Software Company Survives Initial Jolt, Prospers
It was the sort of thing that often crushes start-up businesses.
In April 2006, 2-year-old Happy Jack Software was preparing to launch its first product - a shared calendaring program. The company, one of the first clients of the Wyoming Technology Business Center at the University of Wyoming, had been working for a year and a half to develop the product and get it ready for commercial launch.
However, that very week, digital giant Google released its Google Calendar program, severely damaging the chances for Happy Jack's product to find a niche in the market.
"It was a nightmare," says Mona Gamboa, Happy Jack's co-founder and CEO. "It was very depressing. I got very nervous about our future. We had to look six months for another product to build."
Gamboa had come to UW in 2004 when her husband was hired as a computer science instructor. Having created and sold companies in Austin, Texas, she brought with her some ideas for computer software products she wanted to develop.
While taking a class toward a master's degree in electronic business from UW Professor Jeff Van Baalen, Gamboa shared with him her ideas, including the calendaring program. Van Baalen joined in founding Happy Jack Software. The WTBC board, in search of clients, was impressed with the new company's pitch, and Happy Jack Software set up shop in temporary quarters in the Wyoming Union.
At the same time she was working to develop the calendaring program, Gamboa developed custom software development for a number of companies - "bootstrapping" the business to keep cash flowing. WTBC Chief Operating Officer Christine Langley says that was the key for Happy Jack Software to survive the blow of Google Calendar's arrival.
"It was tough, but (the calendaring program) wasn't an all-or-nothing proposition for her," Langley says. "She (Gamboa) continued doing consulting work, and the next product actually spun out of the consulting projects she did."
That second product - MedRight, an electronic system for long-term care facilities to manage patients' medication - put Happy Jack Software on the map. It was followed by CareRight and WoundRight, which provide electronic systems to manage other aspects of long-term care. Today, just over a year after "graduating" from the WTBC, Happy Jack Software employs 22 people in its new home at the Laramie Technology Building. Its products are used in dozens of long-term care facilities across the country. And the company continues to develop custom software.
"They've been able to grow a tech business in Laramie - a pretty competitive one at that," Langley says.
While many companies now provide software for the medical field - electronic management systems will be required for all facilities by 2014 - Gamboa says Happy Jack Software is "really well positioned" to continue growing.
"We were one of the first in the market. We're well established," she says. "I expect us to grow quite a bit, especially in product support and maintenance."
Happy Jack Software is a great example of the type of company the WTBC aims to help, Langley says. In addition to boosting the economy, the company hires UW graduates in computer science and mechanical engineering, allowing them to stay in the state.
"They're creating an opportunity for these programmers, who normally would be headed directly to Denver or elsewhere after graduation," Langley says. "We're talking about some of the best and brightest out of our Computer Science Department. And it's a small enough company that these junior programmers get to be involved in projects they normally wouldn't be involved in right away. They're really trying to groom young talent."
Gamboa says the company's hires from UW are every bit as talented and well trained as the graduates she encountered in Texas. That local pipeline of workers - and the fact that she and her family "love Laramie" and Wyoming - will keep Happy Jack Software here, she says.
Gamboa credits the WTBC and UW for much of the company's success. A department under the UW Office of Research and Economic Development, the WTBC is a statewide business development program that is developing a technology business incubator and an outreach program focused on early-stage, high-growth companies.
"They (WTBC) helped us get on our feet, grow and find space. They get you in a good direction and fill out your weaknesses," Gamboa says. "These people really understand how growth happens. It would behoove any entrepreneur to at least go and talk with them. If you're willing to listen, you'll get a lot of good advice and direction."
Langley says Happy Jack Software's rough start isn't unusual for startup businesses.
"A lot of times, the first product is not the winner," she says. "We see that a lot. What Mona did a good job of is bootstrapping her business while working on product development."
As it turns out, the company's work on the initially unsuccessful calendaring product didn't go for naught. Happy Jack Software is just now releasing a new product called ShiftRight - a scheduling system for nurses, doctors and other health care professionals - based upon the initial calendaring system.
"We've come full circle," Gamboa says.
Jeff Van Baalen and Mona Gamboa are the founders of Happy Jack Software, one of the successful "graduates" of the Wyoming Technology Business Center. (UW Photo)