Five Unsung Heroes of the Seattle Tech Scene

The Seattle area is known for its technology giants like Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing, and RealNetworks. It’s also known for its popular tech startups like Zillow, Wetpaint, Pet Holdings (I Can Has Cheezburger), iLike, and Big Fish Games. But there are dozens of other sizable tech companies operating behind the scenes, quietly executing on their vision to change the world. You don’t see these companies mentioned in the media very much. They generally aren’t built on large venture funding rounds, and they tend to be not very flashy. That’s why I call them unsung heroes.

I’m going to point out five of them here. This is not a “Top 5” list, and it’s not the end of the story—it’s just the beginning. Here are my (admittedly arbitrary) criteria. I looked for privately held companies with tremendous engineering talent and a strong influence on their particular market—proportional to their size and the amount of attention they get. I looked across different tech sectors like Internet, business software, consulting services, gaming, and entertainment. I also looked for companies that have weathered the recession to this point and have kept charging forward. Lastly, I wanted companies that mainstream readers may not have heard about lately.

The problem with a list like this, of course, is that it’s subjective. There are plenty of other companies around town that could be on the list—and I want to hear about those too. But for now, here’s a snapshot of five Seattle-area companies that are quietly delivering the goods:


Jetstream Software (Kirkland, WA)
Mike Moskowitz, CEO

This 15-year old applications development firm makes software products for big companies and startups alike. Its list of customers includes Microsoft, Intel, IBM, F5 Networks, Captaris, SnapIn Software, HouseValues, and the University of Washington. In fact, if you pick any prominent organization around town, there’s a good chance Jetstream has done work for them. The company has developed tools for Microsoft that shipped with Office and Windows Media Center, for example. And the firm often serves as the entire development team for Web startups, say, that want to create a user interface or product. The 25-person company, largely made up of senior engineers, works on projects across software publishing, telecom, healthcare, education, financial services, and retail. “We’re happy to handle the technology portion,” Moskowitz says. “They own the problem, we own the solution.”

Robot Co-op (Seattle, WA)
Josh Petersen, co-founder

A half-dozen programmers (“robots”) sit around a large communal table in Capitol Hill and crank out code for popular social websites like 43 Things, 43 Places, 43 People, and Lists of Bests. Petersen co-founded the company in 2004 with funding from Amazon. His team has since built the Robot Co-op into one of the most profitable Web startups in town. The websites get crazy traffic (up to 2 million registered users this year), and the company continues to chug along with seemingly sustainable profits. Through the recession, the team has “worked hard on simplifying our business, getting our operations tight and easy to manage (important with a team of 5) while maintaining solid revenue and profitability numbers,” Petersen says in an e-mail. “We are keeping it real, profitable, and fun, while hanging with some well-funded and heavily staffed peers in the Seattle tech scene.”

R.W. Beck (Seattle, WA)
Russ Stepp, president and CEO

OK, this one doesn’t quite count as private anymore, since the company is now owned by SAIC (NYSE: SAI) in San Diego. But R.W. Beck’s story transcends its recent $155 million acquisition. The engineering and business consulting firm’s expertise in key technical areas like energy and water management is legendary. With 550 employees (125 at Seattle headquarters), R.W. Beck has made its mark in everything from water treatment design in King County to utility capital projects for Puget Sound Energy—all while doubling its revenue in the past three years. “We do independent engineering and translate that into a financial plan so investors can get a return on investment,” Stepp told me last month. “Our plan with SAIC is to build more capabilities jointly with them. Over the next six months, we’ll identify them and continue to expand.” In short, as energy and water duel for the title of world’s most precious resource, you’d do well to know R.W. Beck.

Valve Software (Bellevue, WA)
Gabe Newell, co-founder and managing director

How can a video game company with massive hits like Half-Life and Counter-Strike, and millions of fans worldwide, be considered unsung? Because they don’t seem to talk to anyone outside the industry (including me). Newell and Mike Harrington, now at Seattle startup Picnik, co-founded Valve in 1996 and built the company into a digital entertainment powerhouse. Valve is well-known for its game franchises and development tools, but what really puts the company in great financial shape is the fact that it’s a major distribution portal for games. The company’s platform, called Steam, distributes more than 800 games and other digital content to some 20 million people worldwide. That’s a major advantage, as all game companies are struggling with their own sales through the recession. Valve has more than 160 employees, including artists, programmers, and writers. In a city full of promising gaming companies, it is a quiet but well-established leader.

Winshuttle (Bothell, WA)
Vikram Chalana, co-founder and CTO

It’s one of the fastest growing tech companies in the Northwest. Winshuttle makes software to help corporations manage reams of data between spreadsheets and SAP business-management programs. The company has been doubling its sales every year for the past four years, so it’s clearly solving a very real problem. Although its growth slowed a bit in early 2009, Chalana says, business has picked up in the past three months—to the tune of 44 new customers (including Bridgestone-Firestone, Conoco-Phillips, and Bayer CropScience), resulting in the company’s largest revenue quarter to date. The bootstrapped company now has 70 employees worldwide—including offices in France, England, and India—up from 60 workers a year ago. In the past few months, Winshuttle has rolled out two new products, one in business intelligence and the other in governance and compliance, as well as an online community site. “With the economic conditions thawing a bit, we are seeing an increasing number of customers engaging with us,” Chalana says.

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