by Gigi Wood

IOWA CITY – Putting together a product catalog for the likes of Crate & Barrel or Talbots is no easy process.

MetaCommunications aims to make that process easier for its customers as it transitions into its next stage of growth. To achieve that goal, the company plans to double its staff during the next two years and offer a number of its products to customers for free.

MetaCommunications, 1210 S. Gilbert St. in Iowa City, started in 1991 as a graphics and prepress business. The company began developing its own software for in-house use and decided the resulting software was worthwhile as its own product line. MetaCommunications divested its design and prepress divisions in 1997 to dedicate itself full-time to commercial software development.

“We grew out of the (graphics) industry, so we understand the market we serve pretty well, because we were the market we serve,” said Bob Long, MetaCommunications’ president.

Crate & Barrel, which is a MetaCommunications client, provides an effective illustration of the products and services the Iowa City company provides, he said.

“(For their product catalog) they have to manage the photo shoot, who’s the photographer, stage the merchandise, they have to select the photos, they have to have copywriters write the copy. They have to have proofers check pricing. They have to have composition people lay the thing out,” he said. “And all that needs to be done on a schedule and it involves a lot of people. Then when it’s finally done, it circulates throughout the entire business to all their employees, all the way up to the CEO for approval of that catalog.”

Crate & Barrel uses MetaCommunications to make that process easier.

“Our programs make that process digital and collaborative,” Mr. Long said. “It really brings everyone to the same page and seamless.”

MetaCommunications also creates software programs for print production, packaging, in-store displays and web site production.

“It’s anything content-related that’s part of the marketing and creative sphere, either for a corporation or within an organization itself that specializes in that,” he said. “People are kind of amazed that there’s a company in Iowa City that’s in all these different businesses. We’re in All-State, we’re in Crate & Barrel, we’re in Younkers; you walk through the mall and you’re going to see all kinds of companies that MetaCommunications products are basically what helped them produce the store signage and the catalogs and everything that goes into it.”

Since its mission change in 1997, MetaCommunications has focused on technology development and advertising its products, investing more than $3 million during the past three years in its offerings. Now, it’s ready for the next step.

“We’ve gotten ourselves into a position where we’re probably the only vendor out there that’s of any size that’s servicing that market in the way we do and with the diversity of products that we have,” Mr. Long said. “About three years ago we said what our goal needs to be is we need to conquer this niche that we’re in and be the vendor of choice. We set about to take our core suite of products and enhanced them to the point where they could be what we call point products.”

New direction
In the past, the company has sold its products to large businesses after being called in for consultation.

“We usually go in and advise on best practices and it’s a one-off deal and it’s a $30,000 to a $500,000 sale per deal, and so it’s usually a bigger process,” he said.

Now, MetaCommunications is taking modules of its overall suite of software and selling them individually or making them available for free.

“We’ve taken each module and we’ve made it a standalone product that we can market and sell at a really low cost on our web site,” he said. “We can make it hosted, meaning they don’t even have to have a server, they just go online and register to use. So we can use that technology that’s proven over the last decade and redeploy that on a much bigger scale across the industry.”

To make its big splash and establish itself as the niche leader, MetaCommunications is hiring 24 professional during the next three years in sales, marketing, document/training and software engineering.

“We have a lot of infrastructure we need to get into place now that we have our products ready to go,” Mr. Long said. “These are high-paying positions. Every position in this company is a high-paying professional engineering or sales position.”

With its largest accounts, MetaCommunications visits the business and makes demonstrations and presentations. Now, the company wants to broad its clientele to smaller companies. Those smaller clients will be able to demo and download the products online.

“The online store is a big thing for us, so all of our products will be able to be purchased immediately and downloaded immediately and we’re going to create all kinds of little niche solutions for people to get them active and get them to become customers,” he said. “Most of our market is in the bigger companies right now, so we really want (to attract) the small- and medium-sized companies that are in that industry; your ad agencies that are smaller, 30 people or under. You’ve got commercial photo studios, design, Internet building companies, interactive media companies, there’s all kinds of them. And it’s a huge market and it’s really not being serviced really well at all.”
Unique sales approach
With most of its bulk sales taking place online, MetaCommunications plans to use unique marketing and sales strategies with its new hires.

“I can’t remember the last time somebody called us with a lead. They almost always sign up for a webinar or some kind of presentation to go to and we start working it that way, which is a big change from 10 years ago,” Mr. Long said. “Ten years ago, we were a software company with fax and phone just like everybody else. The marketing people are pretty much going to be Internet marketing people and the sales people are going to be some of the inside sales people and some of the people who go out and evangelize on the Internet.”

The company will search for new customers in industry-related forums, he said.

“The other thing on the Internet is participating in the conversations,” Mr. Long said. “There are a lot of forums in our industry and a lot of people need to know about our products. We’re hoping our free version will kind of give it that extra impetus to get into those conversations and say, ‘You guys looking for this solution, try Meta’s product, it’s free.’”

Distributing free modules is no gimmick, Mr. Long said.

“It’s the real deal and we’ve done it in a way that giving that stuff away isn’t going to cannibalize any of our current sales, it’s just going to get our numbers up, which is the name of the game,” he said. “It’s getting that Internet queue filled up so we’ve got 100 leads coming in a day.”

Last week, MetaCommunications announced it was offering its software free to Iowa educators and students. Under the Software for Students and Educators of Iowa program, qualified students, educators, and educational institutions residing in Iowa and interested in using MetaCommunications software as part of an instructional program are eligible for free downloads of the Workgroups 2010 Suite, as well as technical support.

Iowa City/Russia connection
The growth will eventually require a facility expansion or move. But the company will remain in Iowa City, he said. Meanwhile, the company operates an office in St. Petersburg, Russia, where the company has found much of its software talent.

“It’s not a case where we outsource that to Russia,” Mr. Long said. “Those people are exactly mirrored in the U.S. We don’t have anything where we just ship it over there.”

One of the first employees at MetaCommunications during the early 1990s was a software engineer from Russia. Just a few years after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Mr. Long traveled to recruit additional software engineers from that region of the world.

“As a small company, we couldn’t get really good software engineering people out of the (University of Iowa) who were seasoned. We needed seasoned people because we were just starting out,” he said. “Russia really had that to offer because it was untapped. Nobody was over there. Now there’re a lot of companies over there.”

When he arrived in Russia, he found an abundance of talent, he said.

“It was Cold War stuff and (Russia was) trying to get modernized and there was a huge talent pool of people, kids who really wanted to do something but just did not have an opportunity to do it,” he said. “There were no jobs, there was no industry. It was just starting in Russia.”

Employees from Iowa City and Russia collaborate on projects daily by phone and e-mail and travel to both offices to work several times a year.