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If I weren't a Carpenter . . .

A small multimedia company, started by a past construction company owner, is profiled.
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In his journey from nail pounding to multimedia development, Gary Haselton found that when you chase after technology, it chases you, too

Quick Start
Challenge: To continually transform a business -- from carpentry to CAD services to multimedia-kiosk design -- so it maintains a competitive edge

Solution: Customize off-the-shelf software to service a succession of increasingly sophisticated industry niches

Resources: VisiCalc, a once-popular spreadsheet program; CAD architectural-drafting software; Microsoft's Access database; multimedia-development software

* * *

Gary Haselton rechecks his measurements on an unfinished pine cabinet. His large work-worn hands move quickly and comfortably over the blond wood, following instincts honed during years of pounding nails. He reaches for his power saw, cuts a discreet opening through the back of the cabinet, and carefully sands the rough edges. Reaching inside, he pulls out a spaghetti-like handful of black wires, connects the appropriate ones, and then steps around front to inspect his creation. A high-powered computer with a gleaming color monitor peers back at him from the center of the cabinet. On the screen is his latest project: an array of touch-screen buttons that offer information options to customers at a local ski shop. Touching one virtual button yields a list of selected local restaurants; touching another reveals facts about local hotels; touching a third produces maps and scenes of nearby ski areas.

Not a bad piece of work, considering it wasn't long ago that Haselton, 40, earned a living swinging a hammer and pouring concrete. But it wasn't an easy jump from running a small building company to driving a multimedia-presentation one, EPIC Multimedia Inc., in South Burlington, Vt. It was more a series of off-balance hops. As Haselton gradually parlayed his mastery of carpentry tools into proficiency with information tools, he learned a hard lesson: gaining a technological edge can create new business opportunities, but the edge can evaporate almost overnight, leaving you in the dust. "You can't expect your innovation to last three or four years anymore," Haselton cautions. "You have to be willing to assimilate and grow."

* * *

Gary Haselton has always loved tools. His preference for tinkering over talking led him to transfer out of two colleges and an architectural-engineering program at Wentworth Institute of Technology, in Boston. With his wife, Cyndi, he left Boston for Booth Bay Harbor, Maine, to make a living doing what he enjoyed most: creating things with his hands. In that same year, 1977, he started Haselton Construction Inc., which designed and built $200,000 to $500,000 custom homes. By the mid-1980s the company employed 18 people and was grossing $2 million a year.

Haselton attributes part of his success as a builder to his enthusiasm for cutting-edge technology. "I was probably the first builder in my area to buy a nailing gun. I saw that productivity was the key to being successful. One nailing gun and a person who knew how to use it could triple the output of a framing crew." Haselton ultimately amassed a modest arsenal of advanced tools -- a rarity for a small building company at the time.

He also began using another technology that was novel in the construction business: computers. His first endeavor, in 1979, was to customize VisiCalc, a once-popular spreadsheet program, so it could perform project estimates. His goal was to turn around more accurate estimates faster. But soon after he finished, technological advances erased his competitive advantage. "I spent 700 hours writing an estimating program, at a cost of $10,500, at my $15-an-hour contracting rate," he says. "But within six months, there was a commercial program on the market for about $50 that was 10 times more powerful. That was a lesson to me in how fast technology moves and how quickly innovations become obsolete."

Despite his frustrating trial, Haselton's determination to integrate computers into his business paid off. The program he wrote worked better for him than the commercial software, and he was soon able to give clients estimates that were accurate within 2%. A typical builder's accuracy is about 10%, he notes.

Haselton's wife accelerated his involvement with computers. In 1986 Cyndi, now 40, announced that after raising four children, she wanted to go to medical school -- more than 300 miles away in Vermont. Haselton supported his wife's decision but couldn't face starting a construction business in a new location. He continued running his firm but started looking into other fields while Cyndi took premed courses at the University of Maine. Two years later a business colleague in Maine who was impressed by Haselton's aptitude for technology trained and hired him as a surveyor. Part of his job required him to become familiar with sophisticated computer-aided design (CAD) programs that got him thinking.

* * *

The family moved to Vermont in 1990, and the builder-cum-technologist started his first computer-based venture, Builders' CAD Services. "I knew from being a builder that the typical customer could not visualize from two-dimensional plans what the finished product was going to be," he says. In December he purchased $12,000 worth of hardware -- a Man & Machine 386DX2-66 computer -- and CAD architectural-drafting software from 62-year-old Hal Denzer, a computer consultant. Haselton spent the next six months learning to use it all. With his new computer gear, he would be able to provide builders with detailed line drawings, a precise materials list, accurate job estimates, and the capability to lead clients on a virtual walk-through of their prospective homes.

Haselton began his hunt for clients in May 1991. Within a week he had contracted with Sterling Construction Inc., a growing Burlington-area developer, to provide all its architectural drafting. That contract was the mainstay of Builders' CAD Services for a year and a half. Haselton soon invested another $5,000 to upgrade his system to a 486-based computer because the 386 was too slow.

By the fall of 1991 Haselton had received enough inquiries about his services to justify the purchase of another state-of-the-art computer, a 486DX2-66, from Denzer, to handle the growth he anticipated for his business. He planned to set up shop outside his home and eventually to hire four or five full-time CAD operators. But a couple of snags developed. Haselton couldn't find any competent architectural CAD operators. "I got caught. I had the market and the equipment, but I couldn't find the labor," he says. Then the New England economy faltered; many builders fell on hard times, and Haselton's market shrank. Worst of all from his point of view, cheap new building-design software hit the market. Some builders who might have used his services instead turned to the inexpensive, user-friendly CAD software, which they could run themselves. While Haselton's sophisticated programs still offered an edge in designing complex custom homes and provided a more polished finished product, the new off-the-shelf software met the needs of most builders.

Haselton could now keep only himself and one of his computers busy. He turned to Denzer for ideas about how he might put his second machine to work. Denzer introduced Haselton to the burgeoning field of multimedia, demonstrating how people were combining audio, video, and computer technology in educational and business applications. The concept sparked Haselton's imagination.

Again leveraging his knowledge of construction, Haselton developed a multimedia computer program to assess the skills of potential new hires at construction companies. Unfortunately, builders weren't interested. Then he talked with people in other businesses and discovered that they were enthusiastic about the prospect of having interactive multimedia systems aimed at their customers or employees. Haselton offered to build kiosks that could provide information in the form of music, video, and text. A computer monitor with a variety of virtual buttons would provide consumers with information. At the touch of a button, sound and images would spring to life. The kiosks would be located in high-visibility areas, such as hotel lobbies, stores, or company common areas. In addition to multimedia materials that Haselton would develop with clients, he thought he could make money by selling multimedia ads -- from, say, local restaurants or sightseeing spots -- that would run on the kiosks. His plan was to charge a daily rate for the ads, depending on how long and sophisticated they were. If he could get 100 advertisers to pay about $100 each month for an ad, a kiosk could generate $10,000 in monthly revenues. The more popular the location, the more advertisers he could draw.

In May 1994 the builder and the computer wizard went into business together. With Denzer as his partner, Gary Haselton became president of EPIC Multimedia. The team immediately began gathering the high-tech gear it would need for the venture.

* * *

Lined up on a long conference table in EPIC's office are three Micron 486DX4-100 desktop computers, two Man & Machine 486DX2-66 computer towers, a Macintosh computer, assorted color laptop computers, two color scanners, two color printers, two VCR players, three stereo systems, and a multitude of speakers. In the next office are two more Man & Machine 486DX-66s -- one is the LAN server, the other runs demos of the company's software -- and an assortment of computer boards strewn on tables.

Using this accumulation of technology, EPIC has landed 10 contracts since incorporating. Three kiosks have been placed in high-traffic retail locations (a ski shop, a cider mill, and a ski-resort lodge). A fourth is in a corporate cafeteria; it offers information to employees about company insurance plans, shows meeting agendas, and displays training videos. EPIC has agreements to install another six kiosks this summer. Haselton adds that he has had dozens of inquiries from organizations ranging from local hotels and hospitals to Fortune 500 companies.

To help support EPIC's growth, Denzer and Haselton have added a third partner, Eileen Lunati, who is also the company's full-time director of marketing and sales. The firm now has four full-time employees, two part-time employees, and an array of consultants working for it.

Haselton's greatest fear is that EPIC will become too big, too fast. "I turned down an opportunity to do a 500-computer installation in six months because it would have left us $3 million in debt," he says. Debt financing is anathema to him. He put up $150,000 in cash -- half of it from his mother -- to capitalize EPIC. "My debt load is zero, and to me that's the key to being able to run in different directions," he states emphatically. He also turned down two buyout offers from competitors, the larger of which was for a half-million dollars.

Despite its early success, EPIC remains a start-up. Haselton began working full-time for the company last October, but Denzer is still keeping his day job. Haselton has scaled back his CAD work, which earned him about $40,000 last year; he provides only basic services to a small group of existing clients. Fortunately, Cyndi is now a practicing physician and can help pay the bills.

When asked where he thinks his love affair with tools will lead him next, Haselton buzzes with high-tech schemes. "We're already planning for interactive TV, high-definition television, and satellite broadcasting," he says enthusiastically, knowing from experience the inexorable forward march of technology. "But I've learned a number of lessons about how fast technology catches up with you. You want to try the newest technology? Then you pay the highest price."

Even with his high-tech business, the master builder continues to ply his original trade. He points proudly to an inlaid tile table he made. "It's a small sideline business I have with my father-in-law," he says, doting over the handsome piece. "I still like the smell of sawdust."

* * *

David Goodman (davgood@aol.com) is a freelance writer living in Waterbury Center, Vt. He writes frequently about technology issues.


MOVING TARGET

1979: Gary Haselton customizes VisiCalc for project estimating; adds value to his contracting business

1982: Cheap off-the-shelf project-estimating software becomes available; Haselton's edge evaporates

1988: Hired as a surveyor; learns to use CAD software

1990: Starts a building-design business based on CAD

1992: New inexpensive building-design software hits the shelves; Haselton loses customers

1993: Develops multimedia program to assess skills of potential construction-company hires; program doesn't fly

1994: Becomes president of EPIC Multimedia, supplying interactive multimedia kiosks to businesses




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