Meanwhile, Jeff Morris, Ntara’s President & CEO, was an undergraduate student at Purdue University. There, he met grad student Neil Owen, our Executive VP & Chief Strategy Officer. Their love for visualization (specifically, the emerging technology around 3D) brought them together. When Neil graduated, he was offered positions at both Purdue and East Tennessee State University. As his friend announced the decision to leave his alma mater and become a Buccaneer, Jeff thought, “Johnson City, Tennessee, aye? Where the heck is that?”
That’s where the real story begins.
Johnson City, Tennessee
“Thanks, but no thanks,” Jeff said when Neil asked him to join him in Johnson City. But after a visit to ETSU, he decided to make the move. For Jeff, the next four months included a combination of fast food, sleeping on the floor of his not-so-furnished apartment, and spending most of his time making sure what would come to be known as a “world-class visualization program” could take off. No biggie, right?
The Advanced Visualization Laboratory (AVL) program started with only a handful of students. By the end of their tenure, there were nearly 400 students who had come from all over the world to take classes at ETSU’s Center of Excellence. The program became the model for training in Centers of Excellence for the use of Alias-Wavefront computer software, even for major cities like New York and Helsinki.
Keep reading to find out why Jeff and Neil decided to transition careers to start Ntara, the challenges Jeff has faced as both a professor and CEO, Jeff’s goals for the future, an insight into what he is most excited about in the digital space, and where you might find Jeff outside of the 9-5 grind.
Goodbye to teaching
Jeff, you helped create and facilitate a world-class visualization program. But, you said goodbye to that “baby” in ’99. Explain.
Neil was a little hurt and disappointed when I told him in early 1999 that I was going to start looking for other jobs. Dagger right through the heart. But, don’t call me the bad guy just yet, Ntara is alive and well, isn’t it? I went back to Neil with a proposition and our conversation went something like this:
Jeff: What if we could stay in the area and start a business about what we teach?
Neil: What you’re saying is, we would leave the university and not be guaranteed a salary and we would try to start a business?
Jeff: Yeah, pretty much.
There were a few things to iron out, but a few months later, our second child was born, and we named her Ntara.
The birth of Ntara
Ntara… ahh… it has a nice ring to it. But, when you talk about starting any business, there’s the good, the bad, and the ugly. Since Ntara is a beautiful, well-oiled machine, we’ll eliminate the ‘ugly’ (out of respect to her, of course). Let’s start with the bad, or more appropriately, the challenges. What challenges have you faced within the industry, but also as a leader of a small business?
Identifying with what we are. In the beginning, we were forging partnerships with traditional agencies, which was my idea. The agencies at that time were scared to death of us. They couldn’t figure out why we valued ourselves different from them. With no traditional agency background, Ntara’s processes were completely foreign to them. They wanted to discount that for lack of understanding. It’s interesting that now, traditional agencies have come to embrace the technological and the digital aspects of our business…and most still don’t have it in the core of their DNA like we always have.
Three years ago, we started to reevaluate how we’d been successful in the past and what we wanted to focus on offering and narrowing that down. Who did we want to work with? That’s when we narrowed down to three verticals: Manufacturing & Distribution, Healthcare, and Technology. We believe we offer great value to these industries.
The constant movement of the industry is always a challenge. This industry is like a slipstream or river—things look the same but they are absolutely changing. Your vantage point relative to the industry must change. For example, social influencers and brand ambassadors. These have been done in the past with traditional advertising, but the channels in which they show up today are totally different and more measurable than ever before. Speaking of measurable, that is one of the vehicles that has helped us in digital to be able to show return on investment in the form of campaigns and measure the results.
Being a business leader is a challenge in itself. There is no “one” right answer for where we should go and what we should do. There is no default right size for the company. How big will Ntara grow, you ask? Organically, and steadily to whatever is correct to serve our clients.
Even though it’s becoming less and less challenging, it’s still tough to find and recruit seasoned talent to the area.
I have grey hair now and Neil, well…he has very little left.Jeff Morris – CEO & Co-founder
So, I can say with confidence that this “baby” has been more challenging than our ETSU program, but also more rewarding. The last five years have been the best, not only for the business, times of my life.
Onward, captain! Tell us about “the good.” What are a few milestones you have helped Ntara reach over the years? What are you most proud of?
Celebrating our 15th year. At 15 years, we felt that the business had started hitting its stride. The culture was moving in the right direction, the company was stable and growing, and our messaging was being realigned. Up until that point, I didn’t feel what we set out to do with the company was as important or fulfilling as what I helped start at ETSU. After 15 years, that feeling changed.
Another milestone that comes to mind is when we started building software. Bear with me on this one. We wanted to build a software division and have it thrive. This is an impossible tight rope and only a small percentage of services companies transform to successfully do it; we were not one of those. Thanks to the talent and architectural vision of our Senior developers, between the years of 2006-2010, we were building multi-tenant, cloud-based software. We did a few enterprise deployments with companies like Xerox, Lexmark and Alcatel-Lucent. That’s pretty darn progressive for that era. Long story short, we had to organically fund this venture and we didn’t have the money to market and grow the business unit and stay competitive.
So, the software division was mothballed. I’m sure you’re beginning to wonder how this is a milestone…
We gained a really deep knowledge base of dev ops and building code to standards. Code that worked in a scalar way with all sorts of development procedures and processes. We took a large part of that knowledge and applied it to building large scale websites and deep technical integrations. That was the payoff. This is how we can launch websites successfully that are 8,000 pages and in 22 different languages. We have evolved that, and I must give credit to several of our Dev team for this vision, into a true discipline. I call that a milestone in both the way we started the division and when we shut it down and started applying those techniques, by and large, to how we deploy any code today. This is also attributed to what makes us unique compared to agencies today to say, “we do digital.”
Now, let’s dive into what makes Ntara tick. We preach the importance of culture, so tell us a little about how Ntara’s culture sets us apart.
Ntara’s culture has not always been what it is today. When we rebooted the company in late 2012, I asked our leadership team, “why do we show up here every day?” Here is what we came up with:
- For our clients to really enjoy us, to love and embrace our brand, we need to have passion about our business, where we work, and to love our company from the inside out. It has to be natural, not forced.
- What do we value? Being authentic. Owning our identity. Have genuine authenticity. And most importantly, accepting that we are as good as anyone else.
I’ll tell you about one satisfying moment. It was a Tuesday around 6:45pm and I was leaving the office for the day. By choice, several employees were hanging out outside having an impromptu picnic and throwing frisbee. For me, that was huge. It was a signal that the Ntara culture was alive and well. The investments we had made in the way we employ and how we value our most valuable resource—our people—were paying off.
What is your strategy for leading a super passionate, creative, and dynamic team?
This keeps me up at night. I didn’t think at 47 that I would be challenged so much by some of the younger employees that are half my age and what motivates them. The fear around that is the hope that I can relate to them enough to provide an environment where they can thrive and grow. I don’t have a set recipe for this, but I’m continually trying to figure it out and evolve our environment.
As a leader, I want to understand what motivates people to keep the passion for the industry because if they don’t have that, they’re not cut out for this. I must strive to create an honest, open place where people have autonomy but also accountability. If all of this exists, we will have success with each other and our clients.Jeff Morris – CEO & Co-founder
Alright, you’ve got your team assembled. They’re amazing, talented, and just down right irreplaceable. 😊 Now what? Walk me through a few short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals you have for Ntara.
Short-term, Ntara needs to continue to display consistency and strategic growth. With our efforts last year in defining how we’re going to generate new business, this will be a measurement of success in that. I want to substantially mature our Integrated Marketing and Insights department. We’ve set the stage for this, but our goal is to reach a next level of maturity by the end of the year and we are on track for that. Out of business development, I would like to acquire four new clients that fit within our three verticals. Lastly, we’re outgrowing our building, so we need to find our next headquarters of operation, stat.
Outside of 2017, I believe three years at a glance is as far as you can reach. Within that timeframe, I would like for Ntara to evolve our business practices and new business development team, as well as maintain our culture as our staff grows. This could lead us to becoming a mid-sized agency, so the goal there would be to still focus on what’s important and how we measure that for wins and losses. Let’s chalk up our long-term goals to this—visioning without specifics.
What are you most excited about for the future of the digital space?
I’m very interested in the transformative process that manufacturers and distributors are going through. Wildly fascinated and excited for them, and for what our agency can offer. After being in the business for 20+ years, I despise subjective decisions without data. What Ntara offers is less subjective—an engagement that can transform a business, with measurable results based on their investment over time, that is aligned with their business goals. I get so excited about this. That’s not selling the latest trend or air, that’s selling real business opportunity through experience to our client base.
I love the race team analogy when describing what we do. We start with research. What type of race is our client in? Who are their competition? Where do they rank? Once a strategy is created, we plan and build the car for the race series. We run the first race, review the result, make any needed improvements to the car, and prepare for the next race. We don’t have a “one and done” mentality. This is how we win with our clients.
I’ll admit it, I love the underdog. I would rather work with a business who wants to take the hill, not defend it.Jeff Morris – CEO & Co-founder
When you’re not in the office, where might we find you?
Outdoors. Camping, kayaking, backpacking, spending time with my family in our highly modified VW campervan. I love distance backpacking. Actually, I will be embarking on a 120-mile trip through the Sierras and California in July.
To sum it up, Jeff Morris is the bomb to our diggity. He brings passion for the industry to a new standard. His excitement for the future of the digital world is unprecedented. And, he has helped create an environment at Ntara like no other.
Interested in becoming a part of the Ntara culture? We’re hiring!