Starting up the future
Young talent based in Spokane sells to national market via Internet
The Spokane-area job picture is still shaky, with unemployment hovering near 10 percent. But in spite of the gloom, several startups are buzzing along, creating dozens of jobs and attracting workers.
They aren’t the only companies that have grown during the recession, of course. But all three opened their doors during the worst economy in generations and have other characteristics in common, including a relatively young workforce and a national customer base.
Brett Noyes, a Gonzaga MBA graduate and business consultant who focuses on local startups, said the success of such companies will help breed further successes.
“We can tell young people they can stay here and not move. We have companies that are doing cool stuff here,” Noyes said.
He cited three companies that fit that description: Spokane-based Green Cupboards, Liberty Lake’s Gravity Jack and downtown Spokane’s Seven2.
Green Cupboards, an online green product retailer, has grown from 14 workers two years ago to 51 today.
The average age of employees at its Spokane office is 26, said Tove Tupper, the company’s director of marketing.
Seven2 Interactive, started in 2007, develops online content and games for national clients including AT&T and Expedia.
It has 43 workers, up from 12 three years ago, and its average worker age is about 31, said Nick Murto, who co-founded Seven2 with Tyler Lafferty.
Liberty Lake’s Gravity Jack has about 40 workers and has grown quickly since opening in 2009. Its growth is being fueled by deals with national companies such as Safeway and MySpace, which are diving into the technology niche of “augmented reality” – the use of computer graphics and data to provide images and location information for mobile devices.
Gravity Jack CEO Luke Richey said the company will add 20 workers this year. If projected growth continues, Gravity Jack will add 20 to 40 next year, Richey said.
Noyes said one clear reason for the three companies’ success is that all have products that can be sold nationwide. “If they had to rely entirely on selling just to Spokane, it would be a different story,” said Noyes, who earlier this year helped launch a Spokane startup initiative to help young entrepreneurs.
Other common traits he finds in Spokane’s fastest-growing startups are a youth-focused workplace and a relaxed manager-worker office structure. Those features are big factors in hiring good workers and keeping them, Noyes said.
Even so, Eastern Washington University business professor Harm-Jan Steenhuis believes the three companies are the exception rather than the rule.
Steenhuis, who has researched the area’s technology industry and has worked with state agency Innovate Washington, said Spokane still lacks the startup clusters common in bigger cities. Boston and Austin, Texas, for example, have groups of similar companies, which attract the workers and financial backers that entrepreneurs need to get their businesses off the ground, he said.
Seven2’s Murto said he worried two years ago that it would be hard to find enough skilled developers, Web designers and graphic artists in Spokane. But that shortage never materialized.
“We’d find one or two people we never knew of … and they’d turn out to be great employees, and we’d run into the same problem again, and we’d have the same positive results,” he said.
A variation on that hiring occurred at Green Cupboards, which was launched in 2008 after Josh Neblett competed in the annual Gonzaga University Hogan entrepreneurial contest. After the contest, Spokane venture capitalist Tom Simpson liked the online company idea so much he helped fund it, giving Neblett and co-founder Sarah Wollnick a downtown office.
The company’s first lineup of products focused on home cleaning and bath and beauty. “Our first big seller, back then, was a toilet-bowl cleaner,” Neblett said.
Green Cupboards has broadened its catalog to include 15,000 products covering electronics, baby care, office supplies, pet products, and toys and games. All of those fall into a “green friendly” category in one way or another, Neblett said.
Last year the company netted about $7.2 million in online sales and this year it’s likely to double that, he said.
As the company has gotten larger, Neblett said Green Cupboards now looks longer to find people with e-commerce experience.
“Looking through resumes, I’m searching for an ‘it’ factor,” Neblett said.
“Regardless of what specific jobs we have open, if I find that ‘it’ factor, we find a spot for them,” he said.