Cool Startup Story

A Philadelphia-area man, working as a cabinet maker, expanded his business to include the refurbishing/remodeling of elevators. (One company, strangely enough, wanted the interior of its elevators matched to its reception desks!) In doing these jobs, he found the standard practice of removing the entire elevator cab to do the work to be overly complex and time-consuming, and in 1996, came up with his own system of interlocking panels, making the task simpler and faster. With $65,000 in borrowed funds, he patented the system and incorporated a company. It now employs 30 people and booked revenues of $6.1MM last year. More here.

Innovation is often thought of as something that applies mainly in areas like software and biotech, but in actuality innovation is possible–and critical–in every industry. Our fate, dear Brutus, is not in our SIC codes but in ourselves. (SIC code=standard industrial classification code)

Politicians and their advisers, generally speaking, do not understand the economic and cultural importance of this kind of entrepreneurship, and tend to think of “innovation” in terms of “whatever is fashionable at the moment.”

Via Bill Waddell, who has lots of relevant thoughts.

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14 thoughts on “Cool Startup Story”

  1. Oh, I remember that Co- when I was researching elevator interior panel systems for Kent County, DE Courthouse, I considered them as a cheap substitution to a far superior Forms and Surfaces system, then decided to pay for quality instead – and economize on other entry lines in the budget.

    I think I know what “major elevator Co” is referred to in the article -Otis; at least the tiny pictures that appear on SnapCab site resemble the primitive and limited choice that Otis offered as a standard selection of their cabs.

    Innovation that stems from craftsmen is all nice and cute, and often inexpensive, but I’d rather trust engineering expertise. The technology and end result are just beyond comparison.

  2. Tatyana…is it possible that the differences you’re seeing in the product lines of the two companies reflect commercial decisions about pricing and market segments addressed, rather than characteristics of engineers vs craftsmen?

  3. At the initial purchase/installation – yes, but if you take the long-term view, the investment pays off big time: the structure is superior, design and materials don’t look outdated for a long time, maintenance cost less (because of inherent construction and quality of the materials). In 3 years the cheap refurbish will need to be replaced again, and since labor costs are growing faster than the cost of materials, the price of new retrofit will come not just double, but higher than that.

    In other words, “we are nso rich as to buy cheap goods”.

  4. Tatyana – Curious that you would characterize the issue as essentially shoddy goods from craftsmen vesus high quality products from engineers. In most people’s minds, I believe, the opposite is the case. In my home, for instance, we have quite a bit of furniture made from old barn wood by local craftsmen basically working out of their own barns. It was expensive, but is likely to be around for so long as to be a pain for our great-great grand children to dispose of. This replaced furniture designed by degreed product engineers working for outfits like Furniture Brands and built to their specifications in China and other low cost countries.

    Engineers can and do work to just about any standard. The weapons systems used by the Air Force and the technology embedded in the space shuttle are the products of engineering. So is the drywall imported from China. The Edsel was a highly engineered product, for that matter, as is the entire Toyota line-up of cars that won’t stop.

    I struggle with the assumption you seem to make that ‘engineered’ and ‘high quality’ are somehoe synonymous.

  5. Tatyana:

    Everything you say may, indeed, be true, but your comment is odd in that it has nothing to do with the topic: innovation.

    You’re not, by chance, a competitor are you?

  6. I would argue that small scale innovation is in the end more important than big flashy innovations, all the more so because big flashy innovations are usually the result of the accumulation of many anonymous small scale innovations.

    Take the case of computer programming languages. There are two broad groups of languages: the designed and the evolved.

    Designed languages begin as an explicit project to create a programming language. They are often highly structured, highly researched and designed from the beginning to solve specific problems. Good examples of designed languages would be Pascal and ADA.

    Evolved languages usually start off as small toss off tools often designed for some limited and immediate purpose. Then another function gets bolted on, then another, then another until suddenly it becomes a general purpose tool. Good examples of evolved languages are C and Perl.

    The funny thing is, evolved languages are almost always the more widely used and powerful languages even though they are often the ugliest and hardest to work with. Perl is a horrific language to try to read. It’s code looks like the top two rows of the keyboard vomited up on the screen. It’s syntax is so loose as to be almost non-existant. It lack modern features like object orientation. Python was designed to fulfill the same niche as Perl. By contrast its a joy to read and write. Its a great teaching language. Its object oriented making it easy to manage large projects. It should beat Perl hands down.

    Yet, Perl is more widely used by several times over compared to Python. Pearl is the backbone of the internet.

    Why? It wins because it evolved. It wins because that ugly chaotic nature makes it more flexible. Perl is more a loose collections of tens of thousands of individual modules each hacked together by a different coder. Each module is ugly but custom fitted to its particular task. If a module doesn’t fit, Perl’s ugly, unstructured makes it possible to hammer a square piece of code into a round functional hole.

    Telling there has been only one programming language created by the government: ADA. It was designed by US military to be a standardized programming platform for all military projects. It was a grand vision but it never really took off. Why. Because ADA was to restricted and inflexible. It good for writing nailed down programs that have to work and don’t change but that’s about it.

    The small innovator has been the creative engine of the software industry since the early 80’s. Virtually every new software niche was created by small innovators seeking to solve one problem and progressively evolving to world standard technology.

    All technology changes on this pattern. Yes, big innovators play an important role but the lion’s share of all innovations are the accumulation of many small, uncoordinated improvements made by many small innovators.

  7. Craig, I’m surprised you didn’t noticed in my original comment:

    *Innovation that stems from craftsmen is all nice and cute, and often inexpensive, but I’d rather trust engineering expertise. The technology and end result are just beyond comparison.
    ** I considered them[…]then decided to pay for quality instead – and economize on other entry lines in the budget.

    No, I’m not your competitor.

  8. Shannon…interesting to note that even things that *are* major, game-changing innovations don’t always start out with that intent. The microprocessor, for example, was originally merely a practical solution for reducing the cost of a simple calculator that somebody wanted to manufacture.

  9. Several years ago, I wrote about Theranos, a company developing technologies for individualizing drug therapies. It was founded by Elizabeth Holmes, then 21 years old, who dropped out of Stanford as a company. Looks like they’re doing pretty well.

    Elizabeth Holmes as a college sophomore did not, of course, have either the credentials or the experience one would usually expect of a biotech CEO, and it’s great we have an environment in which she was able to do it anyway.

    This startup story differs from the elevator story in that university-transmittable knowledge (the kind of thing people mean when they talk about “the knowledge economy”) was probably indeed more essential to this one…but the stories are similar in that they’re about the ability of individuals to achieve and to succeed without credentials.

  10. “who dropped out of Stanford as a company”…trying to say “who dropped out of Stanford as a sophomore to start the company.”

    Hey Jonathan, can we get preview on this thing?

  11. Bill, besides, you erect two strawmen.
    First, introducing a false comparison with Chinese-made product. Chinese products are notoriously low quality, be it made in factories or in someone’s backyard; I did not consider them for an instant. I talk about two American companies; one, which you consider “innovative”, and another – whom I consider such. I compare apples to apples, you stick in a wilting starfruit.

    Second, you put cheap mass-produced Furniture Brands (- and I’ll add: IKEA) against singular, one-of-a-kind, expensive artisan table – as if it speaks badly about engineered product. Listen, things cost less for a reason! Your beautifully-crafted table can not be reproduced en-masse even for a price you paid for it – it’s just a different category of product. Really, should I preach benefits of mass-production of goods to a professional like you? IKEA (or Furniture Brand, whatever that is, never heard of them) fills the niche for a short-term, utilitarian, low-priced home goods that they mass-produce out of low-quality materials in countries with low labor costs. But their product is well-engineered, easy to assemble for a layman with no knowledge of joinery or special tools, hardware is sturdy enough to last the life of the product.IKEA disclose the materials their merchandise is made of, every buyer is informed what he’s paying for, there is no pretension of “new technology that is not only innovative but cheap as peanuts”. They never advertise their furniture as heirlooms.

    Again, you present a false comparison here: a traditional craftsman making unique artifacts vs mass-produced furniture manufacturer. I compare two mass-producers of industrial grade product.Again, my apples to apples – to your “apples to one unique country-fair-winner pumpkin”.

  12. Tatyana,

    My point was simply that products designed by engineers are not inherently superior to products designed by craftsmen. Engineers can and very often do generate specifications for very low cost, low utility, unreliable products.

    Nor does whether something is ‘mass produced’ or built one at a time have anything to do with its quality or value. The BMW plant in South Carolina ‘mass produces’ automobiles. So do the plants in India making $4,000 cars. Anything with a mass market can, and usually is, mass produced. My furniture can, in fact, be easily ‘mass produced’. It is simply a matter of stating the specifications accurately and cutting manufacturing loose to build to those specs. Whether there is a ‘mass market’ for them to justify the necessary investment to do so is another question.

    To a ‘professional like me’, the term ‘quality’ has a very specific meaning – that is ‘conformance to specifications. It is not a statement of utility or long term reliability. You put all of the characteristics of a product under one vast umbrella you call ‘quality’. In the world of engineering and manuafacturing a BMW is not inherently higer quality than a KIA, for instance. The BMW is likely to have greater utility, and to have a longer life span because it was built to more demanding and costly specifications, but the quality of the KIA may well be greater if it were built more closely to the design specifications – whatever those were.

    A BMW is not inherently higher quality or better than a KIA. It is simply a product with a different value proposition. The Otis evelvator cab, likewise, is not inherently better than a SnapCab. It too is just a product with a different value proposition.

    You wrote that you decided to pay for “quality instead”. No you didn’t. You paid for a product built to a higher level of design specifications. Whether what you got conformed to those specifications any closer than whether the SnapCab product conforms to its lower specifications is what determines which had superior quality. Your definition of value when you went to the marketplace was different from other customers. You placed higher value on certain characteristics than other customers, and you were willing to pay more for a product that met your definition of value. Only time will tell whether the product you bought fulfilled that vale expectation.

    Incidentally, Furniture Brands is a big company that owns Thomasville, Broyhill, Lane, Drexel Heritage and a lot of other brands that you probably know. Their products are not inherently higher quality, or lesser quality, than thos offered by IKEA or the guy in the barn that built my furniture. Again, just different specs and a different value proposition.

  13. Bill,
    I was not comparing Otis with SnapCab, since I suspect it was SnapCab system that Otis uses; to put it simpler, the crappy system.
    If you paid attention, I even gave a link to the Company that I juxtaposed to SnapCab: Forms and Surfaces.

    I proposed for you to look at the products side by side, as I did when I was making my decision – if you did, and you’re an engineer, you would see immediately which product has more innovation, or in other words, potential to stay within general level of engineering achievement for a longer time. [example: steam locomotives were innovation at the time they started to be mass-produced. In 1910, with ascent of electric power, steam no longer was innovative. Ask them both for section drawing of the panel grid system, and tell me your honest opinion, which one is better quality OF DESIGN.

    When I talk about better quality product, this is what I mean: not “adherence” to design specification, but quality of the design (and consequently, specification) itself.

    If you declared the company you promote (SnapCabs) should be admired for their innovation, then I expect you know what their supposed innovation is about. Have you seen the drawings? Seen the hung product? Or by innovation you don’t mean the product itself, but rather some organizational reshuffling that the company did? Which of course, could also be innovative – it’s hard to tell with all the sales smokescreen.

    To your assertion that I have to know Furniture Brand: no, I don’t have to know it, I’m a commercial designer. Residential market is not in my scope. However, I have objections to your arguments there, to – just not enough time to address them all.

    One last thing: I don’t but elevator interiors for myself, as could be construed from our comment; I thought I made it clear: I select, specify and make recommendation fro the Client/Owner, who then proceeds purchasing the goods; himself of through purchasing Co or GC. I’m the specialist who looks into the quality of product (and yes, this includes quality of design, of design specification, and adherence to those specifications).

    So, you see, I’m the one responsible for Kent County NOT purchasing SnapCab, and buying interiors (for their Otis elevators) from Forms &Surfaces instead. Because their product is superior in quality. And it is innovative.

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