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Adonit in Grand Rapids: Quiet on the home front, making waves abroad

Mac Fowler, left, and Peiter Buick, right.

Peiter Buick

Stylus innovators Adonit have kept a low profile with their Grand Rapids software engineering office, even as its employees help establish a multii-national brand with major partnerships. Steven Thomas Kent finds out why this global brand maintains a thriving office here in the Midwest.
For all the splash that stylus makers Adonit have made on the global iPad market — Adonit software vice president Mac Fowler notes, half boastfully and half bashfully, that they are “huge in Japan” — most residents of Grand Rapids would hardly know that they maintain one of their three global offices here. The team says they aren’t offended, though, by their lack of local notoriety.

“We’re pretty quiet around town,” says Fowler. “We haven’t done much to bring awareness to [the fact that we’re] here. We’re very quiet on our second floor office. The hardest part is it makes it a hiring challenge when people don’t know that we’re here, and the awesomeness we’re building here.”

“Awesomeness” is a running theme when speaking with Fowler and Adonit’s chief design officer, Peiter Buick, both of whom work in the company’s Grand Rapids office. The two are, without reserve or detachment, pretty damn stoked about the work they’re doing here. Besides creating and manufacturing a line of some of the most cutting-edge iPad styli available on the market, the company has established partnerships with software heavyweight Adobe and one of the current leading lights of note-taking software, Evernote.

Adonit’s biggest challenges at the moment, the two say, involve “saying ‘no’ to a lot of things and ‘yes’ to a very few,” so that they can keep a handle on their brand as it goes through a period of explosive growth. That, and finding enough qualified iOS programmers to keep up with the workload when almost all the available specialists in the area are employed at other companies (“There’s just not iOS guys hanging around on street corners,” Buick notes).

“We kind of offer that startup-esque environment while still being a very Midwest kind of of work culture,” Fowler says. “We’re not, you know, running 60-to-70 hour weeks, pushing really hard on all cylinders. We’re very much work-life balance, family-oriented. Most of us have wives and kids and stuff and lives outside of work.”

“It’s been a hard balance for us, though, because we have had explosive growth,” Buick adds. “We are definitely on that hockey-stick type of growth curve, and we’re having a hard time understanding how to balance that, quite honestly. So we’re being pretty cautious about how we’re approaching that. We do our best to stay competitive, offer good benefits, but we’re not out there just getting anyone and everyone to work for us. We’re really looking for the right fit and the right people at the moment.”

Adonit’s current product line includes the Jot Script (the iPad’s first fine-point stylus, developed in partnership with Evernote), Jot Touch, Jot Flip, Jot Pro and Jot Mini. All of Adonit’s styli besides the Jot Script make use of the company’s innovative “precision disc,” a clear plastic disc that provides an innovative workaround to the iPad’s design preference to work with a finger, or something of similar width (the reason why most iPad styli end in a big, roundish rubber nub). The little transparent disc provides enough surface area so that the iPad will pick up its movement, but it also allows the user to see the fine line that they’re making as it goes onto the page.

The Jot Script, meanwhile, ditches the disc and replaces it with what Adonit calls “Pixelpoint technology,” a software solution that allows the iPad to detect a fine-point stylus. Per the company’s website, “the Bluetooth LE, accelerometer, and Adonit’s SDK [software developers’ kit] work seamlessly to place the ink point directly under the tip and improve the overall control on the screen.”

That sounds like some rather complicated shenanigans to get the iPad to recognize a simple stylus, but that’s the fate of stylus makers for the iPad. Apple guru Steve Jobs notoriously didn’t want a stylus to go near his touch-screen devices, so the Adonit team and other stylus companies have to design complicated, integrated hardware-software workarounds to make their styli function intuitively for the user.

“When [iPad users] say ‘I hate using a stylus,’” Fowler says, “it was usually because everything you were trying to do with a stylus was hidden under this big rubber nub, or the user interface wasn’t designed to work with anything but a finger. So we look at this as an extension of how you create. I mean, you don’t wanna fingerpaint all day long. At some point, you wanna work with an actual serious device.”

Adonit also uses integrated hardware-software for a number of innovative functions on their Jot Touch when used with supported apps, allowing the iPad to sense the pressure and angle of the user’s stroke to make different lines for shading, contouring and other fine drawing needs.

Besides that, the software can help apps tell the difference between a hand and the stylus, so you can rest your palm on the screen while drawing without affecting your work (called “palm rejection”), or use your hands to turn pages and continue writing with the stylus.

Finally on the Adonit product horizon, there’s Adonit’s marquee partnership with Adobe. Adonit partnered with the software giant to help develop its new Napoleon and Mighty projects: a short drafting ruler (Napoleon = short ruler, get it?) and a cloud-connected stylus for creative professionals.

Adonit will manufacture the two new hardware pieces for Adobe, and also helped design the Mighty’s fine-point tip, using their experiences in designing the Jot Script as a starting point. And Adonit will work with Adobe on a couple of near-future projects as well, although the details aren’t available to the public just yet, Fowler and Buick say.

All of this adds up to a pretty ambitious mission for the 170-plus employee company: they’re trying to use integrated hardware-software solutions to turn the iPad into the portable, powerful platform for what they call “the next creative studio.” And the Grand Rapids software engineering office, located in the Grand Rapids Tech Hub above San Chez Bistro at 38 W Fulton Street, will be at the heart of that hardware-software marriage.

Adonit’s Grand Rapids office basically started a year ago with Buick, who had worked with Adonit’s founders on various projects over the years and provided work for the fledgling company on a contract basis during its early years, when their primary project was an iPad keyboard called “Writer.” Over time, he lobbied the company’s executive team on the idea of forming a full-time software engineering department in Grand Rapids, turning them onto the merits of what he calls the “Midwestern work ethic.”

“We had a lot of conversations about, ‘could we do it here and why or why not, and why should we have it here versus other places,’” Buick says. “I interviewed a lot of people in other areas. And when I looked at the work they did, what drove them and, quite frankly, the salaries they were demanding… and then I interviewed guys here and it felt like there was a pretty drastic difference. And it’s not that guys here are underpaid; it’s nothing like that. It’s just that there seems to be a lot more fundamental drive and motivation here.”

The Grand Rapids office now employs 12 full-time tech professionals and provides the third part of a three-headed attack: executive team and marketing (and soon design) in Austin, Texas, electrical and mechanical engineering teams and manufacturing in Taipei, Taiwan, and software engineering here. The three offices are in constant communication and work in tandem at all times, Fowler and Buick say, which isn’t without its challenges when the company is constantly adding employees.

“We’re a global brand,” says Buick. “We have been from day one. We ship all over the world and we have distribution centers on four continents. So we have all these global challenges in a small company, that’s a bit unique… The guys in here are doing work that’s seen all over the world, and it’s really… it’s a unique opportunity to be in a company this size and to have as much exposure as you do to both the problems that arise by that. and the really cool things that come up because of that. Normally, you don’t get that until you’re a much larger company.”

As for their role in the local startup scene, Fowler and Buick say Adonit will probably continue to play it cool. They’re not a consultancy and don’t need to rustle up clients, they note, so they’re not interesting in appearing at all the startup-y events and mixers around town.

“For as much as we’re a brand that’s all about artists,” Buick says, “and about being bold and passionate and purposeful and putting ourselves out there, we’re not showy. I would not describe our company that way.”

“We want to be really diligent about what we’re doing,” he continues, “and when we’re getting out in the limelight and when we’re not. Quite frankly, if we do too much of that stuff, it’s just a distraction. We put the work into our products and let the way people feel about the product speak for itself. I think it’s worked out so far.”

Steven Thomas Kent is the editor at Roadbelly magazine and a high-tech, high-growth features writer at Rapid Growth Media. Stalk him on Twitter @steventkent or e-mail him at steven.t.kent@gmail.com for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Adam Bird

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