When most college students think about weekends, they think about relaxation, debauchery, or both. When S. Tien Wong thought about weekends, however, he saw opportunity.
A student at Dartmouth at the time, Tien quickly realized that there was high demand for food during the wee hours of the night, yet little supply. “That’s why I decided to start a Chinese food delivery business of my own,” he explains today. “Our hours were 11 am to 4 am, and we had a limited menu—egg rolls and pork fried rice. We’d buy it in bulk from a local Chinese restaurant, heat it up in toaster ovens in our dorm room when people placed orders, and then package it up and deliver.”
After starting the business and running it for about a year, he sold it to a fraternity brother and moved on to other ventures. Now, several decades and eight businesses later, Tien serves as the Chairman and CEO of Lore Systems, Inc. He’s found success across an array of industries and in a wide range of circumstances, yet one thing remains constant—that undying entrepreneurial spirit that was first realized in those college days.
Lore Systems is an enterprise network engineering company that specializes in providing enterprise architecture and cloud computing services, as well as the design, delivery, operation, and maintenance of complex networks and infrastructure, for federal customers, state and local governments, and small to mid-sized commercial businesses. Founded in 1995 by former Microsoft engineers, it was initially backed by Microsoft but soon underwent a series of metamorphoses that evolved it into a systems integrator with a core expertise in infrastructure service, setting itself apart as a leader in the up-and-coming cloud computing arena.
When Tien and his partners bought the company in 2008, however, it was quite a different entity from the Lore Systems we know today. Strictly a commercial shop and servicing hundreds of customers, it engaged in no government contracting whatsoever. Instead, it offered a wide range of services with little specialization—something that put up a major red flag for Tien when an investment banker first presented him with the opportunity to purchase the enterprise. Upon further reflection, however, Tien was able to intuit that there was much more potential in Lore Systems than first met the eye.
“There are riches in niches,” he explains today. “I was impressed by the company’s tremendous engineering capability and tradition, and especially by the cloud computing and Infrastructure as a Service components, which I felt were the wave of the future. I also saw tremendous opportunity in the fact that it had done no federal government work. I knew the government was looking toward consolidating data centers and migrating to the cloud, and I felt Lore Systems was a perfect platform with which to enter that market.”
With this in mind, Tien and his partners decided to take a chance on Lore Systems. Under its new leadership, however, the company would stop offering such a wide range of menu options, so to speak, and instead focus on only one cuisine. “We basically reengineered the company,” Tien reports. “We shut down a lot of offices and focused on becoming the world’s leader in enterprise architecture, data center consolidation consulting, and application migration. Today, we’re excelling in that area and are focusing mainly on the US Army and on the Department of Defense, though the commercial sector is still very important for us.”
Through that initial pivot process, Tien originally served as Chairman and focused on mergers and acquisitions. He had the backing of a large financial institution that provided a lavish checkbook with which to fund such endeavors until the recession hit in the latter part of 2008. That investor, a multi-billion dollar company, went out of business, and Tien quickly realized that the M&A strategy they had originally envisioned had turned into a dead-end road. Noting the global lack of confidence in the market, he shifted his sights to the government market that had attracted him to Lore Systems from the beginning. “I knew that the government was the lender of last resort, the buyer of last resort, and the customer of last resort,” he explains. “Thus, we immediately set our sights on the federal landscape. I jumped in to run the day-to-day operations of the business as CEO, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
As a result of Tien’s flexibility, foresight, and swift willingness to dive into the fray, Lore Systems has gone from having almost no recurring revenue to nearly 100 percent recurring revenue. After jettisoning six or seven superfluous product lines and retooling their sales process, delivery capability, and overall strategy, Tien and his team now focus solely on enterprise network engineering and recurring cloud computing and other consulting revenue, earning themselves recognition as among the top firms in the field.
Tien’s capacity to recognize potential and intuit future possibilities is not only limited to business scenarios. In fact, he credits his ability to apply these skills to character judgment as playing a crucial role in his success. “I’ve had decent success at finding and sizing people up, leading people, and building teams,” he points out. “Communication and leadership are two things I do pretty well.”
These were skills sown into the fabric of Tien’s character from his earliest years as he observed his parents pursuing their own entrepreneurial ventures. His father had immigrated from China and ran and operated three Chinese restaurants in New Jersey; his mother had immigrated from Malaysia and opened up her own travel agency. Young Tien worked in his father’s restaurants on weekends between the ages of ten and eighteen, and he developed a strong work ethic, as well as an understanding of how to keep one’s customers happy. With this knowledge, he opened three businesses of his own throughout his college years at Dartmouth, selling custom printed painter hats and exam survival kits in addition to his Chinese food service, the former of which grossed a remarkable $70 thousand a year in revenue.
In his early college years, Tien had flirted with the possibility of becoming a doctor or a lawyer. After the experience of starting and running his own businesses, however, he knew he was destined for entrepreneurship and that he’d one day have his own company. Immediately upon graduation, he partnered with a Dartmouth tennis teammate to run a company that sold Men of the Ivy League calendars to the tune of $100 thousand in annual revenues. Tien was a minority partner in that business for a year before coming to DC to accept a position in commercial real estate with CB Richard Ellis, which he saw as a tremendous educational opportunity.
In this capacity, he accrued extensive knowledge of commercial mortgage finance during his four years there before opening the DC office for another mortgage company owned by a Philadelphia bank for one year. Along the way, he and a friend purchased a specialty newsletter company (employee benefits for nonprofits), which they sold for a nice profit five years later. Tien also worked for a real estate syndicator and handled hotel acquisitions for them while simultaneously starting his seventh business, a call center company based in McLean, VA called CyberRep, Inc.
As CyberRep experienced some early success, Tien left his real estate job to work full time on the venture. “I wasn’t looking to do anything big,” he explains. “I just wanted to have something interesting to do and to make money with people I enjoyed being involved with. The defining moment for me was when my son was born, which made me realize that I had to provide for my family. It was a feeling of necessity, rather than a feeling of enlightenment, that compelled me to quit my real estate job and pursue CyberRep full-time.”
CyberRep grew over the following 12 years to become the third largest privately owned call center company in the US, with over $80 million in revenue, 2,200 employees, and nine locations in six states. Tien then sold the company to Affiliated Computer Services, a Fortune 500 company, in 2003. Today, CyberRep/ACS is one of the largest call center operations in the world, as a $1.5 billion unit of Xerox. After selling CyberRep, Tien decided to set up a private investment business, which he dubbed Opus 8.
Through the extent of his complex, tiered, and winding career path, Tien’s journey has been defined by mentorship opportunities—by those lessons his friends have taught him, and by the lessons he’s been able to impart to others. One mentor, for instance, hit home the value of face-to-face communication. Another pinned down the importance of record keeping; another, the value of a service mentality. Some lessons were as straightforward as the adage “fish or cut bait,” while others were more indirect, like the art and science of knowing people and gaining an awareness of what motivates them.
“Beyond all these, and among the most important lessons I learned, is that honesty and transparency are critical to building a high performance team,” he remarks today. “A lot of people don’t agree with that, but I think that if you’re straight and transparent with people, they’ll appreciate it more and give you more. You have to lead by example and acknowledge that people are driven by different things. Because of that, you have to know your people, so spend time talking to them and figuring out what makes them tick.”
Today, Tien passes these lessons forward by volunteering his time and knowledge toward the furthering of local entrepreneurship throughout the DC metro area. He serves on the boards of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, where he works with faculty and mentors MBA students; FounderCorps, a nonprofit mentoring group of 90 CEOs that have founded businesses throughout the region; the Technology Council of Maryland; and others. He’s also a Maryland Venture Fund Authority appointee, and a Co-Founder of Startup Maryland, which is part of the Startup America Partnership.
In offering advice to young entrepreneurs entering the business world today, Tien emphasizes the importance of integrity above all else. To him, it’s the foundation of interpersonal relationships, underpinning the free market economy and life at large. “There’s nothing more important than integrity, and keeping your promises and commitments,” he acknowledges. “Most of the people I do business with have the same level of integrity as I do, and I don’t deal with people who don’t. Always operate with integrity.”
Beyond this, Tien echoes the advice he has accumulated throughout his career from family, friends, and mentors alike. “Look out for your customer,” he urges. “Remember that your team is everything. Build a great team, because you can’t win by yourself. And life is short, so have fun!” Whether you’re trucking late-night sustenance to dorm rooms or building the leading provider of data center consulting services to the Department of Defense, growth and fun are what it’s all about.