Metal Toad is one of those 'What do they do?' Portland companies that is now up to a 60-person headcount.
The name doesn't help. Founder and CEO Joaquin Lippincott explains that years ago he was casting around for an email address and saw a metal toad paperweight on his desk. That was enough for him.
Later when he formed a company he recycled the name.
The company builds websites and advises other companies on digital strategy. With its growth however, Lippincott has just moved temporarily to Los Angeles to open a new Metal Toad office. The aim is to be close to Metal Toad's entertainment clients, which include NBC, ABC, DC Entertainment and Warner Bros., and the award shows the Golden Globes and the Emmys. For example, they built the website Goldenglobes.com, and advised that it be hosted by Amazon Web Services.
In official language, Metal Toad is a technology consulting firm specializing in custom enterprise, web, mobile and cloud solutions in the entertainment and media industries.
They have a floor in the Yeon building downtown Portland, but expansion southwards seemed inevitable. The brick-and-mortar office is in the Century City area of Los Angeles, near enough to LAX and entertainment clients in Burbank and Culver City without being too far from downtown.
They did not join the Snapchat ghetto...sorry, tech hub, of Venice Beach, where Snap has bought every house along a residential street and tried to block public access, annoying the locals.
For Metal Toad life is not all ballgowns and goody bags: Their work includes writing fleet management software for Daimler Trucks. They're working on the future of logistics and infrastructure. "It's more about big data and how to get from A to B, and predicting failure on equipment," Lippincott explained to the Business Tribune.
"A lot of what is keeping us engaged is Big Data, mobile, IOT, machine learning, migration to the cloud..." They go up against IBM, Deloitte and Oracle.
Another line of work is with Seimens wind power of Denmark. Metal Toad has written software that works with drones and visual machine learning systems. For example, much of Europe's wind power generation happens at sea, in the windy Atlantic Ocean and in the North Sea. Maintenance of the giant blades of a turbine — some can be 100 meters long — is very expensive when you have to send a boat out: $100,000 a day according to Lippincott. It's better to send a drone to do the inspection. But the software needs to learn the symptoms of a damaged turbine and provide predictive analysis.
The firm is also helping Siemens with their Internet of Things devices, and United Natural Foods (UNFI) an organic wholesale food distributor in Rhode Island.
For the Emmies they did an analysis of the thousands-strong membership system. For ABC TV they built an iPad app to support affiliate sales teams, so an ad sales person could go to a client and hold up an iPad showing what shows were coming to ABC and how ads might look.
"A lot of the technology in the marketing space has come full circle and is underpinning operations for enterprises." This means almost everything in supply chains are managed by people with tablets and phones, something that resembles social media more every day. Managing the cloud and the swarm is hard work.
Part of keeping clients is not always trying to do everything: Lippincott will outsource a software build if it is beyond the capability of his team.
"We make recommendations that may not involve us doing the build," he says.
That builds trust and the client is more likely to come back.
In Portland they have all the usual tech startup perks — the kegerator and the foosball table — and another nice benefit: unlimited, paid time off.
"We say take as much time off as is reasonable if you get your job done. We treat staff like adults and it helps us
hire excellent people. It works because our culture is built around trust."
Timber and wine tech
The visible perks are outward signs of trust. "If someone is going to pretend to work, or play foosball, there's not much difference, except one is fun. We want our people to be successful, to blog and be thought leaders. People who are interested in growing their careers can have fun things."
He believes Metal Toad can work with Oregon industries such as timber and wine making. "What is timber tech? It's not robots chopping down trees. What is the technology that will support that industry? It's important for us to nurture those nascent technologies, and encourage others to invest in them."
The belief is that if Oregon agriculture firms can tech up they will be ahead of the game and be able to pivot to selling their skills — not just their plant-based products — around the globe. "That could catapult the state forward."
He's visited rural firms and asked why they haven't trusted their digital infrastructure to the cloud yet. "One timber firm were excited about their new computers and servers, but they would not use the cloud because their Internet connection goes down a couple of hours a day. You don't have to get that far out of Portland to start seeing intermittent Internet connectivity."
He says a timber company might look at investing $100 million in building a factory to see a return over 50 years. "That's a very different mindset from tech companies, extremely myopic and focused on the Initial Public Offering or their next round (of investment)."
Anyone can code
"Everyone is hiring people with five years of experience. The difference between five and zero years is five years of experience." His point being, "Anyone can learn to program, same as learning to read. But when it comes to literacy, we don't say there are reading and non-reading people. You don't have to be Shakespeare to make a living."
There's a mystique around the tecchie or programmer that shouldn't exist. "Literacy is hard but we invest in it."
In L.A. he says his job is "getting the right people into the room and then slipping out the door. I'm in L.A. to make connections, and to introduce people in L.A. to the ethical and excellent software company that we are."
Sony is a big online presence. So what does Metal Toad do? "We host Sony.com, and we're managing the migration of credit card reports for them."
For Warner Brothers they converted the entire Warner Brothers website cluster to work internationally, in different languages and time zones.
For UNFI, Metal Toad did digital asset management. (UNFI distributes 80 percent of the organic food you see on Whole Foods' shelves.)
Say someone at a newspaper is putting together a coupon for a Whole Foods chicken: they need a mobile asset, an image and maybe a barcode. "We helped UNFI to get away from a simple file systems for cataloging photos and come up with a mobile asset. So they're not having to photograph thousands of SKUs every time."
He adds, "We're diversified. I do believe that Amazon is going to eat the world and disrupt that industry. The answer to Amazon is to innovate. That's one additional reason for companies to think of themselves as a tech company."
He adds, "Every company should be thinking of themselves as tech company. Which is our model: an outsourced innovation software company."
Lippincott says his team had no responsibility related to the hack of Sony a couple of years back, when digital assets were stolen and embarrassing emails leaked. The recent HBO hack which included a Game of Thrones script just reminded him how poorly-secured many enterprises are.
"We're seen Fortune 100 companies with gaping security holes. But people can't justify spending money on security until it's too late."
As for keeping in touch with Portland, he'll fly back every week. Mayor Ted Wheeler last week reached out to him, and Lippincott changed his flight to meet him, agenda unseen (see sidebar).
He likes to take meetings in person, rather than on the phone or videoconference. "Things happen in person that don't happen remotely, when you're getting to know people. Body language, nuances in facial expression."
Projects work is OK remotely, but trust-building is harder. "Phone calls are transactional, but get-to-know-you coffee is not, it's a ritual."
Lippincott has diverse clients because of word of mouth and staying in touch. His stated goal in Los Angeles is "to meet everyone."
He discovered Portland when he told a developer he wanted to hire him but could not afford San Francisco wages. The developer chose to do the job in Portland, and Lippincott became so intrigued he followed. He's been in Portland 11 years and has his kids here.
"I love a challenge, and L.A. is a challenging city. How do you grow a business, how do you solve problems? L.A. has a huge opportunity in front of it. I see Snapchat as one of the newly minted tech mills. They only know how invest in one thing. I see L.A. doing what PayPal mafia did in the Bay Area," that is, funding dozens of influential startups.
He looks at Los Angeles and sees a novel morphology.
"It's not confined, its ability to absorb capital is monstrous. The self-driving car will turn commuting into productive time. With all these eight-lane freeways you could increase capacity by five times, since they can drive closer together."
He sees a coming housing boom there along arterial roads, like in Portland.
"The city with the roads will net the most benefits."