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Bricks and Mortar on the Web

Nobody feels the heat of an upstate New York summer more than a carpenter working on a home, and Carl Bass has spent plenty of hot, humid days hammering nails and sawing lumber around the college town of Ithaca. Originally from Brooklyn, Bass used his carpentry and cabinet-making skills to pay the freight at Cornell …

Nobody feels the heat of an upstate New York summer more than a carpenter working on a home, and Carl Bass has spent plenty of hot, humid days hammering nails and sawing lumber around the college town of Ithaca. Originally from Brooklyn, Bass used his carpentry and cabinet-making skills to pay the freight at Cornell University, and in 1978 he traded in his hammer and saw for a degree in mathematics.

Today Bass, 43, is still building. He’s president and CEO of Buzzsaw.com, a San Francisco provider of Internet-based project management tools and services for the construction and design industry. Buzzsaw.com was conceived and incubated by Bass while he was chief technology officer at design-industry software giant Autodesk.

It would have been easy for Buzzsaw.com to remain a unit of Autodesk, where most customers are architects and engineers. But Autodesk chose to spin off the operation, keeping a minority stake for itself and inviting outside investors to shoulder some of the risk. The move enabled Bass to reprise his role as a start-up entrepreneur (six years earlier Autodesk had acquired Ithaca Software, a successful graphics software firm he co-founded).

In October 1999, armed with Autodesk’s branded clout plus $15 million from Autodesk and influential venture capital firm Crosspoint Venture Partners, Bass launched Buzzsaw.com with the promise to bring high-technology to the oftentimes antiquated and traditional $3.9 trillion global construction industry.

“Our biggest competition is the existing way people do their work,” says Bass, who knows his way around both a spreadsheet and a blueprint. Construction jobs are joint efforts between property owners, general contractors, subcontractors, architects, and engineers. Yet these projects frequently become disjointed, plagued by miscommunication and mistakes that lead to cost overruns, lost time, and other frustrations. Buzzsaw.com aims to solve that by acting as a virtual conference room and storehouse for these collaborators to meet and view each other’s work. Its technology covers each step in the construction process, from design to ribbon cutting. In this way, Bass says, project managers and contractors can monitor developments at a building site without ever leaving their desks, saving them time and money.

Buzzsaw.com features several innovative communication and collaboration services for subscribers who pay a monthly usage-based fee. Professionals can produce, transmit, and store digital blueprints; exchange plans, forms, change orders, loans, and other legal documents; and bid out specific work to qualified subs. “Project Folders,” for example, allows users to post drawings and discuss them online with the project team. Through “Bid Manager,” general contractors can send online invitations for trades people to bid on work. “Construction Manager” streamlines work orders and attempts to smooth design and building problems that invariably arise on a project.

Still a work in progress, the site recently introduced the application “Plans and Specs,” which enables reprographic printers to transmit digital blueprints via the Web. Architects and contractors can upload the plans to their own computers, making real-time design changes and communicating with project managers as construction unfolds. Another new offering is “RFQ Manager,” an automated request-forquotation process to connect suppliers and subcontractors.

“It’s a fragmented market with tens of thousands of suppliers,” Bass relates. “You can hook up 100 suppliers and see the benefit, but how you scale 100,000 suppliers is where the challenges come.”

Buzzsaw.com, like other Internet fledglings, has moved quickly to capture the market share of its business. The company claims that nearly 100,000 members are using its services to manage more than 25,000 projects -the largest volume of any company in the online construction space. The site boasts that it hosts a new project every 20 minutes, on average. Yet unlike other Internet hopefuls, Buzzsaw.com seems to have cemented a relatively secure foundation, and is one of the few players still standing in its specialized B2B Internet space. It certainly helps Buzzsaw.com to have a close working and financial relationship with Autodesk. “We are a complementary part of their strategy,” Bass says. Indeed, Buzzsaw.com formally calls itself “an Autodesk venture.”

Bass contends that Buzzsaw has enough cash to carry it through any downturn in the cyclical construction market. And the company was fortunate to raise a total of $90 million in two rounds from investors, including Autodesk, Bank of America, Crosspoint Venture Partners and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, and recently tapped those investors and others for additional funding. Partners like Autodesk and Bank of America, one of the nation’s largest mortgage lenders, also help promote Buzzsaw.com to their customers.

“We’re getting good traction,” Bass says, “so we’re approaching profitability faster than our competitors.” More pointedly, Bass predicts that Buzzsaw.com should be profitable by the end of 2001. Given that so much of the dot-com infrastructure has turned out to be made of straw, not brick, achieving profitability amidst such economic uncertainty would be quite a feat of engineering. Maybe it’s not the Golden Gate Bridge, but for Bass, it’s the satisfying completion of a project begun so many hot summers ago.


Vital statistics

Carl Bass

CEO, Buzzsaw.com

“I have an affinity for what it takes to put something together.”

Birthplace: Brooklyn, NY

Age: 43

Family: Married, two boys

Education: Cornell University, B.A. Mathematics, 1978

Hobbies: Woodwork, furniture making, and sculpture; windsurfing

Favorite Places to Windsurf: San Francisco Bay, Oregon, Hawaii

Favorite Style of Furniture: Modern

Biggest Personal Construction Project: 35-foot sailboat

About jonathan burton