By Amanda Jackson
I met up with Jeff Halonen, one of the six co-founders of Steelhead Technologies in Calumet, MI, who shared some entrepreneurial insight, what it took to get up and running, and the story behind their name.
Can you share a little about yourself?
Jeff: My background is in mechanical engineering. I went to Michigan Technological University for my engineering degree and then started working at General Motors as a CAE Driveline Engineer, then a Performance Engineering dealing with noise and vibration, and later a Lower Body Structures-Design Release Engineer. I learned a lot about solving unique challenges in those roles and even lead design and engineering on the Cadillac Lyriq program.
Then Dean, our Head of Sales at Steelhead, talked to me about getting into sales as a job and helping people solve problems. He got me thinking about the different types of careers and we decided to start our own sales company, called Ray Squared Solutions.
What sparked the idea for Steelhead as a business and its solution?
Jeff: It was a customer on a project that took the initiative to tell us what pains they had, what they needed addressed, and what to build to allow companies to get away from paper use for tracking. Tracking systems out of the 90s use paper and you could end up spending all day looking for a part. It was an inefficient system-they didn’t know when a part would be done, and scheduling was complex and a struggle to do manually. We found other companies were also having the same pains and that we could solve it. We were founded to address these concerns for our customers in the manufacturing industry.
We are a young company, co-founded by six people in Michigan in May 2021. We started small with only one or two customers and our first customer was WildWood Coatings in Dollar Bay, MI. When we came into WildWood, they were using clipboards on the walls to track and record everything. We knew we had an easy and much more efficient method for them that would make a big difference. We have grown significantly in the last two years, serving dozens of customers across the United States and Canada.
Where did the name Steelhead come from? And the ST/fish logo?
Jeff: Steelhead have several qualities that are unique to them. They are beautiful, powerful, and have a purposeful role in life. If you’re a fisherman, you know when you catch a steelhead they fight like crazy. This is analogous to our team. When we work with a company and find an issue, we will fight through it with unrelenting energy.
The design for the Steelhead logo was done by Paul Heltonen. We had a client meeting and needed something, so I think we challenged him to develop our whole brand in about a day and a half.
Did you always want to start your own business?
Jeff: I thought about it for a long time and guess I deliberately put myself in positions that would allow me to start my own business. I struggled with a standard job role, and 40 hr/week/ x vacation days, etc. There was no quick fix to the change I wanted, and I had to be out there taking risks to make it happen.
Did anyone help or mentor you along the way?
Jeff: I was very new to running a company so I had lots of help and relied on outside council. We brought on Chantel for marketing at a professional level. Investors and venture capital out of New York. MTEC SmartZone was useful in connecting us with local and state support systems, awards, and programs. Our customers provided lots of patience and helped us to solve other issues that came up. The attorney and CPA team are exceptional, and 1st and 2nd networks shared input and we did lots of learning.
I think it helped that we acknowledged the areas we were ignorant of and found people who could provide that insight we needed. It’s important to know what you don’t know and find wisdom before you act. We do have a larger founding team which I feel is a positive. We have multiple people helping make decisions and providing different perspectives.
Did you receive any funding help or grants for your business?
Jeff: We had some customer revenue, but in the beginning we basically ran on sweat equity until we got the seed fund.
What was your biggest challenge in starting up a successful business?
Jeff: Managing the scope of the problem we are trying to solve. As new problems begin to pop up and get added, it can make a project too big. Often, we need to keep it narrow and grow capabilities overtime, not all at once.
What’s next for Steelhead? Are you growing?
Jeff: Steelhead has grown organically with many of our team (12) having attended Michigan Technological University for mechanical engineering or computer science degrees. These are the types of degrees that you typically see within industry.
We raised $2.5 M in capital and hired 10-11 staff in the last 12 months. We found this industry is underserved so we have a unique opportunity to address the market and push the boundaries of how much technology we can fit into it.
That’s a strong tie to MTU? Did you always want your business in the U.P.?
Jeff: Michigan Tech has had a huge influence on the company. We have 20 employees now and many have strong ties to MTU and bring with them a strong work ethic and create a positive work culture. Our new headquarters is located in Calumet and we plan to stay there. It’s a huge bonus to us to have everyone here for the option to have in-person collaborations.
What do you wish people knew about Steelhead Technologies?
Jeff: The scale and scope of projects we are capable of. We have end to end capabilities for running a franchise on.
What advice would you share with future entrepreneurs of the U.P.?
Jeff: Swing hard, don’t do it halfway. If you are going to try and make a business idea work; give the business 100% effort for 16-18 months before you say it didn’t work. Even for Steelhead, 6 months, or 12 months in, we looked like a much different company than we are now.
About Steelhead Technologies
Steelhead Technologies is a software company servicing the process manufacturing industry with an ultra-modern management system. Our cloud-based platform delivers high value, data driven results, and provides an organized and intuitive work environment for every employee. By digitizing the production process, our customers see immediate benefits in production, quality, and in reduced management burden. We are proud of the value our customers receive when they choose to use our product!