Interview with Phil Rittenhouse of Laurel Creek Software

In the first of what I hope will be a continuing series of interviews with the folks I find interesting, Phil Rittenhouse tells us about some of his experiences starting up Laurel Creek Software, a Waterloo-based software company and maker of Precision Tile.

What is Laurel Creek Software?

Laurel Creek Software is a sole-proprietorship that I created to sell Precision Tile. As it grows I will incorporate, but sole-proprietorship is a nice low-overhead way to get started.

What is Precision Tile?

Precision Tile is a software application designed to help do-it-yourselfers with their tile projects. It helps the user visualize their tile project so they can choose the tile colours, grout colours and layout pattern that best suites their space. It then helps the user decide exactly where each tile will go so they can optimize where all the cut tiles will be. It also automatically counts up the number of tiles they will need to do the job.

Where did you get the idea to start the company?

I had written a rudimentary version of Precision Tile while planning my own tile floor project. I remember thinking “there has to be a better way” when I was trying to map it out with pencil and paper. I did a lot of googling for a solution but all I found were posts by other people looking for the same thing. That got my thinking that I wasn’t alone, and there would definitely be a market for the software I was writing.

I have always wanted to have my own company but I’ve never been willing to take a big gamble to make it happen. Precision Tile offered the opportunity to start small and still keep my day job. As fate would have it, when I was just about to hit the point where I had to decide between the two, my employer was bought out, and I was given a nice severance package. It was the perfect opportunity to get Laurel Creek Software off the ground.

What do you find the most challenging part of running Laurel Creek Software?

I think balancing my time is the biggest challenge for me these days. I currently spend about half my time consulting, half running Laurel Creek and the OTHER half with my family. It really forces you to look hard at how you spend every hour of the day.

What do you find most rewarding?

I find the freedom to make decisions very rewarding. I don’t have to worry about any red tape or bureaucracy. If I think something needs to be done, I do it. I also get to make mistakes, which I have found is not such a bad thing. I get to learn from my mistakes, but even more important it means I can also take risks. Taking a calculated risk and having it pay-off is very gratifying.

What was the most surprising difference between life as an entrepreneur and life as an employee?

I was surprised at how excited other people are by the idea of being an entrepreneur. People are always interested in how the business is doing, but even more surprising is how eager they are to share their ideas. I can’t count how many times someone has said “You know what you should do….”.

And their ideas are often very good.

What would you like to see Laurel Creek Software become?

I would like to grow Laurel Creek into a software company that operates more like an entrepreneurial co-op than a traditional company. A place where talented people can find the resources they need to bring ideas to life.

Are you seeking funding? Why, or why not?

No, I am currently not seeking funding. I think having to answer to investors would take away a lot of what I like best about running my own company. That is, the freedom to make my own choices, especially when my priority is not necessarily the bottom line.

Luckily my overhead is low enough that revenue’s have covered expenses from the start (if you don’t count my labour costs).

Is there any specific technology that you feel has helped make Laurel Creek Software more successful?

Well Python for sure. Both the language and the huge library of resources made creating Precision Tile orders of magnitude easier than it would have been even 5 years ago.

But I think it’s really the maturation of the internet that has made it possible to start up a company without a big up-front investment. I can do virtually everything on-line, from registering my company with the Ontario government, to market research, to advertising and sales. Google’s AdWords really stands out here. It allows me to direct my advertising with great precision, at a very reasonable price, and with no up-front costs.

Any advice for other would-be startup founders?

There are a lot of ways to be an entrepreneur, so don’t be afraid to choose a path other than the “big idea→big venture capital→big IPO” path that you always hear about. There are lots of good entrepreneurial resources on the ‘net that explore the options, many of which you have already written about in your blog. I’d recommend finding something that fits you and your idea and then run with it.

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