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For Peter Lord, and his software company Drafix, in Kansas City, Missouri, that “one thing” is the integrated CAD design/ photo-imaging/proposal software program “PRO Landscape.”
“We do one thing, we just do one thing, and we only want to do one thing,” says Lord. “We don’t want to be a company that does eight different things and ends up giving all of them short shrift.”
Lord is not a green industry lifer.
Born 55 years ago in Evanston, Illinois, the middle son of three boys, he moved to the Kansas City area with his family when he was two years old. His father ran a commercial heating/air conditioning company; his mother was a stay-at-home mom and an amateur golfer.
He was no academic red-hot, either. “I did pretty well in high school until I discovered foosball,” Lord admits with a chuckle. “Instead of going away to college, I married my first wife soon after high school. I didn’t start college until after I was married. Even then, it was at the Missouri Institute of Technology, which sounds very high-falutin’ until I tell you that it was essentially DeVry University.”
Lord, though, had a knack for mathematics. He took his degree in electrical engineering. Graduating at the start of the go-go 1980s, he found tech companies recruiting him like mad. Though courted by both Bell Labs and Sandia Labs, he decided to work for Hewlett-Packard, in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Those were heady days, as the country was being computerized, and big firms were placing big orders for integrated work stations. It was at HP that Lord tiptoed into what would become his niche: product management and product development.
“The first product I worked on may have been a PC-based work station—the kind of work station that a big company might buy by the tens or hundreds. My job was to make sure that the product we were making was fitting actual customer needs. I did that by talking to the customers themselves, figuring out who they were and what they did, and then reporting my findings to HP research and development.”
After several years with HP, and earning an MBA degree from Colorado State University, Lord wanted to come home to his native Kansas City. In 1990, he returned to the heartland city and went to work for the software company Informix. Lord gained even more valuable customer-centric experience as a product manager.
“My focus was the same. Informix was making relational database software that competed with Oracle. I worked on the software side, and ultimately became the head of research and development. Though it was a different product from HP, I still needed to know what the customers wanted, and figure out how to get it to them.”
Lord left when the company fell apart in an accounting scandal. From there, he worked at a data-mining startup, and then met up with a guy he heard about from his Informix days, Augie Grasis. Grasis had started a company called Drafix.
“Grasis said he had this neat product called PRO Landscape that was being sold to landscape contractors. Would I be interested in buying it?” At the time, Lord’s experience in the landscape arena consisted of digging holes in his backyard and sometimes mowing the grass. But he did his due diligence about our industry, and liked what he saw.
“The market seemed healthy. There were a lot of landscape professionals out there. I knew how to make the product better, in a general way. That is, figure out what the customer needed and then serve those needs.”
When Lord purchased Drafix, there were just two employees. A dozen years later, there are now ten. Lord doesn’t anticipate getting much bigger than that. If he did, he’d have to veer from his main job, which is marketing, selling, and improving the software. It would be a digression from his philosophy of doing one thing and doing it well.
“I’ve managed lots of people. When you manage 90 people, you don’t get to do a lot but manage. You don’t get to actually work. I’m 55 years old, I like coming to work, and I don’t want to run a big group of people, even if I could,” Lord declares.
Lord understands that many of us are not technical geniuses; that our peak season means seven-day weeks and not much sleep. His goal is to make each version of his software easier and faster to use than the one before. “Nobody likes to be sold,” he says. “We just get ourselves out there in magazines and trade shows, and show folks what the software does. If they need it, they’ll buy it.”
The most recent improvement to the software has been to add an accompanying iPad app, as another way to take into account the way we actually work. “People have printers in their trucks these days,” he notes. “It’s possible to do your landscape layout with a customer, go out to the truck with your laptop or iPad, print your bid, and take it back inside to show the customer.”
Even though we have our “one thing,” it doesn’t mean that the one thing is all we do. Lord is the father of four adult children. His wife works with him in the business. She has a background in finance, and works on that side of the ledger. He’s a rock ’n roll fan who’ll drive across Missouri to hear the Dave Matthews Band, and loves to golf and travel.
One thing, done well. That’s one route to long-lasting success.