Now You See Them
EC tech start-up Invisible Connect has ambitious – but mysterious – plans
Invisible Connect is as appropriate a name as any for Eau Claire’s newest and most mysterious technology start-up. “Invisible” because its products-to-be are shrouded in secrecy and the company, so far, has kept a low profile; “Connect” because as the business grows toward its ambitious goals it aims to connect deeply with the Chippewa Valley, both economically and culturally.
The business, founded by western Wisconsin native Scott Strangstalien, has charted a steep growth trajectory with the help of a multimillion-dollar venture capital investment. Invisible Connect expects to expand from 15 employees today to 50 in a year and 150 in the not-too-distant future. At the same time, it plans to build a headquarters in the Chippewa Valley and to make $40 million to $50 million in annual sales once its lineup of undisclosed products hits the market in August 2015.
“I know it’s hard for the community for us not to tell what we’re doing, but we’re doing it,” Strangstalien declares while seated in a conference room at the company’s current rented office, 7 S. Dewey St. The room is split in two by a divider, on the other side of which, Strangstalien says, are product prototypes. However, on this visit, the curtain is not pulled back. Those who have been let in on the company’s secrets – including some local economic development officials – have signed nondisclosure agreements to keep mum for the time being on the details. However, officials like Mike Schatz, the city’s economic development administrator, strike an optimistic tone about the chances for its success.
“I see projections a lot in my line of work, but I will say that what I’m hearing of their long-range plans, of their core values, of their product, there is definitely potential for growth,” Schatz says. “I’m going to make every attempt to make their dream and their vision a reality in Eau Claire.”
Venture capital investors and the state’s economic development arm have taken notice as well: Invisible Connect was certified last year by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. as a Qualified New Business Venture, which means investors were allowed to take a 25 percent tax credit on their investment, up to $1.1 million. (Only $12 million in such tax credits were approved statewide last year.)
“I see projections a lot in my line of work, but I will say that what I’m hearing of their long-range plans, of their core values, of their product, there is definitely potential for growth.”– Mike Schatz, city of Eau Claire economic development administrator, on Invisible Connect’s potential
Brian Doudna, executive director of the Eau Claire Area Economic Development Corp., has been working with the firm to connect it with state resources that may help it grow, such as the tax credit. He says the $1.1 million credit makes Invisible Connect the region’s largest beneficiary of the Qualified New Business Venture program. “Hopefully this company can build another initiative around the digital economy,” says Doudna, noting that Invisible Connect adds to a growing high-tech sector that includes fast-growing JAMF Software and began with the likes of Cray Research decades ago.
Silicon Valley, Wis.
Large venture capital investments may seem exotic in the Chippewa Valley, but they are par for the course in places such as Silicon Valley. In fact, Strangstalien says, he had a multimillion-dollar offer to locate his firm in Silicon Valley. However, the Wisconsin native (he’s a 1986 graduate of Whitehall High School) decided to stick to familiar territory. “I said, ‘You know what, we can make a difference here. If I move to San Francisco, I’m just a drop in the bucket,’ ” he says. On the other hand, staying in the Chippewa Valley means that, proportionately, it can have a much bigger impact on the economy and culture of the region.
Strangstalien already has big plans in that regard. He wants to help develop talent people and keep them in the area. He wants to buy from local vendors. He wants his employees to interact with – and give back to – the community around them. And he wants to create an internal corporate culture that fosters creativity and fun and makes workers’ families feel included.
Invisible Connect’s current downtown Eau Claire offices were previously occupied by another tech firm, Open-Silicon, and its predecessor, Silicon Logic Engineering. The 11,000 square feet are quickly filling up with offices and work areas, and Strangstalien says the space will be full within a year and will be outgrown in 18 months. After that, the company has plans to build its own office, possibly in downtown Eau Claire or Altoona’s River Prairie development.
Invisible Connect’s hallways and offices are beginning to come to life. Decals from classic Atari games decorate the walls, a couple of offices have been filled with kid-sized furniture and toys for employees’ visiting children, a lounge is outfitted with adult-sized arcade games, and soon a wall of plants and an interactive projection system will be installed – the latter allowing visitors and employees to provide commentary on the company’s core values. (Value No. 1: “Always do the right thing.”)
Revolution in Waiting
Despite their silence about what their business actually does, those at Invisible Connect want to make clear they believe it will be revolutionary. “We are focused on embracing new technology that will disrupt an established industry that has not had true innovation in over 60 years,” the company’s website declares. “In doing so, we will set a new standard of excellence while creating products that solve problems in an intuitive way. These products will define the future of the industry.”
Strangstalien says Invisible Connect is developing a dozen hardware devices (which he himself created) that work with its proprietary software. He declines to say if the products will be used by consumers or by businesses or in what kind of industry. He does say that he attended – but didn’t graduate from – the University of Minnesota, and that he spent his subsequent years traveling constantly for an engineering business, living out of a suitcase but maintaining roots in Wisconsin. Settling in one place, as he has now, is a novelty, he explains.
But it’s here in the Chippewa Valley that Strangstalien decided to plant his company after founding it in April 2013. In the past year, Strangstalien has become something of an evangelist for the city’s redevelopment. Visiting vendors, consultants, and job applicants are given gift baskets of local goodies and tours of the town. “We show off Eau Claire every time we can,” he says.
As the firm grows, its secrecy puts potential employees in an unusual position: Until they are hired and sign a non-disclosure agreement, they don’t know exactly what the company does. Considering Strangstalien’s energy and zeal, that’s not as much of an impediment as you might think.
“I was onboard before I even found out what products we were developing,” says Jim McDougall, the company’s recently hired director of engineering. McDougall, who has a background in electrical engineering and has worked with both hardware and software businesses, says he’s heard from numerous people that Invisible Connect must be competing with a more well-established Eau Claire tech firm – JAMF Software – for local talent. But Invisible Connect doesn’t see the hiring process as a zero-sum game: The more demand there is for tech-savvy workers, the more the supply of such workers will grow, McDougall says. (Strangstalien is already busy networking with other local tech firms to try to boost the sector in the region.)
And to meet the projected needs of Invisible Connect, the supply of such skilled labor will have to grow in the near future. In the meantime, Invisible Connect is counting down the months until next year’s product launch. When asked about the firm’s very specific timeline, Strangstalien speaks like a coach with the desire to lead his team to victory: “These aren’t projections – we have to do it.”
Learn (somewhat) more about Invisible Connect at invisibleconnect.com.