Under the radar for now. Disruptive in the marketplace later. Thats how Russ Whitney of Sawtooth Ideas Inc. wants to position and build his young Boise software-development business. The vehicle for his strategy is a digital take on the humble do-it-yourself woodworking plans for projects such as doghouses, tables and furniture.
Whitneys plans may be more Trojan horse than birdhouse. Thats because his long-term goal is to develop software that will not only compete with well-established computer-aided design software like AutoCAD but also change the nature of that lucrative software marketplace.
HOW HE STARTED
Whitney describes himself as the co-founder, visionary, president and CEO of Sawtooth. A Boise resident since 1986, the 49-year-old worked at two earlier Boise startups: Extended Systems, a mobile software design and development company; and ProClarity, a business-intelligence software maker acquired by Microsoft six years ago. He has also worked for HP and for Microsoft after it bought ProClarity.
I left Microsoft two years ago and decided to take a few months to just clear my head before I figured out what I was going to do next, Whitney says. It was at that point I got into woodworking as a hobby. I started looking for woodworking plans. It was just really hard to find woodworking plans, and kind of hard to create them as well.
FRUSTRATION SPAWNS AN IDEA
After I spent some time (looking for good plans) I decided, Boy, there actually could be a business opportunity here, he says. There are 50 or more (Internet) sites that have woodworking plans, and they all have two to 50 plans; they all vary in levels of quality, and nobody has a big enough selection that (customers) can have a decent shopping experience.
You might find one good plan from a reputable magazine, but even then you cant actually tell what it is youre buying. What you get is a piece of paper. Its terribly inflexible. You may have to figure out how to modify it. You might as well be designing your own plan. Not only is the market really fragmented with a bunch of mom-and-pop shops with poor quality, but theyre selling the same products they sold 100 years ago.
A STORE OWNER CONFIRMED HIS HUNCH
Whitney visited a local woodworking store. He remembers the owner saying: If you had a way that somebody could not only search and find a decent plan, but also do minor customization to the plan, that would just be huge. That would open up the ability to build things to a large volume of people.
HOW HE PLANS TO GROW INDEPENDENTLY
Whitney and his partners have raised $200,000 from the Boise Angel Fund and a handful of local angel investors.
He thinks a great business is a small company that can provide service yet serves a market big enough for the company to grow to a point where you dont have to worry about Google, Microsoft, etc., doing it better and swooping in as soon as you become successful and killing you. Because if it looks good, your best hope in that situation is that you get bought, because if they (the huge corporations) enter the market, youre dead.
HE FOUND A GUIDE IN ANCIENT CHINA
Whitney draws strategic ideas from a variety of sources, including The Art of War, Sun Tzus famous military treatise.
He has a set of strategies on how somebody goes to war, but those strategies have been adapted to business, Whitney says. Never go head-to-head with a similar-size business, because its just going to be bloody. The only time you want to engage (a competitor) is when you have overwhelming capabilities, because thats where youre going to win. Never take a piece of land you cannot defend.
WHO CARES ABOUT WOODWORKING?
What you want to do is be a disruptive technology, a new technology that works in a fundamentally different way that they cannot compete with and cant adapt to, Whitney says. I dont want to do it until I can own the woodworking market. And I believe I can own the woodworking market with no CAD vendor even turning their head to know that Im here, because Who cares about woodworking?
But by the time I win the woodworking market, Ive got potentially a hundred people that I can then apply to a much bigger problem. Thats the business strategy I think is highly effective.
Thats why I think niche markets are fantastic, he says. I want to find a niche market that I can own as a small company while I build technology that I can move to the next bigger market. That next bigger market is CAD. But only when Im big enough to do it.
Lennon S. Reid: email@example.com