How West Michigan’s Collective Idea Lures Silicon Valley Talent

Collective Idea is a small but swiftly growing software development firm based in Holland, MI, that is earning a reputation for attracting big clients and top-notch talent, including one of the founders of the well-respected tech publication Ars Technica.

In 2015, Collective Idea grew by 47 percent over the previous year, adding a new staffer every month. So, how is a tech company based in small-town West Michigan beating its competition in Silicon Valley?

“I think, sometimes, not being from Silicon Valley helps us in a way,” said Daniel Morrison, Collective Idea’s president. “We have a more Midwestern work ethic. Being out of that crazy startup world gives us a different perspective, and that can be a calming influence on startups that are moving fast.”

Established 10 years ago, Morrison describes his bootstrapped, 25-person firm as not having a typical client. Some of the work Collective Idea has done includes building a unified interface for add.a.lingua, a company that offers language immersion programs to schools; helping to develop Benefit’s mobile payment system; and creating a resource management dashboard for the Midwest Energy Group.

“We do a lot of Ruby on Rails and Web or mobile app development,” Morrison said. “We’re a smaller company, so we’ve had to sometimes work to get our foot in the door, but once we’re there it’s good. We believe in small, surgical strike teams. We’re not looking at 300 people working on a 10-year project—we want to be much more nimble.”

Morrison said there are solid, unheralded software development companies across the state doing work for large global customers, but they’re “not great at tooting their own horn.” It’s a nice ecosystem, he said, where talented workers are able to move around if they so choose. “We’re trying to build a company that people want to work for long-term,” he added.

That scrappy, outsider perspective is what appealed to Jon Stokes. Stokes co-founded Ars Technica in 1998 with Ken Fisher, and he first became acquainted with Collective Idea a few years ago, not long after Conde Nast acquired his publication in 2008 as part of a $25 million deal. Stokes was working on his next startup and had hired a developer to build software using Heroku, but that developer ultimately wasn’t able to complete the project.

Up against a looming launch deadline and in a panic, Stokes spent four hours on Google until he found one of the original engineers that created Heroku. He cold-called the engineer in search of a talented developer that could get the job done correctly and quickly.

“He pointed me to Collective Idea and said they knew almost as much about Heroku as he did,” Stokes said. “I said, ‘Ok … Holland, Michigan?’ But Collective Idea ended up being kind of like what Ars Technica used to be for a long time: a place that really nerdy people knew about. So I hired them, and they did a great job.”

Stokes was so happy with Collective Idea’s work that he offered Morrison an unusual … Next Page »

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

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