03 Jan Untangling the Web: Northwoods Software in profile
Milwaukee — Within the ever-expanding realm of content management systems (CMS) providers, Northwoods Software sets itself apart by keeping things simple for clients. Forget the gearhead techno-speak. The Milwaukee area firm is about helping people solve communications and business issues through plain talk and better Web design.
“We understand the psychology of how to use the Web,” said Pat Bieser, founder and CEO of the Brown Deer-based software firm, which split off from River Run Computers in 1997. “So, we consider ourselves Web psychologists. We call what we do Web therapy.”
Northwoods has grown by offering clients a solutions-based approach that is less about the technology and more about making life easier for the people who use it. Rather than taking a cookie-cutter approach, Northwoods associates take the time to find out the client’s needs before fashioning a solution. This deliberate approach has worked time and time again, said Bieser, adding that the 50-employee firm has never lost out when competing with a national consulting giant.
“We see a lot of companies that have developed a niche product for somebody, and then they decide they’re going to put all of their effort into that,” Bieser said. “So, I think a big obstacle we have avoided is to fall in love with our own ideas. You have to be visionary and drive things forward, but you also have to be receptive.”
A divine solution
In 1997, Northwoods’ first year of operation, the firm was selected by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to solve what had become an untenable problem, which was communicating with an ever-changing roster of staff and volunteers at schools and parishes throughout the greater Milwaukee area.
“When we put out the RFPs for the design work, some companies came and said you just have to buy what we offer and everything will be great,” said Mark Barthel, webmaster for the archdiocese. “A lot of these companies, they just respond to RFPs without really talking to you and finding out what you need. Northwoods had a good approach, they came in and sat down and talked to us for weeks, our central office employees, people from parishes and schools, and they asked us a lot of questions.”
The end result was a content-managed Web site with a sophisticated e-mail broadcast system. This content management system, which remains intact seven years later, disseminates news, events and resources. It also serves as a data collection point for online forms and updating 50,000 names and addresses of people who are actively involved.
Previously, the archdiocese would issue an annual plea, and that process would take months and months, Barthel said. The Northwoods-designed system allows employees and volunteers to go in and edit and update information automatically. Installation of the system has saved the archdiocese from $175,000 to $200,000 annually, Barthel said. More than that, the volume and speed of communication in the archdiocese has increased.
“What we did for the archdiocese was not necessarily about technology, but the fact that we went in there and helped them sort through all the options they had, and then determine what the real core problem was,” said Rick Fessenbecker, sales manager for Northwoods. “The importance of the solution, ultimately, is that was showed them how to communicate better, and we used technology to do that. This has fundamentally changed how they work.”
In 1999, Northwoods’ next big client, Briggs & Stratton, was looking to make a direct connection with its customers by offering replacement parts online. The only trouble was that establishing such a venture could rub Briggs’ OEMs and dealers the wrong way.
Matched up against bigger competitors who were pushing their own better Web mousetrap, Bieser and Northwoods listened, then proposed establishing a Web site filled with technical and commercial information about where to buy parts and how to change oil. They ultimately got the job. The Briggs site drives customers to the dealers because it creates a good impression of Briggs & Stratton, Fessenbecker said.
“We found a solution where they can sell stuff directly, but bring dealers along,” Fessenbecker said. “We showed them a way to loop them [Briggs dealers] in. So, to this day, if you find something interesting to buy, it routes you through a dealer. The Briggs Web site is a huge funnel going out to 200 select dealers throughout the country. You’ve taken a potential conflict with your sales channel, and turned it into a huge advantage. You’re supporting your channel now.”
The work for Briggs has been the foundation for much of the other work Northwoods has done for clients in establishing Intranets for VISA Corp, AIG, and Snap-On Tools, Bieser said.
“The question is, whose job are we going to make easier?” Fessenbecker said. “Who is going to benefit from the technology? Developing the technology is a challenge, at times. But, it’s never the biggest challenge. The biggest challenge is, can people get on board with it? Will they use it, and will they support it?
“We are talking to a client right now, and one of the biggest things we are asking them is how are they going to promote this to their employees. That is, it’s one thing to put the technology out there, but you have to give the end users a reason to come back.”
Northwoods recently built a service Web site for AIG Life Brokerage, serving about 70,000 agents. AIG needed to develop a service site, where agents selling life insurance and annuities make direct contact with the parent company through the Web instead of by phone.
The Northwoods secured-access CMS controls the front-end security and agents’ access to the site. At the recommendation of Northwoods, AIG built a closed messaging system embedded within the site that establishes a direct link into AIG’s new business operation.
“People have gravitated toward it [secured messaging], and they have to go to the Web site to use it,” said Patrick Froze, vice president of strategic planning at AIG. “It’s e-mail, but it is embedded within the site, behind the security wall. You don’t have access to the system until you are into the Website. It drives people to the Website, and it has worked very well. Our field force is giving us rave reviews. They love it.”
With a roster of clients that includes VISA, Briggs, the Medical College of Wisconsin, AIG and the City of Milwaukee, Northwoods is expanding nationally by licensing its CMS framework. In early November, Northwoods introduced a licensing model and began marketing through resellers while also packaging its Titan CMS for use by other developers.
The licensed version allows non-technical users to create and manage content on the Web. Previously, the Northwoods CMS developed as modules that were created for individual clients.
“Full-service installs have been our bread and butter,” Bieser said. “But now, we are running into situations where our clients want to license a CMS and be independent of our services.”
With end users looking for a plug-and-play CMS, Titan will provide e-mail list management, shopping carts, image management, and a number of other functions.
“We have already been signing up resellers, and have received a good deal of interest from marketing/communications agencies and other consultants,” Bieser said.
As Northwoods grows, it finds itself competing with national companies for business. As it stands, Northwoods has clients in New York, New Jersey, Texas, California, and Florida. The firm currently has 35 active accounts at any one time, and will handle about 100 in a year’s time, Fessenbecker said.
Another badge of honor is that Northwoods has never lost out to an offshore, outsourcing firm, Bieser said.
In the zone
In the latter part of this year, Northwoods moved to new quarters in Brown Deer, expanding from 8,000 square feet to 30,000 square feet in what was previously hospital space. The move was made with giving software writers their own office — most complete with a window and a bathroom with a shower — in order get them in the right frame to be more productive, Bieser said.
“If you give a programmer an office with a window where they can shut the door, they will be at least 15 percent more productive,” Bieser said. The offices are designed to attract the best and the brightest.
Since the company’s move in mid-July, sales are up 15 percent, and Bieser believes there is a correlation.
“The average programmer is productive for a total of three hours a day,” Bieser said. “You only get three hours. So, the more you’re able to get them into that zone, the more likely you are to keep them productive. That three hours has to be optimized, and if you put them into a noisy cubicle environment, then you’re only going to get an hour or two out of them. If you interrupt them being in that zone, it’s going to take them 15 minutes or more to get back into it.”