LOOKING BACK AT 15 YEARS - A Conversation with Company President Dave Hart
Continental Mapping is experiencing unprecedented growth in its’ 15th year of operation. So, in order to get the scoop on what’s lead to this success, our Cody Baertschi caught up with company President Dave Hart for his perspective.
Cody Baertschi (Interviewer): What makes Continental Mapping unique?
David Hart: Good question. And one I’m sure I’d answer differently every year! And maybe that’s just it. We keep constantly searching for ‘what’s next?’ Our business doesn’t look anything like what it was 5, 10, 15 years ago. This isn’t unique to us, every firm grows, changes, adapts, but what does make us unique I think is that we embrace this change with excitement. We encourage turning over every rock along the way to see what else we can discover, what we can do differently, what we can improve on. This makes it difficult at times to stay profitable (laughs), but it prevents us from getting too comfortable and nothing ever gets stale around here! Chris [Gross, co-founder] and I don’t agree on everything, but one thing is for sure: it needs to stay fun – but in different ways. We really want everyone here to get on board with that idea. It doesn’t mean it’s fun every day, but in general we are mixing it up enough to keep it as interesting as possible - as often as possible - that drives success.
CB: Could you briefly sum up some important Continental Mapping history… What are some big bullet points?
DH: I tell this story all the time… 1999 - which was in the last century - we have successfully operated in two centuries and three different decades now - Chris Gross and I worked at a different firm, and we were working hard and it was a very busy time. We were young, ambitious, and had just enough confidence to think we could do this on our own. We realized that to really do this we needed both feet in, so we jumped. I am often asked about how risky that was. And wasn’t it scary? And my answer to that is that no, once you’ve made the decision, which happened officially over a beer at my kitchen table, the scary part is over, and the exhilaration of the ride takes over. The worst thing that could’ve happened is not that we would have gone belly-up and lost all the money we put into it (which wasn’t all that much, but all we had). The worst thing that could’ve happened is that we chickened out and spent the rest of our lives thinking “what if?”
Our history can be broken into many chapters: by the technology we used or by number of employees, or number of offices we have – five now by the way. But probably the most distinct changes occurred at times when we made conscious decisions to change course in the business, in order to keep it fun and interesting, or sometimes just because we realized we had just spent two years going down a dead end!
There are a lot of big bullet points along the way. All of the “firsts” like our DOT master contracts, Corps contracts, new offices, new service lines, great people we’ve hired, all have good memories. But other things like finding out about a project for the first time when it is closing (successfully completed I might add), makes me realize just how much we’ve grown, and the success our employees have brought us.
CB: So, what was the initial vision when you and Chris set out on your journey?
DH: I don’t think we had the vision of building some giant business. What we wanted was to do something on our own, just be our own bosses. It was probably a good thing that we didn’t know too much about what it takes to start a business, because then we might not have done it!
CB: What would you say this business is best known for and why?
DH: That’s a hard one to answer. I mean there are things I hope we are known for, but what we are actually known for are likely very different. I don’t really put a lot of thought into it to be honest. I hope we’re known for getting things done, helping solve the problems that need solving. Making maps that meet the needs of our clients’- I’d like to think we are valued for our professionalism and pride that we take in our work. And for our loyalty to our employees who have helped us along the way - that matters. As an owner, in the end you need to pay your own bills too, so building a business that creates value is exciting and challenging. Personally, I love the thrill of the hunt. We want to be recognized as great surveyors and mappers, to have our work be recognized as exceptional so that more comes our way. But I’d have to say that being recognized as great business runners is just as important, because that means we’ve created something that will exist past the time we’ve left (no plans yet! [laugh]).
CB: If you were to tell a potential customer why they should come to you, what would you say?
DH: Because we can help you solve your business problems, it’s as simple as that. What we do is provide geospatial data services, inputs, and great mapping to solve all kinds of problems. We like to get to know our customers and understand their problems and give them a solution that fits their need; it’s as simple as that. As Paul [Braun, VP of Sales & Marketing] always says, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We try really hard not to take that view.
CB: Are there any tips for someone thinking of venturing into the geospatial business world?
DH: I will say this, owning this business for 15 years and all of the things you need to know and need to learn, is you need to find the right people – people who are good to the core, smart, and motivated. And for advisers find a great accountant, a great banker, and cheap but competent lawyer! [Laugh].
Seriously though, if you are thinking of getting into the geospatial business the first thing you need to do is commit. That means quit your day job. There is no other way. Second, of course you need technical skill and ability, but you also need to understand the business development side of it, and be comfortable doing that. Fortunately for us, Chris and I had complementary tendencies in these areas, so it worked out nicely. Then, be prepared to work your butt off for the long haul. There aren’t any shortcuts.