Sometimes you have to leave home in order to find home. That was the case with Mateen Aini, the 30-year-old Chief Operating Officer of Songwhale
, an interactive digital media company based in Pittsburgh that delivers free content to handhelds and helps brands with web, social media, mobile and WAP (wireless application protocol) strategies. It was during a conversation with the Steelers regarding an event partnership that they decided to move the company to Pittsburgh. (Read the Pop City story.
Songwhale's Chief Executive Officer, Ty Morse, is a Wisconsin native and so are owner-partners John Greenlee, Jay DeMerit (the former U.S. soccer team star)as well as Aini, who hails from Madison. That this band of brothers
would somehow meet in Pittsburgh says much about the city's status as a launch pad for innovative, tech-centric companies.
Songwhale's platform offers companies the opportunity to continue the conversation with their customers. If lunchtime is looking slow at, say, Pizza Hut, the fast-food giant can text real-time deals to their subscribers in order to increase foot traffic. The company also creates web content for its clients and advises on promotions. "We take a strategic and collaborative approach to what we do," says Aini, who joined the company full-time in early 2010 after consulting on Songwhale projects in the U.S. and overseas for more than a year.
Aini's roots inform his world view and bring the benefits of globalization into sharp focus. His parents moved to Madison, Wisconsin from Afghanistan in 1979 and Aini studied at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. He then relocated to Minneapolis, where he worked for Accenture and Target and was ready to attend grad school at Stanford when an advisor introduced him to the folks at 4Info, a Silicon Valley startup which turned out to be "a real-life, crash course MBA without the tuition," according to Aini.
It was during this time at 4Info, the acknowledged leader in the mobile advertising space, that he learned about Songwhale, and the opportunity to shape the fortunes of yet another startup proved irresistible.Silicon Hill?
"I'm not sure what life will bring in Pittsburgh but I know it's a place where I'll always have business roots," says Aini, who sees the expansion of Google in Bakery Square as further proof that Pittsburgh is a good place to do business. "We have to continue to harness and nurture grads from local universities and to expand our access to the Silicons – Valley and Alley. But we also have to find the people here who are willing to invest and take risks. A lot of startups come to us [for advice] and we're happy to help with their go-to-market strategies but there are way more mentors on the coasts. We need to identify investors."
Aini and his partners see no reason why we couldn't have our own Silicon (Squirrel) Hill or Siliconville (that's you, Lawrenceville) in Pittsburgh as a start/mid-point for companies with a much lower buy-in (e.g. talent, infrastructure) than what's required in San Francisco or New York. "We want grads to realize they can stay here, and they do fall in love with the place after four to five years."
Already, Pittsburgh has much of what Songwhale needs, assets borne from the city's long history as an industrial nexus. "This is a great community for our business," continues Aini. "There are a lot of large companies – UPMC, PNC, Highmark, Bayer, Consol Energy – for brands to test-market since it's a microcosm of what's going on in the U.S. Then there's the sports vertical, three pro teams in great venues, and some of the largest franchisees of Fortune 500s are located in southwestern Pennsylvania. You don't always have to be in a media epicenter and we have easy access to East Coast markets (from Pittsburgh)."
Songwhale maintains corporate and sales offices in San Francisco and Indonesia – the latter a bellwether for future trends – and its technology is developed in Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and Beijing (with China Mobile generating $330 million in revenue per day, notes Aini, a toehold in that country is a must).
The ease with which he is navigating the city's business community is something of a revelation for Aini. "Audrey Russo and the Pittsburgh Tech Council have been terrific. At our first meeting with them, the mayor was at the table. You can be a big fish in a small pond here as opposed to one of fifty interactive media companies coming out of San Francisco. What I love about Pittsburgh is the Midwest mentality, the work ethic. There's not as much entitlement. For a company that's looking to grow, that's key and it's what's rich about this place. Coming from big cities, I can see that. Pittsburghers don't know what they've got."
Most mornings, Aini carpools to his Lawrenceville office with sidekick Morse since they both make their home at the Cork Factory in the Strip District. He and his wife, Andrea, a native of York, Pennsylvania, are exploring their newfound home with an enviable zeal. "We love Ellsworth and Shadyside and being able to walk to so many places. We can take a boat ride to Heinz Field or PNC Park and eat at Kaya, Girasole, Silk Elephant and the Round Corner Cantina. And the Strip District on weekends is amazing!"
What would Aini improve upon? "You really do need a car here – in San Francisco, we had no car and here, we're wondering if we can get by with one. And the streets! What happened when they did the planning? Getting around is tough and I think it will take me years to know the short cuts." But all is not lost. "The Brillobox is just like my favorite bar on Valencia (in San Francisco)," says Aini, smiling.
New Girl In Town Elaine Labalme writes regularly for Pop City. Photographs copyright Brian Cohen