The first time I encountered a computer, you wouldn’t really call it a computer. Standing about 3 feet off the ground, the setup was nothing more than a printer (with an internal CPU) and keyboard with a phone coupler. The sound that modem made when it connected was music to my ears: the beeps, hisses and finally the smooth silence indicating that the system was online. I would type commands and the result rolled out on printer paper. There was no monitor. This was back in junior high, at age 11. I had already been an entrepreneur for years by that time, but everything changed when I was exposed to computing technology. I put all of my non-tech business plans on the shelf, and decided only to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities that involved the marriage of business and technology.
I have been hooked on technology in the service of business ever since. It has been the focus of my entire career, and eventually formed the foundation for Chariot Solutions, which came to life in 2002. It remains my passion two decades later.
Chariot was launched on the heels of a Y2K scare and the far more frightening attack that took place on September 11, 2001. The world was in chaos, and we were an unknown startup with no reputation and not much in the bank. What we did have was an initial group of world-class superstars to start with, a team that had proven itself many times over at my prior company.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, what we needed was an extraordinary business plan, with a solid competitive advantage that would allow us to become a leader in our space, to thrive in good times and be able to weather the storm when things got tough. My initial business plan was not exactly what we needed, but it became so once the other founding members had their say. We agreed that for us it was quality over quantity, brand over growth, and happiness over wealth. By lessening the importance of maximizing profit, we could create something unique and lasting. This was how we came up with a plan that was perfect for us.
We take great pride in what we do, which is primarily developing software. As a group, we were terribly disappointed at the published failure rates of software projects at the time. My team devised a formula that would allow us to achieve a near-perfect project success record, and create a strong brand for our company through substantial wins for our clients. This formula has been the key to our success now for 20 years.
The core of our formula for success includes hiring discipline, project discipline and considerable investment in professional development for our team.
We have always been incredibly careful about who we hire, not only in terms of technical skills, but personality and culture fit as well. We are only interested in a small subset of professional technologists for our company, what we consider “A” players – those with the best understanding of the tools available and how to leverage them to accomplish a task. They ask much better questions at the outset, design stronger solutions and build high performing, stable products.
There is a lot of competition for this type of person, as they are in short supply relative to the needs of the world today. Still, although we knew it would limit growth, we committed to hiring exclusively top-tier software architects, because our goal was to be the best at what we do, not the biggest.
In addition to hiring discipline, we knew we had to be very picky about which projects we took on to achieve a near-perfect record. If we accepted projects for which we were not a great fit, we wouldn’t likely be able to achieve the track record we desired. Passing up work would be difficult at times when we had a bench, especially in the early days, but this was a very important and necessary part of our plan.
Beyond hiring and project discipline, to truly succeed we would need consistency on our team. We knew from experience the power of a team that had worked together before. We felt that our plan would require longer average tenure for employees than is customary in tech. This consistency would be one of the keys to succeeding as a team on projects. So we needed to create a company and an environment in which our employees could thrive in the long run, that they would enjoy so much they would stay.
One great component was investing in the professional development of our team to allow our employees to satisfy their needs to learn constantly. This makes for happier employees that stay with the company longer, justifying the additional investment in them. This investment typically involves consultants taking time away from their projects to learn more about something they are passionate about.
We realized that our formula for success at Chariot, including hiring and project discipline, and the professional development investment we make in our employees, could make profitability challenging. Although maximizing profit was not what we were after, it still would be important to make a profit for the company to remain healthy. Unlike other service firms that shoot for 90% utilization (percentage of time billing), we would lower that expectation to 80%, so that 10% could be invested back into the employees. For this to work financially, we would have to charge a 25% premium in terms of hourly rate. The good news was that Chariot-level consultants would be able to get the job done with half the team size – the result of using the best people for the job. We believe that what really matters is value.
At the outset, my mentors told me it was too risky, especially considering the financial climate at the time and our limited runway. We had no reputation in the market, so it would be difficult to get our rates. But we were already hooked on the idea, and I have a comfort level with risk. We would be an underdog trying to do what we wanted, in a way we felt would work for everyone. Thankfully, this vision became reality, and for the past 20 years Chariot has been a source of immeasurable pride for all of us.
Since our master plan and all of the great ideas were the product of a total team effort, Chariot Solutions has always been about us, not me. This was the first venture of my career in which my success would be dependent on others, since I can’t actually do what we do – write code. Still, because of these amazing co-founders I had the confidence to take the leap. Believing in them has been the best decision of my career.
From the outset, it has felt like a family. We have maintained a flat organizational structure, with a strong culture and commitment to mutual respect and caring. Making money is important, but what’s more essential is being open, honest and generous. At this point in my life and career, I believe it’s what I do best. Everyone has a voice, and all opinions are respected. Because of all of the great people around me, this is easy and enjoyable.
That attitude extends beyond the walls of our office. We choose to treat our customers, vendors and contractors like our employees, as partners. We forge relationships based on trust and common goals, always looking for mutual wins, negotiating transparently – like we’re on the same side of the table. If an opportunity is not likely to be a win for both parties, we pass on it.
We typically under promise and over deliver, partly due to our conservative nature but mostly due to our consultants being true masters of their craft. They work here at Chariot because they enjoy being put in positions where they can constantly learn while really moving the needle for our clients. They enjoy being part of a business that prioritizes doing the right thing instead of the most lucrative thing. They can be important and impactful, while also having a great deal of balance in their lives, not expected to work 50 or 60 hour weeks.
Our employees and contractors appreciate it, and our customers know that they are in the hands of dedicated experts. It’s a link forged in the steel of discipline. When your customers feel that link, there’s no denying its power. Connection is essential: to the internet, between employees, and with customers.
Over the past few years, many companies have experienced The Great Resignation. Not Chariot. Our connection to one another, and to our clients, has withstood the test of lockdowns and remote work. Our starting salaries are higher than average and our employees can count on regular raises, but they could probably make more at a big company. Compensation is important to all of us, but only a subset of the job, which is only a subset of our happiness.
Maintaining Chariot at this size gives us the freedom to remain independent. We call the shots as a tight team. We are not focused on hyper growth or maximizing profit. Rather, our focus is on our incredible clients. They’re the reason we have thrived for so long.
Twenty years later, I am proud to say that our strategy of discipline and connection has worked. We have grown from just a handful of founding employees (most of whom are still onboard today) to over 60 people. Our employees are more than workers. They are family. There have been a few bumps over the years, yet we have remained true to our mission and profitable throughout cycles of economic challenges and rewards.
For me, Chariot Solutions is a dream come true. I feel like we are heroes to our customers, providing unmatched value, while being the best place to work for our employees. I say that based on consistent feedback from clients and my co-workers, and our 3-time designation as the #1 Top Workplace in the Philadelphia area for companies our size.
I am incredibly proud of our run at Chariot for the past 20 years. It is a very special place, and I look forward to the adventures of the next 20.