Humble beginnings: it all started in a garage

Sometimes the best business incubator is the garage. Two Bellingham companies, Girodisc and Qualnetics, have sprouted from garages and established...

It is an unspoken test of courage for some of the most successful companies today such as Apple and Harley-Davidson to have modest beginnings in a garage. For Girodisc and Qualnetics, two Bellingham businesses focused on auto technologies, that was their beginning as well.

Girodisc finds success in rotor replacements

Martin Meade, a 1993 graduate of Western Washington University’s vehicle design program, first began working on replacement brake rotors for a Ferrari 360 in a garage. He worked with a fellow graduate as a side job while he worked with Porsche Design studios in California where he was on the team that designed the Carrera GT.

“We thought this could be fun and we could make pocket change,” Meade said. “We just started doing it more and more and demand was starting to grow. My accountant said ‘You should really try it and see what you could do putting your full effort in to it.’”

The company, Girodisc, moved to Bellingham in 2007 and has since found success by establishing their business online and manufacturing as many parts as possible for high performance vehicles, Meade said.

Brake rotors are an area where auto makers typically look to save money. The stock rotor is adequate for street driving, but when a driver gets on the race track the rotor is heavy and doesn’t cool down very well, Meade said. Girodisc makes a solution for that.

The Girodisc rotor can be used with the factory brake caliper and customized to fit the vehicle at a fraction of the price of a full brake kit. A company that makes brake kits could sell the entire kit for $4,000, but they don’t focus on the the rotor like we do. Brake rotors at Girodisc can range from $65 to $1,500 depending on the vehicle, he said.

“(Customers) don’t have to spend money on completely changing out the entire brake system,” Meade said. “We’re just taking the weak point of the brake system and making it as strong as the rest.”

The business really took off when he relocated to Bellingham and now has five employees along with three interns. Girodisc has grown 20 percent to 30 percent annually in the past few years, much of which is because the company hired an employee to focus on online sales.

“I attribute a lot of that (success) to customer service,” he said. “We’re not afraid to take the time and spend half an hour on the phone to educate (customers) about their vehicle and different options. That’s what people look for.”

There is a lot of shipping in the business, — no one comes to the shop to buy the brakes —, which made it possible to move to Bellingham, said co-owner Emmanuelle Meade.

“The first few years the company really focused on the manufacturing. The process was good, the product was good, we were testing it and getting feedback from the customer,” she said. “It feels we’re almost at a point now that we can focus on other things.”

Martin said there is still a lot of potential and he wants to see the company grow.

“I don’t see any reason we can’t continue on our 20 to 30 percent growth,” he said. “We are so blessed and so lucky that this is working out for us.”

Qualnetics connects cars to Wi-Fi, drivers

Qualnetics, an engineering firm, moved from founder Mark Moeller’s garage just last fall to its current office in Bellingham.

Moeller founded the company in 1999 after working at Mircrosoft on the automotive team. There he worked on Microsoft’s first system that would begin putting various computer systems in automobiles.

He began consulting with automotive customers from Microsoft and applied the technology he learned there.

The company works on embedded products for automobiles such as the Connected Car Access Point. The product has several applications such as creating a Wi-Fi hotspot for passengers, transmitting information to insurance companies, being able to inspect and diagnose problems within the vehicle and send a report to the owner, said CEO Paul Grey.

“You can be your own mechanic watching the vehicle,” he said.

These features come on a second-generation model of the product scheduled to be released by the end of the year for $300 per unit.

The first generation product was designed for Verizon trucks. Qualnetics rolled out 30,000 models for the entire truck fleet nationwide three years ago. The fleet manager was able to track where each truck was at any moment and drivers were able to inspect their vehicles with an iPad before they began each trip.

Instead of getting in and out of the truck to check the blinkers and make sure everything is working, drivers were able to stand outside and tap the headlight button on the iPad to make sure everything is running smoothly, he said.

The company moved from engineering services to focus on product development last year to help the company grow. The company can now take a customer’s idea from inception to a finished product, Grey said.

As for the future of the company, Grey said he would like to see sales double each year by adding product development to the company and by potentially setting up an office in Seattle next year. Moeller said he wants to continue to focus on automotive technology, but may branch out to other products such as medical devices.

Automotive technology is a very interesting field right now, Moeller said, because it brings in a lot of different factors including the automotive electronics, wireless devices, smartphones, safety and accident prevention.

From garages to growing success, these businesses have carved their niche in the auto industry and haven’t looked back.

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