A tech startup finds gold in the Upper Valley's hills. But it's not what you think.

Chris Forman

Every so often, Chris Forman talks business with other company founders. Like him, they've started high-tech firms, ride the jet stream of companies with high-growth ambition, and depend on smart, resourceful employees who thrive in data-driven surroundings. When they say good-bye, however, they turn their attention to very different worlds.

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Forman's compatriots live and work in tech hubs -- places like Boston, Silicon Valley, and New York. Forman founded and runs two companies in Lebanon, StartWire and Appcast. He works in a small New Hampshire city and lives on a farm in Plainfield. His life outside the office, in other words, is not your typical tech CEO's. And it's different in the office, too -- because there, he's surrounded by people who've allowed him to build a company with a decidedly different culture from the stereotypical tech startup. 

"I think there’s a characteristic of folks who live in the Upper Valley that is not unique broadly in America, but it is unique if you compare it to Silicon Valley, Union Square or Cambridge," he says. "People here are loyal. There's a bond that exists between employer and employee, and if you take care of folks, they stay. For a company, [employee] churn creates measurable and immeasurable costs. In the Upper Valley, you can hire really smart people and if you take care of them, they stay with you."

In the four years since Appcast was founded in 2014, six people have left voluntarily. And one of them came back. The company, which is a leader in using computer-mediated "programmatic advertising" to get help-wanted ads in front of the job seekers most likely to respond to them, now has about 100 employees.

Compare that to the tech world nationally, which in a 2018 LinkedIn study led US industries in turnover, at 13.2 percent. That beats even retail, where historically you can't turn around without bumping into someone's good-bye party. "When I talk to friends building a business in Boston or New York or San Francisco, those businesses look and smell a lot like ours," says Forman, "but there’s a massive difference in that we have people who stay." 

Chris Forman talks business with the Appcast crew last Friday morning 

Of course, steadfast employees are not what led Forman to these parts. He fell in love with "a New Hampshire gal" and followed her to medical school at Dartmouth. His wife, Angela Toms, is now a family physician in White River Junction. She's also the one who gets up at 4 a.m. to go for a run and then do the chores, and who tells the rest of the family what they're on the line for around the farm. "I'm an enthusiastic, if ill-skilled, farmhand," Forman says.

But you can write large what led Forman and Toms to live in the region. They wanted to build lives and a family here, and a lot of other people have made the same decision, moving, returning or staying in the Upper Valley because it offers a calmer pace, strong schools, natural beauty, and an outdoor lifestyle. That, says Forman, makes it "an incredible, lively, wonderful place to build lives and, I've found, to build companies." 

Dartmouth is crucial to the mix. Appcast doesn't employ a single Dartmouth grad, but "we have double digits of Dartmouth spouses," Forman says. Dartmouth creates what he calls "a bubble of talent and also a bubble of capital," both of them vital to a knowledge-based company.

At the same time, Forman's also been able to go local. Like any tech firm, Appcast has plenty of employees in their 20s and young 30s. No fewer than 13 of them went to Lebanon High School or Kimball Union Academy.

"I know. It's crazy!" Forman says. "For the most part, they went away because their friends did and they believed they had to to make a living. They've come back because they love it here. They want to live here. They just didn't think they could make it here." Alongside them, you'll find a core of friends and collaborators Forman has worked with for years on various companies, and a group of mid-career employees, some of whom never worked in tech before joining Appcast but have been drawn by the company's congenial feel and strong sense of common cause. 

These people and its $10 million in venture funding have pushed Appcast to rapid growth. It now has over 1000 customers, according to marketing manager Annie Pullen, including the likes of FedEx, Lyft, AT&T and Cracker Barrel. And it has offices in four countries: its Lebanon headquarters and a marketing and product-development arm in Boston; an office in Fredericton, New Brunswick; a tech development team in Minsk, Belarus; and a small office in London.

Boston and London are hardly out-of-the-way -- "Some things you have to go to the big city to get," says Forman -- but in the tech world, Lebanon, Fredericton and Minsk definitely are.

"Those aren't names you hear every day in startup culture," says Forman. "But what they have in common is an incredible talent pool of people. Fredericton has three of the leading universities in Canada. Minsk in my opinion is one of the most undervalued talent pools of tech professionals in the world. We're finding scary-smart, hard-working, dedicated people in places most companies won't go look. And if we'd built in San Francisco or Boston, we would have spent twice as much on salaries, office space -- and churn."

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The Tech Valley blog is the work of Story Kitchen Creative. It is published under the auspices of the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce and paid for by the City of Lebanon.

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