A Brooklyn and San Francisco agency that made its debut early in the mobile app technology era, is establishing a fresh operation in Durham’s American Underground.
The company is Prolific Interactive and it builds e-commerce apps used by millions of consumers every week. While the Triangle isn’t necessarily a hub of retail, it’s known for technology, and Prolific expects to tap into the startup community here for both inspiration and talent. Its founders say they are investing in Durham’s energy surrounding all things tech.
The agency was founded in 2009 when co-founders Bobak Emamian and Eric Weber played on the baseball team at Quinnipiac University, a small school in Connecticut. The two shared a hobby for building web platforms at a time when the iPhone had just rolled out and app stores for iOS, Android and Blackberry were newly launched.
The venture began as a hobby, right as the world was beginning to digest the idea of having the Internet at their fingertips 24/7. It didn’t take long for the men to realize they were on the precipice of a new arena of software development. Mobile brought endless possibilities and plenty of room for exploration and experimentation.
A year after the pair established Prolific, they were developing apps for an increasing number of marketing and sports brands, and decided to move the operation to Brooklyn in the creative and trendy Dumbo neighborhood. At first, they had a difficult time assimilating to the borough’s hotbed of creative activity. But they interpreted the challenge as a test of survival.
Their confidence grew alongside their list of clients, which Prolific prefers to call “partners.” After landing their first e-commerce project— the online vintage fashion retailer ModCloth—they opened an office in San Francisco in 2012.
Through that project, Emamian and Weber realized that Prolific had an opportunity to create apps that served as products rather than just marketing or information tools. It began to transition into a business laser-focused on developing apps to help retailers sell their goods.
“The startup exploded in terms of growth, from there on,” Emamian says.
With accolades such as 2017 Inc. 5000 and 2016 Ad Age Best Places to Work, Prolific has designed and built apps for brands like Gap, Sephora, SoulCycle, American Express, Saks Fifth Avenue and Lilly Pulitzer.
Its advisory board includes noteworthy names such as John Berkowitz, cofounder of OJO Labs and Yodle (acquired by web.com in 2016), and Mike Germano, chief digital officer of Vice Media and partner at Brooklyn VC firm Space Pirates.
Conceptualizing an expansion to the South
Leading the new expansion to Durham is Prolific Lead Product Designer Courtney Starr, who has been at the company since 2014. The Triangle has been on Starr’s radar for years, and it quickly came to mind when Prolific began considering an expansion.
Starr cites many of the same reasons other companies move to the Triangle—cost of living, cheaper taxes, low rent prices and a diverse talent pool coming out of Duke, UNC, NC State and other local universities.
But Prolific also liked the diversity of successful companies who have offices or headquarters here and easy access to its southern customer base and existing offices with the RDU Airport nearby.
Since moving here last month, Starr has been active in the local community. He is meeting as many people as he can, attending American Underground events, and even checking out the Hopscotch Design Festival to see the local creative community in action.
He likes Durham’s commitment to local—American Underground companies are within a staircase or hallway’s reach from one another, and an office-wide email listserve makes it easy for startup teams to communicate to each other, share news or even send out calls for job referrals.
Q&A: Why Durham?
Why did you decide to expand in the first place? What’s the strategy?
As we finished up the deal with Omnicom, our strategy of expansion included in person-type work. We tend to see that when we’re in person, we see really good results. Each office can only grow so much before it becomes too corporate, where people don’t really know each other.
So, we want to use a strategy where Prolific is a headquarter-less operation. If we give local offices as much ownership as possible, over the long haul, our teams are emotionally invested a lot more and care about their success to say “I take pride in my work.”
We’re not treating this as a simple annex to the company, but very much an entrepreneurial kind of thing for anyone that joins the office. We’re deliberately making each office unique to service the way people work, to evolve on its own and pull new practices that might emerge somewhere and apply them across the company.
I originally wanted to be a part of the expansion because it seemed like an interesting endeavor to me. The Research Triangle had been on my radar for a number of years, but I had to ask the bigger question first: “Why is growing important to us in general?” I found that: 1) it helps us attract new teammates and diversify the team, and 2) we can hire people who thrive in a smaller city in a more natural setting.
It also helps us attract new local partners. As tech-centric as we are, this is vital to everything we do. And we want to work super closely with partners and users so we can offer an on-site partnership model. Growing enables us to solve different types of problems, with a collective knowledge bank.
What attracted you to look at Durham?
We looked at cities like Austin, Chicago and Columbus, but Durham and Raleigh really stood out. They offered something different. We were also looking at research and marketplace, seeing successful companies in that area. We saw the market growing and thriving as a community.
When Courtney started leading the search efforts for Raleigh and Durham, it was very clear how good of a fit it was going to be for the overall strategy so far. Our expectations for how the office will grow and operate is kind of “TBD” right now, but we want to provide value in the region.
How did you land in Durham?
In doing my research, I was impressed that innovation has been important here since the 50s. The talent pool is also really important to business like ours to be on top of our game. All the universities are really close, all about 30 minutes away from each other, and the in-roads at those universities each have strengths.
What does Durham have to offer that other cities don’t?
Almost everything we do is customer-facing so during the entire process, we’re constantly meeting with people to test something we’re designing. That personal connection enables us to make really great products, so this area offers a unique mindset.
We have Scotts as a partner, and we built a lawn care app for them.
People don’t really have yards in Brooklyn, but if the Durham office had existed at that point, it would have been great to do user testing with people who have lawns here. Different mindsets relate with different users and businesses.
One interesting and encouraging thing I’ve seen here too is that there are several people in my shoes—people who have moved from major metro areas to here, like Google moving over from the Bay Area.
What are your plans for building the new team in Durham?
I’ve envisioned a 20-30 person office as the sweet spot. Universities might be a long play, in terms of recruiting, because grads are fresh in their careers and they’ll need someone to train and mentor them on the job.
For recruiting more immediately, we plan to rely on personal networks and meeting as many people as possible. A personal network is one of the strongest places you’ll recruit from.
There’s so much we’ve learned in four to five years of having an office in San Francisco. We’ve had multiple iterations in terms of our strategy, and as soon as we start, the faster we’ll learn. That’s something I’m super super excited about—learning the best ways to operate and providing the tools for our team to create products.
As we learn quickly, we have a big opportunity to take those learnings to all our locations. One little tweak here and there applies to all offices. We’re operating with more intent that will help us design better or develop better, or whatever it might be. Those are the fun things of waking up in the morning; it’s like an Easter egg hunt and you don’t know what you might get. We can share learnings from other offices.
What are your long term goals for your new presence in the Triangle?
Something I’m really focused on now is learning from the area. I hope Prolific has an impact on Durham, but I also hope Durham will have an impact on Prolific. We want to integrate with the community. Local is such a big thing here. So it’s on-purpose that we want to be integrated and involved in the area whether it’s directly related to the businesses we serve, or if it’s hosting or going to events.
Fast-forwarding 20 years, I think of Prolific as a brain and all these offices we have are contributing to broader brain, sort of like an education platform to learn quickly. The AR for iOS 11 comes out today, so maybe the Durham office becomes experts in that realm, or another office can teach them about it.
The idea is to build a community of learning and knowledge-sharing. That piece will provide a map for growth that you can’t necessarily quantify with revenue, but you can in terms of philosophy.