Living tech life in Valley: Inside three companies that serve global customers from Northampton, Amherst

Wednesday, March 05, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — The Valley is quietly becoming a tech center of its own.

Several small firms and start-ups, drawn by a pool of skilled workers and the region’s appeal, have set up shop in the area.

Some fit snugly into the definition of tech companies, pursuing projects in video game design and improving how ads are embedded in mobile smartphone applications. Others are using technology to design ad campaigns and solicit real-time feedback from potential customers.

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What follows is a look at three players in Valley tech: Fiksu, which develops new ways to display digital advertising; Logic Trail, a marketing strategy firm; and Hit Point, the maker of video games such as Seaside Hideaway, Fablewood, Jane Austin Unbound and Gun Bros.

Fiksu’s way

Since its founding in 2008 by former University of Massachusetts professor Micah Adler, Fiksu (Finnish for “clever” or “smart”) has grown into a global company with 220 employees and offices in Boston, Singapore, Helsinki, Tokyo, London and, yes, Northampton.

While finding a Fiksu office is fairly simple, explaining what it produces isn’t.

“You ever watch ‘Mad Men’?” asked Fisku’s chief technology officer, Mark Corner, during a recent interview. “We are completely unlike that.”

So, while Fiksu employees don’t keep quarts of scotch in the office, they do find new ways to place advertisements within mobile applications, sometimes within other applications.

“Advertising a game within another game, ads in the Facebook mobile app — a lot of those come from us,” Corner said.

Traditional advertising would create a print or television ad and release it to the public and wait weeks or months to judge its effectiveness.

Once an ad is placed by Fiksu, complex mathematical algorithms can be used to check the effectiveness of those ads in more-or-less real time, calculating and re-calculating up to 160,000 times per second.

If an ad isn’t performing as well as hoped or expected, Fiksu can alter or tweak that ad or its location relatively quickly to see if that changes its effectiveness.

“We really just try them out and measure them and wash, rinse and repeat, hundreds of millions of times a day,” Corner said.

Today, most mobile developers make money by providing a free application and draw revenue from additional content or upgrades in what’s called the “appconomy,” Corner said.

He said that about 70 percent of Apple’s revenue, for example, comes from add-on sales for applications after the fact, not sales of applications themselves, most of which are free to consumers.

“We advertise few to no paid apps,” Corner said.

“People like free things and are willing to see advertisements tailored to them to keep it that way,” Corner said.

Corner said Fiksu’s Northampton office on Pleasant Street, which employs 15 full-time staff members, is responsible for engineering and software development. Its location is a good fit for the company on several levels.

About 150 people work for Fiksu in Boston and the remainder work in offices around the globe, Corner said.

Corner, who lives in Williamsburg, said when the company started in 2008 in Boston, he and other employees were traveling there and would often do engineering and programming work back in western Massachusetts.

Fiksu opened its Northampton office in March 2012 on Main Street and moved into its Pleasant Street office last April.

Attracting qualified people to work for a tech company in a region not known for hosting a lot of tech companies can lead to a “chicken-and-egg” situation, Corner said.

People looking for work may not consider the area if there’s not a lot of opportunities here. Companies may not consider setting up shop out of concern they won’t be able to fill jobs.

Corner was reluctant to make a permanent move to Boston and found others who wanted steady employment and would rather work locally than commute.

The benefits of having the two offices in Massachusetts means people in the Boston area who can’t afford to buy a home in the 617 area code have a better shot at purchasing property in the Valley, but can still work for the company.

Others who prefer the city lifestyle have that option as well, Corner said.

“Our take has been to strike some balance between the two,” Corner said. “You can live in Boston or Northampton or move to one or the other.”

Also attractive is having a pool of recent college graduates with computer science and engineering degrees, as well as professors looking to take on new challenges or work after leaving academia, Corner said.

“There’s a really incredible set of people here,” Corner said. “We’re really super picky.”

Because the office doesn’t need a large amount of space or extravagant infrastructure, aside from enough electricity and reliable, fast Internet access, finding where to set up can come down to what amenities are nearby.

Corner said he could have launched an office in Williamsburg, but there wouldn’t be nearly as many options for things like lunch and coffee as there are in downtown Northampton; perks like that matter when you’re planning on staying a while, Corner said.

“It’s a quality of life thing,” Corner said.

Logic Trail

Founded in 2009 by Northampton native Alexander Simon, Logic Trail uses technology to devise new approaches to one of the oldest industries — advertising.

In contrast to what Fiksu does, Logic Trail, located in Florence, does work more akin to traditional advertising.

Simon, who worked in traditional advertising until he began to feel “too wildly boxed in,” decided there was better way.

Simon describes Logic Trail as a “marketing strategy firm” run by “a very small group of very dedicated professionals.”

That small group began with Simon and two others in 2009, expanded to seven and just added an eighth member.

Logic Trail operates from an office on Riverside Drive in Florence, where workers on a recent day huddled over terminals surrounded by orange walls, and hardwood floors. Visitors are offered coffee or cappuccino when they walk in. The meeting room has a vintage Nintendo Entertainment System console.

“We handle a small group of big brands and we focus on those pretty deeply,” Simon said.

Some of those big brands include the Noble Health Network, Keurig and its parent company, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and Stephen Starr Restaurants.

Simon said Logic Trail specializes in direct marketing for clients, designing websites, videos or literature to target specific sectors of its target market, rather than develop large, cumbersome campaigns that may miss the mark.

Being flexible allows Logic Trail to tailor its marketing approach, Simon said. Being tech-savvy allows it to monitor each campaign’s effectiveness and quickly modify it when that is needed.

For example, Simon said a customer service video for Keurig’s website produced by Logic Trail was getting a fewer views than other videos.

A check of the feedback found the video was too long to hold interest and be effective and was edited for time and successfully relaunched, Simon said.

Technology has changed the advertising business so much that long gone are the days when ad campaigns were the province of Madison Avenue. Likewise, he noted, tech firms are no longer rooted in California. “The days of the ‘Silicon Valleys’ are becoming numbered,” Simon said. “You don’t have to be in a certain space. We wouldn’t survive otherwise, period.”

Simon said he wanted to start the company in Northampton and found clients and the city itself welcome to the idea.

Simon said that in conversations with clients, the subject of where Logic Trail is based rarely comes up. But if it does come up, he sees it as a selling point.

“We do have a story here,” Simon said. “Northampton is known in a lot of areas.”

“We’ve got a very vivid and diverse culture that I think a lot of surrounding towns can’t claim,” he said. “It could be the schools, it could be the art scene.”

He likes being able to hire and work with people with varied interests and other creative outlets. “I think we produce better work because of those things,” he said.

Simon said the city was welcoming when it came time to set up shop. The relationship, Simon said, benefits both. “It adds to the brand the city is trying to portray: youthful, energetic, creative.”

“It’s my town,” Simon said.

Hit Point

If you’ve invested hours of online time into games like “Seaside Hideaway,” “Fablewood,” “Jane Austin Unbound” or “Gun Bros” you have Amherst-based Hit Point to thank — or blame — for that.

The video game studio, founded in December 2008 and originally located in Greenfield, now with a staff of about 50, has settled into a home on University Drive in Amherst, a short walk from the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus which Chief Executive Officer Aaron St. John, 36, and Chief Operating Officer Paul Hake, 31, both attended.

St. John said he was born in Alaska and grew up surrounded by games of all varieties — board games, early PC video games, and pen-and-paper tabletop role-playing games while “cowering in the darkness” of long Alaskan nights with his family.

“It was a vehicle to hassle each other,” he said.

The company’s name, Hit Point, derives from a gaming term that represents how much damage a character can absorb before it “dies.”

Hake earned his diploma from UMass in its Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration (BDIC) program, studying computer science, business and art, all of which lend themselves to working as a game developer, he said.

The studio has been able to capitalize on the growing casual and mobile games market that began to take off on Facebook and have exploded with use of mobile devices.

Games that seem to work well on those platforms are ones that take just a few minutes to learn, can be played in short bursts and are difficult to master and — hopefully — impossible to put down for long, Hake said.

Hit Point has corporate clients like Axe Body Spray, Alfa Romero automobiles and ABC Television. It has developed games tied into advertising campaigns to help promote products. To work, these games still have to be enjoyable.

In December, 2008, Hit Point was formed when two small Amherst-based companies merged: Hake’s studio, Paul Hake Productions, and St. John’s studio, Golden Goose.

Since then, the studio has moved from Greenfield to a Hatfield barn to its current home in office space on University Drive.

The fit with the surrounding town seems a good one.

Amenities like the municipal broadband in Amherst and access to a relatively robust public transportation system made setting up shop in Amherst easier, St. John said.

Hake said the university community has provided a good talent pool to recruit from for entry-level engineering and art positions. The company has recruited outside of the area for more senior-level positions.

The opportunity to do work one loves doing in an idyllic New England setting has a lot of appeal for employees, St. John said. “We are an anomaly,” he said. “A cutting-edge game studio in the middle of nowhere.”

And that’s the way he likes it.

“I love my job, but I hate living in the city,” St. John said.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.