When Tom Counts opened 3-GIS in 2006, he relied on entrepreneurial wisdom he had gained from working nearly 20 years in the industry.
The award-winning company, about to launch a new form of asset management for the first time in the GIS field, is enjoying success after stumbling during the economic downturn.
Counts recounts how 3-GIS started, how the company weathered tough times and what direction the business is moving in the future:
Q: How did 3-GIS get started, and what's the mission of the company?
A: We started 3-GIS in 2006. I have been in this business 20-something years, all the way back from Intergraph.
Tommy Siniard and Jerry Golden are my partners in the business, and we have been together every step of the way.
We're really about asset management and mapping for utilities and telecommunications. The reason we're a third-generation company is because what we offer is affordable and consumable for everyone — it's Web-based.
The first generation was proprietary hardware and software. The second generation was a client server where all the work was still done on a client's desktop, and the data was stored on a server somewhere else.
The third generation is all about working in a "cloud." You do your work in a browser, and we don't really install anything on the client anymore, so they can run it from the office, from the airport, from a tablet or their home computer.
Our mobile software rounds out our offerings … We offer flexible mobile tools for people out in the field, and Web-based tools for everybody else.
Q: How do you describe GIS (geographic information systems) to the common person?
A: What 3-GIS is is an asset-management company. We manage the facilities of a utility or telecom on a map. These companies do not keep their assets in a warehouse. Their assets are distributed geospatially, and they all have an impact of virtue of where they are in space — from what tax boundary, school zone or high-consequence area they might be in. …
Our software is important in not just designing and building facilities, but also maintaining them and keeping them safe.
Q: How has the business grown in the last few years?
A: We have about 300 customers today. We have customers from Abu Dhabi to the Caribbean to the West Indies to Canada and all over the U.S. We're going to post really good growth this year.
We're already showing about a 50-percent sales increase this year. That doesn't mean it's easy, but the world is just starting to accept engineering on the Web. We've done a lot of work to make it simple to use. Our software runs on a server, and you can use it on the Web. By taking the complexity and cost out of it, we're making it easier for everyone to have access to it.
We have 30 employees today — it's still kind of small. Decatur is our home office. ... People don't equate Decatur to high tech, but I would like to really see that change.
Q: What were some of the first steps you took in opening 3-GIS?
A: 3-GIS isn't the first start-up I've been involved in, so this isn't my first rodeo. I knew what I needed to do. First American Bank was very helpful. When you first get started, you've got to have everything from payroll to insurance to a business plan. The bank helped us jump-start the business.
When I started the business, I already knew by example what I needed to do, from how to secure funding to making sure I had a growth plan that was manageable. I knew where we wanted to go, where the market was leading. No one predicted the 2008, 2009, 2010 economic disaster, but we weathered the storm well because we didn't try to grow too fast.
Q: What new projects are on the agenda for 3-GIS?
A: 2013 marks a new chapter with 3-GIS. We're launching 3-GISLive and it brings our solution completely to the cloud on Amazon's servers. Our customers no longer have to purchase and maintain complex back-office hardware and software, along with legions of IT people. Using 3-GISLive, a utility or telecom user simply logs into their browser, and we take it from there. We host their application, their data, and keep it running at greatest efficiency.
Just as SalesForce.com has done for years and even Microsoft Office going to the cloud, we're the first in our market to offer GIS asset management in the cloud. Officially, it's called Software as a Service (SaaS), but we're marketing it as a Solutions as a Service since we offer the entire picture with a simple annual subscription. We are the first in our market with this delivery model.
Q: What were the start-up costs of opening 3-GIS?
A: I'd rather eat beans and drink rainwater than die of a heart attack. So many people with start-up companies come out of the block so fast and put so much stress on themselves that is unnecessary. Again, this is not my first rodeo. We really started the business on a shoestring budget to keep our costs under control. We knew of a GIS business that was going out of business in Austin, Texas, and we bought all their assets for 10 cents on the dollar.
Q: You brought up the economic downturn earlier. How did it impact your business?
A: When the economy tanked, it was really hard. I have never grown less than 25 percent a year when I've run a business ever; I've just been blessed. When the economy turned, we had to rethink what we were doing in marketing, what our spin, what our focus was. When the economy changed, we knew we couldn't just sit there and go after a really broad geospatial market. We needed to really focus on where the business was going, so we focused on utilities and telecom, which is where our sweet spot is. We focused our energies on domain expertise and kept marketing small to a sweet spot in that market.
Q: What business tips do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
A: Make sure you're doing it for the right reasons. I talk to people who haven't been able to find a job for six months or who hate their boss and want to start their own business to show people. Those are not exactly business drivers. Make sure that you have a passion for the business. Make sure you have family backing you. There's a lot of stress at times. You have to work long hours and sometimes you're not going to have any money, so you have to have your family behind you. Make sure you understand the market and what it takes to enter and compete in that market. With the field of dreams, it's a rare case that if you build it, they will come. There needs to be a desire, a hunger, a thirst for what you're building.
If you can check all of those boxes and are at peace with it, I encourage people to go for it. Don't slow down, and go for your dreams.
Q: What's been the best part of running your own business?
A: In 2011, we won most innovative software in our market and Esri's business partner of the year. That's when we knew we were actually on the right track. Sometimes you make all these adjustments, and you always have a doubt in the back of your head, saying, "Holy crap. Am I doing the right thing?" But when your peers and competitors say you have the best stuff out there, it validates all the decisions you've made. Also, anytime you can bring on new employees and take care of their family, kids and way of life, that's always a good day.
Q: What's the X factor or secret in 3-GIS' success?
A: You need to always be prepared to adjust to change. We've only been around seven years and had to make a couple of major changes to adjust to market needs. The pricing is important, but innovation and ability to deliver value are more important.
Family: Wife Suzanne and two daughters.
Education: University of Alabama in Huntsville.
Work experience: Vice president of Telcordia Technologies, 2001-06; president and co-founder of Mesa Solutions, 1996-2001; engineering manager for Intergraph Corp., 1986-1996.
Leadership experience: Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce, Geospatial Information Technology Association, Decatur-Morgan County Entrepreneurial Center, Decatur Kiwanis Club, Decatur Investment Club, Tennessee Valley Corridor and Biztech in Huntsville.
What the company does: 3-GIS provides Internet mapping of assets — power poles, telephone lines and fiber-optic cables — to utility and telecommunications companies.
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