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Hawaiʻi's Technology Community

Featured Techie: Haralds Jass, Founder and CEO of Superb Internet, Hawaii's Largest Web Hosting Company

In January 2009, Superb Internet Corp. relocated to Honolulu from Vancouver, Canada lock, stock and barrel. The Internet hosing and technology services company had decided to leave Canada for a number of reasons bu the move was a surprise to many in Hawaii. The traditional pattern for technology companies in the islands is launch small, grow to a larger size then leave. And the traditional reasons cited for leaving are usually cost of operating a business in Hawaii, lack of qualified technology workers, and difficulty meeting with customers due to the remote location. Haralds Jass, the CEO and founder of Superb, turned this logic on its head. The remote time-zone is excellent for covering both the U.S.and Asia in the same work day. And while Hawaii is hardly a low-cost haven, compared to Vancouver the islands are comparatively cheap. Equally important, Jass believed that his workers would be more productive in a healthy environment. As for customers, Superb, like an increasing number of technology services firms, has little to no face-to-face contact with customers, nor is such contact expected. In fact, a significant percentage of Superb's revenues come from resellers who package Superb's hosting offerings and sell them to customers as part of other services or as stand-alone hosting packages. In other words, Haralds Jass has created a text-book case study for how Hawaii could attract top-notch Internet and technology services companies to grow the state's economy. Which is why we have chosen him as our Featured Techie of the month. (It helps, of course, that he sponsors us and is a strong supporter of this non-profit effort to build Hawaii's technology community, natch.). A native of the Baltic nation of Latvia, Haralds studied at the University of British Columbia. In 1994, he founded Superb Entertainment, an online interactive entertainment company. Frustrated with the lack of solid Internet infrastructure, he decided two years later to launch a Web hosting company that quickly eclipsed his original venture and has become his primary entrepreneurial outlet. Superb is one of the world's 50 largest Web hosting companies, Superb's network handles anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000 Web sites (the larger variance is due to reseller activity). Superb's tech staff runs 15,000 servers with 60% of customers in the U.S. and 40% of the customers overseas. Jass has posted impressive mid-to-high double digit growth numbers every year since founding the company in 1996. That growth rate has continued in the year since the company moved to Hawaii. Superb employees 100 people globally with the majority now working out of Honolulu and receiving comparatively high wages for the islands. I chatted with Haralds about how he made his decision and how it has turned out. The key pain point for Superb was red tape. Canadian government bureaucracy was heavy and significantly raised Superb's costs. Lack of skilled job candidates was another problem. Says Jass, "Vancouver, and Canada as a whole, has a very limited labour pool and we found that being located in Vancouver, Canada, we were greatly limited in our access to the skilled staff that we need in this very knowledge-centric business. Simply put, the Vancouver, Canada office was like an iron ball chained to our ankle." While Hawaii is remote, traveling across international borders, even to close locations such as Seattle, meant that Superb's teams often spent double or triple the time they would have required had the flights been domestic (the company has colocation facilities on the two coasts of the U.S.). Set on bolting from Vancouver, Jass began to search for a new home for Superb. The three obvious possibilities were Seattle, the Washington D.C. area (both close to Superb colocation facilities) and the Bay Area of California. But Superb also began to consider Hawaii. So Superb did test postings for jobs in those locations and actually found higher quality applicants for Hawaii jobs. The majority of these applicants had either moved to Hawaii from elsewhere or hoped to do so, indicating the Hawaii's environment and lifestyle was extremely attractive -- more than sufficient to fight the vaunted island "Brain Drain" syndrome. In fact, 60% of Superb's new hires moved to Hawaii for their new jobs, from locations including Vancouver, Canada, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Virginia, Texas, Michigan, and even the UK. Some where returning islanders but, regardless, Jass found that the allure of the islands meant he actually could access a global labor pool who were willing to move over. There were other reasons he chose Hawaii. The islands have "...the highest standard of life and the healthiest living environment in the US and one of the tops in the world, the longest life expectancy in the US, far lower stress levels than the second lowest stress state in the US. All this gave us the confidence to move here, knowing that we would have happier and healthier staff, which would translate into greater productivity," says Jass. The result? Superb's productivity per employee has improved by mid double-digit numbers since moving to the islands. Jass also notes that the state's tax incentives for high tech businesses was helpful (although that is less the case now than before due to recent legal changes to tax incentives laws and rulings). How hard was it to move from Canada? Very. Say Jass, "First and foremost, it took almost a year to get the required work visas for all of our Vancouver office staff who wanted to move. That was the longest and most difficult part of the process. Thousands of pages of detailed documents needed to be prepared. Then came the actual move. The company sponsored a large container for all staff personal goods, as well as vehicle moves for those who wanted to keep and move their cars. That was a large logistical undertaking, especially considering that it's an international move and all the goods needed to be individually customs examined upon arrival at the Honolulu port. Then there was the individual help for all of our relocating staff to help them get set with the basics, such as a place to live, local bank accounts, mobile phones, so forth and so on." A lot of hassles, sure, but Jass says his business is now more productive, his employees happier, and his growth rate continuing to show strong numbers. Jass is bullish on technology service businesses in Hawaii that sell to customers outside of the islands. "The key is first having a service that is not location specific and does not require in-person meetings. If that is the case, then especially being located in Hawaii, the work hours are an important consideration. Our "official" work hours are 6am-3pm HST but many staff are here until 6pm HST, and customer-facing departments start at 3am HST (9am EST) sharp. The key in working with non-local customers is instant reachability of competent, well trained staff any time of the day or night. That is really what it's all about." So some key take-away lessons for Hawaii from Harald's great adventure. 1. Look to recruit existing businesses in stable technology sectors rather than focusing primarily on startups. These businesses bring big customer bases, stability, and more revenues 2. Look to recruit from locales where Hawaii could be a comparative advantage in terms of costs, labor pool, and lifestyle. 3. Make the process of moving easier for these companies, perhaps by providing some support for relocation and resettlement

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Comment by Haralds Jass on January 4, 2010 at 9:33am
For more details on our data centres, see: http://nsssc.superb.net/
We have three data centres (Springfield, VA; Tyson's Corner, VA; Seattle, WA) and 11 PoPs on our coast-to-coast IP backbone (in VA, NY, IL, WA and CA).
Comment by Paul Graydon on January 4, 2010 at 7:24am
Hi Kimo, our data centers didn't relocate with us. We have multiple data centers covering both the west and east of the mainland. For the large majority of Hawaii internet related interests I would imagine west cost hosted servers would be more than sufficient.
Comment by Kimo Watanabe on January 4, 2010 at 7:17am
Nice write up. Thanks for sharing. I know that the article mentioned colocation, but did Superb also relocate it's datacenter to O'ahu?
Comment by Joei on December 30, 2009 at 9:48pm
Awesome article, very uplifting. Looking forward to hear more about this company and others like it.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on December 29, 2009 at 12:43pm
Haralds & Paul - Thank you for expounding on the business visa issue. Haralds - I'm glad to hear the US consulate in Vancouver was proactive and helpful. That is very encouraging.

Congrats on your successful move. We are very happy to have you in our state and our community.
Comment by Haralds Jass on December 29, 2009 at 12:14pm
Just one minor factual correction here, re: "with the majority now working out of Honolulu," actually about 30% of our staff are here, while 70% at the data centres (at all three for full 24x7x365 on-site coverage and for customer calls and tickets).

And re: the visas, the biggest delay was just the many month long waiting period after it was filed. For this type of Visa it can be only processed by the local Consulate, and the one in Vancouver just happeened to have one of the longest waiting times anywhere (as apparently a lot of people want to move from Vancouver to the US). What was a bit odd is that while we spent months preparing a big thick binder of documents and details, it seems that at the Consulate they just took some 2-3 minutes to flip through it (not page by page, but in bunches of 5-10 pages at a time) and just gleem every 5th page for like 2-3 seconds, and that's it! Then they were about to throw it away (recycle it), but I asked to keep it. So apparently than better you prepare, than less likely the Consulate is to even read and review the details. And, moving to Hawaii certainly helped! While others for the same type of Visa were grilled for 30-60 minutes, my interview lasted under 5 minutes, and after one or two real questions, the consular officer asked me can she come and work for us in Hawaii, and when I replied with a smile and a "may be," it was approved.

Similar experiences also elsewhere, such as updating my Nexus (biometric entry at US & Canada borders, so I just go thorugh retina scan and bypass the border control and customs) card in Vancouver at the US side to list the Visa within it, when the CBP officers there saw that it says Honolulu, HI again they become all of a sudden very friendly and helpful. So, I'll swear to the fact that being in Hawaii and moving to Hawaii somehow the US gov't officials treat one better. At least, so it is from my experience.

But back to the Consulate, the one person handling all our staff was super helpful to faciliate it and push things through, even when some of our staff had forgotten to bring some required items, still to help to make things happen without any delays. So, once the waiting period is past, at least for this type of business/investor visa it seems to work quite well.
Comment by Patrick Ahler on December 28, 2009 at 2:12pm
Great writing Alex, really enjoyed it!
Comment by Alex Salkever on December 28, 2009 at 11:40am
Good to know that UCSIS has improved things. That should really grease the wheels for more of these types of relocations.
Comment by Paul Graydon on December 28, 2009 at 10:04am
@Daniel Leuck

The positive news it that things are significantly improving on that front. Whilst it can be a minefield to negotiate the visa stuff, a large cause of delay has been the processing of the Visas, with staff getting overloaded at each processing center (especially in the face of unpredictable huge increases over the recent years). The USCIS has set up some specialist centers for handling certain types of Visas that is now nicely taking a load off of the individual service centers and speeding up the whole process quite dramatically - thankfully I received the benefit of that when I emigrated from the UK.

Unfortunately by my reckoning Superb's visa 'fun' all started before these were in place.
Comment by Elya McCleave on December 28, 2009 at 9:09am
Great article Alex! Thank you!

I'm (as one of the Canadians that moved with Superb) very happy to have the opportunity to work and live in Hawaii. It was a very positive step for our company and we are looking forward to the upcoming year!

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