news / press room

A Design Shop without Designers


Ephibian is a geek's paradise. Based in Tucson, AZ, its headquarters has no marketers, salespeople, designers, PR flacks, or copywriters. You won't see too many clients there either, even though AOL, Honda, IBM, Sears, and the US Army are counted among them. Against the trend for holistic, one-stop shops, the coders at Ephibian do one thing, and they do it well. They code.

On the server side, Ephibian plays the whole gamut from database design, information architecture, and server configuration to page generation and community-hosting solutions. And although it has marketers and salespeople, they're hidden away in satellite offices in San Francisco, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Boston, and New York.

But it hasn't always been this way as CEO, Teri Spencer, explains. "We started off, like most programming firms, in a garage. This was back in 1996 after we had all left the Army. Our command was split and a small group of us decided that we wanted to take the plunge into the private sector. For years we'd been working until 9 at night for the government's benefit. It was time to work for our own." When they started off there were just five founders, all from technical backgrounds. "We didn't hire our first sales guy until we'd hired another 10 wire-heads," says Spencer. She believes that this engendered respect for the salespeople they did hire among the programmers whose expertise they sold, "because we had filled their role—knocked on doors and dealt with the constant rejections—we knew how tough it was."

Back-end specialist firms have numerous advantages. "Most one-stop shops come from the creative perspective and are often design or marketing agencies in a new incarnation. As a result, the hard-core technology is often their weakest link," asserts Spencer. "If they can build complicated backends, they often don't build them very well. The cost of designing a system is small compared to the cost of maintaining it. The skill of a dedicated firm like Ephibian is that we can minimize long-term costs by making our systems both reliable and scalable." To this end, they are hardcore UNIX and Oracle devotees.

This narrowly focused approach also has benefits for the company's stability. "We're not worried about dot-com fallout, because the nature of our heavy backend work means that many of our clients are traditional firms, who need to integrate complex existing systems with their Web presence," says Spencer. "Besides, our skills are transferable. If the Internet boom completely died then we could always go back to our traditional IT work."

But some of the company's clients, such as, are firmly rooted in the New Economy."We thought that we were in a good position to provide for the design and operational requirements of the site, so we were looking for a dedicated firm. Unfortunately most Web development agencies try to be all things to all men, and have limited technical skills," says Steve Kruschwitz, production vice president for the San Francisco-based portal. While he thinks that an agency with a general competency is a good choice for many startups, he sees a greater role for specialist firms in a large market where many dot-coms have some internal expertise.

The remoteness of the programming team had certain advantages, suggests Kruschwitz. "If they had been closer there would have been lots of pointless meetings. Because they had to fly in the team to meet with us, it meant that they came along to each meeting with an agenda and left with a to-do list." It also benefited, according to Spencer. "Being in Arizona means that our programmers do have time to do what they do best and enjoy most, which is system design and programming. All the initial contact is handled by our salespeople and meetings with clients are infrequent." She said she thinks this approach is founded in the company's martial roots. "We have a strong 'get in there, get the job done and get out' business culture," states Spencer. "We don't want to hang around."

Living in the sticks is also a boon when it comes to staff retention. "One of the reasons that the army put our team in Fort Huachuca is that it had developers stationed in Washington, DC and they'd all left within six months for better paying jobs. In Silicon Valley, staff turnover works out at just a few months. We hold onto our staff because they can afford a much higher quality of life here than they can in California."

Swimming pools and fast cars aren't the only reason that Ephibian manages to attract the technical elite. "Technical geniuses like to work with other technical geniuses. They also like to work in an environment were there is a passion for programming, rather than being a minority in a creative, design-oriented environment," Spencer says. Ephibian also has the benefit of an unsullied geek culture, with corporate bennies including $80 yo-yos, team t-shirts, Nerf guns, and bonding trips to caverns and bowling alleys.

If there is one secret to Ephibian's success it's that its company structure, ethos, and composition satisfies the desires of its staff. Twenty years of the computer industry has shown that technical hard nuts are a curious breed who demand flexibility and free pizza from the firms who employ them, not a strict corporate culture. Ephibian's uniform composition creates an environment that multitalented firms can't hope to reproduce, making it the jack of no trades, but the master of one.