Denis McFarlane

A Good Example

“Make sure you play the game,” said Mr. McFarlane to his son.

A first-grader, Denis really had no idea what his father meant by that, although with time he would come to understand that it pertained to a way of life and not to a game per se.  It meant that he should play by the rules and ensure that the other people involved—whether they’re teachers, clients, or employees—are happy.  Now the CEO of Infinitive, a consulting firm based in the Washington, D.C. metro area, the mantra has served him well once he grew old enough to understand it, and it has become a foundational element in his character, his career, and his advice to others ever since.  “It’s about making sure people enjoy the experience of working together and the value of your service,” he explains.  “And it’s about being a good example for others.”

If you ask Denis today what many of America’s most successful entrepreneurs have in common, he would suggest that they probably worked a paper route in their youth.  The vocation of paperboy has changed significantly over the years, but in Denis’s day, the paperboys themselves purchased the neighborhood’s newspapers from the publisher and were then responsible for collecting the monthly dues from recipients.  “I’ll never forget how people would see that I was there to collect payment and literally turn off the light when I knocked on the door,” he remembers, bemused.  He even proposed a revised payment structure such that neighbors would advance-pay for their papers six months at a time, but nothing really eased the burden of the paperboy plight.

Perhaps such an obstacle serves as an early litmus test for good CEO material, as only those with the strongest inner entrepreneurial flames tough it out.  Indeed, it became clear that Denis’s was burning strong when, in college at the Catholic University, he started a mailbox installation business that taught him how to determine if an identified void in the marketplace is actually a need or just a neglect.  He then launched a cookie baking and delivery service called Big Dens, Big Cookies, which imparted some valuable lessons on marketing after he submitted mailings to the home addresses of the entire student body.  “I would make all the cookies from scratch,” Denis reminisces.  “I didn’t meet the sales I hoped to meet, and I understand now that a business model like that simply isn’t scalable, but in college you’re not thinking about those things.  I just liked making cookies!”

Denis credits the Big Dens, Big Cookies endeavor for landing him a position at Andersen Consulting, where he assumed employment after graduation.  Andersen soon became Accenture, an international consulting firm where he had the opportunity to acquire a wealth of expertise and to focus specifically on small company issues and services.  Denis had always wanted to start his own business, but it took him a while to build up the gumption to do it—twelve years at Accenture, to be exact.  He ultimately realized this dream in 2003 when he launched Infinitive.

After volunteering to leave his former position at Accenture, Denis acquired a six-month contract with a client that provided enough stability to get the ball rolling.  “All I had at the time was a business name and a computer,” he laughs now.  But, as they say, everyone has to start somewhere, and that’s exactly what Denis did.  Over those six months, he set about determining his marketing strategy, finalizing his product, signing more work, and hiring employees.

In hindsight, Denis feels as though he should have left Accenture after two years of employment to pursue his entrepreneurial ambitions, but such dramatic risk-taking is easier said than done.  “I see now that I didn’t need to know as much as I thought I needed to know to start the business,” he reflects.  “Still, I had so much to learn after I began.  It’s okay to not know everything before you start.  I postponed it for so long because I was waiting for the perfect thing or the perfect climate, when really, just jumping in was the most important thing.  Be pragmatic, but don’t over-think things.”

When Denis finally decided to take the plunge, he made the decision to do it alone, knowing full well that the stresses and strains of getting an enterprise up and running can devastate partnerships and ruin long-time friendships.  “I knew the risks, so I decided to do it on my own,” he reports.  “That said, it was very lonely, and it would have been great to have a partner.”

Within a year, the fledgling operation was up to ten employees. “It was scary, exciting, and fun,” Denis remembers. “I was certainly learning as I went along, but I was able to hire really good folks to help build out the business.”  And build out, they certainly did.  Within two years, he felt the operation was stable enough to recruit Phil Kyle, a colleague from Accenture, to join him. Phil was at a point in his own life where leaving Accenture made sense, and the two have been tremendous business partners ever since.

Through 2006 and 2007, Denis and Phil’s team grew to over 70 people as Infinitive enjoyed phenomenal growth.  Hoping to preserve the culture and utility of Infinitive as a local business providing service to the D.C. metro area while still stretching the brand’s horizons, they founded a number of sister companies as well that provide service throughout the country.  Infinitive Analytics offers web analytics services, helping clients to track a wide range of data on the web to effectively gauge the success of their sites, campaigns, homepages, and social media.  Infinitive Federal provides consulting services to the Federal marketplace, and their newest company, Infinitive Insight, provides risk management expertise, such as security, compliance, and audit readiness.

“The vast majority of security breaches and violations are insider,” Denis explains.  “The vast majority of errors are accidental.  Infinitive Insight will address concerns with how to prevent security and compliance risks in the face of ever-steepening penalties.”  Separating Infinitive, Infinitive Analytics, Infinitive Federal, and Infinitive Insight in this manner allows for more specific and targeted advertising: the CMO of an entity will be primarily interested in web analytics, whereas the CFO and CIO will be more concerned with risk management.  “We wanted to be able to steer these targeted niche businesses toward a specific buyer in an enterprise, focusing and personalizing each service in light of who we’re talking to,” Denis points out.

Today, Infinitive sells process engineering work, project management assistance, and other support services to Fortune 500 companies or other businesses looking to scale dramatically.  Across the four companies, the enterprise totals around 75 employees, and Denis strives to infuse the company culture with the elements of humor, collaboration, and fun that make his leadership philosophy so distinct.  “I want people to enjoy their time with us,” he explains.  “When company meetings are engaging and lively, our employees will be more invested, more interested, and will ultimately take more away from them.”

In reviewing Denis’s history and the eruption of entrepreneurial leaps that define the past decade of his life, one might characterize this shift after twelve years of relative calm as a transformation of his risk profile.  Denis, however, feels that risk actually has very little to do with it.  “We believe there’s an opportunity here,” he says.  “Entrepreneurs generally feel that starting a business is easier than going to Vegas and putting money down on a bet.  We have great people, there’s a market for our product, and we know how to start and run a consulting firm.  I’m very confident that things will be successful.“

Despite this confidence, however, Denis remains focused and driven by a certain element of fear—the fear of letting others down.  “You’re a leader, and the other kids will listen to you,” his father had told him when he was young.  “If you’re behaving and doing the drills, the other kids will, too.  You have the ability to set an example, so make it a good one.”  When he served as captain of the football team in eighth grade, he didn’t want to let his teammates down.  Now, as the CEO of Infinitive, he doesn’t want to let down the employees who entrust him to make the right decisions, leading the enterprise to success.  And as always and in all aspects of life, he doesn’t want to let down his parents, wife, or children.  “Everyone’s watching, and that’s what drives me,” Denis affirms.

In advising young entrepreneurs entering the business world today, Denis echoes the wisdom his own father imparted to him all those years ago.  “Play the game,” he says.  “Don’t go in there acting like you know everything, because in the vast majority of cases, your predecessors know much more.  If someone has ten years of experience, they’re an expert.”  Socrates is famous for recognizing that true wisdom lies in acknowledging what one does not know, and Denis stresses this tenet as a gateway for learning and respect in both academia and the workplace.  “It’s one thing to be confident, but it’s another thing to be a know-it-all,” he continues.  “Employers want someone who’s confident enough to say they’re not sure but they’re anxious to learn.”

Anxious to learn.  Anxious to provide a service, to fill a void, and to operate with integrity and focus.  This is how Denis himself strives to be, and it has certainly served him well.  “I remember a friend reporting the statistic to me that 80 percent of businesses fail within the first five years,” he says.  “Of that remaining 20 percent, 80 percent fail within the following five years, and of that remaining 20 percent, another 80 percent fail in the five years following that.”  Regardless of the absolute accuracy of those statistics, they continue to motivate Denis to this day.  “Nothing is guaranteed, and it’s not easy,” he says.  “That’s why our team has committed to never becoming complacent.  We are and will continue to be that good example.”

Denis McFarlane

Gordon J Bernhardt


President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area. Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money.

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