Cool Companies 2013
By Anita Chabria, Hillary Louise Johnson, Ryan Miller, S.T. VanAirsdale and Kate Washington
If you ever find yourself at the Phoenix Zoo, forget about the lion and tigers—it’s the zip line that’s likely to give you the biggest thrills. Clip on the harness, climb up the spiral stairs of the green launch tower, take a daring step off the 35-foot-high platform and zoom back to solid ground past cactuses and sharp-toothed critters at speeds up to 20 miles per hour.
That rush of a ride is just one of the creations of Extreme Engineering, a Penryn-based company whose staff stays busy building innovative products like mobile climbing walls, state-of-the-art jumping apparatuses and portable zip lines for more than 1,000 global clients ranging from NASA to Cirque du Soleil. They’ve been an official equipment provider to ESPN’s X Games, and have climbing walls and other thrill-inducing attractions in theme parks like Universal Studios, Six Flags and Disneyland (whose Downtown Disney is debuting Extreme Engineering’s faux-ice-climbing wall in January).
And the company’s origin story is just as dramatic as the adrenaline-surging adventures it creates. It started in 1995 when founder and engineer Jeff Wilson got together with a friend to come up with a way to keep the youth group at his Lincoln-based church occupied. They decided on a portable climbing wall, and built the prototype in Wilson’s garage. The kids loved it, and Wilson saw an opportunity.
He built a larger wall, and hauled it on a truck to the big semiannual Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City, where companies like REI go to fill their stores. The gambit didn’t go quite the way he planned: The show’s organizers kicked him—and his wall—out, fearing it was too dangerous. Security rolled it into the parking lot and Wilson was stranded. He had loaned his truck to a friend, thinking he wouldn’t need it for the duration of the trade show, and had no way to move his massive contraption.
But as he was sitting on the blacktop, a teenage rock climber from Santa Cruz by the name of Chris Sharma happened by (later, in 2007, NPR would call Sharma the world’s best rock climber). Sharma asked if Wilson would bring the wall to a block party that night, and Wilson agreed, with the help of a tow truck. The wall was a hit. Wilson sold three units that day (including one to the X Games in Tahoe), and by the next trade show, organizers offered him a premiere spot. “We went from being kicked out to front and center,” he recalls, noting that he sold 40 climbing walls for $42,000 each during his return engagement.
Extreme Engineering has been on a steady upswing ever since, consistently creating fresh thrills that keep customers coming back for more. Among the company’s products: cylindrical climbing towers that have become the craze at high-end resorts like the exclusive One & Only in the Maldives; an “air jumper” that launches patrons dozens of feet up on flexible poles (inspired by a video of light posts bending during a hurricane) at NASA’s Space Center Houston; and even patented devices that Cirque du Soleil’s daredevil performers use to tether themselves to the troupe’s vertiginous contraptions.
Wilson has also expanded his business from design and manufacturing to operating some of his inventions. He opened a spin-off company that partners with the Phoenix Zoo to handle the zip line there, and is now in talks with the San Diego Zoo for a similar feature. Locally, he also manages the line at Bishop’s Pumpkin Farm in Wheatland during the Halloween season, which he says can gross up to $8,000 a day during its six-week stint.
While Wilson, 58, characterizes his company as a “very sustainable long-term multinational that’s going to be around [for many years to come],” he’s not sure he wants to be at the helm much longer. “The young ones in the organization are doing very well,” he says, suggesting that he might eventually turn the business over to members of his staff, which includes his son Philip, who currently heads the marketing department.
But he doesn’t plan on ever bowing out entirely. “I perceive the future as me being more Charlie, of Charlie’s Angels,” Wilson says. “I’ll call up and give the angels a job and congratulate them when it’s done.” —Anita Chabria
Annie & Isabel
Gowns by clothing label Annie & Isabel have been worn by celebs like Kate Walsh on Private Practice, the Today show’s Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb, and reality-star-turned-talk-show-host Bethenny Frankel—but they’ve never been on the red carpet. Instead, these gowns bring glamour to the hospital, where their stylish, thoughtful designs make every patient who wears one feel like a star.
Founded by sisters Anna Ryan and Selena Srabian—both nurses—Annie & Isabel is the product of the pair’s longtime dream to provide patients with dignity and comfort. “The one thing that people talk about, if they’ve been in the hospital, is how terrible the hospital gowns are,” says Ryan. “We always thought we could come up with something better.” When they saw the drab, ill-fitting hospital gown Srabian had to wear for her second son’s birth in 2008, they decided to go for it, naming the company for their great-grandmother, Annie, and grandmother, Isabel.
But entrepreneurship didn’t come naturally to Ryan and Srabian, who experimented with prototypes and business plans for much of their first year. Once they got the hang of it, however, things took off: When Private Practice ordered six gowns out of the blue for overnight delivery, Srabian and Ryan had to scramble to iron fast enough to fill the order (every Annie & Isabel gown is ironed by one of the sisters before shipping)—but fill it they did, and they received a second six-gown order the next day. The gowns appeared on multiple episodes, including the show’s season premiere in 2012.
Also, in May 2012, Gifford and Kotb wore Annie & Isabel gowns for the full hour of a Today show segment about plastic surgery. “We got contacted by a guy who gets all the stuff for their shows,” Ryan recalls. “[He] asked if we’d be willing to donate gowns for them to wear, and we’re like, ‘Of course we will. It’s going to be on national TV!’ ”
Annie & Isabel offers six designs, each one named for and inspired by a female relative of the sisters: For example, the floral “Evelyn,” named for a great-aunt, is “bright and happy,” says Ryan, and the pink “Annie” with black polka dots, which is the company’s best seller, evokes their “sweet and cheery” great-grandmother. Each is made from an all-cotton, print fabric with pretty grosgrain-ribbon edging and a ladybug logo on the left sleeve. As a personal touch, each gown comes with a card about the namesake, complete with vintage photo. Gowns for expectant moms, a popular shower gift, come with a heart-shaped swatch of the fabric for the baby book. (Locals also receive a free newborn photo session from photographer Brenda Bisharat.)
Neither sister sews, so they outsourced production to a Bay Area company, meticulously insisting on details like a front pleat to give the gowns shape, full back coverage and a pocket for personal items like lip balm. Style maven Srabian, a nurse at UCSF, chose the prints. (A men’s gown will launch this spring with designs featuring rich plaids, camouflage and other masculine prints.) The company, which is run out of Srabian’s Arden Park home (Ryan lives nearby in Carmichael), relies heavily on social media for outreach to its engaged customers. Annie & Isabel’s Facebook feed overflows with enthusiastic testimonials, support and pictures of women in gowns—including Srabian after the recent birth of her third son Joseph in September.
Ryan, an ER nurse at Sutter General, also wore the gowns during two different illnesses: first, during a hospitalization for severe pneumonia, and two years ago when she had surgery for thyroid cancer. “When I had cancer, that was a really scary experience and a difficult process,” says Ryan, who drew comfort from the gown named after her grandmother Elizabeth, who battled breast cancer. “We knew as nurses that they would help people, but until you have the experience yourself, you don’t really know.” (The sisters donate a portion of the proceeds from the sale of their “Elizabeth” gown to one of Sutter’s breast cancer programs. They also run a “Feel Better” campaign, which gives gowns to those who can’t afford the $72 price tag.)
“Our gowns might seem like just a piece of fabric,” adds Srabian. “But when you go into the hospital, you check in your clothes, your dignity. When you wear your own gown you keep some control, and it’s amazing how powerful it is.” —Kate Washington
Master carpenter Jerry McCall remembers the exact moment he first set foot on the path that would lead him to found Stikwood. He was standing in former Disney chief Michael Ovitz’s bedroom in Los Angeles, having just placed $60,000 worth of Ming Dynasty-style end tables he had built for the Hollywood mogul. “It really bothered me that this guy could buy a thousand of me,” McCall remembers, “and I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore.”
Flash forward to present-day Sacramento, where McCall’s hot start-up Stikwood crafts do-it-yourself peel-and-stick wooden wall treatments using chic materials like reclaimed wine barrel staves, slivered fencing and distressed oak. Sought after online among homeowners, Stikwood has also just been picked for bricks-and-mortar distribution by the home design giant West Elm, a subsidiary of Williams-Sonoma. Other national retailers like Anthropologie, Tommy Bahama and Cost Plus World Market have used their products, as have local restaurants like LowBrau, the new Cafe Bernardo in the Pavilions, and Hock Farm Craft & Provisions, enchanted that they can install Stikwood walls overnight.
The seed of the idea came in 2008, when McCall took a job in Sacramento managing a company that made wooden floorboards. He soon started a side project to provide finishing services, but later found inspiration on an anniversary trip that McCall and his wife Laura took up the Pacific Coast. Visiting customers along the way, the McCalls began getting more and more requests for products other than flooring.
By the time they arrived in Vancouver, the idea for Stikwood had been born, based in part on another of Jerry’s past projects: building luxe interiors for private jets using ultralight panels and innovative adhesives. Since launching at the 2012 Dwell on Design show in Los Angeles, Stikwood has exploded in popularity, experiencing growth of 400 percent in its first year. “I feel lucky,” Jerry says. “This is not typical. I’ve come up with a lot of products, and this is the first time something has gone [big].”
Stikwood is a family affair: Laura handles sales and customer service, and all three of the McCalls’ adult children are working for the company—as are two of their spouses. None of the kids came to the business with any carpentry-related skill set, but 29-year-old Justin has turned into a fine operations manager, 27-year-old Michael does much of the tech work, like building the company’s website, and 25-year-old Ashley works with Laura in customer service. The whole family came up with the Stikwood name in an office brainstorming session.
Jerry attributes the success of Stikwood to how accessible it makes a challenging material like wood. As decorative treatments go, Stikwood is moderately priced at about $8 to $12.50 per square foot. But a wall of Stikwood looks like something conceived by an architectural firm and executed by a master carpenter with some serious engineering chops. The product arrives by mail in a neat 5-inch-by-4-foot box, and one pair of hands can install it in a single day without any unique skills beyond the ability to peel backing off of tape strips. Stikwood may be simple, but it’s also substantial: The planking is milled to 1/8 of an inch, and the adhesive is permanent. (The company is developing a removable version for renters and others in search of a temporary cosmetic solution.)
“When I see the weathered wood, I think, ‘How many people have touched this? How many who are no longer here, even?’ ” Laura says. This poetic aspect of Stikwood means the wine barrel staves carry the rich, warm tones of merlots past, and if you’re lucky, your reclaimed fencing might include a panel where lovers years ago carved their initials.
Jerry says he sees an intimate family business with a global following like Stikwood’s as something that could only have come about in the Internet age, merging the best of design innovation, personal craftsmanship, manufacturing technology and global distribution. “We [had] a customer in Denmark putting it into a shop, sending us pictures, really excited,” he says, referring to design firm Kompleet using Stikwood in a WHSmith bookstore at the Copenhagen airport. “And we get the satisfaction of hearing about it firsthand.”
Through that connectivity, the team envisions a future of ambitious new applications for their vintage wooden wares. “Come up with something we can make, and we’ll make it. I’d love to get to a point where [we] can showcase designers and their products and have [them] be part of our full-circle thing,” Jerry says, referring to Stikwood’s mission to use and spread the use of reclaimed wood. “That’s the emotional driver behind what we do.” —Hillary Louise Johnson
When it comes to cool workplaces, it’s all about the perks. Say, a bocce court at Google, an organic spa at Microsoft, or unlimited theme park access at Disney.
Or a Dreamcade in the break room—at all three.
“It’s classic gaming,” says Dream Arcades founder Michael Ware, 39, a former systems engineer at Intel whose Rancho Cordova-based company has hit it big by supplying ’80s-style arcade thrills to eager buyers from Silicon Valley to the Middle East. “I often say what we’re really selling is nostalgia.”
Ware’s machines, dubbed “Dreamcades,” are just like the ones that he and his high-profile customers often grew up playing—standing at a joystick, feverishly slapping at buttons, racking up high scores for hours on end. Only now, users can fire up classics like Pac-Man, Centipede, Asteroids or over 140 other vintage games preloaded onto the Dreamcades’ built-in PCs. Perhaps best of all, they can leave the quarters at home—or they can play at home, not unlike Petra Ecclestone, whose design team picked up a Dreamcade after the Formula One racing heiress purchased Spelling Manor in Los Angeles in 2011 for $85 million.
Dream Arcades’ international success—the company is now the world’s largest manufacturer of arcade machines for the home or
office—has dramatically reshaped what began as a lark in 2002, when Ware crafted a homemade Ms. Pac-Man game as a Christmas gift for his wife Michelle. That single prototype blossomed into an operation that caught the attention of Playboy, which requested a Dreamcade be sent to its office for a photo shoot. When the machine appeared in a sexy, sleek layout of game room must-haves in 2006, orders started pouring in (pre-built models typically range from $1,900 to $2,700 each). “We did get a lot of sales from that,” says Michelle Ware, 38, who joined her husband at Dream Arcades in 2005.
More high-profile clients soon followed. Apple, ESPN, IKEA and Whole Foods Market have all purchased Dreamcades. An art gallerist in Dubai ordered two. Like a hot rod shop, the Wares also found themselves fielding more and more requests for custom jobs from nostalgia and culture junkies. A buyer in Chicago worked with the Wares to design a Banksy-themed machine, emblazoned with work by the celebrated street artist. Meanwhile, the investment firm Novus commissioned a custom game called Catch Bernie for a job fair at MIT, hoping to recruit young talent with Dream Arcades’ cheeky riff on Pac-Man with a cartoon face of the reviled pyramid schemer Bernie Madoff replacing the game’s ghosts.
In 2012, Dream Arcades helped Microsoft roll out the latter’s online collaboration with Atari, a match made in geek heaven that resulted in 14 Atari-branded Dreamcades. Today, the machines reside at Microsoft offices on four continents. There’s even a Dreamcade at a research base in Antarctica.
And this past spring, a Dreamcade appeared on an ’80s-themed episode of The Rachael Ray Show, glimmering onstage while Huey Lewis performed and the original MTV VJs reunited. Michael Ware says there’s a flash of the ’90s in the company’s future as well: “Now we’re starting to get more of the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat [requests], because those people are getting to the point where they have expendable income.”
But Dream Arcades isn’t only betting on nostalgic games these days. It turns out some customers crave the quirky experience of playing iPad or iPhone games on Tron-era stand-up arcade consoles. Recently the company once again partnered with Microsoft, this time to build a Dreamcade around the mobile-gaming phenomenon Cut the Rope. And one of its newest consoles comes preloaded with a suite of Angry Birds titles, delivered in a unit decorated with the blockbuster game’s famous winged warriors.
Suddenly, what’s new is old again. Game on. —S.T. VanAirsdale
You’ve seen Elevendy’s work. Maybe it was on a bottle of Muerto tequila. Or perhaps on the packaging of the latest release from video game behemoth Ubisoft. And you’ve almost certainly spotted it on billboards promoting California Family Fitness or the Sacramento Kings. Remember that jersey-over-armor monarch who looked less like an NBA player and more like a warrior from HBO’s Game of Thrones?
Yep, that was these guys.
Not bad for a three-year-old start-up. Elevendy launched in January 2011 after creative director Dave Cox joined forces with frequent design collaborator Wil Wells. “We were both running moderately successful local studios,” says Cox, 34, who at the time was at a shop he’d founded with his wife Kristin. “He was doing more of the production and creative stuff, and any time he needed media [planning] services he’d come to us.” They worked with so many mutual clients—Cox handling the strategy side, Wells, 32, providing the visuals—they quickly decided to share a space. “It got very confusing,” Cox says. “We said, ‘Let’s see what the two of us can do together.’ ”
The result is what Cox now calls a “beautiful disaster of awesomeness,” mashing together seemingly incongruous concepts and messing with established expectations. While the owners of Elevendy officially describe the young business as a “creative support studio,” it’s more of a geek heaven. There’s a conference room stocked with video game consoles and equipment ranging from a circa 1989 Nintendo Power Glove to the newly released Xbox One. Over toward the kitchen is a toddler-sized Batman action figure wrestling a snake. And Cox has cleared a space for a new specialty device that will be arriving soon.
“You will walk in and see an epic, huge 3-D printer—3 feet wide by about 2 feet tall,” he says. “We’ll use it to literally print out weapons.”
These won’t be real weapons, of course. The creative crew at Elevendy in Roseville will be using the Printrbot equipment to produce, among other things, models of otherwise unavailable military-spec guns and custom-designed, curved-blade karambit knives. Designers might later arm a Hollywood actor with the faux firepower, or they might simply use it to tweak a bit of art that has a good chance of appearing on posters in a national campaign.
Elevendy isn’t quite an ad agency, but rather what an ad agency dreams it could be after an all-nighter spent watching Schwarzenegger movies on fast-forward. The heavy-hitting clients have certainly come quickly. Wells says that a friend of a friend gave them an in at Ubisoft, which is now a regular collaborator with near-constant projects in the pipeline (including the upcoming Tom Clancy’s The Division).
A good chunk of their early success owes to old-fashioned timing and networking. A photo shoot they conducted with actor Isaiah Mustafa—the chiseled viral video star best known for his cheeky Old Spice commercials, and whose team sought Elevendy to promote him for a Marvel movie role—led to making Christmas cards for comedian Seth Green. Soon, they were rubbing shoulders with Chuck star Zachary Levi, which ultimately led to an idea to gather a host of famous geeks for a fundraiser benefiting Operation Smile, which provides surgery for children with cleft lips and palates. Elevendy created a giant poster populated by aliens battling the company’s widening circle of geeky friends—including Castle’s Nathan Fillion, and Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee—which was unveiled at San Diego’s Comic-Con this past summer.
Elevendy’s work with the Kings was less happenstance but equally organic. Social-media stalking led to a meeting with the Kings’ creative director, then to an introduction to the director of brand management, then to a rebranding effort that resulted in transforming the athletes into epic warriors—successful despite an NBA lockout in 2011 that meant no access to the players for photography. That triumph led to an ongoing partnership with hush-hush new ideas currently in the works.
For all its rapid-fire success, however, Cox says one of the biggest challenges his business faces is locating top-notch talent—or, as he puts it, finding people who play at their level. Elevendy currently has five full-time employees, with another on the way from Brazil.
And just like in the video games they help promote, the goal is all about winning. “We really couldn’t care less about second-place anything,” says Cox. Spoken like a true comic book hero. —Ryan Miller