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Lakeshore software company looks toward a big future in smart products

Thomas Sell

Holland smart software company Spindance plans to expand their area footprint and polish up their brand with a new office in Grand Rapids and a website re-design. Steven Thomas Kent peeks inside to report on their savvy approach to smart technology.
The street-level entrance to Spindance at South River and 10th doesn’t betray much. A modest white foyer table and a big painting of an “Inception”-style silver spinning top (a skeletal red sketch of which serves as the company’s logo) adorn nondescript taupe tile that could signal a bank lobby, a real estate office or any other average local business.

But up the stairs and behind the grey door at the rear of the lobby, there’s a bustle of high-tech activity on the second floor: Dozens of employees bash at keyboards and consult together over bright screens amidst a maze of desks, while flat-panel TVs overhead tick off news, weather, project updates and various cryptic-looking metrics.

The conference room overlooking the street bears the name “Missile Command,” which seems about right. Compared to many West Michigan tech startups, where bean bag chairs and dorm-room lighting abound, the inside of Spindance looks like a mini-Pentagon.

A humble exterior masking heady, cutting-edge work has been a bit of a Spindance hallmark up until now. The Lakeshore software company’s website, laced with terms like “real-time embedded systems,” doesn’t offer many clues to the average layperson as to the kind of work they do — at least, not until a re-design launches this week. The company hasn’t put a great deal of resources into outbound marketing, they admit, and many consumers won’t associate their name with the smart, connected appliances and systems they’ve helped create, since the final product rarely bears their name.

But with the impending website re-design and a new office in Grand Rapids to complement their Holland location, Spindance is hoping to expand their area footprint and attract a little more attention as they continue to grow and take on new work.

Spindance president Mike Ellis and chief technology officer Karl Schripsema started the company in 2000 after they sold their previous startup, Visionary Logic. Spindance originally functioned as a more general software consulting business, but over time, the company began to build up more employee expertise and narrow their focus especially on smart, connected systems — the kind of technology that, for instance, can connect all the appliances in your home to a cloud-based network so that you can monitor your refrigerator temperature or check on the load of whites in your dryer from your mobile phone.

“In terms of our focus, this story about smart, connected products is kind of where we’re at,” Spindance president Mike Ellis says. “In the past, we were probably a little bit more general in speak, in terms of software development, and now we’re getting more refined about our story.”

It’s not a bad choice of focus as smart technology begins to capture consumers’ attention in the marketplace. New TV ads that attempt to market smart technology to current and prospective homeowners seem to crop up every day, and Microsoft recently placed their bet with the smart-products industry by investing in 10 smart-home startups.

What differentiates Spindance from other local and regional software companies who might work on smart products, says Spindance director of marketing Mimi Miles, is the company’s ability to take a broad concept for a smart product and bring it to fruition, almost entirely in-house. Although they started with just a few employees, Spindance in 2014 has grown into a sophisticated operation of more than 40 full-time workers who can offer expertise in almost every aspect of a smart product’s genesis and development.

“If a customer comes to us with just an initial idea for a smart, connected product,” Miles says, “this team is able to take it and do a lot of the analysis and design over what kind of product should even be created in the first place.”

“And we take it all the way through,” she adds, “even into potentially hosting the solution on the back-end, whereas some of our competitors might do one area — just the hosting or the development. We’re really, from what we’ve seen, one of the only companies that can take a concept all the way through from an idea, all the way to completion.”

Already, Spindance has partnered with some high-profile clients like Ford and Whirlpool to create smart systems that are on the market right now. They helped Ford create a remote car starter app, called Ford Remote Access, that lets users lock, unlock and start up their cars from their mobile phone.

Another past project saw them take an already-successful backyard weather station and turn it into a cloud-backed smart system that can provide users with all manner of weather data — temperature, humidity, rainfall, rain direction, barometric pressure — in a mobile app, updating from their miniature station in real time.

But it’s not just the end-user experience, the mobile app or website, that Spindance helps bring to life, Miles reiterates. They work on everything — the firmware on the weather station, the bridge device that transmits to cloud, the cloud services that capture all the information, even parts of the hardware.

With that level of experience in every stage of the development process, and with the movement toward smart products and appliances gradually gaining steam, Miles says there’s no other software company in the area that’s positioned to capitalize in quite the same way.

“[Spindance] were really pioneers in this whole thing, the “internet of things” concept,” she says. “The connected products story in general now, it’s just kind of gelling, and these guys have been doing this for several years now.”

The one hurdle that seems to face Spindance at this point: They may be suffering a slight branding hangover from too much humility and hard work. While they’ve got high-level contacts at major national companies, many of their own neighbors don’t know who they are. They don’t throw splashy events in the area like some of the more heavily-covered Grand Rapids startups, and even consumers who use Spindance-designed smart systems every day may not be aware the company exists, Mike Ellis admits.

And in an odd contrast to the cutting-edge software systems that they work on each day, the Spindance approach toward marketing and hiring has been, up until now, decidedly old-school. The company often relies on word-of-mouth to make new business connections and find employees, Ellis says.

“We’re kind of a behind-the-scenes player,” says Ellis. “The consumer can use the product, but they wouldn’t know us, because our name isn’t on there. When they’re buying it, it’s all labeled and branded Ford, Whirlpool and so on.”

Ellis says that he planned the purchase of Spindance’s new Grand Rapids office at the Watermark Tech Center on Southeast Galbraith Avenue with the intent of expanding the company’s footprint in the area. Spindance frequently met prospective employees, he says, who showed interest in the company, but didn’t want to commute to Holland. The new office, he says, seemed like a good way for Spindance to greet the growing Grand Rapids startup scene and offer current and prospective staff a shorter commute as they grow.

“It’s more about attracting talent and making life better for our employees, than, you know, there’s a customer in G.R. we want to get close to,” Ellis says. “Ultimately, I mean, I know it’s kind of cliche to say, ‘Our people are our greatest asset,’ but it’s true.”
“They actually are our real product,” Miles adds in agreement.

Miles says that when she moved back to West Michigan from Detroit a few years ago, she applied her tech background and looked at a number of different startups and local software companies for jobs, but lucked into a special kind of a find at Spindance.

“I think it’s a diamond in the rough sitting here,” Miles says. “But I think once you uncover what’s here — number one, it’s nothing but opportunity, and number two, the expertise here and the stories people are able to tell, the clients they’ve worked with — it’s pretty cool stuff that very few people know about.”

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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