Rampant consolidation and fierce competition rule in the software industry, where few companies survive intact for 20 years.
In December 2017, Northwoods Web Solutions celebrates achieving that feat. As a rule, we don’t blow our own horn, but frankly, we’re proud of making this milestone, and we’re in the mood to celebrate, with a series of events open to employees, clients, and the community at large.
Northwoods is partnering with the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD) to re-imagine our lobby and meeting spaces to mark 20 years. We’ll celebrate throughout the year, with such events as the Chili Bowl Cook-off on National Chili Day, Feb. 22, as a benefit for Curative Care; a Brewers baseball game for employees and clients; and fall events for non-profits. These events celebrate the client partnerships and community connections that have helped Northwoods succeed during its first two decades.
Our business, based in Shorewood, Wis., provides digital strategy, digital marketing strategies and execution, web design and development, and custom software development and integration to companies nationwide. In addition, Northwoods created and manages Titan CMS, a premier enterprise content management system for intranets, extranets, business portals, mobile apps, and public websites.
Web Development Beginnings
The Northwoods story begins in December of 1997, when Patrick Bieser and a team of 12 colleagues founded Northwoods Software. Bieser, an accomplished entrepreneur, software executive, programmer, and web usability expert led the effort.
“We started out in the basement of a bank,” Bieser said. “We outgrew that space after we got up to about 30 people. It probably was designed for 20. The server room was out in the hallway.”
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee came on board as one of Northwoods’ first major clients. The Archdiocese wanted a new website, and not only that. It needed a simple way to collect data through online forms and send email to its many ministries at parishes and schools.
“Although the technologies have changed a great deal over the last 20 years, some of those original systems are still in place,” said Mark Barthel, the Archdiocese Webmaster. “That initial work laid a great foundation for us to build upon and allowed for good stewardship of our resources.”
Other early clients included Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, the City of Milwaukee, and Snap-On Tools. All three remain Northwoods clients today.
“We’re very proud that some of those early clients still use our software,” said Bieser. “It’s very telling of the quality of service and that we bring to the table.”
Creation of Titan CMS
Each new project helped the team refine the software that would eventually become Titan CMS. The team spent time reviewing available content management systems. Some inspired them. Others showed them what not to do.
After several years of refining Titan CMS, a Milwaukee-based global manufacturer approached the Northwoods team about installing a new content management system. After several demos, the manufacturer decided to implement Titan CMS.
“We kept building and demonstrating Titan CMS to other organizations,” said Bieser. “We were kicking in doors at corporations and displacing much larger vendors.”
Titan CMS v4.0, released in 2007, became the foundation for today’s Titan CMS. Northwoods invited clients and business partners to Northwoods for the official launch. Titan CMS v.4.0 was a hit, and demand grew.
“It was a major milestone,” said Jon Kuhl, Chief Programmer and Software Architect of Titan CMS. “Until then, we didn’t treat Titan CMS as a product. All of the code was always one-off developed.”
Titan CMS v4.0 created a common, untouched code base that was safe and reliable. Developers could build upon it in the .Net framework.
“The consistent code base allowed developers and content authors who had not previously worked in a client’s instance of Titan CMS to maintain and modify code much more efficiently,” said Kuhl.
“For me, it was the moment we finally had something repeatable we could implement for a client,” said Managing Director Rick Fessenbecker. “We didn’t quite have the implementation process down yet, but we had the code base figured out.”
Introducing the Titan Users Group (TUG)
Soon after the release of Titan CMS v4.0, Northwoods began hosting semi-annual Titan Users Group (TUG) meetings to introduce new features and showcase client work and usage of the product. They could even prioritize future enhancements by voting for their favorites.
Today, Northwoods routinely invites all Titan CMS clients to Shorewood for presentations and discussions of all things Titan CMS. Northwoods practitioners lead break-out sessions on such topics as digital marketing best practices, website design trends, and how to leverage the power of Titan CMS. And that’s all before lunch. Lunch is a networking opportunity, and clients meet with Northwoods employees to discuss individual needs, challenges, and Titan CMS tips.
On the client side, TUG assemblies offer sneak previews and opportunity for input. On the Northwoods side, TUG provides valuable feedback. “Feedback was the purpose of TUG, originally,” Kuhl said. “It grew into what it is today.”
These meetings tell the Northwoods team what’s working and what’s not. It shows them which features users want to have next. As a result of TUG, users have driven development of many new Titan CMS features.
For clients, TUG not only allows for additional opportunities to connect with their Northwoods team, but also allows for between-session crosstalk with other Titan CMS users. These conversations sometimes lead to new friendships or business relationships.
“You don’t get a chance to receive feedback and exchange ideas with other Titan CMS users unless you’re already buddies with another Northwoods client,” said Kuhl. “TUG meetings can help build those connections among users.”
A Learning and Teaching Philosophy
In 2008, Northwoods held its first free workshop at a Marketing Association Meeting at the Italian Community Center in front of approximately 400 people. Today, Northwoods hosts and broadcasts a variety of workshops and webinars on a rotating schedule throughout the year.
Bieser led the original workshops. Now, many Northwoods consultants take the stage to produce and teach the community and clients about digital marketing, web design, usability, digital trends, and best practices for various industries. Occasionally, companies request that a specific workshop be tailored and presented at their locations to educate their in-house professionals and, in some cases, their clients.
Learning and teaching have always been bedrock practices at Northwoods. Leading workshops keeps Northwoods practitioners sharp in technique and ahead of industry trends – conditions with obvious benefits for our clients.
“The workshops have evolved as a result of our learning environment,” said Fred Pike, COO and Managing Director. “There’s nothing like putting on a workshop to compel you to become an expert on a topic. You have to really know it to teach it.”
Northwoods’ free workshops, which involve little if any promotion for Northwoods and no sales pressure, are open to everyone, not just to current clients. The Northwoods team seeks to promote general knowledge about software development and web design and best practices as a service to the field. The self-interest here is indirect and long-term. Part of the Northwoods philosophy is that an educated potential client, over time, is more likely to become a Northwoods client.
In addition to monthly workshops for the community, Northwoods also puts a heavy focus on internal education. Individual teams and departments host weekly meetings to share industry trends and client successes and struggles.
“We’re a teaching organization, but we’re also a learning organization,” Bieser said. “We put a primary focus on getting better at our craft.”
Expanding Digital Marketing Services
In 2011, the Northwoods team decided to begin offering formalized digital marketing services, which clients wanted.
“We did teach several workshops early on about Google analytics, social media best practices, and SEO, but we didn’t offer many of these professional services to our clients until 2011,” said Jim Brophy, Group Director, Digital Marketing and Services.
The team began expanding personnel and offering capabilities across the digital marketing spectrum, beginning with search engine optimization and content marketing. From there, they expanded into social media, pay-per-click advertising, persona development and more. Today, Northwoods holds and continues to expand a variety of Google search and conversion strategy certifications.
These services neatly fit the web design and development the team had long practiced.
“A digital strategy really sets the stage for a redesign,” said Brophy. “A redesign, upgrade, or platform switch is the perfect time to make or remake a digital strategy. That strategy will shape the information architecture, map content to personas, and define the goals of the website.”
A Family-Friendly Culture
Throughout its history, Northwoods has caught the attention of many local and national organizations. The group has been awarded the Future 50 four times by the MMAC and Milwaukee Business Journal, named twice as one of Inc 500’s Fastest Growing Companies in the US, and appeared among the top 25 Software Companies selected by Small Business Times magazine.
The awards most meaningful to us do not involve business accomplishments. They involve people. Northwoods has been named one of the Best Places to Work by BizTimes Magazine, and was recently recognized by the Milwaukee Business Journal as a Best Place to Work in 2017.
“We’re a very family friendly organization, and I’m very proud of that,” said Bieser. “In the end, that’s what matters more than how much money we made or what’s on our portfolio.”
At Northwoods, you won’t see stuffy business attire and gray cubicles. Instead, you’ll find employees in casual dress, and you may be greeted by a dog or two as you walk through the halls. Employees are encouraged to decorate their desk areas, and snacks and coffee abound during the afternoon crash.
“The culture here is a bunch of smart people, who work hard, who learn a lot, but stay relaxed and have fun,” said Pike. “We have hired people who really impress us as being smart without necessarily having a position for them.”
“In the end, we want to feel like we accomplished something in our lives and that we contributed to something,” said Eric White, Chief Technology Officer. “That is the kind of the culture we want to have at Northwoods.”
The success of this culture is evident in employee tenure.
“Look at our staff,” Bieser said. “A lot of the people who worked with us 15 or 20 years ago are still here. This means continuity and comfort for our clients. The people they’ve worked with a long time ago are still working with them today.”
Client comments and suggestions have driven everything from enhancements to Titan CMS to new service offerings.
“I’m proud that our clients like us,” Bieser said, “that the people we work with trust us and see us as extensions of their teams.”
Many early clients, such as the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and the Medical College of Wisconsin, have continued to work with Northwoods because they recognize the company’s level of commitment to clients.
“We have worked on many projects over the past 20 years, and I have always felt that they had my back,” said the Archdiocese’s Barthel. “They typically propose several solutions to the issue presented to them. On more than one occasion, they convinced me that lower-cost options were more advantageous than my original plan.”
“Our relationship with Northwoods is important,” said Keith Murphy, Digital Channels Manager at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “There were incidents that happened on Saturday or Sunday when I needed things fixed, and Northwoods was there.”
Other clients rely on Northwoods to provide a partnership that fills gaps in their in-house marketing or web capabilities.
"We enjoy working with Northwoods, as they are a true partner to us, not just another vendor," said Sarah Hudzinski, Director of Marketing and Communications at the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau. " Their responsiveness, efficiencies, and high ethics are key traits in why we have had a successful working relationship for several years now."
Looking to the Future
The Northwoods team intends to grow their user base, while still meeting and anticipating every need of their existing clients.
“We respond to whatever clients want at a given time,” said Kuhl. “We don’t plan more than the next version of Titan CMS. We want to be flexible enough within the window so that we can quickly turn around user requests and bug fixes.”
Northwoods intends to expand nationally. This process has already begun, with new clients based outside of southeastern Wisconsin.
“Our biggest challenge is telling our story to the rest of the world,” said Bieser. “We are finding ways to offer what we do to people who we won’t meet face to face as frequently as we do with local clients.”
Whether clients are near or far, the main goal is to continue to provide quality service – and to do that while maintaining the friendly, cooperative culture that sets Northwoods apart.
“When employees leave at the end of the day, we want them to be really happy that they work at Northwoods,” said White.
“I’m proud that we have built a culture that is casual, dog friendly, popcorn-rich, and mostly apolitical,” said Bieser. “I’m proud of our culture and of the respect our employees have for one another. That emanates out to our clients. I want to continue what we’re doing now, as we continue to grow.”
Happy birthday, Northwoods. Here’s to 20 more.
Interested in a future with Northwoods?
Contact us today to see how your website or digital marketing strategy could be improved in 2018.