Jim Edmunds thought he’d be recruiting employees from Seattle or the Bay Area when he expanded his software firm to Walla Walla two years ago.
Instead he discovered a relatively hidden talent pool right here.
Now two years after opening as a satellite to the Seattle headquarters where Ingeniux started 18 years ago, the company’s Walla Walla office has doubled employment over the last year to 14 people. Thirteen of them came from the local community. The 14th moved here just a little over a month ago.
“It’s not that we were necessarily surprised that there’s local talent,” Edmunds said. “But the number is interesting. We thought more of our Seattle-based employees would move over.”
Where the talent has come from is not of interest just to Edmunds. It’s a piece in the bigger conversation about how to develop a thriving technology sector in the Walla Walla Valley.
In March, the Port of Walla Walla and Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce teamed up to launch a Technology Roundtable. The idea was to bring interested participants together to talk about what the community offers, what it needs to improve and a pathway to diversify employment with the well-paying, clean jobs for which tech is known.
That initial conversation, which brought together about 30 people — educators, utility providers, communication professionals, elected officials and more — didn’t go terribly far at the time. What leaders discovered is that they needed broader representation at the table.
The roundtable is expected to resume in October with an attempt to reach a larger group of interested parties, including students who will have been out of school all summer.
The conversation comes as area colleges also explore technological innovation. Late last year, a financial contribution from the Port of Walla Walla helped Whitman College furnish its new Coding Space in its Technology Services building. The space is tailored to students working on projects around computer science, which in the recently completed academic year became Whitman’s 46th major.
The spot — also open to students from Walla Walla University and Walla Walla Community College — is a potential launchpad for student startups in a communal workspace where they can collaborate.
Meanwhile, the Ingeniux experience serves as important learning ground for moving forward on the community level.
Edmunds, the company’s co-founder and CEO, expects the number of Walla Walla employees could grow to about 20 by the end of this year. That would bring it to nearly half the number (45) that staffs the company’s Seattle operation, where new headquarters that opened in the Seattle Tower in January nearly doubled the size of its corporate office.
The growth depends on the pacing of the company, its products and client reception.
“We’re not on this huge fast track,” he said.
The idea of a satellite office for the company came to the Port of Walla Walla through Baker Boyer Bank President Mark Kajita around 2012. He knew Edmunds as a fellow alum of Whitman College.
Although contact had been made, conversations about the idea didn’t start earnestly until late 2014. Opening came in May 2016.
Edmunds wanted to expand to a community outside of the busy hub of a technological metropolitan area.
“The competition in Seattle for new talent is just fierce,” he said.
Expansion away from the city combines the best of both worlds: well-paying, intensely paced jobs for the hardworking content management and digital experience software firm for the community in a place where employees have accessible housing, walkability and proximity to good food, drink and recreation.
He scouted locations all over the country, from Spokane to Jackson, Miss., with a list of criteria in mind. He wanted a place near institutions of higher education with quality of life, stable job growth and stable wages. As he winnowed the possibilities, every place had all of those things in common.
“But at the end of the day, I had a connection here,” Edmunds said.
The Whitman College alum made Walla Walla his off-and-on home for about five years after he earned his degree in 1978. He worked at the bar inside the Pony Soldier Motor Inn. The wine industry for which the town is now famed was just taking root.
Even after he moved away, he maintained his ties to Walla Walla. He continues to serve on the President’s Advisory Board at Whitman College, where for that reason alone he is drawn to the community several times a year.
The Port of Walla Walla helped pave the way for the Ingeniux expansion.
The economic development agency veered from its traditional industrial holdings to purchase the Alder Street commercial property formerly home to Misbehaven Spa & Salon for its Ingeniux recruitment.
With the $600,000 acquisition, the Port embarked on improvements in the 4,800 square feet it leases to Ingeniux. The company can exercise an option to purchase the property from the Port. Its initial lease agreement was $3,137.50 per month, starting with a three-year lease. Terms include three five-year renewal options in which rent would increase.
A comprehensive redesign of the space took place. The square footage is divided into thirds that function as distinct sections of one overall operation.
Farthest east, at 113 W. Alder St., the space is a midcentury-modern gateway with a robin’s-egg blue couch and chairs where nail technicians formerly applied acrylic. Down the corridor is a series of offices, including Edmunds’, and conference rooms, each equipped for live video connections to the Seattle headquarters.
On the farthest western side of the operation, where hair styling took place at Misbehaven, is the hub of work activity. The exposed brick of the early-1900s building is a historic juxtaposition to the work generated to boost public content on the web, phones, kiosks and text platforms.
In between the two sections is a massive rectangular communal table that ends in front of a sleek kitchenette stocked with food and wine.
“We’re a food-and-drink culture company,” Edmunds described.
It’s a Starbucks-inspired approach to working, with the notion of people hanging out and collaborating in a shared workspace. Skylights around the edges of the space let in natural light. Sections at the top of the center walls are covered in polycarbonate, allowing a peek into the top sections of the framing. The space is adorned in framed antique maps from Edmunds’ collection, revealing what explorers once believed the area to look like.
Every summer, Edmunds brings his Seattle office to visit Walla Walla. He’s been surprised at how few of them have been willing to take the plunge and move here.
Alex Loescher, the first — and, thus far, lone — employee to take the offer, said the fear of the unknown is likely the cause of the hesitation. There’s a serious cultural change from a bigger community, where the larger population means a greater chance at connecting with peer groups, not to mention the many things to do.
But at the rental where he and his wife moved to College Place, the deposit, first month’s rent and pet fees were all cheaper than a single month of rent at their former place in Seattle.
For Loescher, the timing was right. Their lease was set to expire at the same time his wife’s contract with a construction firm was ending. With an increase in rent coming if they chose to stay, all signs pointed to a move.
He said he’s still adjusting to the little things, like the wait for an Uber driver on a busy night, but it’s an exchange for having a yard. Co-workers from the Seattle office come to Walla Walla, as well, so there’s still a sense of connection.
By no means does Edmunds believe Loescher will be the last employee to make the switch. Nor does he believe Ingeniux will be alone in its belief that Walla Walla is ripe for tech.
One challenge for Ingeniux has been streamlining the offices, Edmunds said. Where last year he visited the office one week each month, this year he’s increased that to every other week.
“It’s much more difficult than I imagined to create a unified office,” he said.
The time spent on the ground here helps reinforce a work culture and ethic that carries over from what was created in Seattle 18 years ago.
He believes other companies will come here, too. He believes tech firms could also start here.
“They will if there’s a labor pool,” he said.
“I would say don’t underestimate the technology infrastructure that’s already here. We may be the first software company to expand here. But we won’t be the last.”