Vectorform: Quietly Developing Software for Some of the World’s Largest Brands

The news hit the blogosphere two weeks ago that Michigan Gov. Rick Syder’s administration was supposedly holding secret meetings with tech companies in an effort to develop “value schools” that relied on IT and a voucher-like funding mechanism to reduce costs. The Detroit News broke the story about the group, which called itself “skunk works” and allegedly included a host of major Michigan tech players such as, InfoReady, and a Royal Oak, MI-based company called Vectorform.

If the name Vectorform doesn’t sound familiar, that’s because it’s a technology and design company that has flown mostly under the radar until this recent appearance in the political arena. But with offices in Munich, Seattle, New York, and Hyderabad, India, Vectorform is creating “digital experiences” for some of the world’s largest brands. Microsoft, Disney, Chrysler, and Volkswagen are all clients, and president and co-founder Kurt Steckling says the company is now gaining a major foothold in India, which happened almost by accident. (More on that in a minute.)

Vectorform was established using the co-founders’ credit cards 13 years ago as a website development company. Back then, Steckling points out, companies didn’t have the web presence they do now, so Vectorform created websites for small and medium companies. “As we worked our way up, we saw big agencies taking over web development,” he recalls. “We differentiated by doing whatever was around the corner. Back then, it was high-end user interface. We also embraced Flash and Flex early on.”

Vectorform caught the eye of the larger corporate community after it automated the ordering process for the company that makes Goretex. “It seems simple now, but back then it was very advanced,” Steckling says.

In 2008, Microsoft hired Vectorform to help develop the first version of a multi-touch application called Microsoft Surface. In those days, it was a tabletop multi-touch computer platform designed for group interactions. Vectorform even did an app for Coldwell Banker that allowed realtors and clients to collaborate and shop together at a table instead of sitting around at separate laptops.

Though, ultimately, Surface morphed into the tablet that it is today, Steckling says Vectorform’s work on the project stirred something up in the company. “We realized we didn’t just have to build websites, that we could develop software too. We could pitch anything and then build it and sell it.”

And that’s what Vectorform did, and still does. The company did a lot of work on Chrysler’s in-vehicle touch screens, a therapy tool for austistic kids for Kaiser Permanente, user interface designs for exercise equipment, and some of the initial work on Xbox Kinect, back when it was referred to as Project Natal.

“Our engagements range from design discovery, light research, and testing or information architecture to building a $4 million prototype,” Steckling notes. “We average about 40 active projects across the company on any given month, from the mundane to the really groundbreaking.”

Operating with about 50 employees from a nondescript building in Royal Oak, Vectorform has been able to build its business through the years entirely through “organic, serendipitious growth.” Steckling adds that the company has never mounted a serious advertising or public relations campaign, but owes much of its success to an extensive and multidimensional relationship with Microsoft. Not only is Vectorform a vendor for Microsoft, but the company is known for consuming Microsoft’s new technology.

“As soon as they release new projects, we really pick up the platf0rm and run with it,” Steckling says. “They’ll come up with new technology and need demos, something to show to companies signing enterprise agreements. They like our work and have introduced us to a lot of our enterprise clients.” Most recently, Vectorform developed the very popular Toolbox along with Notes and Stopwatch for Windows 8.

Vectorform originally set up its office in India to take advantage of the IT labor pool. But, Steckling admits, the company soon discovered that the time zone differences, cultural differences, and tight deadlines didn’t always make it a great fit. While there, Vectorform officials noticed that the market for the kinds of products they make was “insane,” so they decided to try and sell them in India. The plan was a success. Vectorform has, not surprisingly, done a lot of work for Microsoft India and it created an interactive kiosk that is in every Mercedes dealership in the country.

Steckling says a lot of Vectorform’s work in India lately has been tied to the real estate boom and the desire for a high-end touch screen directory to be in every high-rise lobby. Vectorform is also in the middle of designing a fountain in Mumbai that plays different notes as people touch different beams of water. “In many ways, India is more innovative,” Steckling points out. “Here, things have to be ready for prime time before customers want to see it. There, everything is a little more casual. If it’s not quite perfect but innovative, people will tolerate it.”

As for what’s in store for the future of Vectorform, Steckling says he plans to listen to his employees and directors and keep an eye out for whatever new technology appears on the horizon. “We view technology as a tool that works to improve clients’ businesses in an unlimited number of ways, adding value and improving products” he adds. “We’ll continue to expand, and we’ll do more physical devices and computing.”

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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