Entrepreneur Finds His Niche At Q-Industries

Tim Neill is a guy who's been around the block a few times, but always called D.C. home.

Tim Neill heads D.C.-based tech firm Q-Industries. (Photo courtesy of Neill)

Neill is the president and CEO of Q-Industries, a Web site and software development firm. During his eight-year tenure with the firm, he has moved it within D.C. five times in the last four years. It last alighted at 13th and L Streets in Northwest.

The multiple moves were largely due to the company's stellar growth. From 2004 to 2007, both Q's staff and its revenues more than tripled, exceeding $5 million annually. With a six- to eight-month lag time between settling on a new commercial space and moving in, the new office was usually at capacity before the firm even arrived. Neill expects to stay in his new 12,400-square-foot space for at least five years, based on Q's projected growth.

"It got kind of crowded each time we had to move - people would push their chairs away from their desks and hit the person behind them," said Neill.

The company has seen 50 percent growth over the last two years "and that's our comfort level," said Neill, who added that it's too hard to grow faster than that and do it right. The firm had about 20 employees when Neill joined about a year after it was founded. That number dipped down to as few as 11 workers before jumping to its current level of 44.

D.C.-based Web developer Q-Industries' latest office. The company has moved five times in the last four years. (Photo courtesy of Q)

The accomplishments are a testament to a firm founded in 1999 on the cusp of the tech market meltdown. It held on and prospered for long enough that it was recognized as the 2008 Small Business of the Year by the D.C. Economic Partnership and the city government.

Economic Partnership President Steve Moore said Q was selected because of its "innovation and demonstrated growth potential."

Its client base runs the gamut from start-ups to Fortune 500 firms. Current customers include Pew Research, Marriott International, American Farm Bureau and Deepmile Networks.

"We believe small businesses are part of a city's heart and soul, so we're thrilled to be recognized in a city where it's easy to be overlooked," said Neill. "With half of our employees living here and over three quarters of our business coming from the metro area, D.C. flavors everything we do."

Well before Neill joined Q, he attended Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. That led him to become a teacher at a rural high school in South Africa where he had to be pulled out by a diplomatic team after he was arrested for what he said were "trumped up felony check-fraud charges."

He returned to the United States where he studied political science and anthropology, which led to studying Rastafarians in Cape Town. He decided academia was not for him and so moved to Colorado and started a landscaping business.

But Neill said he got tired of asking people in Colorado "What do you do?" and getting a response like "mountain biking." He missed the D.C.-ism where when someone asks you what you do, they're really asking where you work.

When he returned to the nation's capital, he founded Transparent Technologies, a start-up heavily involved in a huge technical project at public housing complex Edgewood Terrace. The project garnered attention and was featured by Microsoft in a national advertising campaign. Ironically, Neill shuttered Transparent in 1999 after the company received its first round of financing because "the way Microsoft licensed everything, we just couldn't figure out how to make money."

Neill eventually settled on Q, because, he said, "there was something about the personality of Q. It was totally unique. We started with nothing and we've been cash-flow financed. We work with our bank on our line of credit...There's just something about it that felt incredibly honest."

Neill sees his switch to the local Bank of Georgetown as a factor in Q's growth. "They give us phenomenal advice, service, guidance and help with growing and relocating," he said.

Q switched to the local bank after a bad experience with a large, global bank. "With Georgetown Bank I have access to anyone I want at any point in time. I can walk to the two branches near us and get recognized...When I'm thinking about expansion they're the first people that I call," Neill said.

In the landscaping business, Neill says, he learned to operate on single-digit margins, but surround himself with great people. He brought his landscaping philosophy to the business, maintaining a diverse client base and never overcharging customers.

Neill also has some sage advice. He's learned that not all client/vendor relationships work out but says, "we're committed to make sure none of our clients are left high and dry."

If Q cannot resolve a problem for a client within a couple of weeks, "we're not going to try and keep that client," he said. "Both sides have some accountability, but if a problem goes on and we feel like a client won't be happy we ask them to find another vendor."

He attributes some of Q's success to that landscaping know-how -- a balanced portfolio. "We haven't gotten rid of our association and nonprofit clients even though a lot of bigger firms did."

Asked about his strategy to grow the company, Neill quips: "The strategy was stay in business. We would talk to anybody and if it didn't fit we wouldn't take the project."

Neill is proud of Q-Industries' D.C. roots, but says the city can be frustratingly bureaucratic at times. After 11 months, the firm successfully got certification for being a local, small business in the District. Recently, that certification was "suddenly yanked," said Neill, who is still unsure why. He said it took the firm 15 minutes to get a similar certification in Virginia.

He's also placed "seven or eight" calls to the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to request an official certificate of occupancy for office space that the company has been leasing.

But he thinks that things are looking up for D.C. businesses with Mayor Adrian Fenty at the helm and the efforts of the Washington, D.C. Economic Partnership initiative.

"We're gearing to position Q to be a regional interactive player and in an ideal world take the company national," said Neill. "You don't think of many national [Web design and development] agencies based out of D.C., but we're proud of our D.C. roots and we're having fun thinking about putting D.C. on that map as well."

By Sharon McLoone |  August 12, 2008; 2:05 PM ET Profiles in Entrepreneurship
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