Vox Pop Design grew along with interest in remote working. In early 2009 I met Eric John Abrahamson. He was also a South Dakotan and created "The New Pioneers", a collection of online profiles of entrepreneurs who "represent the demographic future of the northern Great Plains." In 2009 he featured a conversation we had, which can now only be found on the Internet's WayBack Machine. The site no longer appears to be up, so I've republished the work here. From my mention of the piece at the time:
…my real intent was to bridge the gap between rural revivalist pipe dreams and the kind of urban end-all-be-all centers championed by, say, Richard Florida. The future of work will need both. In a metropolitan area I find a diversity of people and ideas. This cross-pollination (even friction) creates a frenetic, energizing environment. When I abscond to South Dakota for extended periods its because the isolation provides clarity and focus. Technologies, like universal broadband, shouldn't be seen as just the ability to shore our boats where we'd prefer. Much unlike an anchor, rural broadband would free us to sail between multiple points with ease and fluidity, as the work requires. Ultimately, the premise is that South Dakota's technorati, cast out because of an overabundance of education and ambition, would return. I maintain that the goal isn't some kind of geek-enabled homecoming. The goal is to be able to choose.
The piece, in its entirety, is below.
Matthew Reinbold dreams of moving home to Timber Lake, South Dakota. He grew up on a farm about nine miles southwest of town and graduated from high school in 1996 "when the Internet was just a buzz word," he says. "People told me there was no future for me in agriculture. If I ended up in Timber Lake, then someone had messed up."
At the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City, he studied computer science and thought about becoming an astronaut. That dream dissolved, he says, after he spent several months as an intern at IBM in Rochester, Minnesota. "I realized that if I kept chasing this unrealistic dream, I would end up in a cubicle somewhere doing something I wasn't passionate about."
Instead, after graduating, Reinbold took a job with Digitech, maker of the famous "Whammy" pedal for electric guitars. With his college classmate and new wife, Valarie, he moved to the suburbs of Salt Lake City to work in the town of Sandy.
Despite the Whammy's role in the music industry, Reinbold discovered that his job wasn't especially creative. Then came the attacks of September 11. In the economic downturn that followed, Digitech laid off staff and just before Christmas, Reinbold found himself without a job.
"I had been weaned on WIRED magazine," he says, "and believed that if you write code, you will be set for life. That Christmas I discovered the stark reality: you have to fend for yourself."
Out of work, Reinbold went back to school to learn more about business. At the University of Utah he earned an MBA with a focus on emerging technologies. "I had been focused on hardware at IBM and Digitech," he says, but he developed a strong interest in web-based applications. "You can work from any computer, put things up and get feedback right away."
Soon after earning his MBA, Reinbold launched his own company — Vox Pop Design. Working from the basement of his home, he designed web pages for local clients. As his business grew, "the clients became more sophisticated," he says, "and so did the sites." He began doing remote work for companies as far afield as New Jersey and Oregon.
Reinbold networked with other programmers in the Salta Lake City area. He got involved with a technology user group. From that group he recruited a number of people who work for him on a project basis. He also found more remote collaborators including Matthew Orstad in South Dakota and several programmers in the Chicago area.
Reinbold has read the work of Richard Florida who writes that the rise of the creative class is the driving force in economic growth in the world today. Florida shows that members of the creative class tend to concentrate in a handful of cities in the United States and he suggests that this tendency is like to continue for years to come.
Reinbold understands this dynamic. "In an urban area like Salt Lake City, you see the talent, the off-the-wall energy and the excitement. You can get together for a social media meet-up, a Twitter get together or a geek dinner," Reinbold says. This kind of professional social interaction helps overcome the isolation of working at home.
Florida asserts that the continuing rise of the creative class will lead to further declines in rural America. Reinbold sees a somewhat different scenario framed by his personal dreams.
Every year he and Valarie take their two young children back to South Dakota for long vacations in the spring and around the holidays with either her parents or his. "When we go back to the rural areas," he says, "it helps us to get a sense of what's really important and valuable in life." In the future, he believes, more people will shuttle back and forth between rural communities and big cities."
Ultimately, Reinbold hopes to move his family and his business back to Timber Lake, but he is not going to move home and "wait for something to happen. I want to put together the capital and connections so that I'm able to go back to Timber Lake and provide jobs," he says.
In the meantime, Reinbold continues to grow his business, and he looks forward to what the federal government's stimulus program might do to improve access to broadband in places like Timber Lake. "That rutty, broken-down community is home," he says. "I would love to take my kids back there. I got a great education, and I want my kids to have that same small town opportunity."
Originally published on The New Pioneers.com, March 31st, 2009.