High-tech company turns to Idaho mining town

Digging up new business

Posted: Thursday, December 28, 2000

WALLACE, Idaho -- Wallace may be an old mining town, but when TightLink employees mention prospecting, they aren't talking picks and shovels.

Their kind of prospecting occurs on the Internet, and they're searching for new clients, not precious metals.

The dot-com world of the Silicon Valley intersects with the Silver Valley in a historic building in downtown Wallace. TightLink, of Berkeley, Calif., located its sales office here.

All 17 employees are earning stock options -- Gary Kraack's impetus to leave his job in Coeur d'Alene and come to work for TightLink.

''You can't pass up the opportunity to work for a dot-com start-up,'' he said.

Dean Cooper is responsible for TightLink's presence in Wallace. Cooper, 32, sold Lookout Pass Ski Area last year, after managing operations there for eight years. During his job search, Cooper called Jim Fowler, a former partner at Lookout.

Fowler was working for TightLink, a 3-year-old company that provides customer service software for medium and large companies. The software kicks in when people ordering over the Net hit the ''Help'' button.

TightLink needed a sales staff.

Initially, Cooper planned to work solo out of his house. But both he and Fowler saw the potential of the Silver Valley's 10 percent unemployment rate.

''Finding people in the Silicon Valley is just brutal,'' said Fowler, TightLink's vice president of sales. ''Everyone thinks the engineers are hard. Salespeople are the hardest.''

Fowler also needed someone to train salespeople in technology.

''The key thing was having someone I really trusted, and that was Coop,'' Fowler said.

In an interesting twist, Lookout's third partner, Don Walde, is also working for TightLink as a sales representative in Post Falls.

''The three amigos are gluttons for punishment and have joined forces again,'' Cooper joked.

Cooper expects to hire another eight workers before the end of the year. Attracting tech-savvy workers hasn't been a challenge for him.

''We look for people who have an aptitude for technology, and we do a lot of training,'' he said. Wages -- a combination of commission and base pay -- start at about $13 per hour.

Tom Cooper, a self-taught computer hound, spent two years working at odd jobs in Wallace before he came to TightLink.

''I tried to make the commitment to work up here, and was struggling,'' said Cooper, who is not related to Dean Cooper.

He does program and computer support at TightLink. ''I never expected to find a position like this here,'' he said.

Mary Miller of Kellogg worked 23 years in outdoor jobs before coming to TightLink. She wrangled horses, worked on survey crews and did ski patrol.

But since the purchase of a home computer a few years ago, she's been gravitating toward a tech job.

''I love this. It's very challenging,'' Miller said. ''When I started, I worked my eight to 10 hours per day, then studied three more hours at night at home. ... It's the college education I never afforded in my early years.''

The Wallace office focuses on ''inside sales,'' which are over the phone or through the Internet. TightLink has outside sales reps in San Diego, San Francisco, Detroit and Post Falls, Idaho.

The state Department of Commerce wants to bring more companies like TightLink to rural Idaho, said David Godbout, an economic development specialist with the state. They can locate anywhere, but want to be in small communities because of cost and quality of life, he said.

''It's retaining a lot of people with college degrees,'' said Jacque Peak, who recently earned her bachelor's degree in business and communication. Without TightLink, Peak said, she'd probably be job searching in Boise.

''It gives us an opportunity to get in on the Internet start-up revolution without having to live in the rat-race of California,'' she said. ''I like being able to ski after work.''

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