Origins of Fulcrum
How did you come up with the idea for Fulcrum? I get asked this, or a version of this question a lot, and we typically include an abbreviated version of the story when we do corporate capability briefings for new prospective customers. I’ve been asked enough times recently that I realized I should probably put it down in writing, because there are likely people at Spatial Networks that don’t even fully understand the history of Fulcrum’s origins.
When I started Spatial Networks in June of 2000, there was no vision yet on what I wanted the company to achieve if it were successful (which was in no way a certainty). It wasn’t that long ago really, a mere 15 calendar years, but when I look back at the state of technology in 2000, particularly the internet and telecommunications at that time, it might as well have been 100 years ago.
What we started out as very quickly collapsed. I had to adapt. I had taken huge financial and personal risks in starting the company and it couldn’t have been a worse time to do so, on many levels.
A couple of the earliest contracts with a handful of customers would only last 18 months and left no cushion beyond that, and I certainly could not afford to hire anyone else at that point. I did everything. Not terribly well, but I did everything. I couldn’t scale that way however. I couldn’t grow the way I wanted to with that model. I needed a force multiplier. I needed leverage.
Before the din of shredders took over the offices, I had been successful at getting a pilot project with Enron. Yes, the Enron. They had an insatiable appetite for geospatial data. Truly gluttonous. Their databases rivaled many national mapping agencies. They effectively had a blank check for data. I found out why when I visited their headquarters in Houston to pitch them. They had a trading floor where they specialized in bidding on what’s known as “dark fiber”; fiber optic telecommunications cables with pairs of fiber which were unused or unlit. They also were aggressive in bidding against Ready For Service (RFS) dates on new fiber optic cables being laid across the oceans. They spent millions on data and made tens of millions by being more right than wrong in the trading pit.
Our pilot project focused on one of these transoceanic cables. We had a very short period of time, a spartan budget, and we couldn’t be wrong because the consequences to their business, and for that matter, my own, were potentially catastrophic. (little did I know about the existential uncertainty facing Enron.) I dutifully went about conducting the project as planned, including analysis of current satellite imagery & aerial photography of the anticipated landing stations along the proposed fiber cable route. I did all this from a converted dining room in my home on the best laptop money could buy. I had a report, complete with maps, analysis, charts, graphs, tables and narrative that I would have been proud and satisfied to submit as a deliverable. Something was missing however. There wasn’t a punch. It lacked a level of fidelity that I would have wanted as a customer.
I had time left on the schedule so I worked with some local experts that lived in the general vicinity of those landing stations along the fiber cable route, and who happened to not only be geospatial professionals, but subject matter experts in telecommunications. Equipped with the best consumer digital cameras, notebooks, handheld Garmin eTrex GPS, Compaq iPaq PDAs running Windows Mobile, and available digital maps, imagery and photography, these consultants were able to provide context, ground-truth, additional narrative, and most importantly, high-fidelity data collected from the field. It was the punch I needed.
My customer at Enron later told me, after he had left the company and all the drama started to unfold, that my report rocked the trading department. The level of detail and fidelity was something they had never been able to achieve. This gave them unusually high confidence when they went to bid and trade against that dark fiber, and I was told they made tens of millions of dollars. It was an epiphany for me and it clarified the basic vision for Spatial Networks that persists until today.
Postscript: It took me 28 months to get < 10% of the invoice I had submitted.
So after this experience, I realized there was a niche to carve out for Spatial Networks but I’d need to invest whatever meager profits the company made into a capability to allow us to provide high fidelity data from the field, with very high quality, extremely fast and at a very low cost (to the company). I needed to be able to scale up or down instantly, given the volatility in the project services space, and I needed to be able to deploy the tools globally, on-demand, on available mobile platforms, remotely and without traditional limitations of software CDs.
I’m not a software developer. I’m not even a very smart technical person, certainly not when compared to the brilliant people involved in the geospatial industry today. I was in a quandary, realizing that I had to innovate or go back to work for someone else, and that wasn’t something I was interested in considering. I found a partner who was able to appreciate my vision for something web-based (at the time, this wasn’t cloud computing or even SaaS, it was Application Service Provider, or ASP). We spent countless hours online, chatting about what to build, how to build it, and what it really needed to be able to do. It was a non-trivial effort. I had the money, I had the vision, and I had the mission. I just needed to execute and implement.
Less than a year later, we had a Minimally Viable Product (MVP), but that’s a generous characterization. Nevertheless, it worked. It wasn’t sexy or attractive, it was a Frankenstein application if there ever was one. Not a product, an application. There is a difference. We used it extensively. We pushed it to the technical edge. We couldn’t do more with it until other technological advances took place. We called this tool Geodexy, a play on the science term geodesy, but capitalizing on the “xy” as an indication of a specific place.
We didn’t have to wait long. Cellular phones started appearing with digital cameras built in. How exciting. These were low-resolution by today’s standards, but having one device now, that could replace two different devices, well, that was awesome. We could build an app for the Windows Mobile client, capture photos with the cellular phones, and then mark locations in the field with the handheld GPS units. We even tried snapping photos of the GPS screen after every photo of the point of interest in the field, and by being consistent with this, we could post-process and maintain a consistent accuracy and quality. Still, not ideal.
Along came the Blackberry devices, and all the while Windows Mobile devices continued to evolve, eventually incorporating cameras, GPS devices, removable storage, upgraded cellular technology (2.5 and 3G), higher capacity storage, higher resolution cameras, lower device costs, more variety and choice. We adapted as we could but we could not really keep pace now, it was clear there was a tidal wave of technological advances coming.
By 2005, the company had a handful of employees and just like any small company, every one wore multiple “hats” of responsibility and job function. After some strategic discussions, one of the more experienced professionals told me that, in his opinion, the internal tool that we used to “scratch our own itch”, Geodexy, could be a viable commercial product. I hadn’t considered this before that moment and it took me a few days to warm up to the idea. What did I know about real, no-kidding software product development, sales, marketing, support, etc. It was an intellectually uncomfortable couple of days.
Field of Dreams
We decided to move ahead. We had enough money, we thought, to make a real effort at commercializing what was a proprietary, competitive advantage. We formalized agreements with our partner(s) to rebuild the application but with a focus on creating a product that we could sell. We formulated a pricing model, sales & marketing plan, discussed how to support customers, what markets we would pursue first, etc. Once the market saw what we had to offer, who wouldn’t want to buy it? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…
I failed to identify a single commercial problem that Geodexy could solve, even if we gave it away for free. I’ll dispense with an exhaustive rehearsal of all the effort we put forth in building, marketing, selling, and advertising Geodexy - suffice it to say, that it was a disappointing, unsuccessful effort. We persisted for three years. A costly education.
The first iPhone had launched in early 2007 and while I had taken notice, the company was still overwhelmingly a “Windows PC shop”. That was about to change. Everyone in the company was moving to Apple products. I was the last one in the pool.
Everyone remembers 2008–2010. It was ugly. While the national and global economies were melting down, we lost our largest client after a decade of working together. On more than one occasion, I came close to throwing in the towel. Spatial Networks managed to survive through those tough couple of years.
We started to discuss the idea of developing a commercial product again that was more narrowly focused. We elected to target the residential home inspection market. The size of the market combined with the perpetual demand made the initial decision an easy one. We did learn from our experience with Geodexy, and we spent the first six months conducting robust and exhaustive market analysis, including riding shotgun with numerous home inspectors in Florida so that we could learn and understand the types of “pain” they experienced in doing their work. This investment paid off as we were much more aligned with our efforts at building a mobile data collection tool for the home inspection industry. We went to trade events, joined industry associations, conducted demos, and did nearly everything better - by a wide margin - than we did with Geodexy. We still failed.
One of my long time friends and business mentors made the observation that the entire home inspection industry needed to be educated about a wide array of technology components in order to get comfortable with a new, radical, and innovative solution. We had called our product Allinspections. It was the first product on the market built for smartphones and built in the cloud as a SaaS offering. It was elegant, gorgeous, and the return on investment (ROI) for an individual inspector was less than a day. We tinkered with different pricing models, initially charging per inspection. This seemed logical — we rationalized that if an inspector went out to work, they incurred fuel costs, time, materials, etc. that could all be pegged to the cost of a home inspection report paid by the home owner. We surmised that the cost of allinspections should be no different. If the inspector had no work on Monday, they were not charged for using allinspections on Monday. The cost, per record was nominal. It was a compelling argument. We could easily demonstrate the ROI in terms of increased productive (more inspections per day) and higher profitability per inspection (takes less time), as well as the higher quality which increased an inspector’s brand valuation. We still failed. Spectacularly.
The market was not ready when we were. We also woke up some of the industry giants that had been earning enormous profits from lackluster and mediocre (at best) solutions that actually made life harder for the individual inspector. We were too disruptive to the inspector community. I didn’t think it was possible to be too disruptive. We modified the pricing model to have an “all you can eat” subscription plan while keeping the “pay per record” functionality as well. We soon started seeing major competitors offering “cloud enabled” solutions and smartphone “apps”. We had lost the initiative and were paying for it by hemorrhaging cash. We pulled the plug and shut down operations for allinspections in 2012. It made an impact however, as we were still getting inquiries to “buy” the entire allinspections platform and brand more than 18 months after we terminated business operations. I am still proud of what we were able to build and what we did actually accomplish, but it was yet another expensive education.
Halfway through lifespan of allinspections, some on my team were telling me that the product as engineered was akin to having painted ourselves into a tight corner. Some recommended “burning it down” and starting over. Others wanted to build a replacement and swap them when ready and hopefully none of our paying customers would notice. I was perplexed and dismayed. I started to lose confidence in my ability to make decisions and the decisions of my technical team. I elected not to “burn it down” but gave the go ahead to start down a proper process to build it “right”, in parallel to keeping allinspections up and running, and to keep this new platform in “stealth mode” as long as possible. We had some staff changes to make sure this was done in accordance with the vision I had articulated for the company.
So, the net result was that by the time the decision was made to “kill allinspections”, we had already conceived and given birth to Fulcrum.
We launched Fulcrum (v.9) at the USGIF’s annual GEOINT Symposium in San Antonio during October 2011. It had a modest reception but validated some of our initial ideas about the problems it would solve. We were energized and excited to put our efforts into perfecting Fulcrum and finally realize what we had been striving for over numerous years and a seemingly endless cycle of investment.
In early 2014, Fulcrum had matured to a point where we were supporting thousands of users in numerous countries and the momentum continued to build. I got a note from a couple of former colleagues that congratulated us, and one commented, “…you’ve finally managed to get it done, Fulcrum is everything you’ve been talking about, pushing for and believing in for years…”.
One of the most significant differences between Fulcrum and previous efforts is also one of the most humbling. I got out of the way. I was part of the problem and not part of the solution. From the beginning with Fulcrum, I remained as removed from the details as possible and hired and promoted key technical staff that I trust and charged with executing my vision for the product. I effectively abdicated ownership of the art and science of building a software product to my colleagues and coworkers. I couldn’t be more proud of the result.
We still battle over features, user interface (UI), markets to pursue, pricing, and just as importantly, what to keep out of Fulcrum. It’s a data collection platform. That’s what it does best, and it is the best available on the market today, by a wide margin. It’s not all things to all people, nor will it ever be, by design.