Engineering a Business – Three Alumni Develop Personify Design, Inc.
Just a few short years ago, Brian Trautman, Joe Buys, and Rob Schlender were your average EE students, spending countless hours in the labs working on projects. Now they are spending countless hours growing their own company. Their friendship and entrepreneurial inclinations prompted them to incorporate Personify Design even before they graduated with BSEE degrees in 2002. Personify Design provides custom web development and design services to local and international clients. Their first project was an e-commerce website they picked up through Trautman’s connection to an employee of Ann Geddes, the prominent baby photographer.
Upon graduation from UW EE, both Trautman and Buys joined Microsoft, while Schlender pursued his master’s degree at Carnegie Mellon University. In their spare time, they worked to build their business. For Trautman, that sometimes meant 8:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. after putting in a full day at Microsoft. In December 2003, Trautman left Microsoft to work out of his house. Personify Design quickly started gaining clients and now has 12 employees and an office in downtown Seattle. Personify Design has completed projects for many high-profile clients such as Microsoft, Flexcar, The New York Times, and the Bellevue School District. Recently, they finished an e-discovery website for attenex.com, a scheduling desktop application for the PRO Sports Club, and a content management system for Microsoft XBOX at creators.xna.com.
One particularly exciting experience was the public launch of Personify Design’s first product, TeamLook, at the 2005 Microsoft Product Developers Conference in San Francisco. TeamLook facilitates team communication and collaboration on software projects by linking Microsoft Outlook to the Visual Studio 2005 Team System. “We pulled an all-nighter to burn promotional CDs before catching a flight to San Francisco,” Buys recalls. Trautman added, “It was so cool to see Steve Ballmer on stage talking to 100,000 people around the world about our product.” Personify Design now has a second product on the market, TeamSpec, a project requirements management tool that can be used through Microsoft Word.
As their company approaches the six-year mark, Trautman and Buys have survived the challenges of entrepreneurship—leaving a secure paycheck for several years of working harder than ever at reduced income. They continue to face the challenges of competing with larger companies for great employees and always upholding the reputation of being the best in the business around Seattle. Personify Design has made a profit “from day one,” so Trautman and Buys can enjoy the rewards of running a small, nimble company — accomplishing more with less red tape, staying close to clients, and engaging at all levels of product design and project implementation. Looking back on their experiences as EE undergraduates, Trautman and Buys reflect on Professor Jim Peckol’s Microcomputer Systems course (EE 472). “The cool thing about course projects was seeing an idea all the way through from conception to design to function,” says Buys. “This type of class taught me how to gather relevant information and to think outside the box to solve problems.”
Trautman and Buys recently returned to the department to talk to one of Professor Peckol’s classes about their entrepreneurial experiences. For any EE graduates interested in starting a business venture, Buys advises, “Whatever you do, be passionate about it, but also be patient for things to work out.” Trautman adds, “Always keep your contacts and never burn bridges because you never know when you’ll meet them again. Contacts are everything.”