BLACKSBURG — An early pioneer of the technology scene in Virginia Tech’s backyard is back in town with plans to grow his next venture here.
The company is Chartio, a data visualization startup that has already built a reputation for itself in San Francisco with about 40 employees and plans to get much, much larger.
One of the men bringing the company into Blacksburg is Kevin Minnick, who co-founded Webmail.us in 1999 and sold the company to Rackspace eight years later in a stock deal that would eventually become worth $50 million.
Webmail’s impact on Blacksburg can’t be overstated. The office eventually transformed into Rackspace, which still employs about 100 people in the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center and is one of the key technology employers in the region. Engineers who began there have gone on to launch other businesses. Some of those who cashed out on the acquisition became investors to fuel the next generation of startups here.
It was also the first tech company to prove it’s possible to build a high-flying engineering team in the Blue Ridge Mountains, even if Blacksburg does sit 2,000 miles from Silicon Valley.
Minnick said the Webmail team wasn’t trying to boost a nascent technology scene when he, Bill Boebel and Pat Matthews decided to launch a software company here during their senior years at Tech. But somewhere along the way they started realizing the competitive advantages that come with setting up shop off the beaten path.
Cost of living was less. Office space was cheaper. There was less competition for employees. Workers tended to stay longer. The opportunity to be part of a cool software startup was more unique and attractive to top talent.
“We would just be noise in Northern Virginia,” Minnick said of Webmail’s thinking back then. “There’s a million small companies there trying to get traction. Here, we knew if we were successful we would really stand out.”
Now, nearly two decades after launching Webmail, Minnick said many of those same advantages are why he wants to bring Chartio to Blacksburg.
The company, which builds tools to help businesses visualize and manage data with charts and graphs, is still based in San Francisco and will keep growing there. But Chartio CEO Dave Fowler has tapped Minnick to help build an East Coast engineering outpost.
Minnick is joined by Brian Hartsock, a Rackspace alum who previously created a similar Blacksburg engineering office for California-based crowdfunding startup Tilt. That office was shut down after Tilt was acquired by Airbnb last year.
Fowler said he had been considering a remote office for a while, but the decision was simple when he learned of the Virginia pair’s track record.
“I had a lot of confidence that these guys knew what they were doing to recruit and retain a good team,” Fowler said. “When they said Blacksburg is where we want to do it, I was totally a believer.”
Chartio has signed a lease for space on the second floor of the The Brownstone building on downtown Blacksburg’s South Main Street. For now, the company’s five-person team is working a couple of blocks away in a small converted house.
It plans to open its own office this summer and grow to about 10 employees by the end of the year. Within three years Minnick said he hopes to have a 15-person team in Blacksburg, but the ultimate goal is to keep growing into something reminiscent of Webmail and Rackspace’s presence here.
“That’s the goal. That’s the opportunity ahead of us,” Minnick said. “It’s a very competitive space, there’s a lot of hard work you have to put in. But the goal is to be a big company.”
For Minnick, the new job is also a return to his roots, where he feels most comfortable growing young companies.
Webmail reached about 60 employees before its acquisition, a time Minnick called the most exciting of his life. He moved to Texas in 2010 to stay with Rackspace after the sale, but moved back a few years later so his daughter could begin middle school in Virginia.
Minnick left Rackspace in 2015, after it stopped feeling like a startup in growth mode. He worked as a consultant for a few years and even briefly launched his own startup.
But he put all that on hold when the Chartio opportunity came around in July 2017.
Chartio graduated in 2010 from the prestigious Y Combinator startup accelerator in Mountain View, California, which is known for producing companies like Airbnb, Reddit, DropBox and Instacart. It’s funded with $8.8 million in venture capital, has a balance sheet that’s in the black and has already worked through those early years when many startups fail.
But Minnick said there’s still a lot of room for growth, and its approaching that critical point when it’s time to scale the business.
“I’ve been looking ever since I left Rackspace to find that next fast-growing opportunity,” Minnick added.