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When it comes to building a project palette, architects and designers have quite the raw deal. They have to aimlessly search the web or sort through entire libraries of samples before they can even begin to come up with a cohesive set of paint colors, carpet patterns, furniture swatches, and even ceiling tiles that make up a typical design palette for clients.

The process of ordering samples alone can take up hours, and once they arrive days later most of them go straight into the trash, but those days will be over soon.

Jerry Freeman has come up with a solution to the long-running painpoints of architects and designers everywhere with an innovative app that enables them to instantly view the palette they’ve created and order samples in as little as five seconds.

PaletteApp creator Jerry Freeman talks with us about the challenges of selling investors on a revolutionary product in a lesser-known industry and his new app that’s causing pandemonium in the presentation room.

What did your career look like before you began working on PaletteApp?

My background is design and manufacturing and also as a sales rep. I spent 10 years designing high-end law firms. I worked for Gensler and for Debrah Lehman-Smith in D.C. and I worked for a firm called Core.

Both Debrah Lehman-Smith and Core were startups, but Gensler is one of the biggest firms in the world. The office there was relatively new and I was their 53rd employee.

I left designing to start a carpet company called Invision Carpet Systems, which is now owned by J&J Industries. After over five years there I left to help startup a company called Constantine, which is now part of Milliken.

What was the inspiration for PaletteApp?

I spent 15 years developing products and selling products in Ohio and Chicago. Two years ago I was in Dallas showing some of my products to a group of designers who were working on a job in Seoul.

They were complaining to me that that it took four months to get an approved palette, because he would go through the weeklong process of ordering samples and putting them together, but it would take 10 days to ship them to South Korea, the client would keep them for five days, and then 10 days back with comments. The process took a month.

A few days later I was in Chicago meeting with Gary Lee Partners and Gary was expressing the same complaints about time. These guys would order hundreds and hundreds of samples and 90 percent of them would end up in the trash because they couldn’t preview the samples before they got them with all the other products. They had to order 10 or 15 fabrics for every one that they ended up using because they needed to see it all in one spot.

That weekend I started sketching out PaletteApp. I figured I could solve those problems with a digital library. That was two years ago and that’s what we’re working towards.

When did you know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

I never thought I did. It was funny, I was sitting with one of our investors about three months ago and in talking to him I realized that that’s what I was because I had helped start Constantine, Invision, Core, Lehman-Smith, and now PaletteApp.

To me it was never about being an entrepreneur—it’s just what an architect does. You start a project, you build it, and then you go on to the next thing. It never crossed my mind until that conversation three months ago that I was an entrepreneur, but apparently I am.

What helps to motivate you as a growing startup?

Probably the thing that motivates us the most is when we go out and visit design firms and we see these disaster zones: vast libraries and offices with way too much product to manage -- too much for them to do.

Given the economy in the last couple years most of these firms are short staffed, some by as much as 40 percent, so they no longer have anybody dedicated to managing that type of facility. We talk to them about what we’re doing and they get incredibly excited and that’s what motivates us.

I was in L.A. two weeks ago presenting to ASID -- to a group of about 75 designers -- and I got about three slides into my presentation and it was pandemonium because it’s something that we’ve been wanting for years and nobody’s ever done it.

If you could pick one song to represent your startup, what would it be and why?

That’s tough because Will comes from Atlanta and I tend to listen to a lot of jazz and classic rock. Everybody has their own thing here in the office. If it’s me it’s probably “Back in Black.” Or the flip side of that is maybe something by Toby Keith.

What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to do as an entrepreneur?

Raise money. In all the startups before I was never the one involved in raising the capital to get the company off the ground. The first time you go through that it’s an eye-opening experience. There are a lot of processes that you go through, and if you’ve never done it before you don’t realize how long it takes.

I’ve been in sales for 15 years, so I don’t want to say it’s hard because it’s not. It’s sales. But it’s an arduous process; it takes a long time and the current economy hasn’t helped. It’s made investors even more cautious. For us, because we’re dealing with such a niche industry, most of the investors out there have no clue what we’re doing.

The way I try to describe it to them is that we’re an Amazon for architectural products, and they kind of get that. Even our lead investor, Jim Vaughan, when he came to visit us in our office -- we currently operate out of a design firm -- he looked around and said, “Okay, I finally get what you’re doing,” because he saw what the space looked like.

The toughest thing is trying to convey our idea. If I were out there creating some kind of social network it would be no big deal. But what we’re doing hasn’t been done and it’s an industry that not a lot of people understand.

If you asked 20 people how many times they’ve hired a designer or an architect, I guarantee you may come across one, if you’re lucky. It’s not a process that everybody goes through.

If you’re working in an office environment and you’re not the managing partner or the office manager, you’re not involved and you don’t see the process. The hardest part is getting the investors to understand truly what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and what the need is.

If you sold your company today for $1 billion, what is the first thing you would do with the money?

I would start something else. I would come up with something else. I would look for either another startup to work with or I would start something else on my own. I enjoy the process of creation.

I’ve worked for big companies and small. I worked for Mohawk for five and a half years, which is the biggest flooring company in the world. To do something unique at a company of that size is just too painful. It’s much easier and much simpler to be an out-of-the-box creative thinker at a smaller company.

I’m not somebody who could retire, regardless of what we sold the company. I’m a big golfer -- I love to play golf. But after 9/11 a lot of our clients were without work and I was playing golf every day and it drove me crazy.

I have to work. I’m not somebody who can sit around and spend a week on the beach reading a book. It’s just not in me.

What’s next for PaletteApp?

A lot. Well, a lot and a little. We’ve narrowed down our focus on three things. We’re launching a student version as we’ve had tremendous response from the student community. We’re launching an iPad app because that’s a tool that more and more designers are using, and they want the freedom of taking their library with them to meetings. We’re launching what we call PaletteApp Pro: essentially professional tools to make it easier for designers to do their job.

Now, that all sounds simple but one of the things that we need to do is load about 250,000 more products into the system in the next six months. Developing an app isn’t easy. It takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of bandwidth.

That’s where we are. At the end of the year we’ll start looking towards other markets: our second biggest use group is Canada and our third biggest is Europe. We plan to go to those places at the end of this year or beginning of next year, but we’ve got to get those fundamental tools in place and working well before we can make that transition.

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