Bruce Carlson
Bruce Carlson, founder and president of Carlson Software, talks about the company’s diversification into tablets and handhelds during the 30th Anniversary Carlson User Conference on April 8 at the Hilton Netherland Plaza in Cincinnati.

Cincinnati – Bruce Carlson’s story is not that much different than Bill Gates’ or Steve Jobs’ stories, except that sales of Carlson Software are measured in millions, not billions.

During the early 1980s, Carlson, who was working as a land surveyor and engineer in the mining industry in Kentucky, began dabbling in writing software code on the side. He had taken some computer programming courses at Dartmouth College and realized he could apply that knowledge to the surveying profession.

“That was the whole beginning, survey and mining,” said Karen Cummings, Carlson’s sister who now serves as the company’s director of marketing and public relations. “He’d say, ‘What is it you need?’ (Then) he’d program all night long and give it to them. It was very customer-directed: ‘What is it you need?’ ‘OK, let me make the software do that for you.’”

Thirty years after its founding, Carlson is still going strong–the man and the company. In fact, some of the innovations he put in then are still being used today.

Carlson said early surveying software cost $2,500, and that was too expensive for most firms.

“I recognized right away that there was a market, and so did 20 other companies,” Carlson said matter-of-factly. “By 1982, there were at least 25 different survey software companies out there. They’ve all disappeared or been purchased, except for … a very few remaining companies.”

Carlson, speaking from his hotel suite at the 30th Anniversary Carlson Software User Conference in Cincinnati last month, is proud that his midsized company remains competitive in an industry dominated by giants like Topcon, Trimble and Leica. He said the company strives to foster an “environment of innovation” and thrives due to that entrepreneurial spirit. It’s a significant advantage for a small company over a conglomerate with billions of dollars each year in sales, he said.

“We are the antithesis of that,” Carlson said proudly. “That’s how business should be. Maybe we’ll have some challenges scaling up. With size comes more need for levels of organization and some bureaucracy. So our challenges are ahead of us.”

The company has found recent success bundling its popular SurvCE and SurvPC data collection software with its own hardware, such as its Supervisor+ GPS (also called the SuperG) tablet, the Surveyor+ GNSS handheld system, CR2 and CR5 robotic total stations, and its handheld computers, the CarlsonMINI and Carlson Qmini.

Becoming involved in the hardware business–particularly the tablets and handhelds–has been a natural progression, Carlson said. Surveyors are increasingly relying on bundled solutions in the field. About 50 percent of its SurvCE software sales in the United States have been bundled with Carlson’s hardware, so that has proven to be a successful strategy.

The Maysville, Ky.-based company has several software initiatives and new products coming in the next few months. During the conference, Carlson announced that SurvCE 3.0, with “hundreds” of additions and improvements, will be released in April. The upgrade for existing customers will cost $150. In May, its GIS 360 software will be available on Android phones.

The Carlson 2014 office software suite is expected to be released in June. It will include a 3D viewer with surface transparency, extruded hoops ore and construction tunnel modeling and ore body modeling. Its SurvPC data collection software links and partnerships with Esri and Bentley are also expected to help the company grow.

For now, though, the company is focused on remaining a strong, family business. That was evident at the conference, where panels each day were led by folks with the last name of Carlson, including Todd, the takeoff and construction sales manager, and Dave, director of programming.

“I never plan on selling the company and won’t,” Bruce Carlson said. “The real excitement and joy is building the company, reacting to market opportunities and competing.”

Thirty years later, he still has the drive.

“Of course. It’s the same kind of drive somebody in athletics has, where they enjoy the competition, the challenge,” he said. “That’s our motivation, to compete and innovate.”