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Tech Tour Day Five: TC’s Tops

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Tech Tour TC

TRAVERSE CITY — The Traverse City area is probably best known for beaches, sand dunes, wine and cherries.

But there’s a big and growing technology industry up in God’s Country, too, as I learned Monday on Day Five of the Great Lakes Innovation and Technology Report’s 2012 Spring Tech Tour.

I started my day off with an old friend, Victor von Schlegell, an Old Mission Peninsula resident who co-founded Appia Communications in 2001. Von Schlegell is a Chicago-area native, Stanford business school graduate and former priest who got into the Internet and later phone service Up North because he wanted to make the vacation-style surroundings permanent.

Appia’s first offering was Voice Over Internet Protocol. What’s coming up next, von Schlegell said, is a mobile wireless office offering, called MVNO, for Mobile Virtual Network Operator. “We’ll contract with one or more of the big carriers, resell their services and do the billing and handle the devices. We’ve been finding more and more of our customers’ telecom bills are going toward wireless.”

The trick of such systems, von Schlegell said, is to integrate PBX-style controls into the wireless environment. A PBX is the brain of a phone system that routes calls to extensions, voice mails and conferences. “We’re developing an app for Android and iOS devices that provides those PBX services for mobile user devices,” von Schlegell said. “We’re also about to release a virtual desktop offering so you don’t have to worry about people getting into the network. I think people kind of miss the benefit of these mobile devices, and that’s that they are a lot less expensive to maintain as a virtual network and a virtual desktop, there’s no devices that can lose a hard drive. I think there are some super benefits to the cloud.”

Appia now has 55 employees, about 20 at its headquarters and 25 in St. Louis, where Appia made acquisitions in 2005 and 2010.

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From Appia it was off to another part of the more industrial southeast corner of Traverse City, for an update on a couple of companies I met with last year — Nick Nerbonne and Nick Perez, online marketing specialists, and Sarah MacKenzie, search engine optimization director, all of the Traverse City office of a San Francisco-based Web services firm, Fine Design, and Erin Monigold, owner of Social Vision, a social media services provider.

Perez and MacKenzie cofounded a company called Big Daylight, but had a relationship with Fine, founded by brothers who are natives of Traverse City. “We admired the work they did, so they approached us to see if we would be interested in becoming more official with the relationship, and they acquired us,” Perez said.

Said MacKenzie of the long-distance business relationship: “Even though we’re so far apart, we all work so well together. Business is great.” Among the work being done by the local office is social media for the famous San Francisco beer company Anchor Brewing, and other services for Brownwood Acres, a cherry neutraceutical product maker, TentCraft, a company that builds custom branded tents for corporate events, Airfoil Public Relations, the Detroit public relations agency for tech firms, and Emergency Consultants Inc., a provider of staffing and management for emergency departments, and medical coding and billing.

As for Monigold and Social Vision, she said: “I just celebrated my second anniversary since I launched my business. A lot of people said it couldn’t be done, but here I am, busier than ever. I don’t do any advertising, it’s all word of mouth, and it seems like every week I get a phone call and a new client.”

With the help of associates, contractors and friends, Monigold has expanded into providing graphic design services and Web site design and development.

Monigold also launched Traverse City Tweetups and co-launched Traverse City Geek Breakfasts, events designed to draw together the IT and Web communities in the Grand Traverse region. Monigold said the Tweetups have drawn better crowds than the early morning events.

Perez said one of Fine’s more entertaining projects is tweeting the news on the local NBC-TV affiliate. If you’re in the area and watching the news Tuesday morning and evening, they’ll be at it again.

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From Fine it was a short jaunt to the downtown Traverse City offices of Prism Publications, publishers of Traverse Magazine, and a host of spinoff publications and Web sites.

Company founder Deborah Wyatt Fellows, a 1978 classmate of mine at Albion College, and marketing director Rachel North basically couldn’t wax ecstatic enough about how well the publications are holding up in a tough time for print media — and how well the online home of the magazines, www.mynorth.com, is growing.

The site drew nearly half a million unique visitors last year and is over 50,000 visits a month to its 20,000-plus pages of all-locally-generated Web content about northern Michigan.

The idea, they said is to emphasize that there is no off-season when it comes to God’s Country — it’s spectacular in the fall, it’s spectacular in February, just like it is in summer.

And, Fellows said, “the instant feedback of the Web tells us what the world thinks is important about northern Michigan that the magazine cannot.”

The Web site’s college directory, hotel and restaurant guides are also booming, Wyatt said — and more than 10,000 people voted in the magazine’s annual best-of competition, which will crown 315 winners later this week.

Even print is growing. North said newsstand dales are up 40 percent from a year ago, and subscriptions have held their own for the past four years at about 25,000. In 2008, Traverse had half a dozen print publications; today, it has 11, including a northern Michigan medical services guide, a nonprofit giving guide and an annual wedding book.

And Traverse is also big into e-newsletters (hey, that’s somewhat familiar), with four e-newsletters going to upwards of 25,000 addresses a month.

Traverse has also gone in for integrating QR codes into the printed page in a big way, using the codes to link to hundreds of videos related to magazine stories.

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Then it was on to the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, where I met with Doug DeYoung, a former TV news producer and reporter who’s now vice president of government relations and business advocacy.

DeYoung gave me some ideas for future tech tour visits, including Salamander Technologies, which builds emergency management tracking devices, IE Effects, a three-dimensional film and illustration services provider, and Tran Tech, which builds robotic arms and other components.

DeYoung said the chamber is in the process of working with Traverse Magazine “to create a career magazine to talk about the successful high tech companies we have up here, and the kind of talent stream that is available here.”

He said the insurance and agri-technology businesses are also growing rapidly in Traverse City, which also boasts access to higher education through university programs at the local community college and a high-quality regional hospital. And there are ties to the defense industry, as well — a growing local company, Century Inc., creates high-tech braking systems for tanks, and another, Skilled Manufacturing, produces components for jet aircraft engines.

Even longtime Traverse City manufacturers are jumping on high-tech businesses, DeYoung said — venerable Cone Drive has added two additional production lines to make gears for solar energy installations.

More about growing a company in Traverse City at http://tcchamber.org/economic-development/.

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My final visit in Traverse City was most impressive at all. Tucked into an industrial park that’s more like a pine grove near Cherry Capital Airport, Frontier Computer offers an amazing array of tech hardware and related services out of its 40,000-square-foot headquarters.

Founded in 1976, Frontier sells and services refurbished IT hardware, including servers and rack systems. The company has 40 employees worldwide and offices in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. It has customers in 140 nations worldwide.

CEO Paul Wieland said the company moves about $12 million of hardware a year, and is one of a core of perhaps 200 companies nationwide in the business. (There’s also a larger competitor not far away, Great Lakes in Grand Rapids.)

“We have four or five very seasoned project managers who have been doing this a really long time,” Wieland said. “You’ve heard the old expression that nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. Well, I’ve made it my business to make sure nobody ever got fired for buying from Frontier.”

Most recently, Frontier has been named a preferred North American Distributor for Peplink Multi-WAN Routers, a Hong Kong maker of Internet load balancing and virtual private network systems.   Fred W. Kopplow, director of marketing and business development at Frontier, said the Peplink equipment costs far less than traditional routers, while also making existing Web connections more reliable and efficient.

It can also be used to power streaming video at a far lower cost than traditional bandwidth, making it ideal for TV stations and other media that want to stream video, especially from remote locations — not to mention educational institutions.

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And with that, I bid farewell to Traverse City and hit the highway for Midland, where I’m meeting with a whole bunch of folks at the Mid-Michigan Innovation Center, the local business incubator. The Tech Tour marches on!

Be sure to listen afternoons on WWJ Newsradio 950 for special reports on the GLITR 2012 Spring Tech Tour. And check out photos from the Tech Tour road at http://detroit.cbslocal.com/photo-galleries/2012/05/11/glitr-spring-tech-tour-2012/#photo-323016.

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