Sierra Bravo is a Bloomington Web development company that does not offer creative design strategies or flashy graphics for client websites.
What it offers, instead, is nerds. Some 58 of them, to be exact, developers who occupy an open area of the corporate offices designated as "The Nerdery" and whose work is featured on the company's www.nerdery.com website.
"We do software engineering and code, not design and graphics," said Sierra Bravo president Luke Bucklin. "Clients always lead the design."
The clients are ad agencies and marketing and design firms that dream up often-complex online promotions for their own clients, then rely on Sierra Bravo to translate them into sophisticated, eye-fetching presentations.
The result is a company that has posted better than a 50 percent annual growth rate for the past three years, including a 56 percent jump in 2008 to a total of $6.4 million, despite the growing recession.
Which is not to suggest that the ongoing economic drought hasn't nicked the company, Bucklin said: 2009 revenue is on track to grow a mere 28 percent, to about $8.2 million.
The fact that Sierra Bravo focuses on the technical rather than the creative issues does not mean there's no creativity involved, said Mary Kemp, president of the Hartung Kemp design firm in Minneapolis.
"Their broad experience is valuable because they can offer many different programming options to make your website shine," Kemp said. "They do amazing things, and they love figuring out how to make things work."
Consider, for example, a project done for Minneapolis ad agency Colle + McVoy and its client, Yahoo. It involved a website featuring the so-called emoticons -- smiley faces -- singing Christmas carols.
But there was a complex twist: The Sierra Bravo software allowed users to type in their own lyrics, have the emoticons sing them -- in harmony -- and then e-mail the result as Christmas cards.
For a guy who chained himself to his Royal typewriter when they brought computers into the newsroom, such techno-stunts tend to make my head explode.
The thing is, Sierra Bravo started in 2003 with a focus on the many older, text-based "legacy" computer systems that remain in use. The product was software used to connect the legacy systems to new technology: Internet applications such as online stores, for example, or the transfer of data from handheld scanners into aging warehouse management systems.
The company was founded by Bucklin, 39; Mike Derheim, 31, and Mike Schmidt, 34, all of whom had been working for a company that developed legacy software. The corporate name, inspired by Schmidt's and Bucklin's enthusiasm for flying, was derived from the first letters of their last names in the phonetic alphabet.
And the business flourished: From $600,000 in 2004, the company's first full year, revenue sailed to $4.1 million in 2007, upwards of 75 percent of it from the legacy side.
But there were pressures: It was difficult to find people familiar with both the old and new technologies. And as the economy slowed, Sierra Bravo's key legacy clients in the building supplies, wholesale distribution and manufacturing sectors were the first to be affected.
So the decision was made in 2007 to refocus on the advertising and design market, and the result was a dramatic turnaround: The sharp revenue growth in 2008 was dominated by the new Web development partnerships, which grew to 80 percent of total sales.
"Once we reached out to prospective clients, we found a vacuum in our niche," Bucklin said. Clients are spread across the country from Los Angeles to Dallas and from Chicago to New York, in addition to the Twin Cities.
The nerds have been at the center of the transformation, and they have celebrated the success in appropriately geeky ways, most recently with a week-long lunchtime competition they dubbed the "Pentathanerd." The events, a plethora of geekery, included chess games, Rubik's Cube puzzles, the Boggle word game, foosball and the Mario Kart video game.
Progress of the competition was posted on walls near The Nerdery that have been covered with erasable whiteboard paint. That's not all of the scribblings that now adorn them.
"The original idea was for them to use [the walls] to share ideas, to collaborate on problems," Derheim said. "But that accounts for only about 5 percent of it."
The rest is a mélange of wit and whimsy, some of it delightfully sophomoric. There's the "food pyramid," for example, which includes cake, nachos, beer, coffee and, for unknown reasons, ramen noodles. Then there's the note posted alongside an electric plug-in: "Insert fork here."
And my favorite: "7 days since the last workplace injury." Aside from a broken fingernail from typing too hard, no one can recall any injuries.
"People here are under a lot of pressure," Schmidt said. "We work hard to make this a fun place."
Dick Youngblood • 612-673-4439 • firstname.lastname@example.org