‘The magic of a small town is clear’
Editor's note: Community Builder is a periodic Q&A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today's conversation is with Jim Teece and Dena Matthews, founders of Project A.
Q: You both started Project A, which is a digital commerce and software development business in 1990. How did you come to Ashland?
Jim: That was 31 years ago. We moved here from Arizona. Dena was getting her MBA in international management, and I was a programmer. Working together, we were able to attract business. Our first clients were Apple Computer, Taco Bell Corporation, Pitney Bowes, CB Commercial, all Fortune 500 companies. Dena was getting her degree while I was doing projects. We were tired of the heat in Arizona and ready to move.
Dena: I said, “Let's move to Oregon, live in the woods, raise a family and you can write software all day.” So, we toured the state. Before the internet you had to do it in person, right? Ashland met our criteria: small college town, brewery (Rogue Ales before moving to Newport) and good transportation, including an airport.
Q: How has your business evolved?
Jim: I started building databases to track Taco Bell restaurants. For Pitney Bowes, I wrote a database to track legal documents. For Apple, we built systems for tracking promising practices in primary education. Databases were my niche. I would meet with a client who had a need, dream up a solution, they would approve it, and we’d write it. We didn't have a real plan other than to live where we wanted to live and write code for cool companies.
Project A grew over the years to 50 employees. And then, the dot-com bubble burst. That almost killed us, literally. It was the scariest time of our careers. I learned some valuable lessons. One of them was, size doesn't matter. We learned we can change the world in a small town with a small team.
Dena: Business was growing, and the projects were increasing. Back then, you had to physically install solutions at your customer’s location. And then this thing called the internet came along. I remember Jim saying, "That's dumb. It's not going to go anywhere."
Jim: A couple of our employees showed me what the internet was, and all they could show me was porn and underwear. I said, "I just don't get it. I don't think this is a thing."
Q: But don’t you own and operate Ashland Home Net, an internet service provider?
Jim: Now, the internet is how we make our living. We're resellers of the Ashland Fiber Network. Ashland Home Net provides high-speed internet phone and cable TV service to folks in Ashland. We acquired AHN from Gary and Rosalie Nelson 13 years ago. We met them because I was interested in putting content created by Ashland people on local TV. I pitched this idea to Ashland Home Net. I promised to “fund the whole thing, the hardware, everything. I'll write the software, and it'll be awesome.” So we launched Channel 20 with local content, everything from hiking to making videos.
Dena: We would video the Ashland 4th of July parade and put it on channel 20. You could watch it live on TV from home. We acquired AHN to be able to grow locally.
Jim: Our focus has always been mom-and-pop small business. We want to help Southern Oregon businesses with their internet presence. Our slogan is, “We invest in Main Street, not Wall Street.” We love entrepreneurs, they're fun, exciting people.
Q: Don’t you provide high-speed internet to rural customers too?
Dena: Jim's crazy. He likes to keep innovating and evolving. Rogue and Umpqua Broadband are rural high-speed internet providers for people who live rurally, like we do. I work on the financial side of the business, mostly from home. I needed broadband service to work from home. That's how we got into rural internet service.
Jim: To get into the wireless internet business with Rogue Broadband, I had to learn. I learned to climb towers when I was 50 years old. Like I said, “nothing scares us.”
Q: “Tech Talk” was a Rogue Valley TV program for years; how did that get going?
Jim: I had this idea for community television called “Tech Talk.” It was a monthly show where I interviewed different people who lived in Southern Oregon. They were super smart people who changed the world. They invented the internet and happened to live here. “Tech Talk” was on the air longer than “Gunsmoke.”
Q: Is Southern Oregon a technology oasis or a technology desert?
Jim: We're absolutely not a desert, but we're not the oasis we used to be. Twenty years ago, we were the oasis. I was part of the original steering and design committee for Ashland Fiber Network. A small town of 20,000 people creating their own fiber network, unbelievable! We were unique.
Q: Is there enough technological expertise in Southern Oregon?
Jim: Southern Oregon is super cool for quality of life. It attracts intelligent people who want to do good things for the community. When you bring them together, we do some cool things.
Dena: The problem is, there's no real mechanism to bring them together. Right before COVID, Jim, Cynthia Scherr and other business owners started Southern Oregon E2E (Entrepreneur to Entrepreneur) with monthly visits to talk about business issues. It was really starting to get some legs and then COVID hit.
Q: What drives you?
Jim: Getting the community we love connected, so we don’t go backwards or get left behind. When you have technology and the level of education that we have in Southern Oregon, good things happen. Southern Oregon has great education, great businesses and great stories. Stories like what Ken Trautman and Mike Sickles did when they started People's Bank, or Sid DeBoer and Lithia Motors. There's story after story of people who have built great things here.
Dena: We’re involved in the 4-H program. It's insane how much money businesses spend for those kids. It’s about the kids. Our community is there to support schools and kids. Really, it's special.
Q: Project A was selected as a top 10 e-commerce provider. How did that come about?
Jim: Nothing scares us. We have clients all over the world. E-commerce is very stressful because there is zero tolerance for problems from security to technology to customer satisfaction. There's so much competition. We build technology solutions that are a seamless experience for the customer. We have a reputation for really great work done really fast.
Dena: Dr. Martens, the shoe company based in the United Kingdom, is our number one client. Several years ago, they decided to change e-commerce platforms — “if you guys can't do it, we're going to go somewhere else." It was a platform our programmers had never used. Jim learned it and figured it out. We have an amazing team at Project A. Over the years we have become experts in this new e-commerce platform.
Q: One of your employees said, "Jim and Dena think about community first, rather than how getting involved in the community will improve their business."
Jim: Being a community leader is a privilege and a requirement of living here. We have so many role models. For decades, we have watched what Sid and Karen DeBoer have done for the community. If you want to live here and have an amazing quality of life, you give back. It's in our DNA, literally. I respect those who have given and still give. They inspire me to do more every day.
Dena: We struggled for years just keep afloat, so we've helped more with our time than our finances because that's what we had. You're not just put on Earth here to make money and make yourself happy. You're put on Earth here to contribute to the world. That's a core value that we both share.
Q: What are your hopes and dreams for Southern Oregon?
Jim: To help Southern Oregon be a place that encourages entrepreneurs and innovators to come here. Honor and learn from your past, but constantly seek change and growth. If there are innovators and intelligent people who want to work together and solve real community problems, let's bring them in. Let's be inviting. When we first moved here, Dena and I fell in love with the people because of the way they treated us.
Dena: Ashland is unique, but there's a lot of unique small towns. I just got back from Enterprise. Small towns each have their uniqueness and charm. Hopefully, small towns keep growing but maintain their quaintness and vitality.
Jim: Southern Oregon has its own identity that's different from the Willamette Valley, that's different from Eastern Oregon. We can keep our identity and evolve and change. We can create a healthier community and at the same time honor the past.
Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge in our region?
Jim: I’d say equity or access to technology. I got involved 20 years ago with the Ashland Fiber Network because I didn't want Southern Oregon to fall behind. Ashland Fiber Network meant that Charter had to step up and invest millions more than they had in other communities.
Dena: Affordable housing. I'm not talking about low-income housing. We pay our employees a decent wage. When our employees feel like they can't afford to live here, that's a problem.
Q: What’s clearer to you now?
Dena: Keeping strong relationships in the community is very important and very clear.
Jim: One person, with access to technology, can truly change the world, and it doesn't matter where you live. Also, the magic of a small town is clear. The integrity of people in small towns is higher because you see each other every day.
Dena: You hold yourself to a higher standard in a small town because you don't want to disappoint the people you know.
Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.
Biographies at a glance
Companies Jim Teece and Dena Matthews own and operate:
Project A - e-commerce and database driven mission critical departmental solutions
Ashland Home Net - Internet, cable TV and phone service in Ashland
Rogue Broadband - Wireless internet for rural Jackson County
Umpqua Broadband - Wireless internet for rural Douglas County
Southern Oregon Business Journal
Jim: Jackson County Fair & Expo (past chair), Southern Oregon University Foundation (VP), Northwest Telecommunications Association (past chair), Rogue Valley Manor Foundation, People’s Bank of Commerce
Dena: Hope Equestrian Center (board president), 4-H leader with the Ashland 4H group
Jim’s past board involvement: Asante Foundation, Ashland Independent Film Festival (chair), Ashland Chamber of Commerce (chair), Jefferson Public Radio Listeners Guild, Southern Oregon Telecommunications and Technology Council (chair), Software Association of Oregon & Southern Oregon Chapter (chair)
Jim and Dena have two adult children and a 1-year-old grandson. They have lived on a small farm by Emigrant Lake for nearly 30 years, with horses, goats, chickens and dogs.