Web Spinners

These guys play in the traffic at the intersection of creativity and technology

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Greg Brand (left) is the owner of Bluehouse Group, a Richmond Web-site design and custom software development firm. Also pictured are staffers Nat Woodard, creative director; Dana Adams, technical director; Casey Sullivan, developer; Steve Schlipf, senior developer; and John Buckley, technical producer.

There is probably a good reason why a passionate fly fisherman with a background in psychology has found success creating Web sites. Consider the art of fly-fishing: Choose the most attractive and appropriate lure and then make it easy for the trout to find it.

Compare that to Greg Brand’s philosophy of website design: Make it attractive, avoid clutter and ensure that users can find their way through it to take the action the site is designed to encourage.

Brand, the owner of Bluehouse Group in Richmond, began fly-fishing with his father in Ohio when he was only 5, though he admits he didn’t catch anything until he was 7. As a college student visiting friends in Vermont, he discovered fishing undreamed-of back home. It wasn't long before the psychology major left Hampshire College and moved to Vermont.

His first computer-related job was working in sales. Although he hadn’t been interested in computers earlier, he landed a job with Computerland selling microcomputers not long after IBM introduced the PC. He “got jazzed” about microcomputers. In 1991, he launched Brand Systems, a consulting firm, and was eventually hired by his largest client, Future Planning Associates, to manage its information systems. After six years there, he left to do consulting again as Brand Systems.

Meanwhile, in Williston, Bluehouse Group, founded in 1996, was a small company designing and building Web sites to help IBM’s many divisions and offices to communicate. Bluehouse saw the writing on the wall as rumors flew that IBM would reduce its reliance on outside contractors, and began to broaden its market. In 2001, just as the Internet bubble burst, Brand acquired Bluehouse, adding new services for the broad base of clients he had established.

“Our versatility has been the secret of our success,” Brand says, “and our client base with nonprofits, retailers, wholesalers and professionals helped us to ride out the bumpy times.” Brand decided to keep the Bluehouse name for his growing business, even though it was no longer in a blue house in Williston, nor was there a reason anymore for a “nod to Big Blue.”

Today, from a cream-colored office building in downtown Richmond, Brand and the eight members of the Bluehouse Group (including two hired in the last few weeks) provide two strands of the complex fabric of the Internet: Web-site design and custom software development.

They share a large, sunny room with brightly painted walls, lively art, stimulating music chosen by creative director Nat Woodard, who doubles as the corporate deejay, and cubicles that allow a steady flow of creative juices as everyone shares ideas and inspiration on solving clients’ puzzles.

Nat Woodard discusses a project in the works with technical director Dana Adams at one of the half walls that set off cubicles but allow the flow of ideas over and around them.

“We all love the puzzle aspect of what we do,” says Brand. “When we look for the answer to a client’s need, we are taking whatever little pieces we can see, connecting the dots and creating a bigger picture.” He says a large part of their strength is in asking a lot of questions about a client’s business, philosophy, operation and objectives.

Robert Chapin, vice president and director of marketing for Pompanoosuc Mills, remembers that barrage of questions after his company recently chose Bluehouse to help sell its made-to-order furniture over the Web.

“Working with Bluehouse was partnering to solve a plethora of business problems,” says Chapin. “They asked a huge number of questions: some we were prepared for and some that made us scratch our heads — those were the best questions.”

The Pompanoosuc website was launched at the end of September. It was a long process, including a series of videotaped trials of website shoppers searching for the perfect dresser and reacting to navigating the website.

“Our role is understanding the audience,” Brand says. “We start by understanding the client’s expectations — their goals — and then creating a website experience for the customer that is seamless and intuitive. It is important that a website or software interface doesn’t make a person think about how to make it work. We feel like we’re on target when they feel so comfortable that they orient quickly, they dig deeper, and they stay at the site.”

Brand says that although everyone at Bluehouse likes the technology and the fact that it is evolving so quickly, they don’t believe that “everything is a nail for our hammer. It’s not unusual for us to go in with the assumption that throwing computer technology at the problem is the answer and find that human factors are vital. For example, if you are going to put all this stuff on the Web, you have to consider who is going to look after it.”

That’s why Bluehouse stresses understanding a client’s culture and objectives. Adds Woodard, “If the objective is to get someone to sign up for your newsletter, then the whole site has to lead them toward signing up for the newsletter.”

Every member of the team is a specialist in at least one area and enjoys wearing more than one hat, says Brand. “It makes it fun to work here. Everyone is unusually versatile, combining creative talent and technology expertise.”

A lot of those talents were applied to creating a powerful database for the Legislature to track the bills that move through the House and Senate and the myriad details that need to be recorded and accessible.

“We’re a ‘green’ building,” quips Greg Brand, the owner of Bluehouse Group. The joke refers to the color of the interior walls. There is no blue in sight.

Duncan Goss, director of information technology for the Statehouse in Montpelier, worked with Brand in Brand Systems and then with the Bluehouse Group to update the bill tracking system, which was written by the Statehouse staff and revised as computer language evolved.

“We decided to get it redone by someone who knew what they were doing, and began working with Greg,” says Goss. “They met with our people, did an analysis and came up with a new design that added lots of functionality and error checking. Every year we expand a few more features.”

The database is valuable not only to legislators and Statehouse staff who want to keep tabs on bills, sponsors, movement through committees, public testimony and actions in the House and Senate, but also members of the public, who can go to the website and access this information.

While the technical complexity of developing such a system could boggle the mind, the team tries to leave technology out of discussions. For example, in discussions with Burlington City Arts about designing a website, 90 percent of the conversation was about how to present a clear and organized picture of everything they do.

“The feedback we get is that while we do technical, we speak English,” says Brand. “Bluehouse Group is at the intersection of creativity and technology.” That means showing clients opportunities for integrated marketing through e-newsletters and direct marketing as well as website-based initiatives. “We’re trying to help people recognize the opportunities that exist for branching out. We don’t see the website as a static element independent of the rest of their business.”

Bluehouse team members can often help clients step back from the details of a business or service to look at the big picture. That was the strategy they used as they tackled one of the “love jobs” they do regularly — projects for worthy organizations that may or may not be able to afford their services but needs their help. This summer they approached Burlington City Arts, which needed an overhaul of its website.

“They are an amazing organization with an amazing array of classes, shows, events, openings, membership campaigns, fund-raising efforts,” Brand says. “Their website was not able to allow them to promote their activities.”

“Like lots of businesses,” says Woodard, “they were plagued by their own understanding of their company, and that interfered with their seeing how to play it to the public. They would get stuck on whether something was an education class or a program. We could show them that people just want to know how they can take a clay class.”

“We share a strong social aspect,” says Brand, who describes the corporate culture as family-oriented. Members of the team share an enthusiasm for outdoor recreation, he says, and a penchant for humor and “other goofy things” such as the “hairy chest award,” presented to anyone in the office who has solved a particularly knotty problem.

“One of the challenges when we have a lot of projects in the works is how to keep all the balls in the air. We find we can keep stress down through camaraderie.”

Camaraderie is also what Brand finds each June, when he takes a seven-day fly-fishing trip with buddies. “Fly-fishing is what hooked me in,” he says. •

Originally published in October 2005 Business People-Vermont