Regional software developers growing presence

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Emerging industry finding place in northeast Wisconsin

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

Twenty-five-year-old Michael Kieffer and his two brothers, Jonathan, 27, and David, 29, make puzzles and games for the iPhone.

Their business, Kieffer Brothers (www.kiefferbros.com) marks its sixth anniversary this year, with David designing, Jonathan programming, and Michael doing a little bit of everything.

“I’ll work on tricky design problems with David, keep our books up, handle support inquiries, work on marketing campaigns, and lots of other tedious business functions,” said Michael Kieffer. “With just three of us, though, we all do a little of everything.”

They have no physical storefront, and they work from virtual locations – home, on the road, in Appleton’s Avenue HQ co-working space, and even Spain.

They sell their games – with names like Spell Rift, orba and Monster Soup – through Apple’s iTunes App Store. They’ve experimented with other genres but found that their attention kept wandering back to puzzles.

“We just really enjoy making puzzles – probably because those are the types of games we often play ourselves,” Michael Kieffer said. “Some people get addicted to playing games. We got addicted to making them.”

Quirk or trend?

There’s a saying out there that goes something like, “One is a quirk, two is a coincidence, and three is a trend.”

If that’s true, then there’s more than a trend going on in the Fox Valley. Many small, independent technology-based start-ups have sprung up over the last 10  years.

Take Jeffrey Mason, for example. He runs a healthcare consulting business, Analytics LLC, and recently opened its new division, Femur Software.

In late April, he launched his first app with Femur. Called LogFirst, (www.logfirst.com) it helps business travelers track mileage, keeping personal mileage separate from business for tax purposes.

“I looked at some of the existing problems that have plagued me, and this is a big one,” Mason said.

Mason’s no kid in a basement. He’s the former chief executive officer of one of Green Bay’s largest medical facilities, a position he held for 24 years.

“As CEO of BayCare Clinic, I was frustrated repeatedly with the chore of having to log my business mileage on a paper log,” he said. “And it was so monotonous that I decided that this is a good time to solve that. So I developed a solution, got the programming done and all of the legal work, the patent processing and trademarking.”

His target market includes sales reps, accountants and their clients, physicians who do outreach at different clinics, business owners – anyone who needs to track mileage under IRS regulations.

Technology is everywhere

You don’t have to go very far to find someone whose job involves technology.

Most tech jobs are in companies whose primary function isn’t technology – hospitals, banks and insurance companies, for example, according to Jeff Sachse, a labor economist with the state Department of Workforce Development.

That makes tech jobs tough to count.

“It’s an industry which, because it is spread out among so many lines, is something that’s much more pervasive than pointing to five or six different companies and saying, ‘These are some of the people that do this,’” Sachse said. “It’s more of a practice that has been adopted by more traditional businesses, just as a means of remaining competitive.”

Plus, it’s classified as what we might broadly call the information sector, Sachse said.

He estimates that 70 to 80 percent of technology employment in northeast Wisconsin involves more traditional lines of IT development, like web design and maintenance, network support, data analysis and workstation support, versus  creation of software and applications.

But when it comes to startups and sole proprietors developing apps and customizing software, that number iss definitely rising.

“Where you’re seeing the most growth is in these smaller firms which are out there in support of a single product or multiple solutions,” Sachse said. “A lot of that growth has come out of individuals working for some of these companies and who come up with some innovative product and decided to take that to the market.”

The gift that keeps on giving

When the three Kieffer brothers launched their company, Michael was barely out of high school. Apple had released the iPhone the year before, and the App Store was launched that summer.

And, probably most importantly, their parents had gotten them iPhones for Christmas the year before.

“Jonathan was working through an online animation course, and David was doing freelance graphic design work,” Michael Kieffer said. “We were all in a place where we had extra time to work on projects together.”

Kieffer had a small puzzle book that David was helping him design, and they thought it would make a fun mobile game. That became “Enso Dot,” their first game on iTunes.

It didn’t sell very well, but it got the ball rolling.

“We kept making games despite the setbacks and growing competition on the App Store,” Kieffer said.

Kieffer describes their business plan as “100 percent bootstrapped.” They started with practically no capital. “We started out using our own personal computers and chipped in enough money to register our LLC with the state,” Kieffer said.

But their business didn’t need much capital investment – just a lot of love and time, Kieffer said.

“Not having investors or creditors is incredibly liberating from a creative standpoint,” he said. “But it also takes time and patience.”

It took a few years before the brothers felt comfortable enough to quit their day jobs.

Geek shortage?

Technology affects so many industries that it’s causing concerns for some city leaders.

“We’re in a transition phase from the national level that I don’t think we necessarily anticipated,” said Larry Burkhardt,  executive vice president of the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce.

“Ten years ago or so, we didn’t use our cell phones for nearly what we do now; agriculture didn’t depend on GPS technology nearly as much as it does today; and the automotive industry didn’t depend nearly on robotics as it does today,” he said.

He frequently hears from CEOs that there aren’t enough technology professionals in northeast Wisconsin.

“Whereas we’ve replaced a lot of jobs with technology, machinery, and computers, I think we’ve forgotten perhaps that all of that requires other human beings to maintain, to install, to modify, to develop all of those technology pieces.”

So, earlier this year, New North, Inc. started a task force to quantify and address the need for technology professionals in this area.

“This initiative has engaged a broad cross-section of New North’s regional employers to help remedy current and long-term IT talent shortages with tactics that develop our own through local education/training resources, reinvest in our current IT talent and recruit IT talent from outside the region,” said Jerry Murphy, executive director of New North.

The group is still in its infancy.

Rototilling the status quo

Chris Schmitz works with Digital Fertilizer (www.digitalfertilizer.org) a northeast Wisconsin non-profit that aims to help entrepreneurs “connect, engage and empower,” as its tagline says.

“There’s nothing about being in this area that makes it easier to build a startup,” Schmitz said. “Startups aren’t responsible for a lot of economic activity around here, so they don’t get much attention, and there aren’t a lot of resources for entrepreneurs trying to build these types of businesses.”

Schmitz and his group saw a need for some support and community around startups and technology, so they started putting on events like Startup Jams, meet-ups and Open Coffee events.

They bring in speakers from all over the Midwest to talk to their group. The speakers educate and motivate, Schmitz said, but the best part is the connections made and ideas shared.

Digital Fertilizer caters to people building high-tech businesses.

“We like to say that Digital Fertilizer is by entrepreneurs, for entrepreneurs, but we draw lots of design and developers in addition to entrepreneurs,” Schmitz said.

No shortage of problems

Jeffrey Mason, the creator of the LogFirst mileage app, likes software because it’s upbeat and positive.

“You can bring great value to people’s lives,” he said. “And looking into the future, it’s very unlikely for there to be a shortage on need.”

Computer hardware keeps improving, and with that you need better software and more code, he said. “There are plenty of problems out there in the world to solve.”

Mason said he and Femur have three other apps in development, and he’s helping other entrepreneurs with great ideas to create their own apps, too.

Lee Reinsch writes and edits from Green Bay.