Ettinger Controls mindpepper

May 17, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Twenty years ago, conventional wisdom had it that women weren’t particularly good at math and weren’t cut out to be CEO even if they had put in decades of service.

Well, times change and Catherine Ettinger is a shining example of that change.

Ettinger, 30 and a Northwestern University economics graduate, is the brains and power behind mindpepper LLC, which was created last year by BDO Seidman LLC.

Ettinger heads the 13-member staff that worked part-time last summer to launch mindpepper, Seidman’s Internet product development and operating company. In November she and her colleagues ceased being employees of Seidman’s IT center and became the subsidiary’s full-time staff.

This community has known about mindpepper since last year, but Seidman last week released a national announcement of the firm’s establishment concurrent with the birth of its bargainandhaggle Webs site (see separate story on page B6), an e-commerce firm with a difference.

Bargainandhaggle is a Web site where a prospective a buyer and seller bargain and, well, haggle over the price of an item until they make a deal or the buyer quits. If the buyer quits, then the next prospective buyer steps up from his or her place at the head of the Web site’s queue and starts the process over again. The site’s revenue comes from a percentage of the sale price, the rate varying from 4 1/4 to 1 1/2 percent, the rate descending as the price ascends.

Concurrent with the launch of bargainandhaggle.com, Ettinger said, is the launch of Dinidan, the e-commerce pricing model for bargainandhaggle and for which the company has a patent pending.

In case the term “Dinidan” sounds familiar, Ettinger said, grinning, that’s because it’s the name of one of the knights of King Arthur’s Camelot.

She told the Business Journal that mindpepper — a name that the staff invented during a skull session and that she absolutely loves — does not happen to have a Lancelot in the works. It is, however, developing something called Sagremore, named for one of Dinidan’s fellow knights at the Round Table.

“And I can’t tell you anything more about it,” she said.

What she is willing to talk about are the origins of mindpepper.

She explained that after a stint at Universal Forest Products, she joined Seidman. That was five years ago, after her husband, Daniel, completed his law degree at Duke University and entered practice here with Warner, Norcross and Judd.

Seidman hired her to administer the networks of its internal IT and corporate accounting center, which is currently located on Kenmoor just off Cascade.

“I came in here as a network administrator — a little bit of a stretch for me,” she said. “But then there was a lot of help, a lot of support and a lot of opportunity.”

And she said that has typified working with the firm. “Every time you turn around, there’s a new challenge. But there’s always a new opportunity that goes with it.”

She said the creation of mindpepper came at the instigation of the Seidman’s new chairman, Dennis Field, whose mission is to diversify Seidman. He gave mindpepper an initial green light after a long conversation with her.

Eleven members of mindpepper’s current staff were working in the IT center and kept doing so part-time as they began developing the firm.

But why would she — or Field, for that matter — want to be involved in an industry in which new starts have been dying at an alarming rate?

Ettinger explains that crashes in new industries are a common phenomenon. Besides, Seidman is using mindpepper to find gaps and inefficiencies in e-commerce markets and to find ways to exploit them.

She explained that well over 300 million people are using the Web in one fashion or another and that the number is growing constantly. Moreover, for all its deaths, the e-commerce industry worldwide last year did close to $300 billion in business, a number expected to grow 25 times by the end of 2005

Meanwhile, nearly 18 million American who are collectors use the Web constantly because it has so multiplied their capacity to search, research and to communicate commercially.

Somewhere out there, she believes, are the opportunities for which mindpepper is searching. The firm incidentally also has been searching for new offices and, come April, it will set up shop in the Brass Works Building on Monroe Avenue NW.

Steering the creation of mindpepper and its first launch, she said, “has been the hardest work I’ve ever done.

“It has meant pulling together the work of 12 of the most talented people I’ve ever met — and people with the most drive.”

Nor, she added, has she ever been involved in something so interesting.

“Interesting” is a word Ettinger employs a great deal. And when she utters it, she gesticulates abruptly with both hands, arches her brows and widens her eyes, indicating it really means something more like “fascinating.”

So you can tell she means it when she said that at Northwestern, she found statistics and all their permutations “interesting.”

Equally interesting, she said, was her task of developing and cross-indexing a database for a firm in Durham, N.C., that invented devices to measure the strength required of certain tasks for some huge manufacturers.

The equipment also assessed workers’ strength with respect those tasks. It also helped assess the ability of injured and recovered employees to do their old job or to ascertain what tasks they could perform safely.

She said she and Dan also find the growth and development of 2 1/2-year-old Nicholas “interesting” too, particularly now that — as one might expect of a member of his generation — he already exhibits a deep interest in computers.

“Except,” she said, laughing, “right now he tries to use a mouse as a telephone.” 

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