Twenty years ago, Bryan Laird’s honors English class wrote out the dreams they hoped to achieve by age thirty and buried them in a time capsule. Most young students typically dream of becoming firefighters or doctors, but Bryan scripted out a different plan. “I wanted to be the head of research and development at AT&T with two children and a wife,” he laughs today. Now the President of MBL Technologies (MBL), a company providing cyber security, privacy and project management consulting services to the civil sector of the federal government, things didn’t go exactly as he planned, but that’s a good thing.
“The really compelling aspect of my upbringing was that my parents never put any pressure on me or tried to influence me in a certain direction,” he explains. “My father happened to introduce me to technology early in my life, and this touched an inherent aptitude in me that I was free to pursue through my development.” The real game-changer, though, came when Bryan listened to that entrepreneurial voice within, making the decision to leap when he co-founded MBL.
MBL was launched in January of 2007 and has since provided invaluable security services to federal clients like the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare. It offers a broad range of services that include project management, vulnerability scanning, privacy protection, creation of policy, and training. The MBL team also performs some commercial work, primarily around small to mid-sized consulting firms who handle government data. Like the federal government, these contractors work with very sensitive medical and financial information and consequently must comply with a complex set of rules, regulations, and legislation. MBL helps them navigate this web.
Bryan left Booz Allen and Hamilton back in August of 2007 to accept his first subcontract with the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a component of the Department of Health and Human Services. His business partner, Matthew Buchert, kept his normal job and worked for MBL on nights and weekends, while Bryan would provide services for the client during the day. The partnership was complementary: Matt had access to start up capital, an advantageous status as a service-disabled veteran, and a savvy business intuition, while Bryan had the relationships in the market as well as the knowledge on how to deliver in that space. Both worked day and night, seven days a week, to further the growth and improvement of the company. Thus marked the fledgling stages of MBL, in which the company’s first several subcontracts were acquired through preexisting connections to clients in the industry. These experiences with subcontracts then gave Bryan and Matt some past performance and qualifiers that lent them a competitive advantage going forward, allowing them to win their first prime contracts.
As the company’s momentum escalated, they hired two additional employees in 2007 and a third the following spring. These “early adaptors” held a strong belief in MBL and displayed true courage in leaving established companies for a start up. As it turns out, two of these individuals, Danielle Shostal and Ryan Tappis, are still in place at MBL today as its top leaders. Another, Erich Schadle, continues to provide expert consulting services to a mix of MBL federal and commercial clients. Bryan freely admits that MBL would not be where it is today without the support of these impressive team members.
Hiring was then placed on hold for a while as they went through the contract re-compete process. After several years’ worth of strategic maneuvering, they then won two considerable prime contracts in September of 2009 that represented a combined $50 million in revenue over five years, allowing them to increase their team to 25. Today, MBL has around 30 employees and additional contracts doing work for the Department of Veterans Affairs, the US Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and Bryan and his team have positioned themselves to win multiple new contracts going forward.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, however, and after a promising new team member had to leave MBL earlier this year, Bryan realized that the vessel’s rudder seemed to be off. “I had my doubts that I wanted to be in the business at that point and I realized that, in many ways, I was setting the tone for the company’s morale,” he remarks. “I wasn’t personally set on the goal of growing the company, and that attitude itself was affecting our capacity for growth. That’s when Matt and I met to discuss MBL’s future, and we decided we wanted to take the company to the next level instead of abandoning ship. So we changed our tone, regrouped, and started over again. We decided not to give up, and that change of attitude has really reenergized us.”
This mind over matter mentality hearkens to an attitude and work ethic that has been evolving in Bryan since the earliest days of his childhood growing up in a small town in eastern Texas. His father was a computer programmer for a weather research facility, and his mother worked for State Farm as an administrative assistant. They both modeled a tremendous work ethic for Bryan and his younger sister that has fueled his professional pursuits ever since. They also furnished their children with opportunity, encouraging them to focus on their studies. School was always to be the Laird children’s first priority.
In the summers of his youth, Bryan enjoyed doing yard work to earn extra spending money and would also run a makeshift candy shop at school. He would purchase bulk candy from Walmart, take it to school, and sell it by the piece at a reasonable markup. “I made quite a bit of money doing that until the principal decided it was a distraction and shut me down,” he laughs. “I think I made a couple hundred dollars over the course of a school year doing that. It’s kind of an example of how our system doesn’t necessarily encourage creativity and entrepreneurship, and that’s something to think about.”
Beyond a commitment to academics that ultimately earned him the title of valedictorian upon graduation, Bryan was also a prominent member of his high school’s football team, and the experience provided a solid foundation for the dogged determination he would exhibit later on in life. His linebacker coach was tough as nails, and he instilled in Bryan the mentality that he could get through anything, no matter what it was or how seemingly skewed the odds were. Many of the players Bryan had to tackle were a lot bigger and stronger than him, but this didn’t matter. “In many situations, I found that the mental piece is more important than the physical piece,” he said. “Again, it’s a situation of mind over matter.”
As a strong student and athlete, Bryan felt a natural draw toward the Naval Academy and received an appointment there upon graduation from high school. He was competitive by nature and housed a strong sense of confidence that had been honed by his experience in sports throughout grade school, yet his four years at the academy broadened the scope of his physical and academic horizons extensively. “They do a good job of breaking you down and rebuilding you with a new sense of confidence that most people don’t typically have access to,” he explains. “One of the best things to come out of my experience there, and my experience with service in general, was a comfort in leading people who might be better than I was in many respects.”
After the Naval Academy, Bryan then fulfilled his duties with the Marine Corps, which he recalls as an instant band-of-brothers experience. He did five years of active duty and then stayed on inactive reserve for a time after assuming a position at a company called KPMG, followed by seven years at Booz Allen. Those seven years marked a time of mentorship, learning, teamwork, and professional development that would prepare him mentally and strategically for his leap into entrepreneurship in 2007. “When I first joined Booz Allen, it was significantly smaller than it is now, and there was a strong family feeling,” he remembers. “In fact, I showed up on my first day of work with a black eye I had gotten in a rugby game the weekend before—something my colleagues joked with me about for years to come. In addition to the friendly atmosphere, the company really taught me how to consult in a manner that was good for the customer. I also picked up invaluable skills regarding running a business unit, how to deliver quality products, and how to build a good team.”
Among the most influential figures Bryan met during his time on that team was a woman named Terri Hall, who operates entirely upon intuition and is a phenomenal leader as a result. “She just knows what to do in most cases, and we formed a strong partnership early on while working on a Health and Human Services contract,” he reflects. “She has amazing energy and would stir things up as a change agent, and I would then come in as the structure guy who would let the dust settle and allow things to progress.” When he asked Terri what she thought about him starting his own company, she was very supportive and immediately gave him a magnet that said “Jump and the net will appear.” That’s exactly what he did when he left to launch MBL, and the net did in fact materialize.
As this net continues to solidify into a firm foundation and MBL moves beyond its fledgling five years into a prominent force in Washington’s cyber security sector, Bryan acknowledges that the company’s history has only just begun to unfurl. “We’ve done well so far, and I certainly count my blessings,” he acknowledges. “This gives me confidence for the many hurdles that are undoubtedly left to clear.”
In advising young entrepreneurs entering the business world today, Bryan begins by emphasizing the importance of really digging in and getting one’s hands dirty. “Just because school taught you that things should go one way, reality doesn’t always necessarily allow things to happen that way, so you have to stay flexible in your thinking and approach,” he encourages. “In doing so, it’s important to take every opportunity to learn.” This approach is what took Bryan’s mindset during his senior year of high school envisioning himself as an AT&T employee, and transformed it time and time again as he navigated through his experiences at the Naval Academy, the Marine Corps, and in a professional environment that ultimately allowed his leadership skills and entrepreneurial talents to be fully expressed. What’s to come in the next twenty years? Experience suggests that whatever can be imagined today can’t really do justice to where the road will actually lead, so don’t be afraid to take that leap and find out what kind of net will appear.