Rural tech startups see success across the US

By Alice Williams as written on techcrunch.com
While tech startups have become synonymous with urban areas that offer improved access to talent, resources and infrastructure, the reality is that rural areas are also home to startups.
This may come as a surprise to those who have moved away from rural areas specifically to find a job in the tech industry, which accounts for more than 6.7 million jobs in the United States alone. Population loss is a real issue for much of rural America; some states, such as Nebraska and Kansas, have introduced tax incentives to fight back against this trend. Others are turning to technology to counter the trend.
States are starting to recognize the importance of supporting and developing opportunities for rural counties. In the state of Washington, the Department of Commerce has been encouraging business plan competitions in rural areas with “at least 10 competitions in rural areas that we have promoted and supported,” stated Maury Forman, senior manager of the rural initiatives and innovations at Washington State Department of Commerce.
This foresight is necessary to support tech startups and the entrepreneurs behind them — tech startups tend to grow quickly in their early years, which offsets “job destruction from early-stage business failures,” which in turn leads to a more robust job market.
Live. Give. Save. Inc., is a financial tech startup based in the city of Red Wing, Minnesota, home to a little over 16,000 people. “Red Wing has a history of pioneers … and inventors. There’s a rich, rich beautiful history of arts, culture and innovation,” said Susan Sorensen Langer, CEO, Live. Give. Save., Inc., a financial tech startup that is creating a mobile platform to boost retirement savings through charitable giving.
Langer moved out to Red Wing after her contract ended with her last employer and was introduced to Neela Mollgaard, Executive Director of Red Wing Ignite, a nonprofit organization that develops and promotes next-generation technology services and applications. “I was blown away by what they were doing in Red Wing,” Langer said, and spoke to the desire to change Red Wing’s image into a place that would become known for startups much like Austin, Texas.

Access to internet hasn’t really been an issue actually.

— C. Skyler Young
Support from the community to provide the necessary resources and infrastructure has been invaluable to the success of tech startups such as Live. Give. Save., Inc. In 2012, the city of Red Wing and Hiawatha Broadband Communications (HBC) formed a public-private partnership to bring gigabit broadband to Red Wing. For entrepreneurs such as Langer, who have virtual teams, having access to fast internet is crucial.
While other rural areas may not have the same support Red Wing has, technological updates and developments have been on the rise. Certain companies have specifically focused on bringing broadband internet to rural America. “I am often asked if the difficulty of running a company in a rural area is high-speed internet. It’s not,” said Ken Levy, CEO and co-founder of 4-Tell, which helps increase sales for online retailers by 17.1 percent with big data.
C. Skyler Young, owner of Site Savvy, a tech startup that provides managed websites and online marketing for small to mid-sized businesses based in Yakima, Washington, has a similar experience to Levy. “Access to internet hasn’t really been an issue actually,” said Young. “There are a few dead zones in town; some of the communication infrastructure dates back to the 20s,” Young said. “However, it’s been updated a great deal in recent years. It’s not at all hard to find good connections these days.”
While Yakima has a larger population that what is typically considered to be rural, the land is undeveloped and used mostly for agricultural purposes. Known to locals as the little sister of Seattle, Yakima offers plenty of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, with mountains and bodies of water surrounding the area.
In terms of access to talent, Levy has credited the Columbia River Gorge area with attracting “a personality type that is perfect for startups, and employees want to move here.” Levy stated that “the Gorge has created a high-tech hub with over a thousand technical employees centered around Insitu (a division of Boeing) and related software and hardware companies.”

The assumption that rural areas cannot support tech startups is coming under fire.

While both Young and Langer spoke about the difficulties they’ve faced in getting talent to move to rural areas, they credit remote employees and having a virtual team as filling this gap. “After this [product] kickoff, what I plan is to get a couple of developers to move to Red Wing,” Langer said. Young noted that although finding talent was still a struggle, “it’s becoming easier as time goes on … as people work remotely and choose to live more comfortable and sustainable lifestyles in the countryside.”
And the advantages to having your tech startup based in a rural area? Plenty. Young was full of praise, citing “low cost of living, no traffic, elbow room, and easy access to the outdoors.” In a similar vein, Langer talked about how Red Wing is a great place for those with a love of the outdoors, its close proximity to both Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as only being 45 minutes away from the nearest airport. “Red Wing is the perfect mix of small town and big city,” Langer said. “It’s a wonderful place to raise children. It’s got everything.” An important factor Levy brought up was access to quality education. The Gorge has access to quality schools and “employees for a high-tech company want the best schools for their kids.”
Although challenges still exist for rural startups, the assumption that rural areas cannot support tech startups is coming under fire. Because of the initiatives of state organizations and private companies, as well as the opening of co-working spaces, rural areas are being given the attention they need and deserve to develop and invest in opportunities that will allow business as a whole to grow and succeed.



Microsoft's BizSpark helping start-ups, like Pose-a-Pet, reach their goals

pose-a-pet startup

Jennifer Whaley, founder and CEO of Pose A Pet™, stumbled onto her startup idea several years after she began volunteering to take pictures of homeless pets at animal rescue operations in an effort find them forever homes more quickly. Great pictures get animals adopted, she says. Even better? A PaaS like Microsoft Azure gives a startup the boost it needs to go worldwide.
Whaley’s idea to help homeless pets become more adoptable through charming, uniquely personable photos for rescue ads was helping to get more animals adopted more quickly, but the number of animals that she could help was limited by the number of hours in the day. She took pictures using a necklace of squeaky, distinctive sounds that captured a pet’s attention.
The noises captured the shots she wanted but, in her heart, she knew there had to be a faster and more efficient way to bring her photo-taking tools to the masses and distribute them out so that more animals would be adopted quickly. As she worked out the details of Pose A Pet™, she networked with other startups.
When another small pet business told her about the benefits of the Microsoft BizSpark program, Whaley was interested in learning more.
As she tells it, “It truly hit us that we were a real startup when we became a part of the BizSpark program. When we found out that everything we needed was available to us (Ed. Note: Visual Studio, Exchange, Azure, SQL, SharePoint, etc.) to develop the kind of apps we envisioned, we knew we had a chance.”
Jeff Everett, co-founder and CTO, manages the technology side of the business. Through BizSpark, Pose a Pet™ now uses Microsoft Azure to house all its images, create animal rescue flyers, add sponsors and helps create marketing campaigns for animal rescues worldwide, among other things.
Even more important, Microsoft Azure is available and scalable to Pose A Pet’s™ needs as it continues to expand worldwide. Azure’s Platform as a Service (PaaS) allow developers to focus on building differentiating scenarios and features rather than rebuilding infrastructure.
PaaS was perfect for Pose A Pet™, says Everett. The Microsoft Azure platform provides a cloud services operating system and a set of services to support easy development and operation of applications for the platform. One OSS platform the company is currently evaluating for use within Azure is Concrete 5. Everett says that will help wrangle in the many contacts the startup has for rescues, TV stations, radio stations, etc.
“We love the flexible nature it provides that our developers need and have been asking us for so they can use it for their contacts.”
Because Pose A Pet™ is dealing with multiple software versions as well as a collaborative workspace, the company uses Git Repository to make sure all the versions are properly cataloged through the Feature Based Workflow.
“That gives us frictionless context switching,” says Everett, “so we can go forward with a revision, commit a few times, head back to where we branched from and apply patching where necessary in order to make our final project stable while developing other ideas in parallel.”
“Azure’s Platform as a Service provides significant cost reduction in the development, deployment and hosting of business applications due to the fact that you pay only for what you use,” adds Everett. “The ever-increasing and limitless computing resources of PaaS also give us a major competitive edge over our competitors because if we need more resources or servers, we can have them up in minutes rather than the time required at traditional in-house data centers.”

pose-a-pet screenshot

Because of all the services Azure has to offer, Pose A Pet™ easily built a back-end engine to create shareable flyers in bulk for automated sends; each animal rescue flyer has a link to a business that sponsors an individual animal, which are then shared all over social media.
“We got excited about Microsoft Azure when we realized that the process was much more automated that we expected,” he says. “The most exciting thing for us is the ability to scale. We know we will be housing thousands of images and moving a large amount of data around in the future. Keeping all that in one place on a single platform like Azure makes things straightforward. And that leaves time for us to plan for growth through development.”
“With Azure, we just save so much time for ourselves and the work we enjoy doing,” he says. “And the ability to scale through cost is beautiful. It’s easy to get all kinds of apps to communicate with the server. For example, we use a lot of Java and will be employing more open source software packages like Ruby on Rails as we grow and customize. That’s a huge benefit of Azure – that we can deploy OSS on it.”
Pose A Pet™ has iPad and Android apps now (Windows 8 and Windows Phone apps coming soon) that use proven attention grabbing sounds from Whaley’s necklace as a picture is being taken. The sounds in the app help the pet focus directly on the camera, which improves each picture taken. For those involved in animal rescue you can create a virtual flyer that can be instantly shared on their social media networks. The app will be available through the Windows Store soon stay tuned.
For anyone considering adopting a pet, Whaley has some valuable advice.
“Be sure you have the space, time and energy for a pet. Then find a local breed rescue or animal shelter and take things from there. Many people don’t realize that you don’t even have to open your home or even your pocketbook to help animal rescue. Visit your local animal shelter’s site today to find out how you can help homeless animals in your community!”
Microsoft is helping these startups succeed through its BizSpark program.
About BizSpark: Microsoft BizSpark is a global program that helps startups succeed by giving free access to Microsoft Azure cloud services, software and support. BizSpark members receive up to $750 per month of free Microsoft Azure cloud services for 3 years: that’s $150 per month each for up to 5 developers. Azure works with Linux and open-source technologies such as Linux, Ruby, Python, Java and PHP. BizSpark is available to startups that are privately held, less than 5-years-old and earn less than $1M in annual revenue.



Pass Through Wormhole To Online Learning

wormhole startup

Education is a social interaction, whether online or in person, says Sally Buberman, CEO and co-founder of Wormhole. That basic concept led to the creation of the first ‘Live Learning’ platform, a new concept in online education that disrupts the foundations of traditional e-learning and builds a new experience by leveraging mobility, gamification and people interaction to create the most engaging online training programs. It’s been a journey of epic proportions, from a small startup in Argentina to a customer base of more than 2000 companies, government organizations and educational institutions in 10 countries that continues to expand.
To scientists, a wormhole is a theoretical passage through space and time that could create shortcuts for long journeys across the universe. To Sally Buberman, Max Menasches and Ignacio (Nacho) Lopez, the word translates into providing enterprises and institutions a simple way to produce content, offer online training and still retain the best of live education.
The live piece, says Buberman, engages students more effectively by giving them the ability to talk openly with instructors as if they were together in the same room instead of waiting for occasional office hours. An online but live environment tends to be less intimidating than a person-to-person environment; it allows a student to take a live class while still allowing each to have a voice by share ideas and questions in real-time.
“I was giving online lectures over the Internet,” Buberman says. “I thought, ‘Why not create a reliable online university that offers real-time interaction between teachers and students?’”
Teachers, they theorized, needed a platform where they could create and retain their own content. And students from all walks of life needed a way to interact in real-time with their teams and instructors without having to travel to a specific location. This is also true in corporate and government training programs, where the company is focused now.
Pulling Max and Nacho into her plan, the Wormhole team ultimately decided to enter the Microsoft Imagine Cup competition (in 2007) as a way to obtain feedback and validation. The nature of Microsoft’s developer competition forced them to create milestones, build their first prototype and present the idea to others. Making it to the finals inspired the trio to quit their jobs and officially form their startup.
“At the time, we had almost no money to invest,” says Buberman. “We bootstrapped from scratch, worked on the side to generate revenue and reinvested all our earnings back into our little company. That was how we managed to hire the first employees who helped us develop the first version of our product – Wormhole Campus.”
From the beginning they chose to build their foundation on a mix of .NET and other open source software (OSS) packages. Linux, for instance, is Wormhole’s core operating system; C# and Java are the core languages used by the company. To scale-out easily, the startup uses a combination of Windows Server and Ubuntu Server. Wormhole also utilizes Joomla, a PHP CMS, for marketing websites and other internal developments, as well has having native mobile apps for Android and iOS.
Other OSS packages in use at Wormhole include Redis, MySQL, Nginx, Tomcat, Jenkins, a build automation tool, Apache Ant, a Java-based build tool and NAnt, a scripting tool for .NET that helps improve build functions.
Because Wormhole’s virtual classrooms offerings are 100 percent web-based, they don't require the installation of any software. They must, however, be able to work well under very low bandwidth and poor Internet connectivity in order to reach the most people. As the startup continued to grow at a very fast pace (their platform now has over 3 million users a month), it began to rethink its infrastructure architecture.
Before moving to Azure, says Lopez, Wormhole was managing every bit of its infrastructure by itself while hosting on private virtual servers and AWS. As it began researching Microsoft Azure, it discovered that Azure’s PaaS offering and managed services like Redis Cache and SQL Azure offered a simpler infrastructure and a new generation of computing that AWS didn’t have. The development team was quite surprised at Microsoft’s support for OSS technologies – it was expecting Azure to be 100 percent Microsoft-centered.
Joining the Microsoft BizSpark program, Lopez says, was a critical turning point for the startup because of the free licensing and tools it offered. It removed cost and technology barriers Wormhole was experiencing as it expanded.
“Being supported by Microsoft makes you feel comfortable,” Lopez explains. “When you are a startup with no funding, being able to have all the Microsoft software for free together with Azure Credits is an invaluable support.”
“We read a lot before making the move to Azure and also consulted with other startups that were using OSS on Azure to get their opinion,” says Lopez. “We learned that Azure OSS support was not something Microsoft created because it had to – it really wanted to help developers. And Azure overall has better integration (than AWS) with our development tools, so we realized it would help us streamline our development and deployment processes.”
As they continued to research Azure, they saw Microsoft starting to increase the speed of Azure feature releases, a lowering of costs to meet or beat AWS and a mix of PaaS and IaaS offerings with support for Linux, PHP and Java.
“We decided we need to try it out,” he says, “especially when we saw how easy it was to use the management portal and discovered it had automation capabilities, VMs with support for Windows and Linux and worldwide data centers that could help us as we grew.”
“We are making even more use of Linux and other OSS on Azure, because it's so simple to manage and maintain!” he says.
After entering – and winning – more competitions and receiving numerous awards after the Imagine Cup journey, Wormhole developed a board of advisors comprised of well-known industry leaders. It now feels ready to pitch investors in a bid to raise capital for further international expansion.
“As an entrepreneur,” reflects Buberman, “you face many challenges every day and you fail a lot as well. The only way to survive the entrepreneurial life is if you can transform every failure into knowledge and positive experience. Use all the materials you can get hold of – you never know which one will be the turning point for your company.”
Microsoft is helping these startups succeed through its BizSpark program.
About BizSpark: Microsoft BizSpark is a global program that helps startups succeed by giving free access to Microsoft Azure cloud services, software and support. BizSpark members receive up to $750 per month of free Microsoft Azure cloud services for 3 years: that’s $150 per month each for up to 5 developers. Azure works with Linux and open-source technologies such as Ruby, Python, Java and PHP. BizSpark is available to startups that are privately held, less than 5-years-old and earn less than $1M in annual revenue.


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