Tracy Young says she became a construction engineer because “I wasn’t creative enough to be an architect.”
But the 34-year-old daughter of Vietnamese refugee immigrants had enough project smarts and technology vision to create PlanGrid, a fast-growing and now widely used cloud-based platform startup that has transformed field-document handling and, in December, generated an eye-popping $875-million purchase by industry software giant Autodesk.
“Paper sucks. It’s wasteful,” says Young, noting the motivation to use then-new tablet devices and the developing cloud in 2011 for digital management and office-field sharing of voluminous construction documents.
Seeing impacts on worker productivity and on squeezed contractor margins, the former Rudolph and Sletten and Turner Corp. engineer, along with an industry peer and three software engineers—including now husband Ralph Gootee, a former Pixar animator—launched PlanGrid.
Getting the money to support growing operations tested Young as the firm’s designated CEO, who admits, “I didn’t always know what I was doing.”
Despite her lack of executive chops, Young impressed investors.
“She could talk the talk and back it up,” says Doug Leone, global managing partner of early venture-capital backer Sequoia Capital, who joined her board in 2014. “When we funded, 70% of projects in San Francisco were using PlanGrid, even without salespeople. It’s very unusual for a startup to have customers.”
PlanGrid gained some $62 million in investor funding, catapulting growth to 450 employees, 120,000 paid customers and use on 1 million projects.
“Tracy understands firsthand how people build and how the entire process should be improved,” says Ben Boyer, managing partner at Tenaya Capital, another early investor. “Without her, there wouldn’t have been a PlanGrid.”
Young, who also managed the birth of now six-month-old son Leo last year amid fundraising and growing executive duties, remembers when potential investors directed all questions on her presentations to male co-founders.
In response, she has supported female entrepreneurs and womens' careers in construction through a well-attended PlanGrid-sponsored annual conference and other outreach. One past attendee praises her “contagious energy.”
Young herself benefitted from a female coach—former Autodesk CEO Carol Bartz, who also had been a PlanGrid director.
Autodesk executives see PlanGrid, of which Young will remain CEO, as pivotal to the new parent firm’s strategy to better connect its design-focused software with field users.
Forbes estimates the construction software market to reach $10 billion by 2020.
Young says a PlanGrid public offering was a growth option but sees the Autodesk buy as good for her firm—which could add 150 employees—its customers and the industry.
She relishes as her “favorite testimonial,” a non-college-educated superintendent’s review of PlanGrid as “the best tool ever given to me.”
Young won't say if another tech startup is in her future, but "if she does decide to start something, I’ll be ready to fund her," says Tenaya Capital's Boyer.