Russ Whitney and company are bringing custom to the customer
After going through a big career transition, many turn to hobbies to clear their heads. And that’s what Russ Whitney did.
He was a Vice President for ProClarity, the Boise startup Microsoft acquired in 2006. At Microsoft Boise, he was a general manager in an organization with hundreds of people — a long way from the small businesses he loved.
“I got tired of all the politics,” Russ says.
He wasn’t the only one… So he quit Microsoft.
It was fall of 2010, without a job, Russ headed to his garage and his woodworking tools. He was determined to make that year’s Christmas presents himself. Although he didn’t know at the time, he was also building the foundation for his current startup company, IdeaRoom Technologies.
While making all those gifts in his woodshop, Russ got the idea to create 3D plans that show how all the parts of woodworking projects fit together.
Russ found a partner in programming and IT guru Dan VanOrden, and turned the concept into a company they called Sawtooth Ideas.
Launched in 2012, Sawtooth Ideas is a marketplace for woodworkers to sell 3D plans of tables, cabinets and bird houses to consumers or fellow woodworkers.
But the business-to-consumer model of selling woodworking plans did not prove profitable. Russ acknowledges Sawtooth Ideas missed opportunities to build awareness in the market. And it’s hard to keep a business afloat in an unforgiving market.
So Russ pivoted.
He saw the potential in repurposing Sawtooth Ideas’ underlying technology into a configurator to be sold to other businesses. An online configurator is a tool that lets customers mix and match options to create products with their desired specifications. If you’ve gone online to create a custom shirt or a calendar with your own pictures, you’ve used a configurator.
Russ says they found “fairly immediate traction” after changing from selling woodworking plans to selling the configurator.
If a potential customer wanted, say, a shed for their backyard, they could use the configurator to create a virtual shed with the windows, doors, finishes, and other options.
Some online configurators change images by switching out layered graphics. For example, changing your custom shirt from white to yellow usually involves adding a yellow layer to the graphic. But IdeaRoom Tech’s configurator works with 3D images. Anything you can draw in 3D with a CAD program can go into the configurator.
Russ says the configurator incorporates some lessons he took from his time with ProClarity.
“ProClarity was about unlocking the insights buried within your company’s data, but without needing a technical guru to help you through it. The configurator does the same thing for a customer who wants to buy some kind of configurable product.”
“A lot of companies want to send a sales rep to the customer because they’re afraid of losing touch with customers, and because sales reps want to be able to upsell them,” Russ says. “But we’ve found that when you give customers access to all of the available options and show the product on the screen, very often they’ll up-sell themselves.”
Most vendors who sell configurable products like greenhouses or even single-family homes take a one-and-done approach. However, Russ says one sale doesn’t have to be the end.
IdeaRoom Tech can capture customers’ online interactions with the configurator, and then share that with the vendor to improve sales. Vendors can even reuse graphics customers configured online, creating personalized marketing documents.
When asked about the biggest competitor IdeaRoom Tech faces in the configurator space, Russ quickly answered: “doing nothing.” Companies and their sales reps are often reluctant to change their ways. Some even believe they can create their own configurator systems themselves. IdeaRoom Tech is constantly pushing to prove itself with its customers.
Prepared for the future, IdeaRoom is poised to pursue more funding and expand its operations.
Although Sawtooth Ideas didn’t take off like Russ hoped, it provided many useful lessons. Russ says Sawtooth Ideas allowed him to focus on a small, specific niche largely flying under the radar. While the pivot from Sawtooth Ideas was “more abrupt” than he expected, Russ says he still frequently finds himself using some of the old “Sawtooth” ideas in IdeaRoom Tech.
And if you’re wondering whether Russ managed to make all of his Christmas presents by hand in the workshop back in 2010, he did. In fact, you’ll find his handmade tables, book shelves and laptop stands in the IdeaRoom Tech office in Downtown Boise’s historic Sonna Building.
Note: For more information on IdeaRoom Tech, visit their website at IdearoomTech.com.