runs and what they’re being exposed to, so that if they do have health issues that arise, they can trace that back to their work with more ease. Other first responders, like police and EMTs, are exposed more frequently to things like Hepatitis and opioids, and we can track those, too.
“There are a couple of moments that have been very critical for our company in terms of our growth. We work with a lot of government clients and they often have Continuing Resolutions. Continuing Resolutions mean that we may do work and not get paid right away, at least not until Congress approves a budget. There were a couple of situations where it was pretty rocky and we had to mind our pennies and hold them very tightly to make sure we could stay afloat. We value transparency, so we talked to our employees about how this was impacting our business. Ari gave some speeches about navigating the narrows, which really inspired people to not be nervous and to ride out the storm.
“One pivotal moment for our growth was when we brought in Armory Capital as an investor in our company. Before that, it seemed like every time we would start gaining momentum, we would then have a Continuing Resolution and we wouldn’t have any money. We couldn’t put our foot on the gas and just go, we kept doing a stutter stop. We didn’t really have the ability to have continuous growth because of this. By bringing in this investor, we had extra capital and were able to put our foot down and keep going forward. It’s very different– we couldn’t get that momentum really going until we had a little extra cash from our investor. Now it’s a virtuous cycle instead of a vicious cycle.
“Trying to find good talent is always difficult, in general, but trying to grow and run a company is extra complicated. We’re growing in steps. We always say that we’re painting the aircraft in flight; trying to grow and produce software at the same time has been interesting and very busy. I will get into work in the morning and not stop going until my alarm goes off and tells me to go home. Because our mission is based on helping people, we have a lot of employees that care a lot about what we’re doing.”