Q&A with Jake Hamann, OneFire

Jake Hamann is the founder, president and CEO of OneFire, responsible for leading the company’s overall strategy and direction. The cofounder and board president of Startup Peoria, he also serves on the boards of the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council and the Downtown Development Corporation of Peoria.

Tell us about the beginnings of OneFire. How did you enter the tech world?
I started as a freelance graphic designer. I picked up my first Mac on September 10, 2001—I remember it well because of the day after, of course. That’s how I got started. It’s not what I went to school for—I went to ISU on a scholarship for music education.

I got into graphic design after I ran a Mailboxes Etc. store in Pekin for a while—that was my first management experience. Then I shadowed a good friend of mine and learned everything from him in terms of graphic design, branding and the creative world. I pursued that off and on as I did different things. I got my first taste of Caterpillar working manual labor at a warehouse in Pekin. I was helping pick parts and ship orders, all while getting familiar with thousands of part numbers.

I worked in the print industry for a while—designing junk mail, very low-tech… Then in 2007, I had the opportunity to become a consultant at Caterpillar in their service training area. I was a learning and innovation consultant, helping them deliver training in innovative ways, building and documenting standards for how they delivered training to Caterpillar technicians. I really enjoyed that job and was even offered a full-time position, which I chose to turn down.

At the end of 2008, the economy fell apart… and all the consultants were let go. We had purchased a new house in June… but we didn’t have money saved for unemployment or anything like that. And at the end of ’08, everything kind of imploded. We lost the house and lived in my mom’s garage—the true story of an entrepreneur. We had two kids… We lost nearly everything… We were at the lowest of the low. It was tough.

I was an early adopter of the iPhone. I remember being glued to the Internet as Steve Jobs gave his announcement. To me, it was like, “This is going to change everything.” So I’ve had an iPhone from that point forward. I always had the latest and greatest—that was the one thing we didn’t skimp on when we didn’t have money. I had to have the newest device because that’s where my career was heading, and Apple was always focused on good design, user interface and experience.

After struggling to find work at the beginning of 2009, I landed a job at Iona Group in Morton for a short period of time, then got a job in Bloomington at Country Financial. I was an instructional designer, designing training for agents, their assistants and agency managers... But I had a hard time getting excited about a non-tangible product, like a piece of paper for an insurance policy. That wasn’t for me.

We ended up moving back to Peoria, and I got on at Simantel as an art director. Most of the projects I worked on were in the traditional realm of print. But then, kind of overnight, things changed when the iPad came out. I ended up being promoted to senior digital art director, which was the start of my move into more of that digital space, which I really enjoyed. I made the determination that this was where things were headed—the tablet space and mobile—so I took a risk and said, “I’m going to pursue this on my own.”

Shortly after I left Simantel, I got a call from someone I had a previous relationship with at Cat. I joined their eBusiness group pretty quickly after that, and helped them build a process for what is essentially the cornerstone of our business today with Caterpillar.

How did OneFire come into existence?
As I was doing freelance work on the side, an employee of mine, who works here today, helped me come up with the name. I actually incorporated the business in 2007 to apply for the City of Peoria logo redesign project. So I took the OneFire name and submitted for that project… but we didn’t really do anything with it.

When 2011 came to a close, I was working internally at Cat as a consultant. There was a lot of work to do, so I paid some people out of my own pocket… to help me because I couldn’t do it all myself. At the end of the year, Cat said, “You’ve built a great relationship with clients across the enterprise. We believe you’re ready to go work with them on your own.” So at that point, it was essentially either sink or swim—so let’s do this thing.

The beginning of 2012 is really when it got started. It was just me and Kristie [Sparling]… many meetings at Lorena’s in East Peoria over chips and salsa. And then Jason Parkinson—we’d known each other from church for a long time—he was getting ready to start his own business, and he also had a background in web development. We said, “Why would we want to compete? Let’s join forces and do this together.” He joined us in March 2012, and it’s really been all uphill from there.

Jason had some contacts at Maui Jim, so we went out there, not seeking work, but just to say, “Hey we are here in town; this is what we do. If you ever want to talk with us, we’re here.” A month or two later, they called us up and said they really liked what we presented. They wanted to move all their catalogs from print to digital on the iPad. So that one project has turned into a great partnership with Maui Jim. The same can be said for our Caterpillar clients… We’re not just doing what we started out doing; we are doing lots of other things—app development, all kinds of digital implementations—for Caterpillar and tons of other great businesses.

So you started out with just three employees?
There were three of us, then we hired a project manager, then an art director, a UI/UX guy, an office manager, some more project managers, data entry, developers… We’ve grown very organically from our relationships. We’ve hired based on skillsets and what individuals bring to the team. We didn’t try to force anybody into a specific position.

We also established an advisory board. I credit a lot of our growth to them, in terms of how we look at our financials, how we look at our productivity, how we look at expansion. They have been really solid in terms of giving us their expertise and guidance. It’s been extremely valuable for us.

We’ve also evolved into more R&D—more exploratory, innovation type of activities—the cutting-edge technologies. We currently employ a recent interactive media graduate and have a current interactive media student and a mechanical engineering student from Bradley who’s heading up our R&D now; we are really trying to leverage the talent coming out of Bradley as much as we can, hoping to be a funnel for those graduates so they choose to stay in Peoria and not leave for the coasts. Chad Stamper from the Turner Center for Entrepreneurship is helping out with that effort. He’s been super-supportive and very helpful.

Besides your work for Maui Jim and Caterpillar, what are some of your other major projects?
We partnered with the State of Illinois for a project in San Diego last year at the international biotech conference. We had a great relationship with the Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the state level… Through that, we built a relationship with the Amrany family; they are the ones who build many of the bronze sculptures outside of sporting events and memorials. They created the Michael Jordan, the Ernie Banks… all the large, bronze sculptures. They got referred to us from our contact at the State of Illinois. So we did an R&D project with them, and we are in contact with them about putting augmented reality behind some of their sculptures.

We also partnered with Jump [Trading Simulation and Education Center] to build the companion app that goes with their facility. It initially had an augmented-reality component to it; essentially, it was a tour of the space, with news and information about the facility. There were posters outside each of the rooms that were triggers: you could hold up your phone and it would play a video that tells you what happens inside of that room.

We just completed both Bremer Jewelry and Bard Optical’s new websites. Bremer was unique because it was a large database implementation. They are actually showing their inventory online, which most jewelry stores don’t do. Bard was also a pretty significant install. We’ve also built our own mobile game—What the Fish?!. That actually started as an internal team-building project and turned into a cool idea that’s now on the App Store.

We are now working a lot with Caterpillar dealers. Their dealer network is very diverse and different, but it’s content that we know, so it made sense to work with them as well.

One of our process partners is in Atlanta, Georgia, and we do a lot of work for their clients. One of those clients is Beckman Coulter, a bio-med company that produces pipetting machines, which help assist in cell research. They had been shipping these pieces of equipment, which are very complex and detailed… you have to send scientists to set them up. They chose to do this in a virtual space, so these products are now rendered on a large 55” touch screen, instead of sending the equipment. So it’s cost savings and time savings, and it can be repurposed. We can log into the software and fix something remotely if it’s not working right.

A lot of companies have spreadsheets they use to do calculations for selling a product or estimating something they do—whether it’s moving rocks or planting grass seed. Many of them are doing those things via a laptop and Microsoft Excel. So we’re doing a lot of work where we are taking data that may live in a spreadsheet or a table and converting them into tools for your phone or tablet, where you can access a well-designed interface that makes it much easier, and it’s portable. There’s been enough interest that we were able to build a platform around that called OneFire Select.

In general, we are taking a strategic approach to thinking through innovative solutions to our clients’ problems. That’s what sets us apart from a traditional agency. Agencies typically work in messaging and campaigns, whereas we are doing more long-term, innovative, solution-driven work.

Tell us more about your R&D efforts. What are you looking into these days?
There’s a lot of talk about augmented reality and virtual reality. Google Glass was kind of hit and miss, but there is a lot of promise in the headset space and of course, with wearables. The Microsoft HoloLens and the Oculus VR—which was bought by Facebook—we are testing one of those. We are actually going to L.A. for the DAQRI 4D Expo; they are launching a smart helmet, which is a cutting-edge technology with augmented reality imposed over tasks or procedures you’re doing. We are looking at that toolset across multiple applications: manufacturing, medical and more. There’s proximity technology, which is generally refered to as iBeacons—combining Bluetooth with location-based, context-aware data and content. We are also doing a lot in the touchscreen/trade-show display area, which is starting to advance quickly as displays are getting cheaper and the resolution is getting higher.

Tell us about OneFire’s relationship with Startup Peoria.
I was introduced to a book called Startup Communities by Brad Feld, which claims you can build a startup community anywhere in the U.S. OneFire was about a year old when that book was introduced. We [Amy Lambert and I] created Startup Peoria and got involved with the Startup America initiative because we felt the talent pool for employees was limited in this area… That’s kind of how it got started—to fill that need. Then we realized there actually are entrepreneurs and creative innovators here, and wanted to support them however we could.

When OneFire got started, I didn’t really have a lot of support as an entrepreneur, in terms of people telling me how to go about doing it, what to do. Ross [Miller, from Bradley’s Turner Center] is great, but I didn’t know he existed when we got started. I had a mentor at Cat who really helped push me to do what I felt I was called to do, but in terms of setting up the business, I didn’t really have anyone to help me. Startup Peoria is a way to give back and draw attention to all the entrepreneurial activity happening in our area. We were getting started about the same time the economic development effort with Focus Forward CI was starting to take off, and building the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem was a key focus. We were already well underway and filling a need that is certainly here, so we just kept rolling with it.

It’s led to a lot of great relationships and potential business contacts. We’ve got relationships with people across the United States who know there’s activity in Greater Peoria, even though we don’t do a great job promoting ourselves outside of the region. There’s awareness that there are very innovative efforts underway here. We just have to tell more people about it.

You’ve stated that Peoria is the “center of the universe.” What do you mean by that?
If you look at the startup environment as a whole, in Silicon Valley—while there are people solving serious problems, what people see and perceive are mostly consumer-driven solutions: the Facebooks, the Ubers, the Googles. Certainly Google is doing amazing things, but they are still primarily looked at as consumer-focused. I think here in Greater Peoria, we’re solving real issues, notably within healthcare and manufacturing. Healthcare is people—it’s people’s lives. Jump is solving those issues. Manufacturing is an issue—it’s a real-world industry that makes the world turn. And we are solving those issues here locally. I think that’s part of it.

Part of it, too, is using our central location to our advantage. From the airport being as great as it is, to be able to quickly hop somewhere within a day—anywhere in the United States—and also our proximity to Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Des Moines. We’re within a three- to four-hour drive of these large metropolitan areas, and a day’s drive to more than half the country’s population. It’s easy to get here.

There are a lot of bright minds and smart people here, and there’s a passion to see change in our area. We’ve got a rich history, and industries that have come and gone, but I don’t think technology and innovation are going anywhere—they are only going to increase. We’ve laid a lot of the groundwork to make us a huge player in that space. We just have to get our leadership… to understand that we’ve got a great opportunity, but it can’t be business as usual.

With the focus on attracting young professionals, do you sense that awareness is taking hold?
I think people are starting to get it. There’s real, palpable change happening, but the millennials and the young professionals demographic—their voice needs to be listened to more. The thing I think is not yet being fully addressed is quality of place. And that’s a wide range of things—cultural, entertainment, lifestyle types of issues and policies important to us.

There’s certainly movement—there are good things happening. The murals, the food-truck discussion, the fact that these items are even bubbling to the surface, that it’s the talk of the town, is a sign that things are starting to change. I think the Whiskey City Collaborative and the GeNext group we started out of Focus Forward was born out of that. There are a lot of people with great ideas, but no way to get them started. I think the traditional economics of business attraction and retention are still very important, but with business creation and entrepreneurship… these other cities are kicking our butts. They are attracting that demographic; they are keeping them there; they’re keeping them engaged. And they are choosing to stay there. I think that’s one thing we still have to work on.

As far as our company goes, all of us are from here; we grew up here and we want to stay rooted here. If we open a branch somewhere else, that would be great, but we want to stay rooted here. We are only three years in, but we plan to start giving back. We have very strong values that we instill in our employees. One of them is community outreach, so we’re implementing a community outreach program, tracking our hours, doing projects as a company. Another that’s important is being disruptively innovative—being on the cutting edge of technology.

What cutting-edge technologies do you believe hold the most promise for business, and what are you most excited about personally?
We just released a whitepaper on the Apple Watch and how it will affect the enterprise. It’s interesting because most Apple products are released to the consumer first, but we’re always thinking about how those consumer products relate to business. It’s been proven time and time again—at least with their last three products—they quickly make their way into the enterprise and have a huge impact. Tablets in general—they are huge in the enterprise now. The Apple Watch is no different. It’s a consumer-facing technology to start, but… in that whitepaper, we suggest how it could be leveraged in the enterprise to improve safety and productivity.

What’s in store for OneFire in the near-future?
Financially, it’s doubling our revenue over last year. We’re looking to diversify our client base. We’ve got some strategic hires planned, in terms of where we think we need to grow. We have a director of strategy who is focused on initial discussions with clients, thinking through all their problems before we propose any solutions. We always start with a strategy and work through what’s actually needed before we go throwing something at them that might not be the right solution. That’s a big part of 2015: really focusing on the strategy side of things, to complement our existing and new client relationships.

I’m going to move to Atlanta for two months to build our business; the goal is to reach a different customer base. Atlanta is a natural fit for us because we have a partner down there that we do a lot of business with. The plan is to go there for a month, put the feelers out for potential business, and eventually look at building a staff to support that market. If we’re successful, maybe we can replicate that model in another city with which we have a connection.

Another focus for 2015 is really building out our R&D and the innovation side of the business. Our challenge as a service-based company is that all of our resources get assigned to client projects, so there’s no time to do our own internal product development. That’s why we hired Harsh [Shah] as our technology analyst. He is dedicated to non-client work and working on our own ideas and platforms. Our goal is to build that out this year.

Taking a page from the Google playbook?
Exactly. So, pulling in the people who are doing client work for a certain percentage of time to help think through these things, but really to keep our eye on the latest and greatest technologies to see how they might benefit us as a company, as well as our clients.

I think that’s a huge opportunity for this region. Being a traditional, conservative community and not rooted in execution on innovative ideas, it’s something that could be very valuable to multiple companies in this area—like an R&D-for-hire, innovation-for-hire type of thing, where the company realizes innovation is really important but doesn’t have the resources to do it internally. It’s a huge area of opportunity that we’d like to fill with resources from institutions like Bradley, along with our knowledge of technology.

Another thing you have discussed is the idea of a backup data center in the Warehouse District. Is that more concept than anything else?
It’s a vision I’ve had for a long time because of the structures being as rock-solid as they are, and once again, our central location. It’s making contacts at those bigger companies that have a need for that type of service, to say this is the perfect spot to do it, because of our proximity, for disaster recovery and data backup. I’d love to see that happen. It would be a great use of those buildings and a great job creator. It could bring more innovation and talent to the area.

Anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve learned so much in the last three years and am completely humbled by all the opportunities that have come across my desk in such a short amount of time. One of my key areas of focus is being intentional about our culture and values since it’s so important nowadays in terms of keeping employees happy, engaged and productive. It’s a different way of doing business than it ever was before. People have so many different choices, and they hear about all the great perks of working on the coasts. We want to retain good talent in Peoria, so you have to do those things to keep people engaged. The team we have is incredible—it’s a diverse group, and everyone works really well together. It’s a fun place to be. iBi

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