Structural Software for the Masses
Like many engineers, Tim Garrison built things when he was young. During high school, he worked carpentry and construction jobs helping to build houses and light commercial buildings for a construction company owned by friends of the family. “That’s how I made money as a kid,” he recalls.
Such beginnings often serve as a springboard to an engineering career by providing real-world, hands-on fundamentals. Following this pattern, Garrison would later become a civil engineer and work jobs in the public sector and serve as a principal and structural engineer in consulting firms. He took it further than most people, though, by bridging his youth experience with his engineering background to become president and CEO of ConstructionCalc, Inc. in Mt. Vernon, Washington. The firm develops low-budget, easy-to-use software for contractors to use in selecting structural members for houses and other buildings.
Born in Milleville, New Jersey, Garrison moved west at the age of four with his family after his father received a scholarship to attend Oregon State University in pursuit of becoming a college professor. His father’s first teaching job came later in Modesto, California, and the family relocated there.
Aspiring to be an architect, Garrison, 42, went to Modesto Junior College for an associate’s degree in architectural engineering. He tried to get into the architecture program at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo but didn’t have high enough grades or the right connections for the competitive school. His dad suggested a more practical field like engineering. “That was quite a good choice,” he muses. This led to a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from California State University Sacramento and later a master’s degree from Fresno State University.
While he had developed an interest in structural engineering during college, Garrison’s career temporarily took a turn toward becoming more well rounded. A college roommate who was a native American Indian had worked summers for the U.S. Public Health Service/Indian Health Service and told him their Sacramento office had a great intern program. After doing an internship there, Garrison took charge of his own office in Fresno right out of college. As a water and wastewater engineer, he served over 50 American Indian communities in California. Later, he went to work for the State of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection as a lead engineer handling the department’s water, wastewater, roads, and building facilities.
Meanwhile, Garrison had a friend from college whose father worked for Bechtel and traveled all over the world. Over beer and pizza, the father would say after the youngsters got experience and he finished working at Bechtel, they would start an engineering company. The topic kept coming up with the friend and his brother, and one day the two suggested a road trip to Skagit County, Washington, where the father was from and had since moved. “I was fed up with the public sector and started a company with two other engineers who were old enough to be my dad,” Garrison recalls, referring to Crest, Inc. – Contractors and Engineers in La Conner, Washington. They had planned Crest as a design-build firm because the two older partners were contractors and Garrison a pure engineer.
After a couple years, though, incompatibilities arose, and Garrison decided to move on. He took the engineering division with him and started Garrison Engineering Company. His brother, a mechanical engineer in California, was looking for something different, so he went up and joined him as a partner. The firm eventually grew to ten employees. But as Garrison relates, “After doing that for six or seven years, I could see that engineering was a limited profession. In other words, I could spend my whole life engineering and make a decent salary and be just like every other engineer out there. There were a lot bigger opportunities available to engineers who had a little entrepreneurial spirit and some ingenuity, and I always felt that was more my calling.”
From his days as a contractor, Garrison saw a tremendous shortage of practical software tools for builders and other non-engineers, and he says he began laying roots for ConstructionCalc while running Garrison Engineering Company. “I’d buy all the software, just like every other engineer, trying to find something to make my job faster and easier. But I wasn’t very happy with the structural software out there. So one of the employees and I started writing our own programs. We kept refining them and refining them, and after awhile, it occurred to me that I really liked this line of work, and it had huge potential to make money.” He told his brother he wanted to pursue that, but his brother wanted to continue as an engineer. In 2000, Garrison bought his brother out of the engineering company and started ConstructionCalc Software Company with two employees instrumental in writing the software. For funding, they kept doing engineering and had a grandiose plan of phasing it out and the software in.
But like many new entrepreneurs, Garrison says, “I found out right away you don’t just develop software, build a website, and it sells. It just doesn’t work that way. Marketing is half the battle.” Actually, ConstructionCalc prospered for awhile, until the 9/11 terrorist attacks hit. “It just knocked the stuffing out of the global construction industry. We went from five engineers down to not even enough work for the three principals. I realized something had to be done.” He wound up buying the partners out of ConstructionCalc, and they started an engineering-only company. “I took the software component with me. I’ve been operating ConstructionCalc as the sole guy since early 2003. It’s been an interesting road.”
In describing his software, Garrison comments, “I’m not trying to write stuff that will analyze the Eiffel Tower. There are plenty of programs that do that. My software solves a small problem a contractor has right now.” His structural software selects and sizes components commonly used in construction such as beams, columns, footings, and retaining walls. “Anything stick frame, residential or light commercial, can find great use with our software.” And he adds, “It’s really fast and easy to use.” He uses Microsoft Excel, creating what he calls “powerful spreadsheets,” because contractors know the software and it keeps the price low. “I’d rather sell a lot of products at a low price.”
So how does a ConstructionCalc structural program work exactly? Garrison explains, “Let’s say you solve for a beam. Instead of it giving you an answer, ‘Yes. You may use a Glu-Lam beam 5’x12,’ you input your loads and span, and you get 20 different solutions and three different types of materials with the push of one button -- alternatives, that’s what contractors want.” They may want to use up what they have in stock, or maybe they have a hot line on purchasing a particular material.
In recent years, Garrison has found himself designing and building his own house, and this has led to another software product. “I have several stairs in my house. A couple years ago when I was doing my plans, I went online to find something to help me design the stairs. I have a circular stair and a couple straight-run stairs, and I couldn’t find any software to design stairs,” he says. “I sat down and wrote a stair calculator program and put it on my website, and that has been my best seller yet. I’ve got StairCalc programs sold in just about every state and overseas.” StairCalc programs lay out stairs and calculate their rise, run, headroom, and horizontal fit.
In reflecting on his journey, Garrison says, “This is what I really enjoy. When I split off from my brother, I realized just engineering wasn’t what I wanted to do. This teaches a whole new perspective of supply and demand, something engineers don’t get much of.” As the only employee, “I literally run this company out of my home. The world of virtual computing is amazing in that it allows a small business owner like me to pull this off.”
What about that half of the battle known as marketing? “I’ve created this persona called the ‘builder’s engineer,’ which is me,” Garrison reveals. He writes a weekly column for the National Association of Home Builders on their online newsletter (www.nahb.com). “That’s actually part of my marketing strategy to get my name and company’s name out there.” Calling upon his own experiences, he advises contractors, who often have little expertise in business and management.
Garrison says he has big plans for ConstructionCalc and sees a bright future. “I have 50 programs in various stages of development. I’m working with venture capitalists, and I really need to dump a bunch of money into the company to get the products ready to sell. I would have to staff up.” His vision: “I think ConstructionCalc could easily be a multi-million dollar company. The market for these products is so huge. It’s literally worldwide.” Already, I’ve got sales in Australia, Norway, and England. Every day, when I look at who’s downloading software, it’s amazing.”