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Doing Business with Friends: Friends of the Web Makes its Mark on Baltimore

Friends of the Web's Josh(left), Anthony(back), Andy(front) & Dan(right) - Photo  Arianne Teeple
Friends of the Web's Josh(left), Anthony(back), Andy(front) & Dan(right) - Photo Arianne Teeple
For anyone with the tech skills to offer professional web design, development, and programming services, plus the ingenuity to create application-based products that visualize data and make collaboration easier, Silicon Valley would seem like the obvious place to launch a career. Mark Zuckerberg was famously convinced to relocate Facebook headquarters to the Bay Area, and the late, great Steve Jobs resided in Palo Alto, California, near Apple, Inc.’s headquarters. When you consider all the high-tech companies like Google, Adobe Systems, and Hewlett-Packard that also call this highly condensed area home, it seems like a no-brainer. Yet the four entrepreneurs behind Friends of the Web, a design and programming company based in Fells Point, decided to stay right here in Baltimore.

Recent college graduates Andy Mangold, Anthony Mattox, Dan Martens, and Josh Hepworth didn’t waste any time starting their own company.

“We graduated in May, got all the paperwork done, and opened our doors in June,” Mangold, the MICA grad and oldest of the four at only 23, says. “There was no time to waste. We’ve got bills to pay.”

What’s paying the bills is the typical web design and development services that tend to make for a more steady income since the opportunities are always coming up, whether in Silicon Valley or Baltimore. Friends of the Web is building itself up financially in that sense, and they’ll be hosting Refresh Baltimore, a series of lectures and group discussions on design and technology starting next month. These lectures will be geared toward Baltimore’s growing tech community.

What the group really feels gives them an edge, however, is their product development, which they kicked off with the release of their first smartphone app, Quiption. The app allows iPhone users to upload a photo directly from their phone, add custom graphics designed by Mangold, and send a physical postcard to a loved one using Sincerely, who does the actual printing and shipping.

Friends also developed Crowdstorms, which in short is an online mind mapping tool that helps small groups or companies collaborate more cohesively and creatively. It makes the brainstorming process more visual, which seems to be a common theme in Friends’ various projects.

“A lot of our work does seem to revolve around making information more accessible or easy to digest,” Mangold says. “Which I would actually say is probably the main role of a designer.”

And the main role of Friends is to keep coming up with product ideas that will set them apart from businesses like them -- though it can be tough to break into that world dedicated solely to product development.

“There’s no lack of people building websites and products in this area,” Mangold says. “I think there is a growing community right now devoted to building products for themselves and putting them out there. But there’s a lot more service work than there is building products, especially when you look at the breakdown here compared to the West Coast.”

Still, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Instead of trekking across the country or even to New York to be yet another web design start-up company with stiff competition for work, Friends of the Web can make a bigger impression on a smaller city. Mattox, digital artist and interaction designer, agrees that it would be tough pursuing this business venture in a city as saturated with web-related talent like San Francisco.

“There would be a lot more competition with young people trying to do the same thing,” Mattox says. “People tell you, ‘Great, get in line.’”

Not to mention that the four like this side of the country. Growing up outside of Philadelphia, the young men who came to call themselves Friends of the Web were first friends of the cafeteria. Mangold and Martens met in middle school, then Hepworth in high school, and Mangold and Mattox were roommates at MICA. Such a long history together prepared them for their current living situation -- the Bank Street rowhouse where they work and share one large desk among them is also where they live.

This 24/7 togetherness would put a strain on many friends-turned-coworkers-turned-roommates, but the four seem to be handling it well, and they make it work in their business’ favor by putting in all the extra hours necessary to get up and running.

“We love every part of it,” Mangold says. “It’s hard to separate work from the rest of our lives because it’s the same people, and these are four of the only chairs we have in the house. It’s hard to stop working at 5 o’ clock -- we work a lot more. But we love what we do, so when we’re not working, we’re thinking about working.”

Mattox admits he had reservations about the living situation at first.

“I expected we would eventually get sick of each other,” he says. “But we’re getting better at arguing with each other and figuring things out both as a company and as friends. It’s important for our business that we’re able to be honest with each other if something’s not up to par or taking too long.”

Their reasonable attitude toward the whole thing doesn’t seem to be influenced at all by the fact that they’re within earshot of one another. It’s clear the easygoing group dynamic comes naturally to them, and though they’re constantly hard at work, they have a good time doing it.

“We went to school [in Baltimore] for four years,” Mangold says. “We have clients in D.C. and New York, but we’re not paying rent in D.C. or New York. We love it where we are.”

Has it been a whirlwind since their start-up this part June? Absolutely, says Mangold.

“The summer has gone very fast, is what I will say.”

Cassie Paton is a freelance writer whose miniscule design knowledge came from her long-defunct MySpace page. She blogs sporadically at wittytitlehere.com and tweets @WittyCassieHere.

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Photos by Bmore Media Managing Photographer Arianne Teeple

- Friends of the Web's Josh (right), Anthony (back), Andy (front) & Dan (right) - Photo © Arianne Teeple
- Work in progress at Friends of the Web - Photo © Arianne Teeple
- A website created by Friends of the Web - Photo © Arianne Teeple
- An application built by Friends of the Web - Photo © Arianne Teeple
- Decor at the Friends of the Web office - Photo © Arianne Teeple
- Friends of the Web's Anthony, Andy, Josh & Dan - Photo © Arianne Teeple
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