Techie Like a Rock Star
Universal Mind Makes Inc. Magazine’s 500 Fastest Growing List
Just five years in existence, the software company Universal Mind, based in Westfield, has recorded a staggering 871% growth rate over the past three years and expects to quadruple its staff by the close of 2008. The company is a testament to the versatility afforded by the Internet — while CEO Todd Cieplinski manages the firm from Western Mass., his employees are spread around the world — but it also proves that, at least in the case of the World Wide Web, change is good. Especially for UM.
“I was doing time in the universal mind, I was feeling fine. I was turning keys, I was setting people free — I was doing all right.”
The lyrics of The Doors’ tune Universal Mind may have meant one thing to Jim Morrison when he wrote them, but they’ve come to mean something very different for Todd Cieplinski, who borrowed the title of the song for his Web-based application design and consultancy firm.
He and his business partners are indeed feeling fine; they’ve just seen their five-year-old company named to Inc. magazine’s list of the 500 Fastest Growing Private Companies in America, coming in at 290 (and number 31 among ‘IT Service’ companies) with $3.5 million in revenue for 2006 — up from about $362,000 in 2003.
They’ve done so by turning keys — unlocking the potential of existing applications in a vastly improving virtual landscape.
The firm is also an example of the changing face of business as it relates to the World Wide Web. With communication virtually instantaneous regardless of where an employee’s desk is located, Universal Mind (UM) isn’t located in a high-rise in a primary market. Instead, it employs software technology experts from around the world, using downtown Westfield as its central location while UM’s president, Brett Cortese, and Tom Link, chief technology officer, work from their home base of Golden, Colo.
Cieplinski made the move to Westfield’s Westwood office building this year, in order to return to his roots — he’s a Springfield native, and said he came back for the quality of life and to raise his children “as he had been raised.”
Subsequently, the overhead’s low, but the productivity is high: in March 2007, Universal Mind had four employees; the ranks have since grown to 12 to keep up with demand, and by the end of the year, Cieplinski expects that number to double, and to double again by the end of 2008.
This Internet Fad
Cieplinski said the company originated from a passion for technology, and has been bolstered by a number of trends in the marketplace — among them, a saturation of Web-based technologies within large companies’ sales, marketing, and overall business plans, in both internal and customer-oriented systems.
He said his career path thus far has been guided by such changes in technology; steered by educators toward engineering at an early age after showing promise in related fields, Cieplinski attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., and identified a niche for himself in the college’s business program, which is coupled with RPI’s strong technology curriculum.
That led Cieplinski to enter the sales field after college, first in the veterinary supply industry in Maryland, and later for a database information outfit in Connecticut. By the mid-’90s, Cieplinski, like many others, had begun to realize that the Internet was evolving at break-neck speed, and identified it as a potential next step in his career.
“My boss at the time didn’t see it that way,” he said. “He was a bit of an old hat, and thought the Internet was a fad.”
Ignoring the caution, Cieplinski moved to Boston, joking that if he wanted to work in financial services, which he didn’t, or software, which he did, that was the place to be.
He eventually entered into a consultancy project with software company Allair in Cambridge, where he met Link and Cortese. Allair was bought out by Macromedia (it’s now owned by Adobe), but not before the dot-com bust of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The trio found themselves looking for work with résumés that detailed skills still seen as niche today, and were, as Cieplinski puts it, “niches within niches within niches” at the time.
Still, their core knowledge of Macromedia programs, one of the largest Internet-based companies in the world, created an opportunity.
In 2002, a year that Cieplinski admits was not the best to launch a professional consultancy firm, Universal Mind was born, borrowing its name from a song penned in 1970.
Because of the strong relationships Cieplinski, Link, and Cortese had forged with Macromedia, work was relatively steady, but began to blossom especially in 2005, following Adobe’s acquisition of Macromedia in a stock swap valued at $3.4 billion.
Now serving as an ‘Adobe Solution Partner,’ UM continues to work with a very specific suite of technologies to assist clients in creating, managing, updating, and troubleshooting a wide variety of Adobe/Macromedia Web applications. While there are other Adobe partner companies across the country, few specialize in the same type of work.
The most recognizable of these applications, perhaps, is Adobe Flash, which is used to create visual content for Web sites, games and movies, and content for mobile phones and other devices. Others include Flex, Acrobat Connect, ColdFusion, and JRun.
Typically, said Cieplinski, these are tools that the average Internet-user doesn’t see work, but uses frequently. A good example is a product order form; new applications are making the process of entering personal information and purchase specifications quicker and easier, doing more on the back end, and requiring fewer jumps through hoops for the consumer.
“We help large corporations with pre-existing applications, to help them manage them more efficiently,” he said. “Adobe produces these products, and we customize the software and tailor it to fit customer’s needs.”
It’s an important and ongoing task, especially in the current climate on the Internet, which is characterized by strong winds of change.
“Contrary to what some might think, the Internet is not mature,” said Cieplinski. “Instead, it’s in the midst of a rapid growth pattern. Most Web sites today will only be good as is for one or two years. Three, you’re really pushing it.”
The changing face of the virtual world is referred to in the industry as ‘Web 2.0,’ meaning the next generation of the phenomenon, in which applications increasingly behave more intuitively, and produce returns more quickly.
That, in turn, means there’s likely to be no shortage of work for the also rapidly expanding team at UM.
“The only limitation now is peoples’ imaginations,” said Cieplinski. “We are differentiating, enhancing, and streamlining both front- and back-end applications.”
Caps and Cops
To do so, Cieplinski explained, UM employs a staggering amount of diverse services, which are forever changing as well, and divided into five core competencies.
These are code/architecture review, an examination of an application’s design and implementation in regard to its intended purpose, and used for applications still in development; troubleshooting for applications currently in use; mentoring, which combines hands-on training, formal classroom teaching, and informal interaction with UM consultants; development, or design and coding of an application to meet a business objective, and performance review, a series of stress-testing applications to judge performance under real-world conditions.
In these capacities, UM has worked with such clients as AOL/Time Warner, Mapquest, Pfizer, eDiets.com, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Ben and Jerry’s, and the case studies are intriguing.
One client, New Era Cap, the largest sports-licensed headwear company in the world, needed a better way to conduct employee reviews. Its employee base, like UM’s, is widely dispersed, and collecting and analyzing data was both inefficient and time-consuming.
UM assisted New Era in the development of an ‘Employee Scorecard,’ which, by using Flex and ColdFusion technologies, reduced the employee-review process from hours to minutes.
Additionally, the firm’s work with the San Francisco Police Department was noted as part of its inclusion on Inc.’s 500 list. This is an ongoing project, Cieplinski explained. He and his team are creating an interface for squad cars that facilitates quicker decisions, by allowing dispatchers to identify not only the squad car nearest a crime scene, but also the car with the best -trained and equipped officers.
The Time to Hesitate is Through
He said it’s an exciting time to be doing what he does, especially given the fact that some of the applications the company is now working to enhance have yet to be used by the general public.
“Some of what we’re working on is coming, but most people haven’t thought about it yet,” he said, adding that this brisk pace is also boding well for further expansion plans at Universal Mind.
At this rate, Cieplinski said he expects to be mentioned as an ‘Inc. 500 Alumni’ as part of next year’s list, which also tracks past winners and their performance.
“We’re very excited about the growth opportunities in front of us,” he said. “We’re exploring opening new offices in the U.S. and in Europe and Asia, and we’re of course adding new employees. Since we work largely in a virtual workplace, there’s no limitation to our growth.”
Indeed, they’re doing all right.
Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]