A 1.424Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE
Mark Plog and Tom Woldendorp are no strangers to many of our readers. Many of you might remember these guys as the surveyors who developed SurveyPlanet, a Web portal that existed for a while during the dot com boom. The portal was designed to get surveyors more involved in the professional aspects of surveying by offering tools such as online proposal development that would allow a consumer to deal directly with a surveyor instead of a broker. While SurveyPlanet had great potential, like many other dot com ventures, it fell victim to a revenue plan that didn’t work out. But that doesn’t mean SurveyPlanet has disappeared from orbit altogether. In order to pay the bills, Plog and Woldendorp have refocused their energies on surveying, with hopes that they can revisit their dream when the time is right.
Their efforts have played out nicely, giving birth to a new company: GeoDatum. But before we take a look at some of the interesting things going on at GeoDatum today, we can’t pass up the interesting story of how Plog and Woldendorp crossed paths in the first place.
Forty-one-year-old Plog was born in Cape Town, South Africa. His father was a civil engineer who started surveying in Wisconsin and served as a Seabee in WWII building runways in the South Pacific. The elder Plog was the first licensed architect on Guam, and later became the manager of overseas operations for Mobil Oil Company. His jobs took the family South Africa, Australia, Kenya, Texas, London, and Connecticut. Following in his father’s footsteps, Mark obtained a civil engineering degree. He graduated from Texas A&M in 1985, and became a partner in a Corpus Christi engineering firm where he also started surveying. Plog credits his partner, Mr. Harold Shearer, PE, PLS, as being his survey mentor. Plog obtained his PE and LS licenses in Texas, and is now a PE/LS in Washington and a PE in Oregon, as well. After moving back and forth between Corpus Christi and Seattle, he settled in Seattle, along with his wife and two daughters, and became involved with Landmark, Inc., an engineering company.
Tom Woldendorp, age 44, was also born in South Africa, after his parents had moved there from the Netherlands in 1950s. Surveying ran in the family; his uncle taught surveying at a university in The Netherlands, and a cousin taught surveying at a university in South Africa. Woldendorp obtained a scholarship from the Cape Town Municipality. He obtained a four-year degree in surveying from the University of Cape Town in 1981, and became licensed to survey in 1983. He smiled as he recalled that he gained very little practical knowledge in the university, but what he did learn enabled him to quickly turn his theoretical knowledge into practice. In 1988, he moved to neighboring Namibia where he became the acting Surveyor General. Woldendorp feels that Namibia and South Africa are years ahead of the U.S. when it comes to cadastral surveying because every survey is reviewed and recorded, and every survey is on the national datum–there are no local coordinate systems. As in Europe, there is very little traversing, but rather re-sectioning and triangulation from existing control monuments. (Editor’s note: this is possible due to the amazing density of control monuments in these countries.) Because of Namibia’s terrain and vegetation, Woldendorp describes Namibia as "God’s GPS Country."
Woldendorp spent 11 years working in Namibia, and came to the U.S. for a visit with his family in 1994 and 1996. He fell in love with America, and posted a resume on lsrp.com. As fate would have it, it was Plog who responded, and Woldendorp came to Seattle for an interview. In August of 1999, he moved to Seattle with his wife and two daughters under the H1-B visa program, a program that allows people with certain technical skills to enter the U.S. to work. Because SurveyPlanet was underway, he began working there instead of with a surveying company. Oddly enough, the H1-B program requires visa holders to leave the U.S. periodically to renew the visa. Woldendorp found himself in Amsterdam at the same time as the U SA invasion of Iraq, unable to get his visa renewed. After hiring a different attorney in the U.S., he got the visa renewed and was able to return to Seattle. Woldendorp and his family are now on track to obtain their U.S. citizenship.
All Cranked Up
In 2001, Plog and Woldendorp created MXP Land Surveying and both began working there full time. In 2002, they changed the name to GeoDatum, Inc. when they added engineering to the services they provide. They are doing several interesting things with their new company, most notably with the use of wireless Internet in their daily routines. Starbucks coffee shops abound in Seattle, and most have a wireless capability. Plog and Woldendorp carry wireless-enabled laptops with them, and can duck into the nearest Starbucks to obtain information or updates. Because of this capability, they rarely have to return to the office during the day. They use Nikon total stations, both for the accuracy and the instrument’s resistance to water (very important in the Pacific Northwest). Their primary supplier is Accurate Survey Supplies in Redmond, Washington. They also like the Nikons because the EDM works well in foliage. When we met, they had a reflectorless total station on order. With all of the trees, mountains and buildings in their urban surroundings, GPS doesn’t work well, therefore they don’t use it a great deal. If they have a job on which G PS is needed, they rent the equipment, and have used ProMarks on several jobs. Rather than using plastic caps on the markers they set, they use two-inch aluminum caps from Berntsen because they look more professional and are more durable. For CAD, they use MicroStation, and for comps they use Eagle Point. They consider Eagle Point to be high-end software, and even though it has a steep learning curve, it suits their work processes well.
Most of GeoDatum’s work is development related, including boundaries, topos and stakeout. They do a fair amount of work for architects, who require highly detailed, accurate surveys. Occasionally they perform ALTA surveys. Other work includes cell and radio towers, airport work, and work for local governments, including school districts. As licensed surveyors they are qualified to make on-the-spot decisions when it comes to boundary comps in the field. All job research can be performed online. The City of Seattle has excellent aerial imagery available online, and where applicable, is used to enhance their deliverables. Other online information includes City of Seattle street centerlines and monument maps, and tax maps.
Many counties in Washington also provide online access to Records of Survey. Plog expressed dissatisfaction with what he sees as selective enforcement of the requirement, however, and said that surveyors and clients often exploit loopholes to avoid filing. He’s a firm believer in the requirement, and thinks that the requirement should be applied conservatively rather than stretching the meaning to avoid filing. Internally, GeoDatum has a policy of recording all boundary surveys, period. He doesn’t understand the motivation for not recording as the fees for recording a survey are only $85 and most boundary surveys cost $1,000 and up. One motivation for noncompliance might be due to the fact that some surveyors are afraid that mistakes might be revealed. Plog is in favor of a national recording requirement as is currently being discussed, believing it would increase accountability and also allow surveyors to charge more for their work. He feels that surveyors in Washington may be more likely
to share their records than those in other states where surveyors have a tendency to use their records to "carve out territories" for themselves.
Plog and Woldendorp require a 50 percent retainer before commencing work. The advantages are twofold: the retainer provides quicker cash-flow for their new business, and allows them to gauge the seriousness of a client. In the three years they’ve been in business, they’ve only had two or three clients refuse to provide the retainer. All projects include a written proposal and a contract. They do not negotiate the price. They feel that they are more competitive and responsive, and usually can have a proposal back to the client within 48 hours. Their website (www.geodatum.com) provides a wealth of information for consumers, including an explanation of why qualifications-based selection is so important. One special feature of their website is a fee calculator that potential clients can use to get a ballpark estimate of what their job will cost. Several other surveyors have expressed interest in having the fee calculator on their website. A vital part of their business, the website has yielded an average of 10 requests for proposal per month since they started. They also accept credit card payment on their website, and estimate that roughly 30 percent of their business involves payment online, especially for the retainers. Credit card capability has streamlined the processes, and because payments are immediate, they don’t lose time with collections. In three years, they’ve only had one client try to stop a credit card payment, and that guy lost his case.
Finding good help takes time. At the time of the interview they had four employees, and were in the process of hiring two more. The first two surveying employees they hired each have a two-year surveying degree from Renton Technical College in Renton, WA.
Getting the Word Out
GeoDatum recently moved into a new office in Issaquah, just off Interstate 90. One unconventional aspect of their business is an outreach program that involves speaking before groups of realtors and architects. They use direct mail to target and promote their services. However, word-of-mouth, together with quality work, has been their best advocate.
All work is lump sum. They currently receive $140/hour for a two-person crew, and $125/hour for a licensed surveyor doing non-field work. They deliver a spreadsheet to the client showing all charges and time estimate even though the contract may be lump sum. Other deliverables come on CD for every project, which includes the maps in MicroStation, AutoCAD, and PDF formats, as well as digital images of each project.
What topics push their buttons? Plog responded about the current controversy over the definition of the profession: he feels that first and foremost, the definition should acknowledge that we are to put the client first. Both Plog and Woldendorp favor a four-year degree requirement; in their opinions university training teaches people "how to think," and provides exercises in ethics, business and communication skills. They also believe membership in state associations should be mandatory, as it is in Canada and many other countries. Their advice to others? Don’t ignore opportunities!
So how does the future look for this dynamic duo? If revenues are any indication, the forecast is bright. From revenues of $190K when they started in 2001, the business has grown to $465K last year, with a projected $600K this year. Plog and Woldendorp will soon be incorporating GIS into the mix they offer clients. With the knowledge they gained from their SurveyPlanet experience, most notably the admin functions, they now have an online project management system in place with all the project files available online at the closest Starbucks. And they haven’t lost sight of the internet portal concept behind SurveyPlanet–if they can find the time and create the right balance of functionalities to make it financially viable, they’ll re-launch the dream and send it back into orbit. In the mean time they’ll continue in the manner that suits them best–full speed ahead.
Marc Cheves is editor of the magazine.
A 1.424Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE