Quick Intro to Neil McDonnell

Neil is a motivational speaker, trainer and vocal advocate for the potential of American small businesses. His passion is drawn from his personal experience serving in the US Army, from providing contracting services to various government agencies, and from the many successful and failed companies he has founded since his youth. Neil is the youngest of ten children, a training ground for competition, determination, optimism and tenacity.

An Entrepreneur's Journey

Oh-Dark-Thirty…

Those eerie hours before sunrise, typically attributed to the military, when no one in their right mind is awake, let alone working. But by 10 years old, I was up at oh-dark-thirty headed out of the house to deliver the San Francisco Chronicle, long before 6:00 AM when the customers started waking up.

Looking back, I imagine I had a fairly normal childhood for the times. I worked, suffered school, was an altar boy, camped, fished, got sunburned, played soccer, did Irish dancing, and lived on the streets of San Francisco for several months as a runaway 14-year-old. Didn’t everyone?

Perhaps that last bit can be attributed to my horrible relationship with my father. I can’t imagine it was easy for him dealing with my twin brother and me, the youngest of his ten children – or rug rats as he (perhaps not) affectionately called us.

It’s ironic, when I reflect at the survival lessons drilled into me as an Army Airborne Ranger – “Stay alert, Stay alive. Complacency kills” and “Lack of attention to details will get people killed.” In hindsight, I clearly learned those growing up.

My dad was a City cop on the nightshift and each morning across the breakfast table, he would read the crime reports from the night before, pointing out how violent or close the crimes were to our house. And as a 10-year-old delivering newspapers at 5:00 AM, I learned firsthand to walk down the middle of the street to give me time to run from threats.

I was never a good follower – despite all the older ‘good examples’ – I always had the sense I was supposed to find my own path. But it would be a long journey.

Looking back, despite the unpleasantness, I am grateful. My father branded 3 profound lessons into my thick (head) skin:

  1. Pray as if everything depends on God, because it does. Act as if everything depends on you, because it does.
  2. Some people make it happen. Some watch it happen. Some simply say “What happened?” Which one are you?
  3. Doors will always close in your face. When they do, just grab the handle, turn right and push it open again. That’s how doors work!

And Then Dad Died…

A few short months after my twin brother and I came home after being on the run for months, my “John Wayne” tough father grabbed his chest and died right in front of us, while my mom and older sister performed CPR.

I feared my father every single day of my life, right up until his fatal heart attack at the age of 50. I was 15 years old and I knew that life as I knew it was over. More than ever, it was clear that my life was up to me.

After my father’s death, going to school was more of a recommendation than an actual rule, so I basically stopped going at 15. I barreled through a mountain of jobs. I sold all 31 flavors at Baskin-Robbins, pumped gas, managed KB Toys, pumped more gas into private airplanes– including Air Force One – at San Francisco Airport, became a certified auto mechanic, washed filthy Greyhound buses, sold chances to find pearls in oysters at Pier 39, and painted military barracks buildings at the local base.

I sold the Internet before it existed, at least, before my customers could access it. Go look up Prodigy and see what all the excitement was about. With Prodigy, my customers could get baseball scores from around the country in real-time – you know, every 15-20 minutes; lightning fast!

I also sold vacuum cleaners door to door. Do you know how easily someone would let a stranger walk right into their home, throw dirt down and begin a 2-hour sales call? This is where I learned to make even more money and then waste it away, proving I was making money.

I learned a ton at these jobs. I learned I could make money while working hard; learned I’d get fired if I told the customer they were wrong. I was a hard worker and never missed a chance to earn my own money. After all, money is freedom. Money is independence.

My Stay at ‘Casa da Grand Am’…

Then one day I found myself living in my car, a crappy Pontiac Grand Am. I had been there for months and really couldn’t remember how I got there.

I was too proud to go back home to my mother, living less than a mile from the Ross Dress for Less parking garage where I parked most nights. No cameras or guards in those days. My teenage-brain rationalized I was living the good life, doing whatever I wanted. You know, things like rarely showering, eating at 7-Eleven, and growing my mullet.

Fortunately for me – and I know I got this from Mom – I never stayed down for long. I have always known I have great potential and all I must do is choose to live up to the potential. Potential is a gift from God given to each of us – but only some of us embrace this gift, which is unfortunate.

Eventually, I picked up the phone and called my older brother. I told him I was stuck living in my car and wanted his advice on how to get out of that hole. Without hesitating, he invited me to join him in Sunnyvale. He had a couch and I was welcome to it while I got on my feet.

Within a few weeks, I had clean clothes, eating healthy meals, and mentored how to look for my next opportunity. In little time, I was Assistant Manager at a Software Etc. retail store.

And that quickly, I began to have pride in myself. That was the last time in my life I ever let myself be down internally; I’ve hit rock bottom (multiple times) since then, but never felt like I belonged there or would stay there.

The excitement of Software Etc. and Egghead Software, hooked me on the power of technology. Personal computers were only entering the mainstream market in the 80’s. My enthusiasm was contagious, and customers became equally passionate when I explained the potential of software. The next step was to bring the biggest names, CEOs of all the local start-up companies –think Apple, AOL, Lotus, Adobe–to discuss their new products and the future of technology with my customers. I was match-making decision-makers with customers and building new partnerships.

The 24 Hour War…

These were exciting times… then we went to war with Iraq… and I joined the US Army Rangers… and then we “won” the 24-hour war.

Being in the Army was a pivotal point in my life.

I had to go back and get an adult high school diploma before they let me into the Army; no GED for the Rangers. Then I learned how to push myself past many perceived fears – I did basic and advanced infantry training pushing my non-athletic body to its limits and demanding more from my mind to keep me going.

Airborne training and the Ranger Indoctrination Program are designed to weed out those who don’t belong. Every day in Ranger training was brutal. Still every night, I came back to a uniform with the Ranger scroll that I was trying to earn, and the highly coveted black beret that only the 2,000 or so Rangers could wear. I couldn’t wear it yet, but I could see it and imagine how great I would look in it.

I believe I have had one of the most amazing military careers of anyone who has served just six years. I started in the 2nd Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment; one of the most elite units in any of the military services. I was an M60 machine gunner after having been carefully evaluated and determined to be the “big” guy at 140 pounds.

From there, I went on to work for Fort Lewis’ Garrison Commander and learned all about the management of an Army base. It was also here that I learned how military bases must be good community members and work with other local leaders – especially as it related to addressing the needs of the warfighter’s family.

Next, I was assigned to work for the Commanding General of Fort Lewis and I Corps; a three-star general. I supported him, the two-star Deputy Commanding General, and the one-star Chief of Staff. It was in this role that I learned about the raw power of the American Army and our ability to bring massive forces to Asia in a very short amount of time.

Finally, I was assigned to the Secretary of the Army’s office, working directly for the Under-Secretary in the Pentagon. In this role, I interacted with high-level SESs (senior executive staff) and three or four-star generals on a regular basis. I interacted with one particular four-star general so often, and built a bond of trust and respect with him, that he eventually got me a part-time job working on “The Army After Next / Force 21” – yes, I realize that was a very long time ago.

It was in this position that I learned the challenges the Army faces daily with regards to recruiting in both the regular Army, as well as the reserves. And I was amazed to learn that we had the responsibility for turning over control of the Panama Canal to the local government.

My time in the Army was only six years. And, I never rose in rank above an E4, or what the Army calls a Specialist (think Corporal). During my military service, I earned traditional medals and awards, but I was especially proud to receive the Army Achievement Medal, Army Commendation Medal, and Meritorious Service Medal.

Worst Boss Ever…

After being honorably discharged from the United States Army, I started working for the worst boss ever…myself.

I was demanding, unforgiving, unappreciative, and always moving the metrics for success ever higher. I wouldn’t let myself enjoy personal time, take vacations, or work less than 70 hours each week. By the time I reached the end of this phase, I was routinely working 100 each week and feeling like I was getting less and less done.

Soon after I left the Army, I started my first company, Changing Technologies, providing IT consulting for large federal contractors and the federal government. My clients included URS and GE, as well as the Air Force and IRS.

Perhaps, I should have seen the warning signs way back then. As much as I enjoy people, I do not like to manage or supervise. This type of company required a lot of supervision and tedious operational demands of accounting and marketing. At the time, I was just a network engineer. The learning curve was steep, and rife with many horrible mistakes. But, the company was making a lot of money.

So naturally I sold it. Actually, I sold it because I thought I should be doing good with my life. I took all the money from the sale and put it into a new company called American Quality Mall. This new company would be an Internet play that sold school supply boxes delivered to students a couple of weeks before the start of the new year, containing all the supplies their teacher required. It was a great idea, and I negotiated great prices from vendors. But it was an Internet play started the day before the Internet Bubble burst. I quickly lost all my money.

The best thing about that failed business is that my girlfriend at the time (my wife now) was with me when I had a ton of money and she was there when I lost all my money. They only thing she said was, “You were successful before, you’ll be successful again.” Yeah, we were going to be friends for a long time.

Next, I started a company called 20 Referrals. This company is a play on Angie’s List – except we would only let you in our directory if your company had 20 verifiable referrals. We figured you would be a legitimate vendor if you could get 20 unique customers to refer you. But we were the only ones who thought this was a good idea, and after a few short months we shut the company down. That was great for me, this idea of seeing when a project is failing and having the courage to just end it.

In 2007, I started a company called Bravo Consulting Group. In this one, I went back to my roots – I basically started up Changing Technologies again. Except this time, I made sure I was very focused. We only offered Microsoft SharePoint services, compared to doing all things IT like a lot of other small businesses. And we focused on the federal government customer. The idea of winning multi-year contracts was very appealing.

The company was very successful, winning multi-year, multi-million-dollar contracts with some of the largest federal agencies. We landed contracts with the Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Homeland Security, the Executive Office of the President, Air Force, and many others. We started with subcontracting and moved on to prime contracting. Even when we had tough times, we could bounce back and grow our revenue even more. Getting new contracts wasn’t hard, so we did.

Unfortunately, it took me ten years to realize this type of business model is soul destroying for idea guys like me. My strength is to help customers identify problems, create solutions, hand daily business operations to the teams, and move on to the next problem. Often simultaneously.

I was looking to make a much larger impact than could be made through the traditional paid-by-the-hour, service-based IT contracts. Over time, it was clear that the federal government tended to pay for the same thing repeatedly. This only makes fiscal sense if contracting a service. To purchase computer applications and then not distribute these applications throughout other federal agencies is a colossal waste of money, time and expertise. I hated the waste and wanted to be part of the solution. I envision the government having its own “App Store” like Apple, that houses any application built under government contracts. Efficiency and one-stop shopping.

Eventually, I decided life was too short, and in 2017 I sold this company. I just walked away saying to myself “You were successful before, you’ll be successful again.”

I Finally Find My Passion

It’s great if you know in grade school what you want to be when you grow up. In my case, clarity arrived when I turned 50. I realize I spent my first 50 years running away from childhood traumas and determined never to be broke like my parents. I thought my passion was to build a successful business. Honestly, my mantra for the last ten years has been “I run a billion-dollar company – revenues not yet recognized.”

But that isn’t my passion, and it is definitely not what makes me happy. I am most happy when I am helping others achieve their goals. And along the way, I’ll earn enough money to support my lifestyle of hanging out with my family.

Ultimately, my passion is being productive. I like producing things of value and hopefully improving lives in the process.

In late 2017, I started SV Mac Pack, Inc., a Veteran-Owned and HUBZone certified small business registered to sell to the federal government. SV stands for “Sailing Vessel”, Mac is for “McDonnell, Pack represents my 4-year-old twin boys, my wife, and me. Every work email is a reminder that I’d rather be spending time with my family on my sailboat. Every employee understands our guiding principle is “family first” then work.

As a HUBZone company, I soon discovered that the Small Business Administration’s HUBZone Program was failing. There really was no coordinated effort to turn the tide, nor raise the visibility and voices of countless small businesses in historically underutilized business zones nationwide. So, in January 2018, I created the HUBZone Chamber of Commerce to encourage collaboration among the roughly 6,000 certified HUBZone small businesses from Guam to the U.S. Virgin Islands and everywhere in between.

You can learn all about our successes in this organization on the Chamber’s web site, but I’m most proud of our “active” membership. We have an “active” member from every one of the 50 states and all the protectorates that have HUBZone companies. I created, in less than 6 months, an organization that has representation from the entire country – all committed to making the HUBZone Program a success and ensure the $13 billion dollars annually reaches American communities through HUBZone companies.

My most recent discovery about my passion is that I love to teach, mentor and coach to success. I believe that I can help small businesses across America become successful, and in doing so, I can in some small way strengthen American communities and bring hope to where hope is in short supply.

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