Tech entrepreneurs Stephen Anderson and Brad Grzesiak hooked up the old-fashioned way - at a user-group meeting in 2008. Both were featured speakers at the Web 608 gathering. Anderson talked about "Ruby on Rails," a web-application development framework of growing repute, while Grzesiak lectured on lunar mining.
Yup, Grzesiak was the proverbial rocket scientist. He was working for Orbitec, the west-side aeronautics firm that develops technology for space exploration. Grzesiak, who's now 30, wanted nothing more than to be an astronaut. (NASA politely turned him down, despite his expertise in designing life support systems for space stations.)
That chance meeting gave rise to Bendyworks, a software and web development firm that opened for business in 2009 at Anderson's kitchen table with a couple hundred dollars in start-up capital. Today, the company has 11 employees, occupies about 3,500 square feet on the second floor above Madison's bar and restaurant on King Street, and bills about $1 million a year in business.
The company's web specialties are the visualization of databases and complex scheduling applications for online calendars. Clients range widely, from the Murfie online music market to the UW Pain & Policy Study Group.
Here's the upshot: Information technology companies like Bendyworks could be the stars of downtown Madison's 21st-century economy.
"The tech community in Madison is exploding," says Anderson. "So is Madison's entrepreneurial community."
He's sitting at a table at the Bendyworks office with Grzesiak and their partner, Jim Remsik. All three are convinced the downtown is well situated to ride the wave. They argue that the isthmus has the urban setting, the indie culture, the face-to-face proximity, and the creative talent to prosper in the burgeoning IT world.
And they declare that Bendyworks, in its deliberate, idiosyncratic way, is intent on making it happen. Anderson defines and champions the scene. Remsik and his wife, Jenifer, organize Ruby conferences (and in a few years a music-themed conference) that bring the best tech people to town. Bendyworks and the Remsiks have even produced beguiling videos promoting Madison (watch one) to out-of-town techies.
"We can compete with the second-tier cities like Portland and Austin," Remsik, 35, says confidently. "They don't have anything on Madison. The problem is that people don't think of Madison and say, 'Oh, Madison - yeah, that's a cool start-up place."
Grzesiak easily has the most ambitious idea of the three partners: Madison should create a formal web district stretching east from the Capitol and south of East Washington Avenue to Schenk's Corners.
That corridor has the empty storefronts and cheap space that start-ups need, he says, but it still lacks one crucial component to attract programmers: more apartments that accept cats. "In the web world, it's a cat thing," Grzeskiak says.
Over a lunch of Indonesian food at Bandung Restaurant on Willy Street, Grzesiak explains the young IT culture.
"We tend to lean left politically. We tend to embrace hipster culture. We like bike riding. We like craft beer - or PBR."
And they like programming. "I didn't start Bendyworks to become a business owner," he says. "I did it to write code."
His fellow IT devotees usually feel the same way.
"It's their passion. That's why they got into it, and that's why after work they want to have a few beers with friends. They want to talk about the new tricks they learned. They want to go to user-group meetings and learn about the things they don't know and teach about the things they do know. That's why physical proximity is so important to the web community."
A few weeks later, Anderson, who's 47, tells me that good space is crucial to productivity. He spent seven years at one of Dane County's first great tech breakouts, Berbee Information Networks. Founder James Berbee mightily influenced him when he preached that the best companies "provide an environment for success."
That's why Bendyworks leased the smartly designed brick and hardwood rehabbed space off the Square. "It's amazing. It has so much character," Anderson says. "It's the only space I've ever worked where the energy level is rising at 5 o'clock."
Last month, Bendyworks invited a competitor and his staff up from Chicago to visit on a Friday afternoon. Says Anderson: "He was really impressed with this space, the location, and the fact that the Majestic was having a concert [co-sponsored by Isthmus] right outside our windows after work."
Did you catch that? Bendyworks was entertaining a competitor. And why not? As Grzesiak puts it, there's more work than his company can manage, so it steers queries to competitors who could do a better job. And they return the favor. The real competition, he says, is for recruiting the best talent.
Bendyworks offers its own brand of creative enticement. It's a big booster of Ruby creator Yukihiro Matsumoto's belief that his software should "optimize programmer happiness" and be a "joyful tool to use," says Anderson.
The company's big push this year, he notes, was selling four-day work weeks to clients, so on the fifth day, "our staff works to make themselves better programmers or to make Bendyworks a better company, or to do something on a project that the customer would never pay for.
"It's all self-directed," he adds. "And it's amazing what our people are doing."
Perhaps Bendyworks' edgiest move is to embrace "pair programming" for code writing: Two people work together on one computer with two keyboards and two mice. One writes the code, the other critiques it as it's written. (Usually the two tasks are separated, often by weeks.) Anderson admits the collaboration probably produces no more code than two programmers working separately would.
"But the blow-away difference is that the quality of the code is far better than either programmer would do on their own."
Remsik, who's a recognized expert on pair programming, was featured in a New York Times story in 2009. Grzesiak, meanwhile, thinks it gets to the essence of programming.
"Software, contrary to popular belief, is a team sport," he says.
As much as anything, he sees that creative interplay as the payoff to a web district. "If you put smart people together, amazing things will happen," he says.
Ald. Mark Clear, a tech company owner himself, says he's intrigued by the web district idea after hearing Grzesiak discuss it before the city's Economic Development Commission in July. Downtown business leader Susan Schmitz is also curious to hear more. But Grzesiak is short on details. He says he's still in "the discovery stage" of what a web district would actually involve.
But he has a vision of it - like San Francisco's, which borders that city's financial district.
"You walk down the street and you see people wearing T-shirts of web companies, and you recognize them. That's what I want to have here - that culture."
To further discuss the web district idea, contact Brad Grzesiak at email@example.com.