Designing and building stairs is difficult since measurements, rise counts and curvature must be precise. But Jake Birkmaier, a rising senior at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business, knew the current business cycle of the stair industry needed an upgrade. So, he worked with two Integrated Information Technology (IIT) students during the spring semester to develop a revolutionary software for stair design and installation.
“Early in college, I decided to be entrepreneur and go into an industry that had a lot of inefficiencies that I could solve and create more margin,” Birkmaier says. “When I found someone who built stairs, I had to hear more about it.”
After spending a summer learning the business process at Blooming Grove Stair Company, Birkmaier saw a need for updated technology and wanted to develop the software. He envisioned a software that would influence the entire business cycle, from sales to data collection. He just needed help with the technical side by finding students with programming experience.
“I have a pretty solid background in computers and business, so I identified how a lot could be improved with a really simple software,” Birkmaier says. “I knew I had to develop software because pretty much all the systems ended at the sales cycle with no way of exporting information.”
Birkmaier, who is an applied computing minor, was confident he could develop his software, called StairGram. He found the IIT Capstone course, but without the required prerequisites, he was initially told by Undergraduate Director John Gerdes that he would not qualify.
“I started talking project management lingo and other relevant terms, and [Gerdes] realized I was familiar with the concepts. My business major, particularly operations supply chain, is a big part of project management,” Birkmaier says.
Gerdes finally allowed Birkmaier to enroll despite concerns that there may not be enough projects to go around. Birkmaier pitched his StairGram software, and IIT seniors Stephen Strickland and Dalton Deans quickly jumped onboard.
“Jake talked about his background, what the project entailed, and how it applied to IIT. It sounded more interesting because it would allow me to use certain programming to make a model of stairs. The idea of creating something and revolutionizing a market was interesting,” Strickland says.
“I wanted to get more experience in programming, and Jake’s project was exactly what I was looking for. It taught me more levels of knowledge in multiple coding languages,” Deans says. “What confused me was that I thought Jake was presenting for the company and didn’t realize he was a student.”
Together, Strickland and Deans developed the StairGram software, which produces a 3D model of the stairs and an instant, on-site quote. The traditional process involves sending measurements off-site and takes three days.
“The majority of my time was going into our program and making a model of the stairs. Then I helped Jake with some of the coding of actually building the staircase, which was harder than I thought. It brought back a lot of math that I hadn't done in a long time,” Deans says.
“I worked on the user interface for the installers to input the customer’s preference. The software instantly runs the script that creates the image of the stairs for the client’s approval or to make adjustments,” Strickland says.
Birkmaier opened his own company, Jake’s Stair and Rail LLC, earlier this year, and nearly every job has used the StairGram software. All his staircases are quoted, built and installed in Columbia.
“It has credibility, and customers like it. No one else has any software close to this, and it ensures that homeowners get what they want. Stairs are a one-time purchase, so it really helps educate the customer to see a 3D model and give them a really good picture of what it will look like,” Birkmaier says.
Gerdes said that Birkmaier, Deans and Strickland “hit it out of the ballpark” with the project’s success. It is hard to argue that statement since the revolutionary software developed by the team will continue to be utilized going forward.
“Our team worked really well, and I'm proud of what we did,” Birkmaier says. “A lot of people told me it wasn't possible; or someone else would have already done it. But we're only at chapter one. It's an uphill climb, but a worthwhile one.”