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Akron Business Bridges Tech Gaps

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Knotice helps clients connect to consumers by e-mail, Web, phone

Provided by Akron Beacon Journal
Written by Paula Schleis

A national restaurant chain wants to offer diners ''text ahead seating.''

A sports Web site wants to reach members when a pickup basketball game is assembling in their neighborhood.

A retailer wants to use the habits of an online visitor to guide the consumer to special products and deals.

All three turned to Knotice, an Akron company that has grown from three entrepreneurs to 32 employees in four years by helping companies reach customers in a high-tech world.

Chief Executive Officer Brian Deagan said companies are already marketing through e-mail, Web and cell phones.

But because each of those applications evolved separately, most companies are stuck with a ''fragmented infrastructure'' with different providers, costs and looks.

What Knotice does is blend all three marketing avenues, he said, ''and that allows them to drive the right messaging to the right consumer at the right time regardless of whether they are interactive via e-mail, mobile phone or on the Web.''

The market potential has caught the eye of investors.

Knotice is one of 31 companies in the portfolio of JumpStart, a Northeast Ohio nonprofit venture development organization that has considered more than 1,300 requests for money.

JumpStart gave Knotice $500,000 in 2006, and is working with the company to find more venture funding to help grow the company into a $30-million to $50-million enterprise, JumpStart Chief Executive Ray Leach said.

What makes Knotice a good investment, he said, is that the company is ahead on a marketing trend that should grow into a multibillion-dollar industry.

''Personalization and relevance is growing in importance as a driver for marketing, and that is the essence of their model,'' Leach said.

JumpStart was also confident in Knotice's experienced management team, he said.

Knotice isn't Deagan's first trip around cyberspace.

The businessman — born in Akron and raised in Uniontown — was paying attention when the Internet started coming of age in the mid-1990s.

He was a 20-year-old University of Akron business student on track to ''do the Wall Street thing'' when he and some friends launched a Web design company called Lynk Media.

After being accepted into New York University's Stern School of Business, Deagan started wondering if school was going to keep him from the opportunity of a lifetime.

On a whim, he fired off an e-mail to Microsoft chairman (and college dropout) Bill Gates, who had a syndicated column called ''Ask Bill.''

''Do you regret not finishing college?'' Deagan asked.

He was shocked to learn weeks later that Gates had answered his question in the column. Most of Gates' answer supported the education path, but Deagan latched onto a small exception that dropping out was warranted if the entrepreneur's idea is ''time-critical.''

Deagan jokes that he has been on ''extended Christmas break'' ever since.

Starting up in Ohio

Lynk Media helped companies from throughout Ohio take advantage of the Web, but when one of its software projects really took off, the founders ended Lynk and launched 600 Monkeys Inc. to concentrate on that success.

In 2000, 600 Monkeys was acquired by Niku Corp. in California in a multimillion-dollar deal, which swept Deagan and his partner, Bill Landers, from Merriman Valley to Silicon Valley.

But in 2001, the dot-com bubble burst. As Internet companies saw their stocks plummet to pennies on the dollar, Deagan left Niku and returned to Northeast Ohio.

''One of the first things I figured out after two weeks (in Silicon Valley) is you can build one of these companies anywhere,'' he said. ''Once you discover that, there is no practical reason to be out there.''

Deagan joined the Akron firm Craver Marcom and started an electronic marketing division, which he spun off into Knotice in 2003.

Meanwhile, Bill Landers returned from California in time to join the new enterprise.

Deagan said because his and Landers' parents worked at Goodyear, he's keenly aware of the region's transition from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy.

''This area is radically changing,'' he said. ''There is a whole segment of jobs that have left this area that provided a really solid standard of living for people who weren't college graduates. With that gone, it has left a real void.

''So for me, without getting too sentimental about it, I like Akron, I like this area, and I want to build a great company here, something worth in excess of $150 million and employing a few hundred folks.''

And the current economy isn't slowing them down. Revenue for the first half of this year has doubled from the same period last year.

Collecting clients

New clients include GameSnake.com, a social network for sports and recreation enthusiasts. Knotice provided

a way for members to send a text message with their ZIP code and sport, and receive a list of pickup games in the area.

Knotice also put its system to work for gourmet tea retailer Tea Forte, which sends customers e-mails highlighting specific products and interests gleaned from what the customer was looking at during a visit to the Web site.

And it's waiting to ink a deal with a national restaurant chain that wants to allow diners to use text messaging to send requests and receive seating times.

''We're really in the beginning stages of the market opportunity here,'' said Deagan, who hopes to add another 100 employees in the next five years.

The biggest challenge, he said, will be finding the talent. Northeast Ohio has a dire need for tech-savvy workers.

Deagan surmises that a lot of young grads want to sow their wild professional oats on the coasts, which they perceive to be more glamorous.

''Someone who is 25, they want to be out having a good time, having fun in New York or San Francisco. I get that,'' Deagan said, recalling his own move to California.

''But if you're in your early 30s and you have a family and you want to live like a king somewhere,'' he said, ''then you're going to want to be in Akron.''