Made in the Berkshires | VidMob: Technology startups spreading local roots
Photo Gallery | VidMob, an app developed in Pittsfield
PITTSFIELD — In an office suite on the second floor of the Crawford Square building on North Street, the employees of technology startup VidMob meet to share ideas.
But there's no conference table in this common meeting space. No desk chairs. No notebooks filled with talking points to be discussed. Instead, the three employees write their ideas on the walls, which are covered with whiteboards.
"This is like our brainstorm center," said James Kupernik, VidMob's solutions architect.
Unconventional? Definitely. But it could be the beginning of what the future Berkshire economy might look like.
With traditional Berkshire enterprises faltering — retail outlets like Macy's closing and multinational companies like Sabic Innovative Plastics leaving — high-tech startups like VidMob, which is building a marketplace of professional video editors, are quietly establishing footholds here.
The timing is also right for this kind of activity. Local business leaders and officials have been pushing the Berkshire's involvement in the innovation economy for years. The new Taconic High School and the yet-to-be built Berkshire Innovation Center — the BIC is now scheduled to open at the beginning of 2017 — are expected to enhance those efforts.
The future of high-tech in the Berkshires "can be as big as we want it to be," said Pittsfield native Patrick Larkin, the director of the Innovation Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, which seeks to grow the state's innovation economy.
Most of these companies are hard to spot in the Berkshires since the county's technology sector is "under the radar," Larkin said.
"It's there," he said. "But the tech community operates and functions differently than what you call the traditional industries."
Technology companies in the Berkshires tend to keep a low profile since many are dealing with intellectual property issues and proprietary processes based on the kinds of items that they're trying to develop.
Keith Girouard, the director of the Berkshire office of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center in Pittsfield, said his office has been dealing with more and more small, high-tech companies in this area.
"Some companies in this field are not anxious to go public because they're trying to protect their intellectual property, which is one reason why they're not actually visible to a lot of people in the county," Girouard said. "A lot of this is 'first to market,' which means if the information gets out you're in trouble."
"I think there are more high-tech people in the area than people see," said Berkshire native Kupernik. He often attends meet-ups featuring high-tech entrepreneurs at Cloud85 in North Adams.
"The first time I went it was like, 'Holy cow! There's a ton of high tech people here," he said. "But a lot of them do work from home or from remote jobs."
Using VidMob's free app, consumers have the ability to hire professional editors who can turn a person's photos and video clips on their phone into professionally edited videos.
With the app, consumers can create a vision of what they would like their video to look like. The professional editors involved with VidMob then get to bid on the project. Users are then able to select the editor whose vision for the video most closely resembles their own.
According to Kupernik, various computer applications already exist to edit video. But the editing is not done in a way that captures the user's vision.
"At the end of the day, a computer's not going to be able to determine what pieces of my media were the most engaging to me," Kupernik said.
"We truly are based around this idea that there's power in human creativity," he said. "Our goal is really to connect content creators, consumers and small businesses with human editors who can take [a consumer's] vision of a product and turn it into reality."
Founded by high-tech entrepreneur Alex Collmer, VidMob is actually based in New York City. But its three local employees do all of the software engineering for the company's entire platform from their suite in the Crawford Square building.
The Berkshire-based Kupernik, senior software engineer Don LeClair, and director of software engineering Hank Zill were hired after being introduced to Collmer through one of VidMob's advisers. Zill and LeClair met while working for Tripod.com in Williamstown, which was one of the country's first dot-com companies when it formed in 1992. Tripod was sold in 1998 to Lycos, which closed the company's Williamstown office two years later.
"We hadn't been looking to locate our software department in Pittsfield, but I've long felt that you go where the talent is," Collmer said via email. "When we met them, we knew it was a perfect fit. The fact that they're located in Pittsfield is just an added bonus."
"By hiring here in the Berkshires, it's more cost-effective for him because the cost of living is greater in New York," Kupernik said. "As Facebook, Google and Twitter build out their offices, software development is at a premium in the cities. So retention is tough, right?
"This was a major risk for Alex, but we've been able to prove to him that we're here, that we contribute to the company, and this the vision that we share in," he said. "We love the Berkshires so we're not going anywhere. And let's be honest, there aren't a lot of tech companies in the Berkshires. It benefits us all. That's why he took a chance on us."
In 2015, VidMob raised $2 million in seed money from Foundation Capital and Acadia Woods Partners, plus various media executives and the venture arm of ad agency Mother New York, according to techcrunch.com.
VidMob beta-tested its products until Nov. 18 when its app launched on Apple's App Store. The app has been available to consumers for about eight weeks now.
"It's been going pretty well," Kupernik said recently. "We're closing in on 5,000 downloads with very little promotion."
The company's aims to scale VidMob's user and project bases by "multiples" over the next three to six months.
"As the Techcrunch article said, we've raised our seed money as a startup," Kopernik said. "Now we have our benchmarks to hit before the next round of funding."
Tech startups have had their hits and misses in the Berkshires. Co-founded by Williams College graduate and tech entrepreneur Bo Peabody, Tripod was the eighth largest site on the Internet when it was sold to Lycos 18 years ago. But then there was Workshop Live, which came to Pittsfield in 2004.
Workshop Live provided online music lessons, and Pittsfield officials saw so much potential in the idea that the company received a $750,000 economic development package from the city in 2004. Workshop Live did reach a deal with Best Buy to be the corporate entity's online music educator in 2008, but the company was never able to achieve the job projections that were stipulated in its agrement with the city. Workshop Live received only $100,000 of the funding contained in the economic development agreement before the city terminated the pact in 2009.
Collmer believes that VidMob has staying power because it offers a unique service, has a true revenue model — "we've been generating revenue since our first day live in the App Store" — and has a solid team of employees, advisers and investors.
"None of this guarantees success," Collmer said. "But we feel like we've put ourselves in a great position to succeed."
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