SoftSolutions Information Technology, an information solutions company that develops performance management tools for manufacturers, boasts five-year accomplishments that would make any entrepreneur proud: triple-digit average sales growth, profits 17 out of 20 quarters, and a customer base that includes several Fortune 500 companies.
While many technology entrepreneurs believe this kind of growth can only be accomplished after several rounds of venture capital funding, SoftSolutions met — and exceeded — its goals without taking on debt or outside financing. Instead, founder Jay Foster relied on some of the basic tenets of business: building a good team that is devoted to serving customers, planning carefully for expansion and developing a network of experienced mentors.
"SoftSolutions isn’t the kind of company you see every day," says Lisa Ison, president of The New Century Venture Center (NCVC). "Leading up to its graduation, SoftSolutions had a lot of proposals before it. Each proposal looked attractive on the surface, but Jay brought them all to his advisory team (which the incubator helped him assemble). They put the pencil to the dollars to help him locate the best destination for the company when it left the incubator."
SoftSolutions, which graduated from the NCVC in July 2002, now is located in a historical home in southwest Roanoke. Foster started the business in 1998 armed with a background in contract database development and manufacturing execution systems, a desire to step away from the corporate world and start his own business, and a contract service job that would fund the company during its first year.
An electrical engineer with a master’s in business administration (MBA), Foster used both his technical skills and his business acumen to develop ways to help manufacturers monitor and improve production performance. SoftSolutions initially supported and modified existing production performance software, but the staff soon realized that many products on the market were a poor fit for the manufacturing environment because they did not improve results.
To better serve its customers’ needs, the company created customized software that can extract critical production data directly from plant floor equipment and information systems and transform it into practical information that machine operators, supervisors and plant managers can use to improve the way they work, Foster says.
The company’s product line includes systems that track parts, work-in-progress and equipment performance, as well as sophisticated tools that monitor key performance indicators critical to the organization’s success. SoftSolutions’ customers include Corning, Johnson & Johnson, Sara Lee, Ericsson, Volvo and RR Donnelley.
Starting the company in the NCVC gave SoftSolutions significant advantages during its early years, including the opportunity to network with other start-up clients, access to office resources without large capital expenses, and flexible space that could grow with the company, Foster says. During its time in the incubator, SoftSolutions moved or expanded five times.
Perhaps most instrumental to the company’s growth, however, has been the advice Foster has received from seasoned business professionals. "Our advisory board really had an impact on our growth," says Foster, noting that he still meets regularly with its members. "There were numerous occasions when the company was going through un-chartered waters regarding marketing strategy, organizational development or human resources issues, and the advisory board provided significant help."
One suggestion Foster quickly implemented was to hold regular employee meetings to ensure that everyone was in the loop and felt ownership in the business as the company grew, Foster says. These meetings have become an integral part of the culture at SoftSolutions — a culture that has helped the company recruit and retain a talented group of professionals.
"We try to run the company with an open-book philosophy, which focuses on leveraging the potential of the whole organization," Foster says. "We make an effort to keep everyone engaged and help them understand how their individual contributions impact the team, our customers and the company’s financial statements."
Foster’s efforts to keep his staff motivated toward growing the business must be working. Since 1998, the staff has expanded from two employees to 17, and revenues have increased from $115,000 to $1.18 million.
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