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Transplanting tech culture ... sort of

?A? for effort

Ashland's Project A Inc. has become a leader in the Rogue Valley's technology economy through community involvement and connections with other developing companies

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Chad Sobotka, foreground, and Matt Foster work in their cubicles at Project A Inc. in Ashland. Despite the structured look of the cubicles, the company occupies a roomy, high-ceilinged building, bottom left, that gives workers plenty of breathing room.

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In a former hardware store in Ashland's historic railroad district, Project A Inc. is selling tools for the new economy.

And building a foundation for it in the Rogue Valley.

Seven years after Jim Teece and his wife, Dena Matthews, moved their infant company to Ashland, Project A has sprouted into a flagship for Southern Oregon's technology sector.

The provider of Internet business solutions — which does everything from database building to Web site development to network management — has grown from one employee to 43, adding 11 since the end of last year. Its revenues have grown each year and this year's sales already have equaled those of a year ago. By year's end, Teece expects annual sales to be up 60 percent, though he declined to give details.

But beyond its own startling success, the company has played a key role in the development of the valley's high-tech community.

Project A's fingerprints are on everything from the Ashland Fiber Network and the local chapter of the Oregon Software Associa-tion to formation of the Southern Oregon Telecom-munications and Techno-logy Council and the technology pavilion at the Jackson County Fair.

And its list of clients has included many of the valley's biggest employers, such as Asante Health System, National Flora and Lithia Motors. It also developed or remodeled the Web pages for the cities of Medford and Ashland, as well as Jackson County and oversees the Ashland School District's computer network.

We've been very fortunate to get a lot of the most visible and high-traffic sites in Southern Oregon, Teece says.

Most observers credit much of Project A's wide influence to Teece.

Jim Teece is an incredible community leader, says Ashland city administrator Mike Freeman. He's involved in a lot of things.

Jim is really very community-focused, says Alan Oppenheimer of Open Door Networks, another Ashland technology firm. He's helped to bring some innovation to the valley that might have passed by.

As a whole, the Rogue Valley's technology sector has recognized its interdependence — the fact that the success of one can spawn the success of others. Everything here is complementing everything else, as Oppenheimer puts it.

Teece embraces the concept and says his company owes much of its growth to the relationships it's built with local clients.

Teece has devoted 10 percent of Project A's 11,000-square-foot building to companies wanting to lease highly wired office space. He calls it a thinkubator program intended to assist small, developing companies or firms that are new to the valley.

He's had no trouble keeping the spaces full, though he carefully screens companies to make sure they are compatible and trustworthy enough to share an office with. Current tenants include Global English Corp., a Bay area-based company that develops Web sites to help people learn English online, and Full Circle Communications, a local film company.

Like many of the thinkubator companies, Project A was tiny when it moved to Ashland in 1992. Its first office space outside of Teece's home was a 300-square-foot spot on A Street. It's outgrown that and two other spaces along A Street since.

Though many assume the company is named after the street, it isn't. Neither does the A stand for Arizona, the state the company moved here from. It's just a name Teece liked and the company's stayed on A Street for largely the same reason.

I just fell in love with the railroad district, Teece says.

The company had three key clients when it moved to Ashland -- Apple Computer, Taco Bell Corp. and national real estate leader CB Commercial -- and wasn't initially planning to expand much beyond that.

But a desire to travel less and a growing awareness of the potential in his own back yard drove Teece to focus the business on local and regional clients. And the demand has kept the company hopping. At any one time, Teece says the company's three teams -- Web solutions, database development and technical support -- are handling more than 50 projects.

Current ones include developing a database for the state Teachers Standards and Practices Commission, managing the Ashland School District's 1,000-computer system and helping Asante expand its network and online offerings.

Mark Hetz, Asante's chief information officer, says he's been impressed with the company's flexible and dedicated approach.

They are very much customer-oriented, he says. They really have taken the approach of understanding what our needs are before pitching a solution.

Hetz says the company's also been forthright about the bounds of its expertise.

If we have a specific need and it doesn't fit with what their skill sets are, they say that, he says. It's nice to have a vendor that doesn't pretend to be the answer to every problem.

Project A has recently branched out to be the solution to one more problem: building intranets, or internal networks. The company has developed its first actual project, called Intranet in a Box. It's basically a starter kit for network development that allows businesses to just add data, Teece says.

The company hasn't entered the product field without some trepidation and Teece is determined not to let it distract from what the company does best: develop custom solutions.

Being a service company, we're not experienced at promoting a product, he says. We're neophytes.

While it explores the market for the product, Teece expects the company to continue growing -- at a measured pace.

We just hope the growth doesn't become a burden, he says.

Observers say a key part of Project A's success has been its ability to grow without losing its flexibility and core identity.

They've had just phenomenal growth, Hetz says, but they really seem to manage that well -- and that's not easy to do.

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Tom Pelsor works out in the company gym, just one of the perks at Project A. There also is a game room and library. Project A also differs from some high-tech firms by discouraging long hours.

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rom — the foosball table to the fitness room, Project A Inc.?s office was — laid out with the knowledge that it takes more than a computer-filled — cube farm to make creativity grow.

We want to help ensure that the creative juices flow, — says company founder Jim Teece.

The three-story building houses a game room, a library, a fitness — room and a locker room, complete with a shower for employees who work — out at lunch or bike to work.

And biking to work is encouraged. Not only does the company provide — a large bike rack, it offers employees a 25-cent-per-mile stipend if — they ride to work. Teece says the bike racks are generally full, — though few turn in mileage for the stipend.

Maybe it's time to up the ante, he jokes.

Large high-tech companies have long provided a pile of in-house — perks for employees — from free beverages to lavish lounges. But the — perks often come with a catch — long hours. The idea is to keep the — techies happy enough to keep grinding away.

Teece has tried to tweak that model: Keep the fun atmosphere, lose — the long hours. He says he encourages employees to stop working at 5 o'clock — and pursue nonwork interests to combat Silicon Valley-style burnout.

I really believe that family life is equal or more important — than work life, he says.

And that work life needn't always be a chore. Teece says he's — determined to create a fun workplace -- and still run a serious, — successful business.

We haven't found that any of the fun things have decreased — productivity, he says.

The company's employees say the amenities make a real difference.

I've never worked anywhere that provided outlets for anything — but work, says Renee Norman-Martin, a Web page developer.

She says the locker room has come in particularly handy, allowing — her to recharge with a lunch-break run.

There are days where you have a lot of stuff going on. You — get stumped and you don't feel creative, she says. You — come back and you feel like you can get something done.

The building was remodeled to foster a pleasant atmosphere. The — center has an atrium design, with offices around the edges of the — second and third floors.

Though cubicles are too practical for a 43-employee company to be — eliminated completely, they are confined to the central portion of the — first floor and some employees worked together in side rooms to allow — for easy collaboration.

None of us are cubicle people, Norman-Martin says of — the Web developers, who work in one of the side rooms. We would — probably lose our minds. Just being a little more relaxed has allowed — people to be creative.

Transplanting tech culture ... sort of