Article Published: September 3, 2014
Article Published: September 3, 2014
By Jonathan Kersting, Director of Visibility Initiatives
It seems as if technology start-up companies make all the buzz these days. So what happens when you’re no longer a startup? It’s just a phase after all. The goal is to become a self-sustaining company—large, small or any size in between—right?
Once a company hits its stride, grows its customer base, hires talent and pays taxes, it can often fade into the background as the next generation of tech startups garners the limelight. Meanwhile, these “unstartups” are pivoting and innovating their way to success each and every day.
TEQ loves startups. No doubt! But we thought it would be interesting to talk to the founders/CEOs of Pittsburgh area tech companies who shed their startup status at least a decade ago. How did they find success? What were the challenges? Is it still fun running the company? What keeps them up at night? Check out these profiles of Plus Consulting, Wrecking Crew Media, NuRelm and Schultheis to find out.
The MBAs of Technology: Plus Consulting fuses business solutions with leading-edge technology
When Steve Smith founded Plus Consulting 15 years ago, he had a precise vision to build one of Pittsburgh’s top business-technology consultancies.
Plus Consulting has built a rare breed of consultancy that provides true business solutions underpinned with leading-edge technology.
In fact, Smith proudly proclaimed: “We are the MBAs of technology!”
“I got to the point where I was very happy, earning a good living working for one of the the world’s largest consulting companies. I knew if I didn’t have the balls at 29 to start this then I’d never do it!” Smith recounted as his inspiration for founding Plus Consulting. “We thought we could serve customers with more entrepreneurialism and make it more affordable.”
Having top status with Microsoft, SugarCRM, Salesforce.com and SalesLogix, Plus Consulting has grown to more than 100 people with offices across the country.
On the heels of serving its 1,000th client, everything has pretty much gone as planned, according to Smith. “Plus Consulting is now about the same size as the group that I led at PricewaterhouseCoopers before I left,” said Smith.
“As a humorous thing, I will dust off the original Plus Consulting business plan developed in 1999. We are still spot on! It’s been a well-followed plan.”
The key to Plus Consulting’s growth has been investment in industry partnerships and acquisitions. Plus Consulting expanded its footprint and customer base by acquiring competitors in Boston, New York, Iowa, Baltimore and soon Australia.
Like practically every business, Plus Consulting had to navigate the choppy waters of the 2008 recession. Smith noted that the IT industry was a leading indicator for the recession as the company noticed a dramatic slowdown in business early in 2008 leading up to the October crash.
Plus weathered the storm easily because of its diverse client base across multiple industries and its diverse service offerings around CRM, Business Intelligence, SharePoint, Security, Office365 and Staffing. Smith noted that many consultancies didn’t make it through the 2008 recession as many were tied to single industry verticals or single service offerings that quickly dried up.
“It’s been stability through diversification,” said Smith. “Many of our peers became too narrow and vertical-focused. We bucked that trend.”
The major key to Plus Consulting celebrating 15 years in Pittsburgh has been its people and the culture.
“It really comes down to culture,” said Dean Campbell, Plus COO. “Plus always reinvents and evolves in new directions.”
Office Manager and 11-year veteran of Plus Consulting Marcy Elway agrees. She said the open culture has been key to success. “Everyone here is willing to do what it takes to be successful.”
“We invest in people, they are our most sacred assets, said Smith. “Our responsibility to our team is to empower them to be successful by providing them with every tool possible to ensure their client’s success.”
The open culture is fueled with a fast-paced office in Carnegie. The basketball court and expansive roof-top deck serve as focal points for hard-working people to blow off steam, interact and create.
Deploying true business solutions, not just technology, has been critical for Plus Consulting.
“Our focus is on helping our customers better understand and work with their customers,” said Campbell.
He explained: A customer can start with a CRM strategy and implementation. From there you get lots of customer data that can be analyzed on dashboards and through reports. With data in hand you can better communicate and sell to customers or partners with extranets and SharePoint sites. It’s not just a single solution or fix.
“The secret sauce is tying all of that together,” said Campbell.
Smith, Campbell and Elway are bullish on Plus Consulting’s future. They will continue to dust off that 15-year-old business plan from time to time to ensure the company is sticking to its core. They will also embrace new technologies along with the tried and true to maintain status as the “MBAs of technology.”
Wrecking Crew Media: Evolution is Part of the Plan
Media companies come and go. One year, a startup can be white-hot, reeling in top clients while basking in the limelight. The next year, that startup’s swanky office furniture is up for sale on Craig’s List. In the frantic-paced world of a video, audio and content creation company, keeping the doors open and creative juices flowing is no easy task. Wrecking Crew Media has kept its downtown doors open for a decade, becoming one of Pittsburgh’s top creative firms with clients that include Children’s Hospital, Turner Dairy and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
So what’s been the secret to Wrecking Crew’s success over the past 10 years? It’s evolution, according to its CEO JC Carter.
“From the start, Wrecking Crew was formed to evolve. As I evolved as a business owner and creative person, so did the company,” said Carter. “When the great people who make up our company now came along, we evolved with their talents and expertise. Evolution is always part of the plan. Evolving with focus. Can we be creative, efficient and innovative? Those are our benchmarks.”
JC concedes that the toughest part of growing any company is finding out who you are and latching on to an internal guide to what creates company success. For Wrecking Crew it’s been people, product and process, according to Carter.
“I focus on these three things every day,” said Carter. “Once I did that, I felt that a weight was lifted!”
“I also think what sets Wrecking apart for our competition is a focus on content with a purpose,” said Carter. “Creative ideas together with efficient, top-level execution have been key. Along with that would be our honest and transparent relationship with clients.”
Leading Wrecking Crew over the past 10 years has been an experience that Carter said he could have never imagined.
“It’s been exciting, stressful, rewarding, heartbreaking all in one,” he admitted. “I wouldn’t do anything over, every misstep had made us stronger. Every achievement has made us proud and eager to keep moving forward. I really love it all.”
When asked about his biggest surprise leading Wrecking Crew, it didn’t take long for him to respond.
“My biggest surprise building my company would be the impact we can have. We always say that our work doesn’t change the world, but it changes a little part of our clients’ world,” Carter continued. “That can mean many things big and small. When we create something that impacts a client’s business, helps them fund a campaign, create awareness for a cause, or make someone smile, it effects you!”
Pushing the Limits: NuRelm Explores Technology-Integration Mashups; Even Computer Vision
When Sam Shaaban founded NuRelm 15 years ago in Austin, Texas he thought the web was starting to look “pretty damned useful.”
He knew it was time to go beyond simple HTML pages and build web-based tools that pushed the envelope of technology to perform slick business functions.
One of NuRelm’s first projects was building a content management system for the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. Very cutting edge for the late 1990s!
A decade and a half later, NuRelm’s founding philosophy holds true. The company lives by a mantra of innovation and exploring the latest technologies.
“Today our definition of ‘pushing the limits’ is helping clients perform once-amazing integration feats using the latest generation of mashup-friendly technology,” said Shaaban. “Want to make a sale in your new on-line store cause certain things to happen in your Salesforce.com account, text your client, tweet some things, download some satellite imagery, process it on Amazon’s cloud computing platform, then call in a lunch order? That’s a project we want to help with!”
Now NuRelm is trying to push web technology even further with computer vision to address Type 1 diabetes.
Shaaban’s fiancée, Beth Sarles, is a doctoral student at Pitt Public Health, and they both wanted a way to meet new people and do something helpful. They entered the Pitt Innovation Challenge to develop PInt: Personalized Intelligence of Type 1 Diabetes. Based on computer vision, the technology would allow children to determine the amount of carbohydrates in a meal by taking a picture of it.
“The concept slowly morphed and improved as we recruited a team that includes researchers, clinicians and a computer vision expert from CMU,” says Shaaban.
“It’s changed a bit. We’re leaning toward using commonly available cell phones instead of a custom device, but the concept is the same: Use images, info about a particular child’s eating patterns, support from various guardians/caregivers, and some secret sauce to help kids 8 to 12 with the daily burden of counting carbs,” said Shaaban.
NuRelm recently moved its operations to the Beauty Shoppe in East Liberty. The company originally moved from Austin to Uniontown, Pa., 13 years ago as part of Pennsylvania’s “Come Invent the Future” business relocation plan.
“Ultimately, though, the idea of pushing into new areas in web space didn’t fit with our physical location,” said Shaaban. “We were too far from clients, going to networking events was too far into the ‘big trip’ category, and being isolated didn’t make sense. So we put the warehouse on the market and moved to East Liberty. And we love everything about it.”
Now in the heart of Pittsburgh’s tech sector, NuRelm will continue mashing up the Internet’s magic to perform what would once be considered impossible tasks.
“We want that definition to also include empowering individuals instead of just serving corporate clients, and more open initiatives ranging from playful computer vision crowdsourcing mashups to straight-up business tools.”
Learn more at www.nurelm.com.
Schultheis Automation Control Systems: Celebrating 25 years of providing technology solutions
In the fast-paced tech world, 25 years is an eternity.
Few tech companies have the staying power to be in business for a quarter of a century. Schultheis Automation Control Systems has gone the distance, and diversification has been key to its longevity.
“Our mission at Schultheis Automation Control Systems is to provide clients with manufactured state-of-the-art control system solutions, from conceptual planning through completion,” said CEO Suzanne Schultheis. “As any small business, we face many challenges and struggles on a daily basis. It’s overcoming those challenges and moving forward for continued business that keeps us going.”
Since operation began in 1989, the company remains family owned and operated in Western Pennsylvania. The company focuses primarily on the industrial automation, electrical engineering, systems integration, natural gas and information technology industries.
The company’s services are a veritable menu that includes: control engineering, Auto-CAD services, control panel design and construction, PLC programming, cathodic protection, maintenance services and instrumentation.
Over the years, Schultheis also built its business on numerous integrator programs, including Rockwell Automation, GE PLC, Schneider, WAGO, Mitsubishi, Baldor Motion Control and Wonderware. In 2006 amongst the rising need and fast-growing natural gas market in the region Schultheis Automation expanded its engineering services to facilitate the oil and gas industries.
To enhance diversification of the already existing industrial market, as well as facilitating other industries, Schultheis Automation launched an IT Division in 2008 that focuses primarily on computer service, repair, networks and servers for residential, commercial and industrial clients.
“Over the years Schultheis Automation has earned the reputation over a multi-county/statewide area of providing safe, quality products accompanied by prompt service in meeting all the customer’s needs,” said Schultheis. “The company strives to provide top level customer service and expertise while still maintaining the dynamic of family ownership in a local community.”