As told to Ryan McCarthy
Even with $20.6 million in sales last year, Mike Broderick gets sideways looks when he tells people his software company is based in the rust belt town of Youngstown, Ohio. But that's the base from which Turning Technologies has turned a snooze-inducing corporate staple, the PowerPoint presentation, into an interactive tool. About two-thirds of sales of the TurningPoint system are to schools. Students answer questions using hand-held keypads, and teachers can watch their computers to see responses live.
It was the worst time for even thinking of looking for funding, during the dot-com bust and right after 9/11. I took a second mortgage on my home, opened up a few new credit cards. My wife went back to work full time. It actually helped us in the long run. We were forced to bootstrap.
Two other founders and I had been working in an industry that was really focused on corporate meetings and used early audience-response technology. It was very expensive, and you needed a skilled technician to operate the equipment. The really innovative thing we did first was to create software that would run seamlessly in PowerPoint. It had to be easy enough to use that if you knew how to use PowerPoint, you knew how to use our product.
We knew education was going to be a primary focus. Instead of one student up front raising his hand and everyone else passively listening, everyone participates. The No Child Left Behind Act has helped. As a superintendent I can go online any day and see how my district is tracking. I can see how a school is tracking, how a discipline, a grade level or teacher, how an individual student is tracking.
In 2003, one of our folks at a trade show happened to be standing next to some folks from Thomson Learning, one of the largest publishers of textbooks in higher ed. Two weeks later, I was in a meeting room at Thomson Learning's headquarters in California presenting to eight or 10 senior vice presidents and the president of Thomson Higher Ed on the benefits of our technology. After that meeting, they became our largest distributor. That's when I knew this thing was going to grow really fast.
I've often told people that when talking about entrepreneurship, if you're really serious about it, you can't have a Plan B. If I had a Plan B in the first year or two I probably would have chosen it.
People question why we would be located in Youngstown. We started the business here because the founders are from the area, and we actually got started as a part of the Youngstown Business Incubator. Over the first few years, we probably got cumulative benefits somewhere near $200,000 from the incubator. At that point in our growth, that was huge.
Our recruiting costs are virtually nil. Youngstown is a somewhat depressed rust belt economy, with a lot of underemployment. There are a lot of folks working jobs that aren't up to their potential. This company would be much more expensive to operate in a place like Silicon Valley or Chicago or a major market. Our average employee age is 26. Our attrition rates are virtually unheard of, consistently less than 5 percent annually.
We use our technology in every single one of our meetings. It frees up a lot of creativity and decisions are a lot easier to make. No longer is it the guy who is the most adamant about wanting his idea implemented who has the most authority. It really is the majority. People can vote their conscience and not worry if their boss is going to give them a dirty look across the table.