In God we trust, all others must bring data.W. Edwards Deming, American statistician and educator, 1928
Data. It isn’t the sexiest word and it causes many people to think of long-forgotten high school statistics classes and teachers who talked in monotone. Okay, that may just be me. But the reality is that if you truly understand how much of your life is informed by data – from traffic jams to picking up your daily cup of joe – you will never hear the word the same way.
Rick Oppedisano is a data connoisseur. His passion for using numbers to inform big business decisions drove him to leave a cushy high-paying job and stock options to boot. This wasn’t the last time that Rick’s unconventional thinking would propel his career. That first chance set the stage for Delta Bravo, a data software solution for the manufacturing industry.
Numbers are practically in this man’s DNA. As a child, he had notebooks full of statistics from the backs of baseball cards in a quest to build the perfect team. At his day job before Delta Bravo, he shared his early ideas about how machine learning could boost the value of the products they were building. But everyone was happy with the way things were working and not eager to shake things up.
It was a hard pill for Rick to swallow, and I’m sure you could understand. Ever feel like you’re sitting on a million-dollar idea but can’t get a single person to listen? Ultimately, Rick left so that he could build the very system he was espousing.
When Your Neighbor (And Grilling Buddy) Wants In
Rick distilled his mission into a data-first approach to business. “Delta Bravo takes mountains of data. The data comes from many different machines, applications, and processes. We put it all together and make sense of it. We create predictive models to improve output. To grossly oversimplify it, how do I create more stuff faster at a higher level of quality at a lower cost with less waste? We use data to help companies get in front of certain situations that aren’t always good.”
It was risky to leave a steady paycheck for an idea, but Rick was confident that it was the right one. He was so enthusiastic about the process that it was hard to keep quiet. When an inquisitive neighbor, John McAiley, asked him what he was up to, he gave a reader’s digest version knowing it wasn’t the most scintillating of topics for most. “I told him that I was trying to figure out how to automate a lot of really complex aspects of data science and machine learning and how it all comes together.” Rick figured that would be the end of that conversation.
Not only did John stay, but he also wanted to know more. He said, “I could help with that.” Rick asked him to sign a quick non-disclosure agreement (NDA) at the kitchen table alongside what I’d like to imagine was a neighborly glass of homemade lemonade. John came back with a proposition. “Give me four weeks to build a prototype.”
What happened next jump-started Delta Bravo from idea to full-fledged business at rocket speed. In just two weeks, John built a prototype that was even better than Rick had imagined. Rick was so proud of the product that he took it to a good friend who was the chief information officer (CIO) of a large company.
An Early Acquisition Offer – And Why He Said No
Rick showed the CIO what they were building and his friend wanted to acquire it, even though the product was just a prototype. “So within two weeks, this thing goes from paper to being sold to someone. So, I went back to my buddy and said ‘Hey, I’ve got good news and bad news. He asked for the bad news first and I told him that he had to quit his current job. But the good news? We’re going into business and it’s going to be awesome.”
Rick and John knew that they could create a viable product but wanted to do their due diligence on mining data. “I started talking to different companies. I realized that these companies had no pre-existing frame of reference because it’s so new. It’s not like buying a server. They don’t know how it’s going to impact their team. They don’t know what kind of resources they have available.”
For Rick to understand how best to serve his potential clients, he decided to learn how industry leaders (think Amazon, Google, and Microsoft) were approaching Machine Learning and AI- and figure out what they were missing.
Rick realized that the big tech companies were having trouble turning predictive models into tools their customers could actually use. As a result, companies were sitting on mounds of data that they could’ve been using to inform future business decisions. It was a missed opportunity.
In the beginning, Delta Bravo didn’t focus on any one particular industry. Instead, Rick approached his network of colleagues and friends in all fields offering help with existing data solutions. Rick explains: “The value of prediction is what we honed in on.” Delta Bravo helped analyze and predict weather patterns one day, and emergency room visit volumes the next day. Exciting work, but not exactly scalable. It was a lot to juggle and no two jobs were alike.
Go Small or Go Home
How could Delta Bravo scale? How’s this for a paradox – to scale, they would have to go small. This meant turning down clients so that they could focus on a niche. The competition was fierce in both finance and healthcare, but manufacturing was wide open. Rick believed that was due to “barriers to entry.” Both healthcare and finance were inundated with privacy laws and regulations. Not so with manufacturing.
What’s more, manufacturing machines produce data every second of every day, leading to information overload for those running them. Delta Bravo could help manufacturing plants derive meaningful and actionable conclusions from multiple data points, helping them run a more efficient business. Was this the niche Rick had been waiting for?
Rick called his friends, family, and colleagues to let them know what he was building. They gave him a little seed money to get to work (again). Soon, Rick and John built a working product and hired some employees to help them execute the vision. Rick didn’t just want workers, though: “John and I were looking for a very particular personality type. Talented people we could trust. People that wanted creative freedom and understood the value of accountability, ownership.”
Rick has always been clear that he hires people who share a similar ethos. “We spend a lot of time thinking about the type of culture we want to build as opposed to just hiring someone. A big founder problem is thinking that you have to have your hands on everything. The operative move as CEO is to continue to create extremely high-performing independent pockets of business that can work together when you need them.”
When the State Has Your Back
How would Delta Bravo find clients in their new space? They explored opportunities in their hometown of South Carolina. They found out about a tech incubator program sponsored by the state, and they quickly joined.
What happened next was the stuff that dreams are made of: The state of South Carolina introduced Delta Bravo to their first manufacturing client, Rolls Royce. And South Carolina didn’t just introduce Delta Bravo to companies, they also funded the initiatives for those that didn’t have enough budget.
“It’s funny because the state of South Carolina is a huge player in our growth and initially when I tell people that I’m working with the state, they say, it’s going to be a waste of your time. Normally, I would agree because I’m a New Yorker originally and that’s a poster child for dysfunction.”
Clients began to accumulate rapidly after that. Between word of mouth, South Carolina’s help, and overall efficiency, Delta Bravo has become a bit of a household name in the manufacturing industry. Supply chain woes and international delays thanks to the global pandemic highlight just how important it is to streamline processes at home. Delta Bravo has been a welcome addition to manufacturing plants across the nation.
Rick’s bootstrapping journey is a lesson in narrowing your niche to see big results: “Don’t get all crazy about leaving money on the table. When we decided to focus solely on manufacturing, it changed our business 100 percent. If you don’t focus, your sales cycle gets extended, and now you’re competing with everyone and their mother.”
About those supply chain issues… At the time of this interview, Rick was waiting for the delivery of a couch for his family room that had been back-ordered for years. Reader: the couch arrived.
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