March 18, 2013

Atlatl's Promise: Accelerate Sales Through Software

Brendan Kearney  /  Post and Courier

Put simply, ErectaStep wasn't selling.

The Andrews company's salesmen would describe how their industrial platforms, stairs and ladders offered safe passage over conveyer belts or pipes. They would point to diagrams on brochures to show prospective customers how the scheme might work in their factories.

But there was a visualization gap. The manufacturers couldn't quite picture it. And then there was the built-in lag time and margin of error associated with preparing a quote and filling the order –- if things even got that far.

The executive team at ErectaStep's parent company, Georgetown-based Six Axis, sensed that gap meant misses that should have been closings. So they tasked Chief Information Officer Matt Carter with devising a software solution.

What Carter's team came up with in fall 2011 apparently did the trick –- and a whole lot more.The three-dimensional modeling and configuration tool allowed customers to map out exactly what they want. The salesman could then offer a quote immediately, because prices of all the materials were programmed in, and email it and all the diagrams to the customer.

And thanks to cloud computing, all the data from the salesman-customer interaction were immediately available back at ErectaStep headquarters, allowing managers there to track its activity in real time, not only to get the order together but to make bigger-picture, longer-term business decisions.

The investment paid for itself in just a month, and ErectaStep has experienced "explosive growth" ever since, Carter said.Six Axis co-founders Rob Honey- cutt and Fred Harmon, meanwhile, came to the realization that they had a new product that was totally different from the rest of their industrial safety equipment portfolio.

"The owners were reluctant to start a software business," Carter recalled. Then they had an epiphany: "We're entrepreneurs first."

But what to call it?

To hear Carter tell it, it was around the same time that Harmon, a history buff, saw a TV special on the "atlatl," an ancient hunting device that extended the human arm to hurl projectiles faster. He thought it an apt metaphor for his company's 21st-century accelerator.

"It just struck him," Carter said. "And he just made the connection."

'Nike moment'

After everyone had a chance to look it up –- and learn to pronounce it (at-LAT-l) –- they agreed. Carter described it as a "Nike moment," that is, when a little-known Greek goddess became a well-known sports brand.

"For us it was literally that kind of moment when we saw it," Carter said. That was last summer. Atlatl software has since officially spun off and, in September, moved into a corner of architectural firm LS3P Associates Ltd.'s offices at King and Market streets in downtown Charleston.

Carter wouldn't release any specific financials or any details about the patents for which he's applied. But he said Atlatl is growing so fast he loses sleep over how to keep up with the delivery requirements "and keep up with my sales team." He said customers range from pressure valve and boat manufacturers to real estate developers and contractors.

They couldn't hire people fast enough in Charleston, so they opened a second office in Portland, Ore. There are about 30 Atlatl employees between the two offices, and Carter's looking to hire another 10, including HTML and Python developers, modelers and customer service people.

"We're struggling to get the staffing here that we want," Carter said during a recent visit to his office. "For every one applicant we get here, we get 10 there."

To keep up with the growth, the company has agreed to take over more of LS3P's top floor next month. Besides selling, Carter said Atlatl aims to become "one of the core cogs and drivers of the Charleston technology community."

Here's how Atlatl's sales resource planning software works:

The manufacturer gives Atlatl a bounty of information about its products, from prices to all the rules about how their dimensions and interoperability. The firm's modelers and animators then gin up a 3-D, on-screen, rotatable and changeable version of it and place it in the setting it might be used.

"There's an engine that underlies all of this that is our software," Carter explained. "The only custom work for the customer, or for us for the customer, is working on the rules."

The application can then be loaded onto an iPad and with so many finger swipes, a customer can configure the model or arrangement he needs.

Georgetown-based Screentight was an early adopter.

With an iPad in hand, Carter demonstrated how a homeowner or contractor can quickly configure a screen porch by selecting the number of walls, the size and location of the door, the materials. Minutes later, there on the screen was a mock-up of the porch.

"And voila, we have a solution," Carter said. "Seeing is believing."

In 3-D

Reached last week at Screentight's factory in Texas, Guerry Green, the owner and a friend of Honeycutt's, said Atlatl's both fun to play with and effective as a buying and selling tool.

"We have used other configurators, mostly in the store environment, but I'd say they're bland. They're certainly not three-dimensional, you can't use your imagination as much," Green said. "And the response that we've gotten over and over again is, 'How did this little small company in South Carolina come up with something that's more sophisticated than all these bigger guys everywhere else?'"

AutoDesk and its AutoCAD product are among Atlatl's bigger competitors.

Carter said the differentiator for Atlatl is that it's designed not for the engineer or skilled draftsman but rather for the nonsophisticated salesman and customer.

Then there's the back-end data.

Because Atlatl is software-as-a-service (hosted in remote servers and accessible from any device via the Internet), everything that happens on an iPad in the field is fed instantaneously into reports and graphs that give managers a faster, better understanding of what their teams are doing.

"They can begin to make fundamental business decisions," Todd Bida, vice president of corporate and business development, said, referring to ordering supplies or projecting financial results, "that they simply couldn't make before."

Before, that kind of information might only come after the salesman has had a chance to sit down and enter it into a program, perhaps as late as the end of the week.

"There has never been this type of efficiency in the data that is available and captured now organically through the sales process," he said.

On the most basic level, Carter and Bida said Atlatl, like any product or service, will be measured by its customers' return on their investment.

Bida said the ROI experienced at Six Axis and early customer companies was so "ridiculous" as to be "factual but noncredible."

"We literally had to dumb down the ROI calculator" on Atlatl's website, Carter said.

If they can keep up with themselves, the plan is to keep selling to manufacturing and industrial companies, including eventually cars if that industry is ready.

"We're just really excited about the future," Carter said.