Viewpoints Network CEO Matt Moog in November leads a meeting of creative artists who are designing a logo for a new networking group, Built In Chicago. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times
Updated: April 19, 2011 5:18AM
Now that Chicago’s own Groupon — the daily deals website famous for its sense of fun — has made international headlines by turning down Google’s $6 billion buyout offer, few can bemoan that the Windy City has no unified or noticeable technology community, or that naysayers rule the digital roost.
Networking group BuiltInChicago.org has emerged just in time to take advantage of the local tech community’s pride and excitement in being the center of the Web universe.
BuiltInChicago aims to connect the city’s Web and mobile-technology workers and companies to build community and ultimately quantify it. The target audience is diverse, ranging from a product manager at Orbitz to a Web designer for a two-employee startup, to a member of McDonald’s Corp.’s online advertising team.
“If we can start a simple but effective online community, we can do three things: Connect people who are here in the Web and mobile communities; give them a space to share what they know, and promote the community at large,” said Matt Moog, founder and CEO of Viewpoints Network, which operates consumer-product review site Viewpoints.com, and who is the former CEO of CoolSavings.
One step toward the goal is to design a logo on BuiltInChicago.org’s site that will link back to a Web page summarizing what’s going on in the Chicago tech community.
So far, 45 companies have listed profiles on the Web site, but Moog knows there are hundreds of “new, rising and interesting” Web companies here. Each company’s profile will be linked to people who have filed their own listing on the site, enabling people to easily communicate. So far, 1,300 people have signed up on the site and started joining groups specific to their work: mobile, e-commerce and user experience, for example.
People who work at online sales companies would discuss ideas and concerns common to everyone, such as credit-card fraud and techniques to get users to click onto ads and push the “buy” button.
The next step is quantifying who’s here.
“We want to create a directory and build lists — which company has the most employees? Which has the biggest audience? Which is the biggest revenue generator?” Moog said.
The site will also promote companies that are succeeding, and urge group leaders to increase their groups’ size and host events so people can meet face-to-face.
Moog has personal experience in thinking optimistically about the local tech scene: He raised more than $100 million for CoolSavings, and in late 2005 took the company private at a valuation of $200 million. He raised $5 million in seed-stage funding for Viewpoints.com and has never encountered problems hiring talented tech employees.
“The talent is here. Part of the answer for hard-to-find jobs is to network to fill them,” he said.
Other employers say they cannot fill their tech vacancies locally, but they hope new networking opportunities help them solve the dilemma. Shortages are particularly acute for Web developers knowledgeable in Java and Ruby on Rails, the latter of which, ironically, was invented in Chicago.
Brandon Cruz, president and co-founder of Norvax, which operates private health-insurance comparison site gohealth.com, said his company has 20 openings for Web developers fluent in Java software, ranging from entry-level to mid-, senior and architect-level positions.
“We’ve found good people, but it takes a very long time,” said Cruz, whose company employs 40 tech staff. “Some of the good people we’ve found have moved here from California.”
“I’m delighted that we are growing, and I would love to find 20 people tomorrow,” he said. “It’s just not happening.”
Cruz hopes that BuiltInChicago.org attracts the attention of young people so that they see Chicago as a hip, happening tech area.
Hal Salzman, professor of public policy at the Bloustein School for Public Policy and the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, said the high-tech industry is characterized by the “Lake Wobegon” syndrome: “Every employer wants workers who are all above average, and every worker thinks he or she should be paid above average.”
Salzman’s studies show that the divide creates a Catch-22: There is no shortage of qualified tech workers, but as companies outsource and bring in “guest workers” from overseas, particularly in Silicon Valley, they put less emphasis on long-term employee training and, ultimately, create a shortage of highly qualified people willing to work for what the workers perceive as insufficient wages.
“In a booming market, a company’s needs start to outpace the experiences available in the labor market,” Salzman said.
Chicago is doing its part to escape the Silicon Valley syndrome by expanding home-grown and long-term talent. The city is home to incubators, coalitions and other ventures that boost tech startups, including Chicago Tech Meetup, Excelerate Labs, Hyde Park Angels, the Illinois Accelerator Fund (i2A), iBIO, the Illinois Venture Capital Association, Lightbank, midVentures, New World Ventures, Sandbox Ventures, Syncubator, TechAmerica, TECH Cocktail and TiE Midwest.
Existing tech companies are expanding, too. Tech executives in Illinois say they plan to hire from one to 20 full-time employees in 2011, up 20 percent from this year, according to a survey by the Illinois Technology Partnership, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and Open Systems Technologies.
That’s just the sort of circumstance BuiltInChicago.org aims to exploit.
Said Moog, “We need to give ourselves a platform to share with the world all of the interesting tech stories going on here.”
Joe Beatty, president and CEO of wireless access technology firm Telular, agreed, saying, “Groupon’s visibility makes everyone proud because it is such a big success. It has brought everyone together and made us realize that we have a pretty good thing going here in Chicago.”