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.”
“I want to know that I helped to make the world a better place. I want to help make the software that helps first responders actually spend their time responding instead of doing paperwork. I really want them to feel cared for at every step of the way; a lot of times their jobs are pretty thankless and we want to recognize them for the sacrifices they’ve made. I want to do things and accomplish things, including hard work, with people I love to spend time with. I want to help make people realize that software can be done in a collaborative way, and I want everyone employed here to love their job. There’s no growth measurement on that, I just want to know that I’m making a positive difference.
“You have to be intentional about growth; when you start a startup, you wear every hat. You’re going to have to give up hats all along the way, part of growing is learning how to give someone else one of your hats. In growing, we have to think about what we should give up next, even if you enjoy it. Adding the right people is worth spending a good amount of time on. One bad hire in a key position can have a huge impact on your company, even tank your company. I saw this in the dot com era. Ownership in a company doesn’t just mean that you are your own boss; it also means that you’re the janitor and the taskmaster and everything else in between. Equity options can be gone in an instant or they can make you a millionaire, but it is best to build your company with lasting growth in mind.
“I know the City cares about our growth, along with the BEDC and CFC (who help us grow in our space). Pete Yonkman has also been very active in figuring out how to help companies like ours grow. We have a lot of folks in our community who hear about us and recommend great people to us, and I feel like that is huge. Even local publications have highlighted our company and given us visibility that has helped us grow even larger. Having a core network of Bloomington people that help us grow is essential.
“Even in my personal life, I think Bloomington has some amazing things to recommend. The first time I lived here, I was a single person and I thought this was a great singles’ town. Lots of restaurants, lots of bars, lots of learning, and really anything you want inside of this microcosm. Then I left, went to Houston, got married, had a baby, and moved back. I was a little worried about moving back after living in Houston where I could get anything I wanted at any hour. What I found was that Bloomington was an amazing place for my child and my family– one of my son’s preschool teachers had a PhD in molecular biology, my husband can run to work on the B-Line, and we have such close access to nature. I love that my child can run around the Farmers’ Market at any age, and I’m able to know that he’s being cared for and running into people he knows. His quality of life went up significantly; mine and my husband’s stayed relatively the same, but the opportunities I was able to give my son really changed my perspective. We take potential hires on a walk around downtown to show them lots of what the city and the campus has to offer. We want to show them that it’s a very lively city and that they can enjoy themselves here outside of work.
“From my experience, I say that if you want to make your own startup, I’d totally recommend doing it, but do it with eyes wide open. Go interview five founders and ask about the lessons they’ve learned, so that you’re not making mistakes that have already been made. You should always make different mistakes than the ones that were easy to learn about from others. You also have to recognize that you should be a person who gets out of bed every day and thinks “I’m going to make this work!” It’s an attitude of persistence matched with fortitude. If you want to work with a startup, you have to recognize that there are trade-offs: you’re getting something, but you’re losing something. You might get more flexible hours, but you might not get medical benefits. You’re going to have to make sure these trade-offs are right for you and figure out what your tolerance is before taking the leap. And if it doesn’t work out, we are always looking for awesome folks at Envisage.”