CEO, CIRRITY | MARIETTA, GEORGIA
Steve Vicinanza has been a serial entrepreneur in information technology services for over 20 years, during which time he founded multiple IT companies, including Carnegie Technologies, a software engineering and IT strategy consulting firm; BlueWave Computing, a managed services provider; and Cirrity, a cloud services company.
Before Carnegie Technologies, Vicinanza worked at a startup software company in Boston where he developed software for the entry, storage and analysis of multidimensional econometric data using techniques such as Monte Carlo simulations, time-series analysis and multiple regressions; he later served as director of advanced technologies for Electronic Data Systems, where he promoted the use of leading-edge technologies within the organization.
Vicinanza earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Cornell University and a master’s in computer science from Binghamton University (where his wife earned her bachelor’s in math and computer science), before completing his doctoral studies at Carnegie Mellon.
In 1997, he founded BlueWave Computing to bring professionally run managed IT services to Atlanta-area businesses. In 2015, BlueWave was acquired by a private equity firm and is now known nationally as Onepath. In 2013, Vicinanza launched Cirrity — the name being a combination of “cirrus” and “security” — to provide secure cloud services.
What is your elevator pitch?
Cirrity provides highly secure cloud services to companies around the globe. We offer infrastructure services their users can access via the internet and where we store their data and systems, enabling them to work remotely. We also do disaster recovery and backup, so if a disaster happens, we can spin them up and run their applications from our servers. This kind of service is critical in regulated industries like health care and financial services. It’s actually a legislative requirement in some cases, such as with HIPAA, to have a secure operating platform and disaster recovery plan.
Pivotal players who get included in the thank-you speech?
There wouldn’t be a Cirrity without a Dan. In 1999, I hired an intern out of Georgia Tech — Dan Timko. Brilliant kid. He worked his way up at BlueWave. He went back to Georgia Tech to get his master’s degree in information security, and BlueWave paid for his degree — we didn’t want to lose him. He was instrumental in getting BlueWave into cloud services. We started offering it to our customers, and eventually spun that out into Cirrity in 2013. Dan became a partner in the business, and we’ve been very successful together.
What key piece of information gets overlooked when getting started?
The time commitment. You have to be all in when you’re starting a business. It’s a big sacrifice, personally. You have to give up things you like doing to push things forward. When you are an entrepreneur, normal business hours are for running the business; nights and weekends are for getting ahead.
My wife, Cheryl, was great. For many years, she held up more than her share of the bargain. We have two kids, and she did a lot of the work, especially when they were younger. The first three, four, five years are brutal for entrepreneurs. I know a lot of people whose marriages didn’t survive. I think people don’t realize the commitment you have to make and the sacrifice it takes.
The Ph.D. program was good preparation for that. If you can get through a Ph.D. program and stay married, you’re making it. Quite a few people I knew were married when they started the program and weren’t when they finished. They might have even mentioned that in the brochure!
What were your pivotal moments?
Selling BlueWave was a major milestone. We had a very good offer from one of our largest competitors based out of Japan, who had a subsidiary company providing services in the United States. I almost sold the company to them. I went to the management and said, “Look, here’s the challenge. Can we double or triple our revenue with a few more years?” They said yes. That set the bar, and we did it. We tripled the value of the company.
It wasn’t until a few years later, in 2015, that we went to Oppenheimer Investment Banking to start the sale process. They ran a process which solicited a number of good offers, and I sold the company on my terms instead of taking the first unsolicited offer. It’s always a tricky thing to figure out when to do that. The markets had improved following the recession, and there was lots of private equity around. At the time, we were the 55th-largest managed service provider in the country and had been on Inc.’s list of the 5,000 fastest-growing privately held companies in the world for eight consecutive years.
What skills did you have to learn to keep things moving?
I knew a lot about the technology and computers. I didn’t know a lot about hands-on management. I had to learn more about leadership, managing people and creating a corporate culture that fits the business and keeps people motivated and happy. People with a technical background usually don’t realize how much goes into that.
Engineers can be relative easy to work with. If they are happy with the work and have the tools they need to get the job done, they’re fine. But other types of people aren’t like that. Everyone is different. Engineers, accountants, sales executives, managers — they’re all different, and they have different expectations about what their work and work environment looks like. You have to have that sensitivity. Finding good people and keeping them happy is so important. In the IT industry, turnover is a big problem. When you lose someone good, costs go beyond just their salary: They have so much institutional knowledge that just goes out the window. But turnover was much lower than what is typical for the industry at the companies I ran and that was due to an intentional focus.
I’m really proud of the corporate cultures. We received several awards for the best workplace in Atlanta — both for BlueWave and Cirrity. People have to have a sense of belonging, that they have friends at work and that people care about them. One weekend, I came in to see the guys had set up a virtual reality perimeter in the café, and they were all roaming around in their headsets. It was a blast.
Why Carnegie Mellon?
Carnegie Mellon was the best place on the planet to combine my interests in software engineering, psychology and economics. Carnegie Mellon really had the faculty who were aligned with my interests: I had the honor of working with [the late professor and Nobel laureate] Herb Simon, who spanned those three interests quite nicely. The best thing about Carnegie Mellon is that disciplines don’t have borders. I really was able to craft a curriculum aligned to my interests and put all those things together. My dissertation actually was on applying artificial intelligence methods to solving problems with software engineering for economics.
How did the business school help shape your companies?
I picked the name Carnegie Technologies to highlight that name and connection. My credentials opened doors that would have been very difficult to get into otherwise. I was just a few years out of school and hired by CIOs of major Fortune 100 companies to advise their departments on how to implement advanced information technologies.
I learned a lot at GSIA about analytics and how to apply that to running a business. BlueWave grew from a small operation to more than 150 people. Most management service providers are 10 to 15 people. Very few ever reach a scale like we did. Having so many workers is beyond anyone’s ability to put their nose in everything. We had the best IT services company in Atlanta, if not the country. We did things no one else was doing. We were constantly improving. I attribute that to the way we managed the business and a lot of the principles and techniques that I learned at GSIA.
How about growth?
Cirrity’s growth has been phenomenal. The cloud services market is huge. We have had consistent year over year growth in top line revenue and profitability.
The biggest thing people underestimate is the difficulty of getting new sales. You can look at any business plan anyone has ever produced; when you pull it out three years later, it’s wildly optimistic about what sales are going to be. Sales pick up once you get the pump primed and figure out what you are selling and how you are going to sell it. Take a look at Apple: Going back into the ’90s, it was not a high-flying company; people thought they were done. The iPod changed the company. It’s a long path to discovering who you are as a company. There are significant struggles to developing a sales model.
What about the highs and lows?
One of the highs is creating jobs and opportunities for people. Being able to see people like Dan go through his career is a great reward. Some of the guys at Cirrity started with us at BlueWave in the ’90s. People have been working together over a lifetime. It’s great to mentor people and see them develop in their careers.
What’s the best advice you received?
My mom always said, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” That’s great advice that’s not often followed.