Like so many before, Bill Herling and Jill Nealey-Moore look out on Tacoma and see opportunities.
They do it from top-floor office space in the historic Rust Building downtown. In front of them, Pacific Avenue stretches southward, and on a clear day — which it wasn’t Wednesday — Mount Rainier would loom on the horizon.
Herling and Nealy-Moore make an interesting team in an interesting time for Tacoma’s future — particularly when it comes to that economic panacea that every city outside of Seattle seems to covet: tech.
Together, they recently founded and now guide Humming, a startup with 15 employees, lofty aspirations and more than $1 million dollars in venture capital funding.
Herling is a 25-year-old “serial entrepreneur” and self-described “patent troll” who grew up in Gig Harbor and dropped out of college (because, of course). He “likes to build things,” he says with the confidence that’s a trademark of the genre.
Nealey-Moore is a 49-year-old psych professor at the University of Puget Sound whose “expertise lies in the intersection of health psychology and clinical psychology,” according to the university’s website. For her, joining Humming offered an opportunity to increase her “sphere of influence” and also “help a lot of people.”
The company’s big idea is to change and automate the way smaller companies purchase advertising online. Utilizing scale to lower costs, Humming allows even small-time ad purchasers access to instant analytics to optimize performance and reach targeted audiences. The company uses artificial intelligence and machine learning help to build and distribute ads across platforms.
Herling and Nealey-Moore frequently use words like “redefine” “disrupt” and “democratize” to describe their startup’s ultimate potential.
Humming’s website, meanwhile, proudly and boldly proclaims it to be “Tacoma’s tech company.”
That’s by design, and where Herling’s and Nealey-Moore’s play gets particularly intriguing.
Like so many other tech startups, Humming has an origin story with coffee-shop beginnings and, eventually, a tiny and anonymous office across the street from Amazon’s downtown Seattle megalopolis.
In June, though, Humming made the jump to Tacoma.
In part, that’s because Herling, who now lives in Tacoma, and Nealey-Moore, who lives in Gig Harbor, were sick and of the commute.
Even more, it was because they saw a chance to stand out and do big things in Tacoma.
They want to grow their 18-month-old company, and since moving to town, Nealey-Moore said, they’ve been able to start doing it.
They want to help Tacoma grow in the process.
Utilizing tools and incentives like a federal program that encourages longer term investments in “distressed communities,” Herling and Nealey-Moore said they aim to prove tech can work — and work well — in Tacoma.
Herling realizes full well he’s not the first to look at Tacoma’s potential and harbor such ambitions.
“Tacoma is primed for an explosion of growth,” Herling said from what was described as the atrium of Humming’s downtown Tacoma offices. “And I recognize … that Tacoma has always had this odd sense of optimism. The people I’ve talked to, it was always, ‘Give it two more years, two more years, this is happening.’”
“It’s cool, though, because you kind of band together, where there’s a community, and there’s not one in Seattle,” Herling continued. “We were one of 1,000 startups in Seattle. We can be so much more and so much better here because we can be here early.”
Humming might be branding itself as “Tacoma’s tech company,” but it isn’t entirely alone.
Patricia Beard, the city’s business development manager, said Tacoma’s tech scene is “small but growing.”
It includes players like the well known Infoblox, which acquired the Tacoma-based cybersecurity company IID in 2016 and maintained a presence in Tacoma, and newer startups like Give InKind, which was described by The Seattle Times in 2017 as “a website that lets people plan, request and send anything their loved ones might need as they celebrate good news or go through a hard time.”
Beard describes Humming as “a great story.”
There are a number of others in Tacoma as well, she said.
Tacoma, of course, is pulling out all the stops to help draw tech startups to town and help them succeed, so Beard’s desire to spread the spotlight isn’t surprising.
She said the city offers help finding space and potential investors, offers financing and micro-loans and provides connections to the area’s numerous institutions of higher education — among other things.
“The city — and not just the city of Tacoma, governments across the nation — have typically been really risk averse and not very prone to helping out startups. But that has really been changing over the last five or six years. There’s a lot less caution about startups,” Beard said.
“If they succeed, those are living wage jobs,” Beard continued, before adding that any efforts to attract tech jobs to Tacoma have to be coupled with efforts to address a preexisting lack of affordable housing.
Attracting tech startups and bringing up wages, Beard said, could be “really important for improving the standard of living in Tacoma.”
Yes, it could.
Emphasis on the could, and not just because we’ve already seen what a tech explosion can do to a city’s character and the people who have long called it home.
When it comes to attracting tech startups, there are acknowledged challenges.
Herling and Nealey-Moore said there’s a stigma to Tacoma you have to get past. And despite a wealth of local talent and experience, finding enough qualified employees to fill out every position at a company is still a difficult task.
For Tacoma, there’s the sheer chance of it all.
Will the City of Destiny be able to capitalize off its proximity to Seattle and the unique quality of life the South Sound offers? Will Humming — “Tacoma’s tech company” — be one of many growing and successful startups with offices downtown?
I don’t know the answer.
That means Herling and Nealey-Moore might be on their way to doing what Harry Brown and J.C. Haley did so long ago, realizing their entrepreneurial dreams and earning a permanent place in Tacoma’s annals.
Or, they could be more like lumberman John Buffelen and the young pilot Harold Bromley, who in the late 1920s launched a publicly financed plan to fly a single-engine plane from Tacoma to Tokyo.
The plane was proudly named “The City of Tacoma.”
Herling and Nealey-Moore have undeterred faith.
For a tech startup, Seattle offers instant credibility.
Tacoma, on the other hand?
“It’s been the best thing for this company,” Herling said of moving Humming to Tacoma.
“We’d be dead if we were in Seattle. I really believe that.”