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Putting knowledge to work

Ambient Media exemplifies local effort to develop digital economy

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter
Published: February 1, 2014, 4:00pm

In 2009, Steve Cross made a smart maneuver to hang onto employment.

After seeing the “writing on the wall” of a career-devouring recession, the 35-year-old said, he launched a back-up venture: Ambient Media.

It was a freelance gig that would play to the Portland State University graduate’s design skills. Logos, wedding invitations, business cards — he’d produce them for customers.

If the economic crash eventually bounced Cross out of his career track — built largely around his experience as a real estate financial specialist — he’d always have Ambient to keep him in the game. “I don’t want a job gap on my résumé,” he recalled thinking at the time.

Fast-forward to today: Ambient, once a mere résumé-bolstering defensive move, has blossomed into a full-time passion. What’s more, Cross’ best friend and fellow Prairie High School graduate, Matt Cole, is on board as a partner in growing Ambient beyond its modest beginnings.

The two are racking up successes at what’s now a comprehensive creative agency, serving companies big and small with everything from Web design and digital and print advertising to interactive media, social media strategies and graphic design.

Since officially becoming a full-time endeavor in August 2012, Ambient has raked in roughly $250,000 in revenue. It’s also expanded from two friends with a willingness to take a risk to a staff of six working out of warmly lit office space on Main Street in downtown Vancouver.

The company’s chosen location may prove fortunate beyond the obvious benefits of working near other business owners in the city’s core. That’s because the city of Vancouver, along with other public- and private-sector partners, is leading a long-term effort to support and expand digital technology companies in Clark County.

Ambient is “exactly the kind of company that we’re talking about as part of the new digital economy here,” said Chad Eiken, the city’s director of community and economic development.

A big decision

Ambient’s progression to full-fledged business was never a sure thing.

Cross and Cole were pursuing full-time jobs at different organizations even as they entertained the possibility of launching their own enterprise.

They’d already decided to collaborate on projects — Cross, through Ambient, Cole by way of Cole Mediaworks, his own foray into self-employment. Cross possesses several strengths, including in sales and business development. Cole, a 35-year-old Whitworth University graduate, complements Cross with public relations, Web design and other abilities.

“We both had this overlap of design,” Cross said.

And the two enjoy an easy rapport, including a shared interest in music. “I was a band nerd,” Cross said, noting he plays the drums. “I was a choir boy,” Cole added.

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Still, Cross was close to finding out whether he’d land a job at a credit union. He had a family to support. He was at a crossroads. “If they offer me this job I have to take it,” he recalled telling himself . “But if not, I’m ready to dive in headfirst with Ambient.”

He didn’t get the job offer.

He was ready to dive in with Cole.

But the day before the credit union possibility fizzled for Cross, a prospective employer that had dropped off Cole’s radar suddenly resurfaced.

The Fortune 500 company was ready to hire Cole.

He turned down the job, choosing instead to plunge into business with his friend.

Cole may have shown prudence the door when he said no to becoming part of a veteran organization and yes to joining a small firm with big ambitions.

You spend the early part of your career trying to carve out some economic security, Cole said. “You want to have that comfortable life,” he added. “You kind of feel bound by it.”

Not this time.

And his choice felt great.

Cole summed up his thoughts this way: “I’m going to do something crazy for once.”

‘No shortage of business’

Ambient’s existence may seem a little crazy.

After all, Portland looms largest in the greater metro area’s digital creative scene. Vancouver seems a river too far away. Beyond that, any newcomer is up against every digital startup and advertising conglomerate from New York and San Francisco to Austin, Texas.

One could argue the market’s saturation and cutthroat nature won’t brook newcomers for long.

But Cross and Cole don’t see it that way.

Fact is, Cross — Ambient’s managing director — and Cole — the firm’s creative director — harbor skills and experiences that mesh. They’re not newbies. They’ve got clients and industry contacts. And they were willing, as Cross put it, to “work till we bleed.”

“There’s no shortage of competition,” Cole said. Yet, he added, “there’s no shortage of business.”

That’s partly because of the rush to draw eyeballs to online ads and other content as the Internet rapidly commandeers the media landscape. But it’s also because of another Internet-induced fact: Ambient and similar companies aren’t constrained by old-world market boundaries.

“We don’t have to be in the same city and same state to do work for somebody,” Cross said. “We’ve got clients in Hawaii and Chicago. We’ve got them in all sorts of places. When you’re doing digital stuff, it doesn’t have to be three blocks from here.”

Indeed, Ambient counts companies in many different places as clients, including Vancouver-based Burgerville, the Skagit Valley Polaris Kawasaki Dealership in Mt. Vernon, Chicago-based Liberty Justice Center and Mauka Fitness in Pukalani, Hawaii.

Samples of the firm’s work splash across its website: ambientm.com/portfolio.

And it’s not as if Clark County is some stranger to creative types or tech firms or the employment sector they form. The part of the economy in which Ambient operates — professional, scientific and technical services — comprises about 5 percent of the county’s total employment base, according to Scott Bailey, regional labor economist for the state Employment Security Department.

Nationally, it’s about 6 percent.

In pre-recession Clark County, the sector grew from 6,000 jobs in 2002 to 7,000 jobs in 2008, “which is pretty decent,” Bailey said.

In the 12 months ending in December, the sector expanded by 400 jobs, from 6,900 to 7,300 — an annualized growth rate of 5.8 percent. That’s double the county’s overall annualized growth rate of 2.9 percent.

Bailey said the sector, which tends to offer decent-paying jobs, has the potential for more growth.

‘Talent and skill’

The city of Vancouver is leading an effort to help Ambient and other knowledge-economy companies achieve that potential.

In October, the Washington State Department of Commerce named portions of Vancouver and Camas as an Innovation Partnership Zone, or IPZ. It opens possibilities for funding of additional fiber-optic cable and for development of a business incubator to develop technologies and talent.

The Vancouver-Camas IPZ, one of 18 such zones in the state, is called the Applied Digital Technology Accelerator. It includes Vancouver’s downtown and waterfront, as well as both sides of Southeast 192nd Avenue.

The city of Vancouver’s partners in trying to fulfill the IPZ’s promise are: the city of Camas, Wacom, Woobox, Washington State University Vancouver, Clark College, the Columbia River Economic Development Council, Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association and the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council.

When The Columbian recently contacted Eiken, Vancouver’s director of community and economic development, he said he hadn’t yet heard of Ambient.

But after visiting the company’s website, Eiken said the company fits “almost perfectly in the IPZ program.” He said he noticed the company was looking for a skilled graphic designer or website developer.

The idea behind the IPZ, Eiken said, is to connect skilled workers and the students and research coming out of universities to the “businesses that need that kind of talent and skill.”

He plans to introduce himself to Ambient to see “if there’s anything we can do to help them succeed.”

For their part, Cross and Cole are happy about where they are and about where they’re headed. Over the last six months, they’ve worked to sharpen Ambient’s focus, even dropping the word “Media” from the company’s name.

“We’re growing,” Cross said.

And downtown Vancouver suits Ambient.

“We want to be part of the community,” Cole said.

Columbian Port & Economy Reporter