Business

Technology in Tacoma

For the South Sound Technology Conference, a Tacoma tech company has prepared a handout that offers 10 things to keep in mind when designing an "app" - an application, or software, for a mobile device.

No. 10: The market is overwhelmed. The handout paraphrases Apple’s guidelines: “We don’t need another iFart.”

In other words, make sure your app has staying power. It’s advice coming from a company that does.

IdentityMine, a software design and engineering firm founded in 2001, is one of several Tacoma companies participating in the tech conference Friday at the University of Washington Tacoma. Sponsored by the Institute of Technology, the daylong event is in its 11th year of bringing together leaders in industry, education and government.

The company started in CEO Mark Brown’s basement. Brown and his two partners, Chad Brown (no relation) and David Meunier (some relation – he’s Mark’s brother-in-law) bought their first servers on eBay. Now the company employs 45 people worldwide, including 10 in Tacoma from their headquarters in the TrueBlue building on A Street.

The company creates custom applications for a variety of devices and platforms, including websites, desktop computers, tablets and phones. Its clients have included The History Channel and the subway system in Switzerland, for whom it created a mobile ticketing application.

Designing applications for mobile devices is the hot new thing, but it’s just one of the services IdentityMine provides. Its bread and butter is user experience.

“People have an emotional response to software tools. They either love it or hate it,” Brown said this week. This is a familiar feel ing: The boss says this new software will save time, but employees spend more energy figuring out the software than they do on the work.

IdentityMine’s goal is to make things intuitive. Its creative director, Jonah Sterling , used to design toys. “He really challenges us,” Brown said.

Brown said his company’s niche is how it’s structured: Designers and engineers work side by side, ensuring both lovely design and deep functionality. Brown said this allows his firm to charge a little more for its services than a typical interactive agency. In 2009, the privately held company had $8.3 million in revenue, which declined a bit in 2010 as the economy slowed down. Brown wouldn’t specify by how much.

Though its business model is built on intuitive design, the company’s name doesn’t quite fit the bill. It was chosen at a time when an industry catchphrase was “identity management” – the idea that software can be personalized and follow users anywhere. But 11 years later, it conjures images of data harvesting.

“Now we say it’s about the focus of brand extension and brand loyalty,” Brown said. “Those things are hard to change once your brand gets out there.”

HIGH-TECH VORTEX

Other things that are hard to change: Seattle as a high-tech vortex. IdentityMine’s headquarters are in Tacoma because its founders live here, but its largest office is in Pioneer Square.

“The design talent is centered around Microsoft. It’s difficult to find designers in the South (Sound region). Some people in Seattle are willing to make the commute, but most want to work close to home,” Brown said.

A large part of IdentityMine’s work uses Microsoft technology, and it has built its client base through its connections to the Redmond giant.

“We’ve had a follow-the-bread-crumbs approach,” Brown said. “We haven’t really marketed our services (in Tacoma) because we haven’t needed to.”

Technology conference chairman Andrew Fry said that at last rough count, almost 90 tech companies were based in the South Sound.

“We can’t compare it to the amount of activity going on in Seattle,” he said. In its 10 years of life, the UWT’s Institute of Technology has graduated 600 people. Every year several hundred more are added to that talent pipeline, Fry said.

Linda Rix , co-CEO of Avue Technologies , said the UWT has “transformed the city’s ability to support businesses.”

Rix’s company started in Tacoma in the 1980s and has grown to about 100 employees, most of whom work downtown. Avue provides cloud computing services for large federal government agencies. It used to do most of its hiring in Canada, but Rix said the UWT has created a local work force.

“It wasn’t until the city and (the University of Washington) made investment at UWT that we were able to see a pipeline of talent. That pipeline is extraordinary,” she said. “I’ve watched it over two decades, and I was able to successfully migrate all of our technology development onshore and find the kind of talent I needed. We’ve gotten more competitive, too. We’re paying a lot more.”

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