Charlie Kratsch of Infinite Campus is all but cocky about his ability to recruit up to 400 new employees over the next few years to his company located in what he merrily called “the swamps of Blaine.”
That puts him nearly 20 miles north of the hottest area for technology firms, in Minneapolis, and even farther away from the technology cluster in and around suburban Eden Prairie.
Thinking a company has to be any of those places to get the best talent, he said, is “the lazy view of things.” In recruiting, he said, being up in Blaine gives him an edge.
His is a refreshing and unexpected take on a really old business idea, and that’s that strategy really boils down to nothing more than doing something different from the competition.
Within five minutes of meeting Kratsch, who founded the company in 1993, it was clear he didn’t need much encouragement to do things differently. He owns the first and only CEO desk I’ve ever seen made out of the elevator off the tail of a World War II-era bomber. He convened the meeting around a table made from the compressor fan of a helicopter engine.
Asked if he had an interest in aviation, he matter-of-factly responded, “I’ve got an interest in everything.”
Kratsch had already been a successful technology entrepreneur when he started Infinite Campus. To learn education from the inside he had taken over as the technology director for the Centennial School District. In 1996, the first Infinite Campus system was ready to go at Centennial.
It has expanded its offerings since the early years, but its mission remains helping schools increase efficiency and making it easier for the people who care about a child’s education to work together. Kids need to be enrolled in classes, provided records of their grades, fed in the cafeteria, given books in the library and sent home on the right bus. It would be a huge gain for the school system if information about all of that could be in one spot and easily available.
It also helps to have parents closely follow how their child is doing, so Infinite Campus allows them to check up on any missing homework assignments and even see what their child had for lunch that day.
The company’s growth surged in the 2000s and by the middle of the decade Kratsch was looking for a place to move his growing company, then with about 130 employees. Space had gotten so tight that even pushing an office chair back from a desk was getting to be a challenge.
When meeting with officials from the city of Blaine, he wondered about their plan for a 26-acre parcel then owned by the city.
It was a property he knew, having grown up in the area. His references to “the swamps of Blaine” are more accurate than not, given the wetlands on the site. It’s also next to Lochness Park. As a kid he had sledded on the hill there, and he explained that “technically it’s Lochness Park, but we still call it Garbage Hill,” referring to its origins as a landfill.
Infinite Campus moved from the roughly 20,000 square feet it occupied in Arden Hills to its new 110,000-square-foot headquarters next to Garbage Hill in 2008.
“The employees came in here and said, ‘What are we going to do with all this space?’ ” he said. “Well, fast forward … and we now have 400 employees and are getting pretty close to full. And we are experiencing another one of those growth spurts.”
Construction has started on an expansion that will include an eight-story tower, and when completed there should be enough room for up to 900 employees. The tower will not be ready for more than a year, so Kratsch really hopes the total number of staff doesn’t grow past 450, because there will be no place for any more people to sit. The hiring pace will pick up again once the tower is open.
As to how to fill all those new workstations, he said, “what could be thought of as a disadvantage, being located way out here, can easily be turned into an advantage. Like with our product. My big thing has always been competitive differentiation.”
The simplest way to describe his plan is that Infinite Campus will remain the coolest employer for people who hope to work in technology in the northern suburbs. Infinite Campus brings a little bit of Silicon Valley to Blaine, with a totally open floor plan of workstations on two levels with a free restaurant, a 36-foot rock climbing wall and 53-foot fish pond with a babbling brook.
On a recent Friday morning the company had about a dozen job openings posted, but human resources manager Greg Cornman pointed out that Infinite Campus will always be recruiting software developers and other technical personnel. Their approach, including things like following up on referrals from current employees, seems to be mostly the application of common sense.
One of the ways they discover if a candidate can fit in is a technical assessment that Kratsch, an enthusiastic fan of “Star Trek,” likened to the well-known Kobayashi Maru test given to Starfleet cadets to observe their decisionmaking in a hopeless, no-win scenario.
The solution, as all good Trekkies know, is to find a way to redefine the problem.
“We’ve had people walk in, very senior software engineers, find out there’s an assessment and turn around and walk right back out,” Kratsch said. “That tells you everything you needed to know about that person.”
Once an employee comes aboard, he said, there’s every expectation that he or she will stay for a career. He made a point of introducing Anne Flynn, Infinite Campus employee No. 1, when leading a tour of the facility.
Kratsch began that tour out the back door of his office, leading to a second-floor balcony overlooking the restaurant that also had a view looking north. Before us was the wooded shore of Lochness Lake.
“I’ve had people tell me it’s nicer than the view from their lake cabins,” he said. “That’s kind of the idea.”