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March 2011
"You Think It; We Build It."
By Heather Head

     “Imagine a world where two geeks in two weeks can create an application that grosses $50 million in its fifth year. That’s the world we live in,” says James Hartsell, owner of technology product developer Skookum, Inc.

     It’s a world in which ideas and the ability to develop them into powerful, user-friendly applications for Web and mobile devices can make companies successful overnight.

     It’s also a world in which many traditional businesses struggle to keep up with increasing competition from Web-native forces that deliver goods and services through appealing digital experiences.

     It’s a world in which marketing agencies, traditional companies, and entrepreneurs who want to thrive need a partner who knows how to build and deploy effective digital solutions.

     “In short, it’s a world that needs Skookum,” says Bryan Delaney, vice president and co-founder.

 

Making a Tight Connection

     Skookum was conceived by Hartsell and college roommate Delaney in 1998 when they started building digital solutions for freelance clients—(heard this one before?)—out of their dorm room. Both management information systems students, the two took turns finding clients and sharing the work.

     Although their college years were fraught with friendly rivalry, Hartsell says they “shared a common outlook on business and technology,” and after school they both took jobs with the Department of Defense.

     By 2005, they felt compelled to strike out on their own and officially launch their business. Remembers Hartsell, “We didn’t have contracts or clients; we didn’t have anything. We just said, ‘We’re young, we’ve got a little bit of money saved up, there’s a market niche for us.’”

     The company is part of a growing trend of successful businesses conceived, built, and run by 30-somethings who’ve known nothing but programming. And like many successful companies developed by young entrepreneurs, they got there on the bleeding edge of technology. In fact, Skookum is making that edge visible, especially in Charlotte.

     “The goal is to be more than just another high-tech company,” says Hartsell. “We are part of a group of people trying to create a community in Charlotte of the brightest, smartest, most forward-thinking technology innovators the region has to offer.”

     To that end, Skookum hosts Friday Tech Talks featuring expert speakers on the latest and greatest technologies. With titles like “Hack our Clickdummy,” and “Set-based Visualization of Genomic Data,” Delaney says the talks were conceived as a way to create a space in Charlotte for the biggest brains to come together, learn and apply themselves to real-world problems.

     However abstract the talks may seem to outsiders, they are not intended to be ivory-tower academic discussions.

     “Some people who are really smart—professor-type folks—talk about technology and ideas they’re always incubating, but never take action,” explains Hartsell. “That’s not us. In order to be successful with what we’re doing, we have to possess a quality of tenacity, a sense of ‘We gotta ship our product, we gotta deliver to our client.’”

 

Solving Problems Digitally

     Skookum carefully recruits and hires for just that combination of big brain and real-world get-it-done determination, the same attitude they bring to their client interactions. Hartsell says there are three essential types of Skookum clients.

     Their original client base, and still the largest source of revenue for the company, consists of traditional marketing and advertising companies. As recently as a few years ago, big ad agencies saw websites and digital applications as something they had to learn in order to be considered a “full-service” agency.

     But, Hartsell says, they were never able to do it as well as a specialized digital company could: “In order to be at the front of digital media, you have to be a digital firm.” So they would bring in companies like Skookum to quietly outsource the work.

     “It was a like a dirty little secret,” says Hartsell. Now, though, most companies recognize the benefit of partnering with a digital concern. In fact, it’s normally seen as a benefit to the project to bring in digital experts like Skookum.

     “Today, they show us off,” says Hartsell of their relationship to agencies. “Companies are all asking for digital executions, so agencies look good if they already have an esteemed partner.” He smiles, then laughs. “Well, that and people are wising up to the fact big executions take more than the agency’s two in-house developers. As technology matures, CEOs and CMOs are getting wiser, more sophisticated. ”

     While ad agencies are a significant source of revenue for Skookum, some of the most interesting work happens for direct clients who bring in what Skookum likes to call “toothy” problems. “Big businesses are realizing these whiz-bang consumer tools are available to them to make their organizations run better,” says Hartsell, as his face emphasizes “finally,” an unspoken assertion he’s known for years.

     Recently, a major food manufacturer in the region asked Skookum to help with their information systems. “Their processes were just a mess,” Hartsell recalls. “They were using 1970s systems for inventory control, production line, what they called ‘e-commerce,’ and none of them talked to each other.”

     Despite the fact that the systems were not designed for integration, Skookum did just that, taking away the company’s organization-wide pain without dismantling the enterprise systems they had invested in or disrupting the essential ways that employees interacted with the technologies. Skookum successfully Web-enabled each system to create a seamless automation—from original transaction to order fulfillment.

     “This was a fairly inexpensive solution for them,” says Hartsell, “because we were able to just build the pieces that hooked into their old system, and let them keep all the things they had invested in and were comfortable with. If it works, it works; if it’s not a problem, let’s not fix it.”

     As much fun as those projects are, it’s the third type of client that makes Hartsell’s eyes light up: An entrepreneur with an idea and a perhaps market, wanting Skookum to build the technological reality.

     For instance, one client dreamed up a social network-style platform that will allow people to find others who think exactly the way they do about politics—not just on big issues, but whose beliefs line up item for item with each other—and then to organize campaigns, events and other activities around that common political viewpoint. While it may not be the next Facebook, Hartsell says “It could change the way that people think about political structure.”

     Hartsell says the idea belongs to the client, but it’s Skookum expertise that is putting the product together and preparing it for market. “We’re building everything,” he says. “Product design and development, and the cultural piece too, who it’s for, how it works, why it’s here, the technologies, how to support it and help it grow—we’re their partner for all of that.”

 

Thriving in the Digital Age

     While robust economies continue to grow up around e-commerce and Web-native entities created in the minds of a few forward-thinking people, traditional companies need not fear the new environment, if they can adapt. Hartsell suggests a few tips for established businesses to bring their companies up to date and take advantage of the many new marketing and business development opportunities our increasingly digital world provides.

     First, he says—and most importantly—“Open your mind. Look at your business and ask, ‘Why can’t we do this?’ We live in an age when technology is so powerful that a couple of smart guys in a room for a few weeks can solve huge problems, and you didn’t have that even 15 years ago.”

     He suggests that traditional businesses look at the way they manage documents, marketing, data, transactions, and every other aspect of the business and find out what resources they have that they’re not already utilizing. What parts of the business could be improved with digital applications?

     Second Hartsell explains, “Harness the culture to ship. Every company, no matter if they offer goods or services, needs to get better about finishing. Getting to the end.” He continues, “Lots of people come into their office, they write ideas on a whiteboard. And that’s where the ideas stay. It’s the difference between talking and action.”

     Hartsell says what makes Skookum special is the quick ability to go from idea to execution. “It’s easy to imagine things. We provide companies the means to execute. Not enough businesses know even the fist step to getting something made—off the board, off the paper, inside their own walls.” This means hiring people who are natural producers and organizing teams that are primarily focused on going from A to Z as quickly as possible.

     Third, Hartsell says, “Make your employees part of the story. Develop a culture in which employees are trusted, honored and enveloped into the story of your brand. Don’t hide them behind a corporate cloak.” Hartsell cites studies showing that people are motivated less by money than by feeling a part of something important and valuable. “Give them that sense, and your people will give you the world,” he promises.

 

Bid Ideas for the Future

     Hartsell has no trouble taking his own advice. He’s excited about the future and constantly looking for the ideas and solutions that can make his business and that of his clients better. He also has his eyes on the technologies that will critically change the way we do business in the near future.

     The big one, he says, is Big Data.

     “Everything we do creates what they call data exhaust,” he explains. “When I swipe my Visa card, Visa knows where I was and what I bought. The GPS on our phones can tell Sprint where we are at any given time. There are people out there who can mine that data and tell you with frightening accuracy what you do every day, when you leave the house, where you work, what you do on the weekends.”

     Privacy concerns aside, proper application of that data could prevent fraud and identity theft, as well as help people make better purchasing decisions. Imagine if your bank were to match a Monday morning purchase against what it knows about where you usually are at that time and notify you if the locations don’t match up.

     Or if your store loyalty program could analyze how often you purchase milk and the brand you like, and send you a coupon right before your next grocery trip.

     Coupled with “Big Data,” the trajectory of mobile devices in general is likely to be explosive, says Hartsell. Perhaps surprisingly, he expects these developments to produce potentially positive results for traditional, brick-and-mortar businesses.

     For example, imagine your Visa company talking to your mobile device so that your mobile device knows where you like to shop. When the GPS unit in your mobile device detects that you’re near one of your favorite locations, it can push details on current deals inside, encouraging you to stop in and make a purchase.

     Hartsell’s enthusiasm for whatever the future may hold is evident. “The bigger the idea, the better.”

     “The bigger the problem the better,” adds Delaney.

     For companies entering this new age, that’s an encouraging message.

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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