Can Do: Essential Business Lessons with Arnie Sherman
Episode 18: Connection through communication with Will Schmautz
Teaser (Will Schmautz): We knew in our hearts it was viable, but the reality of it is that every business goes through periods of trial and periods of upside. And we have gone through plenty of the trial side — and we just had to keep not quitting.
Intro (Arnie Sherman):This is Can Do, a podcast that explores the essential lessons for business success, As the world continues to feel the effect of Coronavirus, uncertainty and unpredictability have become the status quo. There’s never been more important to learn from entrepreneurs and industry experts about their experiences, and to hear their advice. Whether you’re a business owner, or entrepreneur, or your career is affected by the current economic climate, lessons shared by our guests can help you make informed decisions about your future. I’m your host, Arne Sherman.
20 years ago, four enterprising Montana college friends working as professional river guides had the idea to modify the buses used to haul customers to accommodate firefighters during the fire season. Noticing the lack of modern communication capabilities in the fire camp and field operations, they began to brainstorm how state of the art communication could be implemented by emergency service personnel during disaster. In 2005, their fledgling company NOMAD Global Communication Solutions produced its first custom unit. In August of that year, it was deployed for use during Hurricane Katrina. By 2014 NOMAD was building 67 vehicles for the National Guard among many other customers. Today, more than 175 employees in Flathead Valley, Montana build 10 types of vehicles for uses as diverse as mobile mammography and tank training for the army.
Joining us today on Can Do is one of those four founders, CEO Will Schmautz. Will is going to share how an idea amongst friends went to one of the most dynamic and forward-focused technology manufacturers in the state.
Support for this episode of Can Do is provided by the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, dedicated to investing in people to improve the quality of their lives. Additional support comes from the Greater Montana Foundation, encouraging communication on issues, trends and values of importance to Montanans. And Parsons Behle and Latimer, a regional law firm with national experience, representing the interests of Montana entrepreneurs and businesses. More information at parsonsbailey.com.
Arnie Sherman: Will, welcome to the show today. It’s a pleasure having you with me.
Will Schmautz: Thanks for having me.
AS: Where are you joining us from today?
WS: Actually, the Salt Lake City Airport. I got lucky, they’ve got these little phone booths in the ground room.
AS: Well, that’s good, we won’t make this too painful for you. So you’ve been involved in a 20 year labor of love building NOMAD from, you know, from an idea among four college friends into a large dynamic company, employing, going to be close to 200 people in the near future. So tell us a little bit about the history and how it came to be.
WS: You know, it’s kind of amazing to think that we’re 20 years into this. When we hit September this year, that’s actually when we’re going to celebrate our formal 20 year anniversary. We, as you indicated, right, we started, you know, back in the early 2000s, we had this opportune moment where we had been exposed to some, what felt like gaps inside incident management inside the wildland fire industry. It was absolutely stunning to myself and my co-founders that these remote operations had so many capabilities, and yet, were really limited in the amount of kind of communication and connectivity technologies that they could bring to bear.
My background was basically in IT administration as a work study job in college when I did my undergraduate and master’s degrees. And one of the things that I found when I went to work for the river company, and we basically started providing these buses to the fire operations, was that if we could figure out a way to mobilize communications, that was the direction that everything was going to go in the industry. I think we’re really fortunate to kind of see the need for mobilized connectivity and communications inside the defense space and the industry. Right now there’s a term that you’ll commonly hear called “at the edge.” And essentially the edge is that place, right where connectivity, communications, digital storage, essentially is limited. Our vision from day one on into today is essentially to extend that tactical edge. We found an opportunity to do that for the Forest Service, as I indicated. We, early on, begged, borrowed and stole enough money to build a prototype vehicle that was quickly adopted by the incident management system. And we actually, we believed at the time that the best business model to pursue is essentially a service model, almost command control communications as a service. Even today, I believe that that model is a strong one. But there really isn’t a strong methodology inside the federal government or the state government operation to fund it. And so we found that very quickly after our initial entry into the industry, that many people that we met inside those incident management teams started reaching out to us for, I don’t know that I liked the word “bespoke,” but essentially customized solutions for their particular industry requirements. And that started off in wildland fire quickly migrated into, you know, state and local public safety operations. And then, by 2006, 2007, we were heavily leveraged inside the federal space. And probably today, the majority of our work is actually in federal government.
AS: So when did you know that you had a viable business?
WS: Do we ever know?
AS: Well, assuming now, you have a lot of mouths to feed. So at some point, you made the decision. When did you know that what your ideas and your thoughts about what was needed in that space, you know, would be sustainable as a company?
WS: You know, I think that I actually, I heard somebody talking about this just a few days ago, this idea that, you know, when you’re in small business, and granted, we’re getting to be a, you know, a larger business, but when you’re kind of a small business operation, you’re never out of the woods. That the reality is that, you know, when we started in 2002, we had this fantastic idea that quickly showed itself to be flawed, when we discovered that the product as a service wasn’t really what the market needed. And so we pivoted, and then when we got to 2006, and we were essentially building or modifying products that other people built, and we found that the customer base was demanding a higher quality — better, faster products, we had to pivot again and become manufacturers. And in 2009, 2011, we found that those same products that we were building needed to be fully automated and control the software solution, we had to pivot again.
And, you know, 2014, we pivoted again, when we went into mobile skiff capabilities. And I think that the story is, you know, growth is not really the linear line, I think that we commonly see on graphs. Growth is a cycle, right? We push the envelope, we learn from our successes and our failures, we optimize what we did, and we repeat, and you just consistently and continue to do that day in and day out, that that day, when we’re finally there is probably the day when we’re not.
AS: Sure, exactly. You’re not pivoting, you’re doing sort of this circular dance, you know, over 20 years, sort of a spiral. You’re working for some serious clients, serious customers, I mean, U.S. federal government, states, police departments — how do you stay on top of the technology that they need, not just for now, but you know, by the time you build it and deploy it, how do you know that you’re going to be state of the art?
WS: You know, the federal government space especially is fascinating in that state of the art isn’t always the exact thing they want, right? They need something that is reliable and trusted, they don’t want to be on the very front end of that innovation curve, they want to be in the early adoption space. You know, I think our company has been very capable in deploying certain elements of our resources into really pushing again, the innovation and technology edge, and another part basically perfecting it. And we have a certain, you know, you’ve seen Moore’s Law of technology innovation, right, we have a certain part of our company and a certain group of customers that really want to push the, again, the tactical edge, push the innovation envelope.
And then we have another larger set of our customers that are interested in seeing the perfected version of that. And I think that in order for us to continue to be super effective in our space, we need to be able to do both of those things concurrently. We recently you know, just as kind of an interesting reality is that I started the business with three other guys. And the four of us, you know, worked side by side, literally in a small room together and we shared every idea all day long every day. Two years ago, we decided that in order for our company to continue to innovate at the rate we wanted to, we needed to stop you know, start up a side of the company that was pure innovation based. So we have an entity called ISG inside that is actually anchored and led by Seth Schmautz, who’s actually also my brother, but two out of the four of us basically Seth and Shane, are spearheading the innovation side while Clay and I basically continue to operate inside the main component of the business basically perfecting and developing that other side of our equation.
AS: So you’re based in the Flathead Valley, Montana. It’s not a technology hub, per se, can you find quality employees that want to come work for you?
WS: You know, I think that the Flathead Valley here in Montana is a fascinating place. It is absolutely chock full of closet businesses that you’d never expect. There are a lot of technology employees here, we have a really interesting business and that we’re kind of a, you know, a unique split between some, you know, fabrication, manufacturing style and employment opportunities, but also technology, software development, network engineering, and then professional services. Everybody right now, I think, is kind of aware of the problems that we’re struggling with in Montana. So many folks are flooding in from out of state that are able to remote work remotely. And it’s driving up, you know, the costs of housing and such inside the Flathead Valley. I think it’s something that we have to stay very closely abreast of as far as what those pressures are going to be, and how we can continue to grow our presence inside the Flathead. But the reality of it is, is that we have been super fortunate to be an interesting business here and that people, I think, like coming to work for us.
AS: You bring up the flood of people coming into Montana. So the bigger question is, how has the pandemic affected your company?
WS: You know, it’s, I think the pandemic has been hard for everyone. I actually think in many ways that even the hardness has been a benefit to us. You know, I think we worked really hard throughout the organization to find a balance to respect everyone’s views. I think that oftentimes, you know, strength, and relationship come through difficult times. I feel like our organization, again, kind of top to bottom, handled it reasonably well. And I think we actually came out with stronger bonds as far as organizational elements and people. Right? I also feel like, as an industry, you know, a lot of our customers had day jobs that were crisis management. Some of it, of course, was the pandemic. But other elements really were related to things that basically slowed way down during the pandemic, which allowed a lot of our customer base to focus on some of their longer term strategic plans. And a lot of their strategic planning involves our type of solutions. And so I think that we both gained, again, from the development of our kind of hard work together through that process, but also gains in that our customers were able to focus on our solution sets and further their procurement processes.
AS: So your solution sets now compared to 20 years ago, when you were converting river guide buses, you know, how has the market matured? What, you know, what are your products now?
WS: Well, I think what you said is very true, right, the products and solutions themselves have matured, the market has matured. When we started the company, it was shortly after 9/11. And what was taking place in the market, was there was a great demand for interoperable communications. People needed to be able to talk to each other. And they discovered if anybody’s read the 9/11 report — it’s a great book, an interesting book anyways — discovered that a lot of the public safety resources in the country were essentially investing in disparate communication technologies that while they could talk within their individual agency, they couldn’t talk to one another. And essentially, what’s happened over the last 20 years is that that gap, which was identified again, right after 9/11, it’s taken the last two decades to really start to close it, and for there to be kind of holistic approaches to connectivity and communications.
While it’s not completely fulfilled, it is much closer right? The industry and the market is essentially demanding the capability because they know how critical it is to talk to one another. So in some ways, our solution set is very similar to what we were doing in the first few years in that we were focused on finding ways to use IP based technologies, right, internet protocols, to connect people to other people. Today, that’s also the case but the bandwidth and the throughput, the amount of information traffic that we can move, is phenomenal. Right? The advent and the growth in satellite technologies and cellular technologies allows huge amounts of data to be moved, which allows stakeholders and public safety officials and military operations like a significantly improved amount of situational awareness tools. They have more information in order to make better decisions. You’re seeing right real time examples of what information availability can do in the Ukraine conflict right now. It is so relevant to what your real time information can do to a tactical operation.
AS: Will, is there a place on the planet where a NOMAD unit can’t be used?
WS: You know, it was interesting, we were talking about the tactical edge earlier today, there are a lot of really impressive efforts right now, essentially, to get rid of the edge, right? You know, Starlink, a lot of these satellite constellations that are going up right now that are designed to supplement anywhere current terrestrial or land based cellular networks aren’t there yet. Eventually, we are going to cover almost every square inch of the Earth. And then the edge I think, is actually going to be found in an extra terrestrial — right, off the earth environments — or is going to exist in those places that have, you know, some kind of infrastructure interruption, I don’t think that we’re ever going to see, you know, kind of disasters go away, whether it be solar flares, or hurricanes or tornadoes, those things will disrupt technology, and that’s where our solution sets will always be focused.
AS: I don’t want you to divulge any secrets. But is the technology submersible, I mean, 80% of the planet’s water. So you talk about terrestrial but what about non-terrestrial usage?
WS: Well, you know a lot of communication technologies rely on, you know, radio frequencies, which don’t necessarily penetrate, you know, high density mediums like water very well, like they do air. We actually are partnered with a fascinating group of companies, Intelligent Ways, and Signify, and a handful of others that are actually exploring using light in order to solve those problems. There’s a technology called LiFi, which is essentially internet over light rather than, you know, radio frequency that has a lot of promise. I think we’re going to see some just amazing improvements in underwater communication technologies in the coming years.
AS: I’m speaking with Will Schmautz, CEO of NOMAD Global Communication Solutions.
Support for this episode of Can Do is provided by Montana Rail Link, committed to safely delivering transportation solutions to its customers and partners. Additional support comes from the Greater Montana Foundation, encouraging communication on issues, trends and values of importance to Montanans. And Parsons Behle and Latimer, a regional law firm with national experience, representing the interests of Montana entrepreneurs and businesses. More information at parsonsbehle.com.
So for our listeners who are trying to visualize how this all sort of works, can you sort of give us a generic example of, of one of your units being put into a fire or a disaster situation that’s, you know, isolated? And, how does it you know, become mobile and operational?
WS: You know, the way that that, you’re kind of referencing a little bit of our public safety business. And so where the public safety need arises is where there’s some form of event that either disrupts connectivity in that particular area, or maybe needs to be augmented and private and secure. And so you know, one example, you know, after the hurricanes that really just made a total mess of New York and the East Coast a few years yet, but the Corps of Engineers is and was a large customer of ours at the time. And they would deploy these mobile operation centers, these connected mobile operation centers, to the location where there was no cell connectivity. There was no terrestrial connectivity. And these vehicles and cells would establish internet connections over the satellite and then their teams of logistics officers would come in and they actually had a fascinating piece on how they de-watered New York. They literally came in and they are responsible for the dewatering, I think they operated for 60 days, 24/7 nonstop, dewatering the city.
AS: So that’s a public safety application. What are some of the other general categories of applications for NOMAD vehicles?
WS: You know, we do a fair little bit of business inside the defense space, both with the National Guard, they have a similar, you know, kind of crisis response mission. We also are doing more and more work with the Air Force in the army on 5G deployments. So they also have, you know, drive to make sure that their forces can remain connected to one another. There’s a big push in the market right now around keeping soldiers, right, connected, in that the soldier of the future is going to be highly sensored. And all of those sensors are still going to need some methodology to connect back to the, you know, the databases that are going to make sense of all of that data. And that’s going to include everything from you know, levels of ammunition to, you know, heart rates and oxygenation of the blood. I mean, the future is really going to be interesting in that space.
We’re currently working with a customer in the Air Force that one of their big programs is, it’s called Crowdsource, but it essentially is, how do we quickly reconfigure and learn from all this sensor data that are in aircrafts are carrying? How do we bring that in, and then make sense of the data, and then reconfigure the aircraft to fly more effectively. And that includes, you know, stuff that’s happening in Europe, I’m sure right now. But each of those aircraft that are flying along the borders of what’s taking place are collecting huge volumes of data from the radars, right of, of the enemy aircraft, that happen to be operating in the area to their ground radar systems to the performance of the drones and UAVs in the space, they can bring that back and they start to process it. And they’re literally picking up petabytes of data. And the current process is to bring that data in, send it off to some analytics labs, it gets processed and gets pushed back so that they can then reconfigure the planes themselves to be more effective. The hope now is to basically bring the mobile asset with the ability to analyze all of that data to, essentially to the tarmacs and as the aircraft come in, then we can pick up all that data off the aircraft that can be processed very quickly, and rather than days or, or longer, to essentially improve our ability to fight, we can do it in hours or if not minutes.
AS: So you already mentioned earlier that many of your clients customers want not necessarily the most cutting edge, they want something reliable, something that has redundancy to it, something that’s proven. But you’re in a variety of areas, and besides responding to a customer by saying, “Sure, we can do that,” how do you do that? How do you learn about all of these different applications? And have confidence that what you’re, you know, offering to customer is, you know, that you’re capable of delivering it? Because they’re so diverse in their utilization and application.
WS: Yeah, no, that’s a very interesting question and doesn’t have a super simple answer. You know, there’s this reality that somebody mentioned the other day is that businesses like ours are always in search of two things, you know, at the same time. One is credibility. And the other one is visibility. You know, and if you have credibility without visibility, your potential customers don’t know about you. If you have visibility without credibility, you’re going to fail in your mission. And so we try very, very hard to make sure that the solutions we bring to market, especially in that early adoption space are credible, right? We’ve proved them out. We’re very fortunate, again, that some, there are mechanisms inside the both of the government space as well as in some of the private industry space, that allow us to explore and develop and innovate together, you know, with both parties understanding that, right, the the out in the end game is not fully sure. But we always go in with a good strategy.
I also feel like, and I’m sure I can’t remember where this statement comes from. But this idea that the companies and the people and the countries that learn the fastest right are the ones that will win. I think that we have an amazing group of very curious people. Our team is curious and in general, humble and interested in learning from every resource available to us. You know, I love the idea, the definition that creativity is essentially bringing two seemingly unrelated things together and solving a problem with it. And so we have a team of folks that are always out, right, learning from our customers. We have customers across the board that have so much experience and what we can learn from those folks and then bring back together to essentially help future customers understand our core capabilities. So far it has worked really well for us, but I think that that kind of focus on being curious Learning is the thing that’s allowed us to be successful so far.
AS: Must be very satisfying to create something that actually never existed before and see it and see it be deployed and work. I mean that, you know, in many business situations, you don’t get that great sense of satisfaction that you might have, as you’re working with a new customer and developing, you know, jointly with them a new application, and then it gets applied. And it works. Must be a great sense of satisfaction.
WS: You know, when I was growing up, I spent a lot of time on my extended family’s farm. And one of my very favorite things to do was to bale hay, right, rake hay, bale hay, because you could see what you did at the end of the day. And that’s such a neat thing about what we do is we have a physical product that does physical things, and we get to see it at the end of the day. It is, as you indicated, incredibly fulfilling.
AS: One of the things you mentioned a few minutes ago was about the visibility of your company, how do your customers find out about you?
WS: It’s funny, we used to joke back in — we started in 2002 — and we used to joke that it must be like, you know, God’s Google because we put a kind of a terrible initial website up and people just started calling. How they found us, I have absolutely no idea. Today, you know, we probably, we have an amazing individual guy named Mike Hahn, actually based out of Helena, Montana, who has worked for us for years, and basically heads up our digital marketing approach. And we have a tremendous amount of visibility in that manner. But the credibility has really come from our past customer experiences, these different divisions of the market really are fairly tight knit, and word of mouth is huge. So they hear of us, usually word of mouth, and then when they’re searching for solutions surrounding that problem set, I think our digital marketing and our presence, you know, in market shows and, and other elements really are what help people find us.
AS: So looking back on the 20 years, is there anything you would do differently? You know, as you review the swirling dervish of the company during that period of time?
WS: You know, that’s another tough question. In some ways, you’d say I do everything different, you know, and knowing what we know, today, and other ways, it’s, you know, there’s no way to replace experience. And so some of the really tough things that we went through at different times have helped us be the company we are today, our company was bootstrapped from day one, you know, we’ve never taken any venture funding. One of the things that’s been kind of fantastic about being in Flathead Valley here in Montana, is that we were a relatively interesting fish, right, in the pond. Maybe if we had been somewhere else, with so many other things going on in big cities, big communities, maybe we wouldn’t have gotten any attention. But we were really adopted early on by everything from the banking institutions in the valley to some of the small manufacturers and helped us learn quickly. And so I think that while some of our early growth was slower, because we didn’t have a tremendous amount of, you know, financial wherewithal, I do think it helped us learn to be frugal and careful and really focused on what we’re trying to accomplish.
You know, if you were to go back to the very, very beginning, I, we used to, my three partners and I, we would meet at Montana, Wheat Montana is what was called, and we would, we ate breakfast there because it cost three bucks. But we had a lot of negotiations around what our mission and vision was for our organization. And we knew what we wanted to achieve. We wanted to achieve the outcome that our customers would always remain operational and connected at all times. Anyplace. What we struggled with is we cared enough about the solution set that we bring to the table that we argued over whether, how important profit was essentially. And if there was any one truism that I think I would take backwards is this idea that profit is absolutely critical. If you are not profitable, you cannot reinvest in your organization and your people and your capabilities. And so while we always want to be fair with our, with our customers, we also want to make sure that we’re fair and driving profits so that our company can grow and develop. I mean, it’s just such an important piece of the puzzle.
AS: So can you share with our listeners, one of the more interesting or unusual deployments of NOMAD that you’ve had over these years? Maybe there’s more than one that you’d like to share, but at least at least one that would that stands out to you.
WS: You know, man, there are so many interesting things that we’re doing right now. As I mentioned, the current product we’re working with the Air Force is a really fascinating one in that we had to take a tremendous amount of technologies and put it into a very small form factor. Essentially, what we had to do is take the ability for this data to be processed inside a secure facility. They’re called skiffs. And that skiff right generally is a building, we had to take the skiff and make it mobile, that mobile skiff had to fit on a C 130, which is the most common aircraft inside the Air Force, transport aircraft. But it’s also the smallest, it’s very small, and you have to really shrink down your form factor in order to fit. Along with that, right, the need to operate silently was a critical component of the puzzle. And we needed to be able to have absolutely sure, power redundancy. So we had to develop a hybridization approach. And so we took a base product, which was called a tactical communications vehicle at TCV. It’s like an ecosystem product for us. And we had to take that and we had to customize it to be skiff rated, to be fully hybridized, to fit on a C 130. And to be able to be operated by relatively untrained team members, right, that might have the requirement to get it where it needs to go. And so I think that’s probably one of the most interesting applications of lots of technology that we have brought to the table.
We have a lot of work going on inside the kind of telecommunications world and utility world, we basically have been kind of on the forefront of developing new what they call “cell on wheel” technology. So the deployment of new 5G networks or replacement 5G networks using mobilized systems, we’ve been involved with supplying very specialized power routing systems in order to route utility power after a disaster that have taken some really unique solution sets from us. And then really, I think, one of the things that that we talk a lot about inside NOMAD is is the need to take all of these individual products and give the stakeholders, right, give the users real time information on the health and status of those systems at any given time, so that it can manage their fleets and assure that they can continue to operate reliably. Back in 2009, we actually started a side of the businesses and software development to develop vehicle control and management systems, we consider it part of the DNA of every one of our vehicles, right, these connected mobile operation centers with, with our management software baked into to every single one of them so that our customer base can be absolutely assured that they’re going to work every time they go out.
AS: So last question, Will. What advice is a former river guide, do you have for current river guides or aspiring entrepreneurs? You know, based on your 20 year journey, what kind of advice as people are looking to maybe change careers? Or they’re looking to launch something from scratch and feel overwhelmed by it? You know, you have 20 years of going through that, what do you say to them?
WS: You know, it’s like you set me up for the question I wanted to answer. This is not my answer. Somebody else said this, and I don’t, I wish I could tell you who it was exactly. But I’ll paraphrase by saying, you know, in order to really, I think create something special, you have to have the courage to start, one. And two, you have to just keep not quitting. And I love that concept, right is that every you know, every day, every week, every month, every year, all the way back to what you said at the beginning, you know, when did we know that it was viable? We knew in our hearts it was viable, but the reality of it is that every business goes through periods of trial and periods of upside. And we have gone through plenty of the trial side and we just had to keep not quitting. And I think that you know, our, my personality, our company’s personality, is very hopeful as a general statement, and that you just keep not quitting.
AS: Will you still have the same enthusiasm I think that you had when you started the company. It’s been great talking to you and I look forward for a bright future for you guys. Thanks for joining me today.
WS: Thanks Arnie. Really appreciate it.
AS: I appreciate your listening to Can Do, produced by Lena back in association with Montana Public Radio. For comments, recommendations for future guests, or general information, please go to MTPR.org. You’ll find previous guests’ contact information and content from all our shows. Listen next time when I’ll be speaking with Heather Foster, CEO of the Missoula Family YMCA, the largest daycare provider in the state of Montana. I’m Arnie Sherman. Wishing you good health and prosperity.