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Growth and Scaling in Grand Rapids: A Q&A with Atomic Object

Mary O'Neill

Started in 2001, Atomic Object has grown from a DIY tech startup powered by a few laptops and a long-term vision, to a thriving company with a national roster of clients, 62 employees, two offices in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, and $10 million in annual revenue. Two AO atoms discuss the company's scale, growth, and innovation.
In a day and age where consumer options are endless, the same can be said for businesses looking for ways to grow and expand. The destination may look similar, but there are a number of routes to success in the entrepreneurial world, and different businesses can benefit from different plans. For instance, outside funding may be a viable source of revenue for a company looking to expand rapidly (and potentially sell later on), while employee ownership may be the best option for businesses with a focus on long-term sustainability. Another factor to consider is how much up-front capital is needed, what type of equipment is required, and the type of business is in question.

In the first quarter of 2018 alone, $8 billion was invested into venture-backed companies on a national scale, the most since 2006 for a single quarter, according to a quarterly report produced by PitchBook and the National Venture Capital Association

Another report by Michigan Venture Capital Association (MVCA), noted that approximately $627 million in additional venture capital will be needed to sustain the projected growth of Michigan’s 134 venture-backed startups.

In contrast, companies like Atomic Object, a software development company based in Grand Rapids, has refrained from seeking any outside funding over its 17-year lifespan.

Started in 2001, Atomic Object has grown from a DIY tech startup powered by a few laptops and a long-term vision, to a thriving company with a national roster of clients, 62 employees, two offices in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, and $10 million in annual revenue.

Rapid Growth recently spoke with Vice President and Managing Partner Shawn Crowley and Business Manager Mary O’Neill, who shared insight on the path Atomic Object has taken to scale their company, and how they continue to grow and innovate.

Rapid Growth: What does Atomic Object do? What is its mission and goal?

Crowley: We’re a service company focused on software product development; we don’t build or sell products of our own. We help our customers design and build the best software product that they seek to market to serve their customers. We’ve had steady, controlled, and intentional growth since the founding of the company.

RG: Why have you decided not to utilize any outside funding?

O’Neill: What is important when you think about a company like ours, is we can bootstrap ourselves really well. We started out in 2001 with founder Carl Erickson, another partner, some computer science interns from GVSU, and a handful of computers. So it didn’t require a giant injection of capital. We have always modeled the company conservatively— meaning carefully and cautiously. We have saved carefully and grown thoughtfully and therefore have essentially, outside of the significant investment in our new building, not needed any outside capital.

Shawn Crowley

Crowley: As a service company, our key resources are people, and as a service provider, our revenue streams come from the services they provide. So when we hire capable people, it’s very easy for a service-based company to turn our key resource, our people, into revenue generation. So it’s kind of that interesting nature of us being a service company and a service provider that allows us to more easily fund our incremental growth out of cash or from dutifully saving and being financially conservative, and planning our future in a very calculated way.

RG: You recently became a B-Corporation. What led to that decision and what has that process looked like?

O’Neill: It’s an interesting conversation. I think our group of leaders thought about and pondered going through the assessment process for about four years. We got a lot of support from Local First and Elissa Hillary. As we walked through the assessment process it became abundantly clear that Atomic Object, whether we realized it or not, started becoming a B-corp 17 years ago when we started. Every decision we made in regards to hiring, or governing, or operations, or employee benefits, or approaches to compensation for all of our employees, was unique and in support of the people at the core of our business.

Crowley: I really like it because it views the company as a group of people who feel that businesses can be a source of good. They take a broad view of how community and life and business are all delicately intertwined, and they take a long view on success-building.

O’Neill: In the forward-looking view, with regard to B-Corp, it puts us in extremely good company. There are some 2,300 B-Corps in the world, and that’s a pretty cool group of people to hang out with and be inspired by. So, consistent with our drive to get better with whatever we do in our business, we’ll be engaging with and learning from as many of those companies as possible to extend our reach or refine our approach…or take us in directions that may be new to us but really resonate with what we want to achieve.

RG: How have you developed a long-term plan for trajectory and growth? What does the future look like for Atomic Object?

Crowley: Right now we’ve put a constraint on our office in Grand Rapids. We know that we’re growing towards a terminal size here. I expect we’ll approach our terminal size in Grand Rapids in the next two to three years. We’ll continue to focus on growing Ann Arbor. We’ve taken a look at some select national cities where we may choose to open up a third regional office. A lot of the infrastructure is being put in place for us to scale horizontally.

Additionally, our Grand Rapids office continues to lead a lot of our business practices around professional development, career development, and management. We usually put out about $300,000 each year into the professional development of our people. With things like employee ownership opportunities, and the type of long-term view we have, we’re seeing people with 15-year tech careers here.

Mary O'Neill

O’Neill: And that speaks to our company’s vision to be the first 100-year-old software consultant company, which is an oddball vision in the tech world. Our goal isn’t to flip and sell—it’s to grow and sustain and contribute as much good as we possibly can as a company.

RG: What kind of local impact do you feel Atomic Object is having on Grand Rapids?

O’Neill: Well, we started in a Grand Rapids neighborhood in a small leased space behind Wolfgang’s in 2001. We quickly outgrew that space and bought a building half a mile down the street on Wealthy and we renovated that building and stayed there till we were bursting at its seams. Then we invested in a third building, because we’re into old dusty buildings and renovating them and pulling them into the city. So certainly, we’re committed to the city. It’s important for us to feel like we’ve woven ourselves into our community.

We also do that by contributing to programs, like in 2006 Atomic Object started BitCamp. The camp is an all-day experience for middle school girls to learn about what it takes to become a software developer to get them thinking about possible career options…and it’s grown tremendously. We started it, we grew it, and it’s now in the community and it’s thriving.

We have also created many opportunities for our individual employees to give back to projects that are important to them. We work annually to take opportunities to volunteer together. We sponsor events that give us good marketing exposure. We promote activities that encourage young people in middle school and high school to consider tech careers. We participate with a wide variety of universities and colleges all across Michigan and the Midwest. So it feels like it has many tentacles, our approach to engagement in the community.

There seems to be some polarizing conversations around for-profit companies and non-profit organizations. If you’re in the non-profit realm, there can be some allergy to for-profit companies and I believe the leaders of Atomic and the approach we’ve taken as a B-Corp is that profit is in fact an engine for good, and properly leveraged, it is what creates enormous opportunity for not only our clients and the products we deliver and our employees and the jobs we create—but that ripple-effect on our community is huge. So I don’t see that as a polarizing and opposing effort, I see it as profit fueling good.

“Making It In Grand Rapids” is a series about local entrepreneurs and the issues that matter in building a sustainable startup-friendly community. Read more in the series here. Support for this series is provided by Start Garden.

Ricky Olmos is a freelance writer, musician and photographer living in Grand Rapids. When he’s not writing for Rapid Growth Media, he writes about music for Local Spins, plays keys with Joshua Powell & the Great Train Robbery, and drinks copious amounts of coffee.


Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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