Milwaukee’s Cybertoons is on the digital edge
Milwaukee will never be confused with traditional high-tech hotbeds such as Seattle, Boston, or California’s Silicon Valley.
But a small, relatively unknown software development company may be on the verge of putting Milwaukee on the digital map.
Cybertoons Digital makes software that enables people to build Websites without having to learn complicated Web publishing procedures. Forget about FTP’ing to your remote file server. With Cybertoons’ MyCyberWeb software, all you do is point and click. The process literally takes only minutes, and presto! You’ve got an instant Website.
Cybertoons’ proprietary software made its debut in February when it was licensed by M&I Bank. Bank customers who sign up for Internet banking automatically receive the ability to develop their own Website free of charge – sort of the digital equivalent of the free toaster.
“It is going over very well with our customers,” says Paul Steger, M&I vice president of corporate marketing. “The ease of use with their system is readily apparent, and right now, is out-front compared to anything else on the market.”
Cybertoons’ former stock-in-trade – creating impressive three-dimensional video animation for clients like ESPN – today represents only 15% of the company’s business, says Andy Flessas, the 28-year-old whiz who is the creative brains behind the company, and who, with his horn-rimmed glasses, appears to be a cross of Buddy Holly and a not-so-mad scientist.
The shift from 3-D animation to software development was a natural because the MyCyberWeb software offers so much more promise, and the 3-D animation field is saturated, Flessas explains.
As sometimes happens, Flessas and Cybertoons arrived at the concept of the MyCyberWeb quite by accident.
Three years ago, customers started to ask if Cybertoons could build Websites for them to enable the 3-D images to be delivered in dedicated fashion. Flessas and a small team of software developers built Websites for Appleton Papers, Navistar International and Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance. Then, some of its customers started to ask if Cybertoons could develop a means so that they could change their Web pages on their own.
“So, we developed software with back ends on it that would allow non-technical people to make changes to their own Websites without having to come to a technical person to do it,” says Cybertoons president Steve Sinicropi, who left the general manager’s position at Milwaukee radio station WLUM-FM one year ago to join this promising medium.
A shift in strategy
The next logical step for Cybertoons was to develop software with a specific design that would allow any non-technical person to build and maintain a Website. And thus, the MyCyberWeb software was born. The proprietary design is built on a platform developed by Oracle Corp.
“So now with this software, any individual or business can build and maintain a corporate quality Website with point and click ease,” Sinicropi says. “All it takes is a simple Web browser and an Internet connection, without having to download any software.”
The software is designed primarily for banks and other financial institutions who want to create “communities” consisting of their customers. By offering the free Websites, banks such as M&I are free to offer their customers other products through the Internet.
Based on a prediction by The Gartner Group that 50% of all banking will be done online by the year 2003, it would appear as if Cybertoons is on to a good thing.
“This is where banking is headed,” adds Steger.
What differentiates Cybertoons from the competition is that it gives people more tools than they can figure out. Flessas’ strategy is to always give consumers a little more than they can use, so it buys time until he can develop something new. The strategy is akin to keeping a small child happy with a toy.
“We are the only one doing this on the planet,” Sinicropi says. “We developed this software using Oracle technology. It’s powerful, it’s scalable, and it does all the things that a business wants it to do. We own this software, and it’s very powerful.”
Another advantage is that all of the Websites are hosted by Cybertoons, which means that you are not tied to an Internet Service Provider (ISP) who hosts the site. If you are an M&I customer, you can access your Website even if you’ve just switched your ISP from America Online to Exec PC, for example.
The software allows the user to import visual images and add additional Web pages in a way that competing offerings cannot match.
“I think the way they have done it is more robust,” Steger says. “There are other site developers like Geocities. But, when you look at what they give you, versus what MIWeb gives you, they are out ahead.”
Cybertoons has also developed an electronic commerce module which allows businesses to set up Websites in which customers can buy products from them online. This is an ideal arrangement for retailers who want to minimize overhead, Sinicropi says.
“If you are going to open a store, you’re going to have to get a lease or build a building,” he says. “Then, you
“If I can do what I do now with 14 guys, imagine what I can do with 400. The IPO will give us the kind of brute force we need.”
– Andy Flessas, Cybertoons Digital
have to stock it with inventory and you have to hire employees. So, you’ve got all of this capital tied up in infrastructure.
“But, if you build one Internet store, it is open 24 hours a day and you don’t have to have any people and you don’t have to stock inventory,” Sinicropi says. “People can buy whatever they want at times that are convenient for them from the privacy of their own homes. It’s always open and it’s always easy.”
To support his contention, Sinicropi points to Egghead Software, which recently closed all of its retail outlets. Amazon, which is the world’s biggest bookstore, does business solely over the Internet.
Store owners using the Cybertoons e-commerce module can alter product offerings with the same point and click ease. Current users of the e-commerce module include Hal’s Harley-Davidson and Car Phones Plus.
Small business can buy into the software for as little as $2,500 without the commerce module included, and $7,500 with it. The ability to offer a community of Websites starts at $50,000 and up, depending on the particular needs of the business, Sinicropi says.
The next big thing
Since last year, Cybertoons has grown from six employees to 22, with the majority coming in the form of computer programers. So, how does Milwaukee stack up to the big boys when it comes to attracting top-notch software developers?
“As far as being competitive, our guys stack up,” Flessas says. “They are as good or better than what is out there. They (the traditional hotbeds) certainly beat us in sheer numbers. But, you can put us up against any team anywhere, and we’ll kick their butts. We can move quicker than larger corporations. We can engage faster because we are not bound by linear corporate structure.”
If Flessas has his way, the company will grow exponentially. An initial public offering is planned within the next three years, he says.
“The IPO will give us access to massive amounts of R&D money, and give us the kind of brute force we need,” Flessas says, adding that he would like to have a team of 400 software engineers at his disposal. “With that kind of crew, I can make the kind of strike that I need to make. If I can do what I do now with 14 guys, imagine what I can do with 400.”
In the digital arena, what was a hot new technical advance can become obsolete virtually overnight. There is pressure to come up with the next big thing.
For Cybertoons, that means intelligent digital agents. Programers are currently working on Internet software that will act as an intelligent digital assistant. This is considered the next step in tapping the vast potential of the Internet and making it easier to use.
“It says ‘Hello Andy, what are you interested in?'” explains Flessas. “The software talks to me in text. I can respond to it and tell it what my intentions are. It is an expert system that is hung off the Web with an inference engine. The users interact with this almost like they would with a search engine.”
The intelligent agent is the equivalent of walking into a library and asking the librarian for help instead of blindly searching the volumes.
“This is really cool, because it works 24 hours a day, there is zero variance,” Flessas says. “Through interaction with this thing, it will log what it doesn’t know. This allows us to make this thing smarter.”
Expect to see an intelligent agent software product coming out of Cybertoons sometime this fall.
What kind of face will Flessas & Co. put on the intelligent agent?
“The philosophy here is, instead of putting a character’s face on the agent, we want to the user to perceive the agent like you would a character in a book,” Flessas says. “You visualize that character. This way, the user will tend to perceive the agent something more toward themselves. That will make it more successful.”
Flessas and several Cybertoons engineers were recently invited to Oracle’s R&D testing facility in New Hampshire. While Flessas can’t discuss what he saw and toyed with, it’s safe to say he has seen the future of Internet technology two years out, and it’s impressive.
What Flessas fails to mention is that not just anyone gets invited to gain a glimpse of the technofuture according to Oracle. You have to be an innovator.
It is safe to say that Flessas and Cybertoons have earned a place among the software innovation elite, as they seek new ways to open up the Internet to the masses.
June 1998 Small Business Times, Milwaukee
Milwaukee’s Cybertoons is on the digital edge