When Kathie Flood ’86 was considering starting her own company, a friend told her something that helped make up her mind. “Starting a company is like having a baby. There’s no good time. You just have to jump in and do it.”
Even during this recession, the tech business is booming. Companies like Facebook and Twitter have gone from tiny firms to worldwide phenomena. Web 2.0, social media and smartphones are redefining the landscape of our daily lives. And it’s not all being done in Silicon Valley by Stanford grads.
In Seattle, home to tech giants Microsoft and Amazon, Kathie Flood is starting a video game company. In Des Moines, Joe VandeKieft ’99 is tackling the start-up scene with two separate firms. And on Central’s campus in Pella, Mark Johnson is teaching students how to develop iPhone apps.
Kathie Flood applied to Microsoft because the head of the company where she worked hated the software giant. The year was 1990, and Flood didn’t know much about Microsoft’s business. But if her CEO—who made her work ridiculous hours and fired people at random—hated Microsoft so much, she thought it must be a pretty cool place to work.
After leaving that software company in Des Moines, Flood—who majored in math and computer science at Central—worked at Microsoft for nearly 19 years. She helped develop operating systems like MS-DOS 5.0 and Windows 95 and create popular video games, such as Project Gotham Racing. Then, in 2009, while working on simulation games, Flood’s entire studio—130 people—was laid off.
Flood didn’t want to give up on the potential of her video game projects. She was awarded a nice severance package and faced with a life-altering decision: “I could go off and find another job, or I could take that money and try something new,” she recalls.
Flood joined a small group of colleagues from her studio at Microsoft to found Cascade Game Foundry, which creates reality-based video games. Their products are still top-secret, and while Flood has no idea how long it will be before the company takes off, she says she has loved trying new things. “The potential to learn is astounding in your own company,” she says. “I never felt like I was slacking off at Microsoft, but I definitely feel there were parts of my brain I wasn’t using very much.”
But working on so many tasks can be frustrating, especially when it means burning time on things experts handle at a large company, like fixing a busted computer. “The old adage that you have to wear a lot of hats is true,” she says. “But not all the hats look good on you.”
Despite long hours doing the unfamiliar work of business development, Flood enjoys working in a field where new trends are just emerging. At Microsoft, her superiors were hesitant to pursue unproven audiences. But the popularity of Facebook games has proven that it’s not only young men who play video games. There’s a much bigger audience out there, one that Cascade is trying to tap into.
Coming from the corporate world, being an entrepreneur has been “eye-opening,” says Flood. Like many corporate employees, she was used to people giving her orders. “When you go out to do something on your own, all of a sudden nobody’s telling you what to do,” she says. “You’ve got to figure it out for yourself.” That’s a little bit scary. It’s also how big ideas are made.
In Des Moines
Seattle is well-known for its tech industry, but no one from the coasts would expect to find a burgeoning start-up industry in the heart of Iowa. Which makes what’s happening in downtown Des Moines all the more exciting.
A stretch of Sixth Avenue has been unofficially dubbed “Silicon Sixth” because of the many tech start-ups located there. Tej Dhawan ’91, a member of Central’s board of trustees, is deeply involved in the district’s booming industry. He is co-founder of StartupCity Des Moines, a technology incubator launched in October. As of December, the company was hosting seven start-ups.
Support from the state, which is trying to promote job creation, has helped the industry. In 2011, the Iowa state legislature reauthorized tax credits for angel investments in start-ups. And in December, the state-wide initiative StartupIowa was launched to connect local entrepreneurs with the resources they need.
Joe VandeKieft is one of those entrepreneurs. He is co-owner, with Dhawan, of Pikuzone,one of the companies housed in StartupCity. They are currently testing secure email software for children, which will allow parents to designate who can to send messages to their kids.
VandeKieft is also the technical consultant for My Diabetes Home, a website and iPhone app for diabetics. He built both the website and the back-end system the phone interacts with. Once the app is launched, patients will be able to manage their medication, track their blood sugar and get dose reminders.
As an entrepreneur, VandeKieft has a big dream: to always be involved in a start-up. “There are so many of these companies like ours that have maybe two or three people working nights,” VandeKieft says of the Silicon Sixth district. “Some of them are going to make it big, and some of them aren’t. But the sense of community has been really neat to see.”
That’s the thing about start-ups, especially in a volatile industry like technology. You never know if people are going to respond to what you’re doing. VandeKieft advises potential entrepreneurs not to fear failure. “It may take three or four attempts to get off the ground,” he says. “Every time you fail, you learn something. And you can take what you’ve learned to the next opportunity.”
This fall, Central students learned how to build iPhone and iPad apps in a new class taught by Mark Johnson, professor of mathematics and computer science. For the final project, one student designed an app to keep track of assignments. Another created an assistant to manage random information, like long software passwords. One particularly creative student designed a drawing app for his kids that erases when it’s shaken, like an Etch-a-Sketch. For only $99, they can submit their work to the Apple store. If approved, the app would be available on 250 million devices.
Johnson says Central tries to stay on the cutting-edge of technology, which is why his department decided to offer the course. “If you don’t pay attention to the edge, it’s too easy to fall behind,” says Johnson. “At the same time, we want to keep an emphasis on principles as much as we can.”
These days, with fairy-tale stories like Facebook and Twitter, Johnson finds himself talking to more students about their start-up dreams. He knows they’ll need more than technical knowledge to be an entrepreneur. Luckily, Central recently created the Martin Heerema Entrepreneurship Program, aimed at teaching leadership, communication and creativity to students from all majors.
Wade Steenhoek, who began as program director this fall, wants to create an entrepreneurial culture at Central. “This includes a variety of on-campus and off-campus activities geared toward creativity, innovation and problem solving,” he says.
Alumni have found Central’s liberal arts curriculum beneficial as entrepreneurs. Both Flood and VandeKieft value the communication skills they learned at Central. VandeKieft is often praised for being well-spoken, especially for a “computer nerd.”
David Ziemann ’12, a computer science major, is preparing to put his Central education to the test. In addition to taking the iPhone class last semester, he worked for ShareWhere, another company housed in StartupCity Des Moines, developing iFrame Facebook applications and designing web content for their site. Based on what he learned there, Ziemann is considering starting his own web development firm after graduation. “I honestly would love to create something out of nothing and be my own boss,” he says.