The following article appeared in the Wilkes-Barre, PA Times Leader newspaper.
Silicon Wyoming Valley? Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania Companies Lead Way as Computer Jobs take off in Region
By RON BARTIZEK firstname.lastname@example.org
WILKES-BARRE – Fast-growing, high-technology businesses. Wilkes-Barre.
Not long ago, putting all those words in one sentence would have created an oxymoron; a series of words that contradicts itself, such as “jumbo shrimp.”
But two local companies are proving that high-tech and low profile can fit together quite nicely. And their success is creating job opportunities commonly thought to exist only in California … or India.
That’s what Steve McDonald believed as he contemplated the future in 2002.
“I had been planning to go out West,” he said last week while taking a break from his job at Solid Cactus, one of the largest designers of e-commerce Web sites in the nation.
McDonald had been working from home in Delaware as a freelance photographer and Web page designer. Some of his jobs came from Solid Cactus, then a small spinoff of Neeps, Inc., an Internet seller of pet supplies, particularly for ferrets.
McDonald owned a ferret, and got to know Solid Cactus owners Joe Palko and Scott Sanfilippo. Instead of going west, he took a look at what the company was doing and in April 2003 became one of less than a half dozen staff members.
“Once I got here there was no looking back,” said McDonald, 25, who now holds the title Director of RTML Development. The acronym RTML refers to Yahoo!’s proprietary programming language, on which pages are built.
McDonald now has more company at work; Solid Cactus employs 33 people and Sanfilippo said last week he expects to hire another 20 this year. To accommodate the growth, Solid Cactus is taking more space in the Jewelcor Center, enlarging its first-floor offices and expanding onto the second floor.
A few blocks away, pepperjamSEARCH.com also has been growing rapidly, adding 11 jobs that took its staff to 19. Owner Kristopher Jones says that’s only the beginning.
“We’re poised for at least 100 percent if not 200 percent growth in 2006,” he said.
The two companies work at complementary ends of the Internet commerce world. Solid Cactus creates and improves e-commerce Web sites for clients ranging from a family selling grandma’s cookies to the National Wildlife Federation, more than 2,500 in all Sanfilippo said. The “stores” are built only on the Yahoo! Small Business platform, which uses the RTML language.
Someone interested in starting a site using the Yahoo! system can log on to https://smallbusiness.yahoo.com and choose from 61 designers. Solid Cactus occupies the top left position on the list. “We’re the featured one,” Sanfilippo said, and the only designer that offers affordable pre-designed templates.
Because of its size and experience, Sanfilippo said Yahoo! also refers most of its high-revenue customers to Solid Cactus.
Pepperjam has carved out a different niche, or really two of them. The company specializes in “affiliate marketing” by which a Web destination’s owner can capitalize on the traffic to its site. While the site may not be set up to sell anything, visitors can be directed to Internet or brick-and-mortar stores that carry items of similar interest.
For example, a golden retriever lover might have a site that’s all about her dogs. Pepperjam can establish links from the site to retailers of food or other products that dog owners need. The site owner is paid a percentage of sales to customers referred from their site. Pepperjam gets paid a portion as well.
On a larger scale, pepperjam is [the largest and most well-respected affiliate marketing management firm in the United States.] “It’s the kind of thing that requires dedication of time and resources,” Jones said, a level of commitment that is difficult for a non-specialist to provide.
Pepperjam’s other concentration is search marketing, those links that pop up when someone uses Google, Yahoo! or another search engine to find a particular word or phrase. Pepperjam has created its own [ppc management software] that helps clients to get the most return for their advertising investment. “The cool thing about it is that you’re able to connect with a consumer who is in the buying cycle,” Jones said.
Advertising prices are rising as search engine use grows – Jones says industry predictions are for a 35 percent activity increase this year – so it’s important to make the most of opportunities.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Jones said. “To be able to put them in a position where they make more money than they spend.”
Positions at the two companies require similar education and experience. “In general we’re hiring information technology and business grads,” Jones said.
The more technical jobs, such as programmers and Web site developers, definitely need a degree in those fields. At Solid Cactus, that is the beginning, since the Yahoo! program language isn’t taught. “We can train at this level,” Palko said.
Other positions, such as marketing and account management, don’t require as much technical background, but familiarity with the Internet is important. “They need to know what makes a good Web site,” Palko said.
So far, pepperjam has been able to find needed skills locally. “As a company policy we are very interested in hiring the best and the brightest from the area,” Jones said. Applicants need to be self-motivated, he said, ones who might think they have to move to a big city to find opportunities.
“In general we have been very fortunate to find some really top-of-the-line people,” including a former King’s College valedictorian, he said.
The work pays well by the region’s standards. Palko said a recent grad hired for an entry-level programming job would earn a minimum of $33,000. Higher level positions pay more.
While that is high for the area, it is considerably below typical salaries in metropolitan areas such as Boston or San Francisco. But the cost of living is low here as well, which Palko said is good for the business model.
“It allows you to grow faster,” he said, because staff can be added more easily.
Other high-tech opportunities are available at Sallie Mae, the national student loan provider with a center in the Hanover Industrial Park. The company announced in October that it would fill 150 IT spots by the end of this year.
“I believe as of year end we were around 30,” said spokesman Tom Joyce of the additions, which are on schedule.
The hiring started with senior level managers, who will be involved in filling out their departments.
“It’s going very well,” Joyce said. “The local human resources manager said the quality and quantity of resumes have exceeded expectations.” He said 200-300 resumes were received within a few days after the openings were announced.
Joyce said the new hires were mostly from northeastern Pennsylvania. These jobs also require programming and IT backgrounds, and Joyce said entry-level positions pay in the low $30s. Adding in the higher level positions raises the average to between $70,000 and $80,000.
Joyce said Sallie Mae works closely with colleges and universities to let them know what skills are needed. Jones takes a similar approach and works with intern coordinators. “That’s been a good base to draw from,” he said, and many interns have become regular employees.