Founder Q&A: Bill Wagner and Dianne Marsh

It's always surprising how two different paths can lead to the same spot. Bill Wagner grew up in Minnesota and Illinois and went to school at the University of Illinois-Champaign. Michigander Dianne Marsh was schooled at Michigan Tech. Sometime in the 1990s, both landed at Ann Arbor software start-ups.

A much smaller tech community then than it is now, the two met at local networking events and hit it off. They found they had similar ideas about business, technology, and their own professional goals -- namely that they wanted to be their own bosses. When the companies they worked for stumbled, Wagner and Marsh started their own consultancy firms and leaned on each other to help their fledgling businesses. Eventually, they realized that two heads were better than one and joined forces, creating SRT Solutions in downtown Ann Arbor.

From its beginnings the company put the focus on innovation and quality, believing that growth would follow. Commonsensical as that sounds, this contrasted with the grow at any cost philosophies of many a now defunct business. See, sometimes the turtle beats the hare, and over its 10 years SRT Solutions has grown from two to 20 people, carefully managing its size by choosing quality candidates and promoting interns into employees.

The duo's attention to staff has also influenced their workplace policies. Workers regularly switch desks to keep things fresh and often work the way they feel is most productive. That includes allowing some people to work standing up or to use their computer system of choice.

Marsh and Wagner recently invited Concentrate's Jon Zemke to SRT Solution's offices, where they talked about software, talent retention, and using work time as a learning tool.
You said you expect your team to engage in regular, active learning time. Give an example of what this means to you and how it has helped your company?
Wagner: We have something called Pure Learning Time, which is an allocation of a few hours where an employee will learn something new. If there is something really cool we will form a team and build something. We built something for the Codemash conference last year called Mobimash.

Marsh: It was basically a mobile organizer for the conference.

Wagner: We learned quite a bit about the mobile space with that one. That helps us when customers want a really rich experience.

What do you think of Google's 20% program? Should more tech companies emulate it?

Marsh: It's pretty similar to what we do. It's a great strategy for companies that are investigating new technologies. It works for Google because it wants to bring a lot of different products out and it doesn't want to dictate the type.

Wagner: If you want to stay relevant in this industry, you have to keep learning. This industry is going to continue to move. Our goal is to create a company that lasts.

Sounds like a smart strategy to diversify and be ready for the next big thing.

Marsh: Like everything else it's an investment. We're investing in our employees for the long-term.

You are fans of TEDx. What does TEDx represent to you and why should others take note?

Marsh: It provokes thought about topics of which you don't have any previous knowledge. It really expands your point of view, which is good for businesses and software. By providing that diverse thought we can bring a lot of interesting opportunities to their software.

What was your TEDx talk about?

Marsh: It was about flexible workplace and how we don't have to be so regimented in the way we organize companies or interact with our employees. By being more flexible we improve our businesses, and our customers and employees experience with our business.

SRT Solutions is working together with The Whole Brian Group and Adaptive Materials on a new technology that will improve the military's renewable energy usage in the field through a multi-million dollar government grant. How did this partnership come about and what could we do to encourage more like it?

Marsh: It's all about networking. This is a very small, intertwined community, so Adaptive Materials knew about our expertise in building software and they also knew about The Whole Brian Group's ability to build some lovely interfaces. You can't know what other people's strengths are unless you're actively involved in the community, know the companies, and what they do well.

So how do you get that message out then? Is it something as simple as having more networking events?

Wagner: One thing we do need more of is networking events that go across disciplines. There should be events where software people meet with marketing people so we can see software on the Web from a different angle. The places that are growing are the places where these different disciplines come together and do something interesting.

When Google's AdWords division moved to town some business leaders scoffed at their make-the-employee-happy workplace practices even though it had been the norm on the coasts for nearly a decade. It seems like those criticisms have mostly faded. Have local firms caught up with that kind of thinking or have they just learned to keep their criticisms to themselves?

Marsh: I don't know why anybody wouldn't want a make-the-employee-happy workplace.

Wagner: Talk about the cost of losing employees. You lose employees before they walk out the door. Once somebody has stopped being committed and they start thinking, 'This isn't fun. Maybe I'll look for a new job.' You have already lost a fair amount of productivity. It's insane a lot of companies haven't thought of that.

Marsh: We're just making the workplace we want to work at.

Wagner: That's one of the guiding principles. If I'm not having fun here why would I expect anyone else to come to work?

Dianne, you have written about developing a flexible workforce. Lots of people working under one roof and in office cubicles is largely a 20th Century invention. Could we be reverting back toward the work-from-home ideal?

Marsh: You have to choose where you work based on where you're the most productive, and that may change day to day. Finding the sweet spot is pretty key. I don't know if we're reverting to people working at home or just doing that because it's the most productive place to work.

Wagner: A lot of it has to do with why are you doing it? If it's pure cost-savings, you're not changing the game. But if you're enabling someone to do what they want to do so they can be more productive, then you are changing the game.

Do you think we could reach a point, say 10 years from now, where developers will start building flexible workspaces like Tech Brewery and Workantile Exchange at a comparable rate as office buildings?

Wagner: We're already there. Michigan lags [behind in] that more than other areas.

Marsh: When it comes to areas in the state with co-working spaces, Ann Arbor leads the way. If Tech Brewery or Workantile had been available when we were looking for space as consultants, we certainly would have taken advantage of it. It doesn't replace a traditional corporate office environment. It adds to it.

Wagner: It changes the slope of the on-ramp. Look at how mobility has changed. When I was in college, you had to walk to the lab to use the computers. Now everything I need fits in a small bag. You can work at home for a few months and then move to a place like Tech Brewery. If you ever need your own space you will probably have the revenue to support it. The really big gain there is we will have a higher success rate because you're not burning through money as fast.

Wagner, you have compared Michigan IT's talent to Silicon Valley and said we size up. How did you make that connection?

Wagner: You cannot build a 21st Century company without software. Let's look at the things Michigan has a strong background in. Cars run on computers. Health care is all done with computers. We have a lot of universities here. There is a lot going for IT here.

For a while software wasn't one of the growth sectors endorsed by the 21st Century Jobs Program. Do you buy into the argument that government shouldn't be picking winners and losers in business?

Wagner: Government should not pick individual companies as winners and losers. For government to provide an environment for industries to grow is a reasonable economic development strategy. For government to sit there and say there isn't anything it can do is inappropriate.

You work in a field that gobbles up young talent by the truckload. How does Ann Arbor stack up with regard to providing a steady supply of talent?

Marsh: Michigan as a whole provides a steady stream of talent. We don't hire from only one university. We have a plethora of talent here.

Wagner: This is one of those under-reported stories. The job prospects for software developers are better than the rest of the job market. At our last few software developer meetings there were at least three announcements of jobs looking for people and no announcements of people looking for jobs.

What would make that talent base better? What is the biggest challenge?

Marsh: We need to remind our new grads that there are opportunities here. If they graduate thinking that unemployment is high in Michigan and they have to move, then they will.

Then is that perception the biggest challenge that we face?

Wagner: Yes. The reputation of Silicon Valley is you go to work for a start-up and it fails, so what? There are a hundreds other start-ups down the street. So it's not devastating if it goes away. There are more than 110 start-ups in Ann Arbor. A lot of people don't know the numbers are that high.

Marsh: That number is distorted a lot. I don't think Domino's counts itself as a software company and they do an amazing amount of really interesting software. When you look at companies that rely on software for their business, then you're talking about thousands of companies. Understanding that full gamut of opportunity exists is really important.

Jon Zemke is the News Editor for Concentrate and Metromode and the Managing Editor of SEMichiganStart. He conducted and condensed this interview in person. His last feature was The Girl with the Curl: A Q&A with Lisa Kurek.

All photos by Doug Coombe

Bill Wagner and Dianne Marsh at the SRT Solutions offices in downtown Ann Arbor.