Pixel Jockeys

by Bill Simmon

Propeller Media Works stays fresh by embracing the vagaries of life

David Gibson and Russ ScullyWhen David Gibson (left) and Russ Scully realized the synergy they could create by merging their Web design companies, it was an easy choice. They plan for their company, Propeller Media Works in Burlington’s South End, to be here 100 years hence.

Hearing Dave Gibson talk about his work, it’s sometimes hard to decide whether he wields a computer mouse or a circular saw.

With his partner, Russ Scully, Gibson co-owns and operates Propeller Media Works, a Web design and marketing firm in Burlington’s South End. Talking about his company, he speaks in terms of carpentry. He mentions words like “craftsmanship” and “attention to detail.”

“We’re looking to see if the underside of the cabinet is as free of flaws as the front side,” he says.

The allusion to physical construction is more than just metaphor. Gibson says he’s always been interested in building things. He first picked up a welder at age 14 and spent time after college working for a master cabinetmaker and furniture restorer in Connecticut. The skills he learned making finely detailed real-world objects have served him well in his chosen profession in the virtual world.

Gibson started Propeller in the dot-com boom days of 1997 and steered the company through the troubled waters of the “dot-bomb” crash that followed by adhering to a traditional, New England, frugal business sense. “We didn’t spread out and become a 60-man group in the space of a year,” he says, referring to the business strategy that helped the company weather the storm as “the Yankee approach.”

Gibson should know all about being a Yankee. He was born in Great Barrington, Mass., and grew up in Hartland, where his parents owned a combination hardware store, lumber yard and modular home business. He attended St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., and after graduation and a couple of seasons pursuing his love of snowboarding in Jackson Hole, Wyo., he returned east and apprenticed for a year with the Connecticut cabinet-maker.

Stew JensenStew Jensen, director of client services and business development, joined Propeller just as Gibson and Scully were planning their merger. His experience with advertising agencies in Boston and Burlington made him the perfect person, says Gibson.

“I found that as much as I enjoyed the hands-on work,” he says, “I saw firsthand how monetary struggles can compromise quality.” He came away with an appreciation for the work and craftsmanship, he says, and the realization that he “wanted to produce something a bit more cerebral, which would be a better career choice in terms of income.”

Deciding where to pursue a career was easy, he says. “I think there are three things we’re looking for in life: where you’re going to be, what you’re going to do, and who you’re going to spend that time with. I decided pretty early on that Burlington was the ‘where’ part of that.”

Gibson settled in Burlington in the mid 1990s and was working at Sweet Tomatoes Italian restaurant while trying to land a marketing job at Burton Snowboard — “me and about 15,000 other snowboarders!” he quips — when he discovered the Internet. “We’re talking 14.4 modems, really bad Web sites,” he says.

Very quickly he saw an opportunity. “Web sites were either being designed by IT programmers — clunky, it felt like you were always banging into walls — or they were being designed by two-dimensional-graphic designers who didn’t understand the technology,” he says.

The Internet was young and Web tools like HTML and Javascript were fairly simple for Gibson to master, particularly with the advent of WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) interfaces. “I found I was able to build Web sites without too much difficulty,” he says. As he began developing a self-promotional website to help him find employment in marketing, he realized just what a powerful marketing tool the Web could be, and by 1997, Propeller Media Works was born.

The year that Gibson was launching the company, Scully was arriving in Vermont. The two had crossed paths at St. Lawrence University, although Gibson was a year ahead of him.

Scully had grown up in New Jersey. After graduation from St. Lawrence, he spent several years in Santa Barbara, Calif., doing graphic design work. He rode the wave of the Macintosh-based, desktop-publishing revolution of the late ’80s and early ’90s, taking design courses at the University of California-Santa Barbara and doing layout and ad design work for a local paper. In the mid ’90s, his focus shifted away from print. “Print was moving toward a sort of digital medium and then online, and I got really into Web-site design,” he says.

In 1997, Scully became engaged to Roxanne Stergas, also a St. Lawrence classmate, and they decided they wanted to raise their children closer to their East Coast families. They liked the small town atmosphere of Santa Barbara and had heard of Burlington’s reputation as a great place to live. “We were young and at that point we were adventurers,” says Scully. “It was like throwing darts.”

He went to work for Vertek, a telecommunications consulting company that sold Web tools to large telecom carriers. “They had a small satellite here in Vermont,” says Scully, “I was the eighth person they hired.” The company grew fast while Scully was there, and soon he was the art director. “I did all of the marketing and collateral for the company when it was going through the growth years,” he says, “as well as all the interface work for Web applications they were developing.”

Pete Foytho, Rob Riggen and Jennifer BlairPropeller’s space is open and airy, offering what Gibson calls an “inspiring” place to work. Pete Foytho (left) is the senior designer; Rob Riggen is a programmer; and Jennifer Blair is the bookkeeper/office manager.

While at Vertek, Scully became interested in the back-end side of Web development. He took classes in programming at Champlain College and discovered he had an aptitude for it. “I realized that if I came from a design background and could apply technical knowledge, that would be a really good thing to bring to this industry,” he says.

As 1999 came to a close, Scully left Vertek, and on Jan. 1, 2000, he started his own business: Scully Interactive. Knowing that his former classmate had a similar business, he stopped by Gibson’s office to reintroduce himself and let Gibson know he was setting up shop. “It was a real friendly gesture,” recalls Gibson.

“It was a funny situation,” Scully says. “Dave was going to find out that I’d opened a Web business, so I said, ‘I’m going to get this out in the open right away.’”

After a couple of years operating as separate entities, Gibson and Scully began talking about how their firms could work together. “First we did some projects together as separate entities. We had a lot of success with that,” says Scully, “and immediately we went into discussions of how we could structure the merger.”

“Dave and I felt that Propeller was more of a creative firm and Scully Interactive was more of a technology firm,” Scully says. “Getting those two groups together would balance the disciplines you need to do this well.” On Jan. 1, 2004, the two companies merged. Gibson and Scully agreed that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts, but there were some challenges in melding the entities.

“We may not have understood quite what we were getting into,” says Gibson, who likens the process to having children. “We had to bring together two different groups of people, methodologies and systems. For a period of time there was the Propeller way and the Scully way.” The partners agree that getting the two groups to work together as a cohesive team was the biggest challenge they’ve faced as a company.

Today Propeller is a 12-person shop. Gibson, Scully and Stew Jensen, director of client services and business development, make up a three-headed executive team. Their offices are side-by-side with sliding glass partitions between them so they can act as one large area or three separate private offices. There are four production people, two designers and a three-person accounting services team.

There is no typical day at Propeller. “We’re really a project-based company,” explains Gibson. “Every day we’re figuring out what stages of completion our projects are in, what new opportunities are we looking at, and where we are in terms of closing in and capitalizing on those.” Gibson says on any given day he could be doing anything from laying out a three-year plan for the company to dealing with HR stuff to taking out the trash.

Scully concurs. He says the only consistent thing you can say about their day is “we build Web sites.”

Three years ago, the Vermont Ski Association was looking to revamp its SkiVermont.com website and knew it wanted to work with a Vermont-based company. “It was immediately apparent that Propeller was a perfect fit,” says Tori Ossola, vice president/marketing for the association.

Gibson, Scully and Jensen were able to work with the existing Vermont brand and help build a site the organization is proud of, Ossola says. “Dave, Russ and Stew brought a lot to the table. They communicated with us in a down-to-earth way. They make Web development fun.”

Gibson and Scully see their projects and their company as constantly evolving. “A website is never done,” says Gibson. “It’s continuously being improved.” He says the same is true for Propeller. As a reminder, he likes to keep changing the physical space.

“I’m going to move our desks around in two weeks,” he says, “just to keep ourselves stimulated in an intellectual and environmental way.” Gibson wants the space to be inspiring for their clients and for their employees. “When you’re asking these very talented people to spend half their days here in one place, we’re going to do everything possible to make that space comfortable and stimulating,” he says.

Gibson and Scully want their employees to have fun at work, too. There’s a ping pong table in the office and a Foosball table. They like to barbecue out near the front door. “Propeller is a creative company where what Dave and I are trying to do is empower our employees to have fun at work and to be proud at the end of the day of what we’re able to produce,” says Scully.

If Gibson and Scully have their way, Propeller will be producing Web sites for a long time to come. Last fall the company laid out a long-term strategy — very long-term. “We want to be around for a hundred years,” says Gibson, who dismisses the goal of companies that are designed to be inflated to a certain value point and then sold. “We’re the opposite of that,” he says.

How do you build a company to last a hundred years? “Change is inevitable,” says Gibson. “You either embrace it and make it part of your culture or it’s going to eat you up.” •