Tom Knuth - STILT.PRO
Tom Knuth joined theClubhou.se as part of the Startup Life program, a year-long immersive entrepreneurship program created by theClubhou.se and funded by a grant from the Kauffman Foundation. Tom’s company STILT.PRO designs and builds professional horticultural equipment, data collection solutions, and visualizes nurseries.
Tom grew up in Duluth, MN which is two-and-a-half hours from Canada. There wasn’t enough snow there, so when he was applying for college, he decided to go to Michigan Tech on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, “which gets an obnoxious amount of snow,” Tom said. “Which I absolutely loved and later came to realize, that no matter where you are, your enjoyment of a situation is what you make of it.” Tom graduated with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, and took a position as a systems engineer with Cirrus Aircraft where he was responsible for development of the landing gear, wheels, and brakes. From there, he found his way to John Deere outside of Augusta, Georgia.
While working at John Deere, Tom invented and patented a self aligning driveline coupler that eliminated many of the frustrations and headaches of attaching an implement to a tractor. Tom shared, “From that experience, the big lesson driven home for me is that if you are going to do something, you better make sure it is something you want to see through. The praise received for the idea will fade long before the product is launched, and the true success is having the determination and grit to act on a good idea.” This impacted Tom and has been integrated to how he frames being an entrepreneur, “You need to have two things – a good idea and the grit to see it through.”
From a professional side, Tom learned a lot from working at a Fortune 100 company. He says one of the most significant concepts was, “When necessary, to take the emotion and human nature out of a task.” Tom elaborated, “What I mean by this is that people naturally want to avoid problems, and to a certain extent, skip over some work. Through the almost 200 years of existence, Deere has developed a culture and procedures which drive completion and resolution of key tasks and issues in order to launch a product demanded by the customer. If there is a problem, it exists whether you acknowledge it or not. As an entrepreneur, that issue is going to come knocking on your door, and at times, you need to be able to take your emotions out of a project enough to mitigate these risks during the appropriate time.”
Tom has taken his time at John Deere and realized he can develop his own ideas for products and processes. “STILT.PRO is very much still in the startup phase,” Tom says, “Our ‘flagship’ product is a rice husk blower that is being introduced into the market right now. Beyond that product, we are heavy into researching and talking with customers to learn about the needs of the industry and what solutions look like.”
Primarily, Tom planned to develop a specialized product. Secondary to that was to implement a data integration solution for nurseries. “As I’m working with nurseries,” Tom explains, “I’m seeing that the data integration side of things is equally important. So as time is progressing, I am investing a larger portion of time and energy into the data analytics and collection side of things.” Being open to opportunities coming his way through circumstance gave Tom an inroad to large-scale nurseries.
“I got involved in the wholesale nursery industry and ultimately my business direction through a lot of coincidences and a long string of stepping stones. I moved to Georgia for work, moved to Thomson for the space and the community, married my wife whose family has a close relationship with the family of R.A. Dudley’s nursery and then dove into their business and built an understanding of their problems and found both an opportunity where I could be challenged and they could be benefited.”
Stepping into entrepreneurship presents all sorts of challenges. Funding the venture is one of the biggest. Tom is self-funding and shared how that is being done. “When my wife and I were engaged, we took a Dave Ramsey financial class that fundamentally changed how we treat money. It gave us the insight that money is a tool and that it should be treated as such and not allowed to control our lives. Through that class and the 5 years following, we have worked to control money instead of the other way around. In doing so, it has helped us work towards this goal of entrepreneurship. We minimized debt and saved sufficiently so that we could be in a position where I could leave my job and focus 100% on building the business without the stress of money being an issue.”
Beyond the funding, stepping onto the path of entrepreneurship also brings the ups and downs of a rollercoaster lifestyle of ideas, conversations, spreadsheets, and prototypes. “It is in my blood to be challenged and do something new,” Tom explained, “and I think the ultimate challenge is building something from nothing. I love the process of taking a conversation with someone, finding others that share that problem, turning it into an opportunity, and solving it for them.” Maneuvering through the roles and responsibilities of each person involved in a project takes a keen eye and knowing mind. “My experience working for other people was that the pieces of the business puzzle get broken down to where you are only doing a small part and it’s easy to lose sight of the end goal,” Tom said.
Filling in the puzzle means inevitably hiring people to complete varied aspects of the project. On finding the right people to hire, Tom shared, “I look for people that are passionate about their work, eager to learn, and willing to share what they know with others. In today’s online job market, it is easier than ever to find a person that has the exact skill set you need which you can hire directly for the job you need completed. It’s an amazing opportunity!”
Starting from the ground up, Tom is focused on understanding his customers’ day to day needs, stating, “I look for under served opportunities and am staying away from direct head to head competition with my competitors. Since I am in a niche market with a small group of customers, I am focusing primarily on building relationships with each of the growers. I am creating content around education and providing valuable information for the growers in the form of consultation, advice and help.”
“I have learned that good and bad news gets around and that I need to be very open and honest with my customers. This can be both an advantage and a disadvantage to increasing sales. One reason I like this industry is because of this closeness.”
From years of working on things mechanically, in the garage and the office, Tom has a couple of insights that help him everyday. First: If there is a problem, it exists whether you acknowledge it or not. Tom expounded, “As an entrepreneur, that problem will always find its way back to you. Do your future self a favor, bite the bullet, and fix it. Secondly – Whatever you decide to do, it’s going to take a lot of energy and time to complete it, no one is going to want it as bad as you, align those expectations and make sure you’re pointed in the right direction.”
As a tinkerer and entrepreneur, Tom fits in pretty well around theClubhou.se. “theClubhou.se has given me a community,” Tom explained, “I initially joined theClubhou.se because I knew that I had limited experience with tech and that I needed to expose myself to the industry. I found that resource and I also found more. I’ve began working with some fellow entrepreneurs ranging from things like marketing to embedded systems. What I didn’t realize when joining was that it would also give me an opportunity to help others with their aspirations and I have enjoyed that opportunity.”
Keep and eye out for STILT.PRO and their technological developments!
BRIEF: After years working for large companies which design and build equipment and machinery, Tom Knuth decided to start his own business and develop his ideas into products.