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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane ‘small fish’ aims to tap global market for tablet computers

Chris Ryan holds a box containing the Minno tablet at his office in Spokane on Wednesday. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Chris Ryan holds a box containing the Minno tablet at his office in Spokane on Wednesday. (Tyler Tjomsland) Buy this photo

Using the Internet and workers on three continents, a Spokane company is trying to take a bite out of the computer tablet market dominated by giants like Samsung and Apple.

Minno Tablets, with an office in Spokane’s University District, is part of a growing breed of companies that rely on teams around the world to make and sell their products.

Officially launched this year, Minno’s sales and support office has two workers in Spokane and several more at other U.S. locations.

Like most tech firms, it draws on Chinese manufacturers to produce the tablet components, which are then assembled and configured by a six-person staff in Yerevan, Armenia.

Minno evolved from the business collaboration of brothers Eric and Chris Ryan, who founded a Spokane Valley toy production company, Noodle Head. The toy business was an early entrant locally to the Chinese manufacturing market.

But as that market diminished, the brothers pivoted toward producing affordable tablet computers. If big companies like Apple dominate the consumer market, there are dozens of companies like Minno competing to sell affordable devices to businesses or specialty markets like education.

“Personal mobile technology is certainly a growing market, and this is especially true in emerging economies around the world,” said Chris Ryan.

Their company name is a variation of “minnow” – the small fish found in schools. That’s because education has been Minno’s initial market focus. It’s also looking for inroads with government agencies and businesses.

Earlier this year Minno received an order for 2,000 tablets from the Armenian minister of education. The country, sandwiched between Turkey and Azerbaijan, intends to buy up to 40,000 more tablets for schools over the next three years, Ryan said.

Thousands of companies around the world are using the far-flung business model.

Business schools have conducted research on the trend, finding that advances in technology offset infrequent one-to-one meetings.

“Most companies today use lots of different forms of virtual,” said Ann Majchrzak, who teaches at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “You can’t do business today without it,” she said.

Chris Ryan said Minno’s strategy is to keep tablet prices low and sell in bulk.

“We’re not trying to sell in the consumer market” or compete with the iPad or the Samsung or Microsoft tablets, Ryan said.

Minno is pricing its tablets at roughly half what consumer tablets cost.

“That way we’re a two-for-one proposition. You can get a Minno 10-inch tablet for $249, compared with about $599 for the same-size iPad,” Ryan said.

His brother, Eric Ryan, based in Santa Barbara, Calif., helped develop Minno’s connections to the tech sector in Armenia, which for years has been called the Silicon Valley of the former Soviet Union.

Minno is just one of hundreds of tech firms now using Armenia’s pool of talent, he said.

“It has a low wage scale but also a highly educated population,” he said. “It has a lot of smart and well-trained workers available.”

The Armenian government has gone beyond ordering Minno’s tablets. It’s helping launch a Minno operation in the capital of the country to produce the ArmTab.

That will be the locally produced tablet sold to schools and businesses across Eastern Europe.

The goal is to increase capacity in Armenia to produce 100,000 tablets per year.

The brothers hold meetings by phone or Web conference once or twice a week. They also do regular Skype calls with their colleagues in Asia and in Armenia.

“On one hand, it is important to gather the team regularly on conference calls to chart the strategic course,” Chris Ryan said.

But not working in one building makes for more focused work, he added.

“We have less time in frequent drawn-out meetings, a chronic issue I have experienced with larger, centralized organizations,” he said.

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