Showing the Ropes

Owners of up-and-coming software design and programming firms are boosting their revenue by teaching the tricks of their trade to eager students -- who may then go on to become something akin to competitors.

And the 20-something instructors who teach these week-long classes seem to demolish other long-held business models for training. They may be more concerned with students having fun in and outside class than they are with handing out grades for the coursework.

One thing is for certain: the new style software training seems to be an outgrowth of the gig economy, encouraging unemployed individuals to remain fluid and launch their own successful enterprises.

“We already have the instruction part down,” says Daniel Morrison, 27, president of Collective Idea in Holland. “That’s top-notch. So let’s have some fun with it. We do something where we take people out the first night, or we’ll do a beach barbecue or whatever people want to do. Some guys want to go golfing. The training doesn’t end at 5 o'clock.”

The Knowledge Economy
Morrison says Collective Idea started offering its four-day training sessions under the brand name Idea Foundry last year, the offshoot of a training session that his team developed and held on-site for a San Francisco-based company.

“We felt we could do it on our own, and do it a little better, so we decided to do it in Holland with our own little take on things,” says Morrison, who attended Hope College. He runs Collective Idea with two other full-time employees to create custom websites and software applications.

Individuals who sign up for an Idea Foundry training session may pay nearly $1,000 for a four-day session, depending on various factors. In return, they receive hands-on instruction in applications like the content management system Expression Engine or the open-source web framework Ruby on Rails.

Former student Lauren Gray won a scholarship from Collective Idea for a training session on Expression Engine last year when she submitted the winning entry for the company's essay contest. Once she completed the session, Gray and a Colorado-based partner went on to form their own web development company, Flip Box Studios, which Gray says is doing well.

Gray’s opportunity to undergo Idea Foundry training followed her recent layoff from her previous job. “I received news of a scholarship the day after I was laid off," says Gray, 25. "The training gave me the knowledge and tools I needed to establish my own brand and work for myself.”

Thirty-one-year-old Torey Heinz also came to Idea Foundry after being laid off from his position as an IT and web administrator at International Material Control Systems Inc. in Holland. While he did not receive a scholarship, Heinz says Morrison and his team worked with him to come up with an affordable financial arrangement.

“The training I got from those guys gave me some practical application to what I’d been learning in books,” Heinz says. “I had come to a point where I needed to talk with someone real-life, in person.”

Trained to work with Ruby on Rails, Heinz parlayed his newly developed skills to launch  I.H.S. Web Design, which he says is doing so well that he is "swamped.”

“Because I was new, I had set a low rate, but now I’m getting so much work, I’m getting ready to double my rate,” Heinz says.

What’s more, Heinz has been inspired by Collective Idea’s training venture to possibly offer training of his own, but in a different field. Rather than training people in web application, Heinz says he would like to offer programmers and developers insight on how to use their skills to become successful entrepreneurs.  But that vision may be a few years away from becoming reality, he concedes.

A Confederacy of Geeks
Heinz says he found out about Idea Foundry training by meeting with the Geek Group, an informal technology-based group that gets together in Holland. One of the leaders of the Geek Group is Aaron Schaap, self-described “mastermind” at Elevator Up L.L.C. in Zeeland, which also offers workshops designed to familiarize local professionals with applications and skills they will need to succeed in the industry.

Schaap believes that West Michigan software developers are coming to see their market as national and even global, which breaks down resistance among “competitors” to working together on such ventures.

“It’s kind of like learning by people you respect,” Schaap says. “So when you’re actually getting to talk to the people who do these kinds of things, it’s people who are personally passionate. You’re going to see them online at 2 a.m. working away at this stuff.

"Within West Michigan, people are saying: ‘You know what? The whole idea of competition isn’t that big a deal because we’re kind of working on a national level. So why can’t we get together and work on things?’”

Indeed, one training partner for Collective Idea has been Mike Boyink, owner of Boyink Interactive, who has launched a successful side venture called Train-EE. Boyink collaborated with Collective Idea on some recent training, but also conducts his own, which he says earns extra revenue while helping to form client relationships for his primary company.

Boyink has done two training sessions on Expression Engine – one in Holland’s City Flats and one in San Antonio (“We wanted to go somewhere warm in the winter,” he explains), and plans a second City Flats session this week. Boyink says he takes advantage of a close relationship with Ellis Labs – the developer of Expression Engine – in making the sessions successful.

Work and Play
Morrison and Boyink agreed – as did Gray and Heinz – that a fun atmosphere was part of the attraction for this new brand of training.

Boyink says the winter location of San Antonio was chosen in part to take advantage of that city’s famous RiverWalk, which is teeming with things to do after the sun goes down.

“We look for spots like restaurants and bars – stuff you can walk to,” Boyink says.

Not all alternative training focuses on a market of displaced individuals, of course. Grand Rapids-based Atomic Object, which has earned a reputation for its strong application development skills, recently began offering training sessions in the writing of code and applications – as opposed to the use of existing applications.

For his clientele, Atomic Object President Carl Erickson has largely looked to the corporate market.

“What we have found is, over the course of eight years of doing custom software development for a lot of local customers, those who have engineers and developers on staff will look at the way Atomic does stuff, and they’ll say, ‘I want my guys to do that and get those results,’” Erickson says.

“We had a half-dozen guys from Lockheed Martin come last summer, and they were here for a week and we put together a customized curriculum for coding custom software development.”

Each course is customized to the customer’s need, Erickson says, but the key is working hands-on with the client and being available for follow-up.

But Morrison says there appears to be a subtle shift in underlying reasons for those who pursue training, which traditionally is tied to requirements for current job at the request of their employers or to add value to their current positions.

“We are now seeing people that have been downsized in their current jobs and are looking to one: learn new skills, or two: increase what they already know, so they can start their own business or do freelance work,” he says.

Dan Calabrese is the co-founder and editor in chief of North Star Writers Group and previously owned a West Michigan public relations firm by the same name. He has written for the Macomb Daily, the Royal Oak Daily Tribune, the Journal Newspapers in Wayne County and the Grand Rapids Business Journal.


Brandon Keepers, Dan Morrison and Brian Ryckbost of Collective Idea – Holland

Daniel Morrison, president of Collective Idea  , photographed at City Flats Hotel - Holland (2)

Aaron Schaap, one of the leaders of the Geek Group - Zeeland

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved
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