Travis Hollman was randomly scrolling through his junk email when he stumbled upon one urging him to check out a New York Times review of the “My StuffFinder” – the app his Kearney, Neb., company's programmers and designers developed.
“I clicked on it and I saw the photo of our app at the top and I saw 30 comments at the bottom,” Hollman said. “I thought, 'How cool is that?' ”
In the south-central Nebraska city where industries like manufacturing and agriculture are king, Hollman Media is designing and developing custom websites, mobile websites and mobile apps that not only grow the business but also create technology-related jobs that will keep graduates home and draw workers to their rural community.
City officials say the company fits with the vision they have for Kearney. Hollman's five staff members all are graduates of the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
“Technology is a growth industry,” Mayor Stanley Clouse said. “So if people want to come back to Kearney and have good-paying jobs and come back and raise their families in this area, we want to help promote the types of jobs and industries that are attractive.”
Hollman and his wife, Angela, were still students at UNK in 2000 when, beginning with no venture capital, the two took on projects here and there between classes to do at home. The first year, the two made $1,500. They lost $300.
Years passed and business started to pile up as companies realized the value in a web and mobile presence. Some of Hollman's first major projects included WeatherThreat.com, a school and weather-related closings network, and PickMyTickets.com, a local online ticketing system used by the UNK athletic department and the Tri-City Storm Hockey team.
UNK Athletic Director Jon McBride said timing was everything. The athletic department was needing a ticketing service and Hollman was seeking work. Their pricing expectations met up and the athletic department decided to give the local company a try.
PickMyTickets.com, which is still in use today, automated UNK's ticketing system, allowed the school to print its own tickets and, perhaps most important, McBride said, “brought our ticketing system into the modern ages.”
“He spent numerous hours investing his own blood, sweat and tears into the system,” McBride said of Hollman. “And I know a lot of that had to do with it was for UNK.”
Hollman started hiring about five years ago, and his goal for 2012 was to establish an aggressive internship program and take advantage of the students coming out of UNK's technology-related programs.
About the time he settled on that goal, he got an email from Allison Hatch, program coordinator for InternNE, a state-funded initiative through the Nebraska Department of Economic Development that gives some for-profit businesses financial help in offering internships. Hollman was skeptical at first.
“I had a real tunnel vision focus on what I wanted to do and thought (InternNE) would slow us down,” he said. “I called her and gave her the old what about this, what about this, what about this? But it sounded like actually it was a great program and I was really surprised.”
InternNE agreed to fund 60 percent of an intern's wages, and Hollman decided to give it a shot. Hollman Media joined 228 other Nebraska companies that have taken part in the program since June 2011.
Hatch said it was obvious from the beginning that Hollman wanted to bring interns into the company with hopes of keeping them full time after graduation.
“(The interns) weren't just invited to meetings and then got to do busy work,” she said “They get to know what the business is like and know what the tough decisions are like.”
At a technology breakfast hosted at the college at this time last year, Hollman met Ryan Levell. Impressed by what a colleague remembered about Levell from college, Hollman asked him to come in and interview.
The two hit it off and Levell started his internship in March, with Hollman later asking him to program an app that would help PickMyTickets.com work on newer computers. Hollman thought it would take Levell all summer to complete.
“After a week, it was done. It was ready to go,” Hollman said. “I looked at him and thought, 'Wow. This is good.' ”
Levell, who graduated in December with a degree in computer science comprehensive, joined Hollman full time after graduation and was the primary programmer on the My StuffFinder app. The app helps users find commonly misplaced items by using mapping, camera and GPS features, promising to get users within 16 feet of the lost item.
“This is the lost-and-found of apps,” said the New York Times review. “It not only lets you find your car, but your keys, glasses, wallet, shoes and purse too. Just save the location of various items and the app will direct you back to them.”
Before the Times review, the app had about 100 installations per day. After the review, downloads shot up to about a thousand per day and the app reached No. 54 in the Lifestyle category of the iTunes store.
It wasn't Hollman's first app to make it onto the iTunes list. The app version of WeatherThreat made it to No. 23 in the Weather category in iTunes and spent a couple consecutive weeks in the Top 50 during a bad weather spell on the East Coast.
Both the WeatherThreat and My StuffFinder apps are free, but they also have upgraded versions for a fee. My StuffFinder Plus is 99 cents and has no limit on the number of items a user can save.
A Cozad, Neb., native, Levell said the notoriety is nice, but he's more excited that his job gives him a chance to do something he enjoys close to home.
“I fell into it,” he said. “It's really fun. I like problem solving.”
Without InternNE, Hollman said, he wouldn't have had the funds to support Levell. His aspirations for the company are to double its workforce in the next few years and eventually be a premier app maker in the state.
In addition to their finder and weather apps, they're currently working on apps for a few radio stations and in the planning stages on an app for a landscaping company.
Hollman believes the addition of workers like Levell, who may have otherwise moved away to find a job in programming, and the help of InternNE give him the edge to meet that goal.
“People are starting to realize in central Nebraska you don't have to go outside of Nebraska. You don't have to go east of the Missouri River,” he said. “You can get that all in Nebraska from Nebraska talent and the Nebraska university system.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1192, firstname.lastname@example.org