ST. CLOUD - Jeff Epple is a gent with a business firmly planted in tradition and an eye fixed firmly on a rapidly changing future.
Epple, 42, is founder of Cloud Cartographics, which he has moved well beyond the conventional lineup of road maps and atlases to include mapping products for everything from county plat books, regional trails and lake country to soil types, school districts and voting precincts.
And now, with the help of two young partners -- Aaron Brossoit and Nick Karbon, both 30 -- he's building an expanded business with an intriguing lineup of services and an uncommon market niche.
Say howdy to Brain Magnet, a St. Cloud company that offers a combination of Web development, graphic design and cartographic services to a significant but largely underserved market: community development agencies, mainly in rural areas.
It's all the result of Epple's conclusion a decade ago that his business inevitably had to move to the Internet. So in 1999 he acquired Webkromatic, the website development business Brossoit started in college.
"You have to be prepared for what's needed tomorrow," said Epple, Brain Magnet's CEO. To provide a customized look and feel to the company's printed and online products, in 2001 he added Possum Design, the graphic design company that Karbon started shortly after graduation from college.
After a sales slump to $950,000 in 2005 -- the result of the challenges of integrating three companies and the hunt for a market niche that used each area of expertise -- Brain Magnet sharpened its focus to hoist its revenues to $1.6 million in 2007. That could be just the start, as the company ends a long and expensive R&D phase that Epple said cost nearly $2 million.
The first and most ambitious effort was creation of a Web portal that incorporated the vast array of cartographic data Epple had accumulated for his mapping products in more than 300 counties in seven Upper Midwest states.
Single data source
The idea was to offer a single, user-friendly data source to government officials, developers and community promoters free of charge; ad sales to resorts, Realtors and commercial services would provide the revenue base. But creating the software and testing its market potential took years. Indeed, the first offering -- data for Minnesota and Wisconsin counties -- will not be online until mid-2009.
Nevertheless, there's a reason why Brossoit, the company's president, expects "significant, double-digit growth" as a result: In a beta test of the website in Mille Lacs County, it took just 10 days to sell enough advertising to top the break-even line. And with the complex development work done, the company can now move swiftly to the rest of the Upper Midwest and beyond. The partners figured that the community development market would fit neatly with their client bases: Epple had a broad relationship with local governments and Brossoit and Karbon had government and tourism clients.
But it wasn't an easy sell: "It was hard for us to say we were experts in this niche without a portfolio of finished projects," Brossoit said. "All we had to sell was our vision."
The sell has become a mite easier, however, thanks to awards won by a project launched two years ago for the Northspan Group, an economic development organization for northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin.
The project, website www. northlandconnection.com, gathered maps and data on workforce, infrastructure, real estate and quality of life for 69 communities in eight counties. It was information previously strewn amid an uncoordinated maze of sources, Brossoit said.
The website was named best technology initiative in 2006 by the Minnesota Economic Development Association and won the 2007 Innovation award from the National Association of Development Organizations.
It also won praise from an associate at UGL Equis, a Chicago-based corporate real estate consultant: "I was impressed to find everything so well laid out," Jacob Cynamon said before he left the consultant in March. "My search time was cut in half compared to other cities I was scouting."
Despite the rural focus, Brain Magnet hasn't shunned urban clients. It has done projects for the Mall of America, for which it created online versions of the mall's visitor's guide and group travel planner and an elaborate map of the parking system to guide tour-bus drivers in finding pickup and delivery points.
The result went well beyond mere button-pushing that pulls up a store directory, hotel list or restaurant guide. There's also eye-fetching animation that actually turns pages of online publications to provide a familiar format for the casual user and that creates a moving bus to show drivers where to enter the property.
In addition to generating revenue, such projects also make an important contribution to the company's core business, Epple said.
"The applications we develop for larger clients provide the groundwork for the work we do for rural clients," he said.
Dick Youngblood • 612-673-4439 • firstname.lastname@example.org