When Jay Jesse and three co-founders started Intelligent Software Solutions Inc. in 1997, the growth prospects for defense contractors didn’t look very bright.
Investors and top engineering talent were flocking to high-flying technology startups selling all sorts of products and services on the Internet. Nearly a decade after the end of the Cold War, defense contractors were consolidating and downsizing. The industry’s growth prospects got a whole lot brighter after the 2001 terrorist attacks, when wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and renewed emphasis on intelligence and homeland defense. Since then, ISS has become one of the nation’s fastest-growing private companies. “We really didn’t expect to grow. We didn’t have visions of grandeur,” said Jesse, 41. “We expected to grow to about 15 people, and that took three years. Much of the (company’s) growth has happened in the last five years — it really accelerated starting in 2002.” What started with partners Jesse; his wife, Lisa; Jess Miller and Dennis Linn has grown to a nearly $40 million company that employs 250. ISS ranked 62nd in Inc. magazine’s latest listing of the nation’s 500 fastest-growing private companies with revenue growth of more than 1,000 percent over the past three years. “He is very passionate about his work, and his dedication to it makes him successful. He is a builder who has done a good job in building his organization,” said Sara Boatz, a neighbor of Jesse who owns a public-relations and brand-consulting firm that works with ISS. Although Jesse is president, he downplays his role in leading the company and stresses that virtually all major decisions are made by consensus among the four partners. He said each one brings a complementary role to the management team, and the roles don’t overlap much. “I have the business expertise, so I got to be president,” Jesse said. “Jess is the visionary technical person, but Dennis makes sure it works and customer needs it, and Lisa does the cutting-edge research and development for us. We need all four pieces together.” Miller, vice president and chief software architect for ISS, said, “We all have roles and play them happily.” Jesse never intended to become an engineer — he dreamed of becoming the first computer specialist on a space shuttle, only to find out that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration recruits people with doctoral degrees in physics to do that job. After graduating from University of Denver, he instead ended up at GTE Government Systems and spent 10 years as a program and project manager there. That is also where he met the other three ISS founders — three of the four have worked together since 1987. “We are all engineers. We don’t have any MBAs, marketing or legal people — just engineers,” Jesse said. “In some respects, we are surprised that we have been able to keep it together, but we all have the same passion and vision about the company.” ISS was born out of frustration with the corporate bureaucracy of large defense contractors, resulting in projects that take years to complete, Jesse said. Even today, the company relies on small, short-term contracts that take just months to finish. “We were all anxious to build cutting-edge stuff and were frustrated that it took so long in big companies to get projects done that were so costly,” Jesse said. “We want to do something that made a difference quickly. We thought that we could do better.” ISS has carved a profitable niche by developing technology that can be used in a few months to meet an immediate need, Jesse said. That nimble strategy paid off for the company after the 2001 attacks, when the military needed new technology for its War on Terror. “They can’t wait for the typical two- or three-year procurement cycle,” Jesse said. “We can give them a capability that meets 80 percent of need now while they wait on the major contractor to produce something that meets 100 percent of the need.” The company’s flagship product, called WebTAS, for Web-enabled Temporal Analysis System, has been used in Afghanistan and Iraq to help soldiers choose safer routes and reduce risk. WebTAS is designed to turn massive amounts of data into useful intelligence. “One absolute is there is too much data in too many different places,” Jesse said. “We make sense of it. We make the haystack smaller so you can find what you are looking for more easily. We give you a tool to winnow data down to what is relevant.” ISS won one of its biggest contracts ever in June, when the Air Force Research Laboratory signed a deal valued at up to $49.9 million on WebTAS for various military branches, commands and federal agencies. He said the contract also will enable ISS to upgrade WebTAS. “You won’t find our programs in the congressional budget. We are funded out of the operations and maintenance or research and development budgets,” Jesse said. “They come to us with the nickels and dimes they find in the couch to meet a need they have right now.” The growing small contracts ISS has won have prompted the firm to open 13 offices in five other states and four other countries. Most of the company’s growth will be in Colorado Springs, Jesse said, including about 60 engineers ISS plans to hire by year’s end. Lisa Jesse, vice president of advanced technology, credits her husband for successfully shepherding the company through rapid growth without letting costs get out of control and avoiding delays in completing contracts. “He set up our operations, contracting and human relations functions and also established our banking relationship with Vectra” Bank Colorado, Lisa Jesse said. “The things we did that made us successful as a 30-person company still remain in place today.” The four partners have no plans to take ISS public, and the company has never required outside investment. Within five years, Jesse expects ISS to grow to more than 500 employees generating more than $100 million in revenue, making it one of the city’s most successful startups. CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0234 or firstname.lastname@example.org WHO HE IS Jay Jesse, president and co-founder of Intelligent Software Solutions Inc. HOMETOWN: Denver EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree in computer science and master’s degree in computer information systems, both from University of Denver FAMILY: Wife, Lisa, and twin son and daughter, 9 PREVIOUS JOB: Program manager for GTE Government Systems, now part of General Dynamics Corp. HOBBIES: Volleyball and reading PROFESSIONAL AND COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: Member, Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, American Association for Artificial Intelligence in Menlo Park, Calif.; advisory council member for Zanett Inc., a New York-based information technology firm specializing in homeland security and defense