Kalispell tech business poised for future growth

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Learned Reality owners Joni and Nathan Stoll in downtown Kalispell on Thursday, May 11. (Brenda Ahearn/Flathead Journal)

Learned Reality, a Kalispell business that provides e-learning and web services for businesses, is a recent recipient of a Big Sky Trust Fund grant offered by Montana West Economic Development, funding that will help with employee training and equipment needs as the business makes plans to expand.

President and founder Nathan Stoll had worked in various industries — including the PGA Tour, construction project management, Midway Rental in Kalispell and the National Flood Service — when in early 2015 he found himself parting ways with his employer and in immediate need of a new income source.

He had always wanted to do his own thing, he said, and suddenly it clicked that it was the time to do it.

Stoll and his wife Joni, co-founder and director of graphic design, only had a few thousand dollars left in the bank — not enough to live on for a long period of time. The pressure was on to do something, and do it quick.

Within a week of deciding to start Learned Reality in 2015, the Stolls had their first client.

It wasn’t easy at first. The stress would keep them up at night, and the couple would joke with each other and say “Are we going to go apply at Wal-Mart today?

“It’s those bad days, and what’s going to get you through it? Now it’s not the stress that keeps us up, it’s the ideas,” Joni said. “... We’re not 9 to 5, you get us all the time, even if we aren’t meeting with you, we’re talking about you.”

Despite starting out with next to nothing, Learned Reality now has over 50 clients across the country.

“That’s the beauty of technology,” Nathan said. “It doesn’t take a lot to get started.”

Joni compares the problem many businesses have to being on a “first date.” People have the tendency to flood their online presence with information, not unlike a first date with someone who won’t stop talking about his or herself, Joni said, adding that this only leads to people searching for the “EXIT” sign.

“It’s an information dump,” she said, “but people don’t want that. They want to figure it out for themselves.”

The Stolls describe their objective as taking a website and decluttering and peeling away the unnecessary elements.

“Our websites are not company-centric,” Nathan said. “Clients have to swallow their business pride; it’s not about you, it’s about the product.”

He credits his attention to detail and “gifts in observation and client services” to his time working in the golf industry.

Joni had been a stay-at-home mother, but she also worked as an artist on the side making custom signs. She’s always enjoyed art of all types, she said, and that’s what she likes about doing web design.

“At first it felt a little out of my realm,” Joni said. “It’s impactful, simple and beautiful. They give me this mess of ‘here’s my five businesses, how do I simplify them and make my message clear?’ ... It’s fun to take an entire project and it’s really satisfying for me to see the end product.”

Learned Reality uses website builders such as Wix, Weebly and Squarespace so that their clients can make changes to it later. They also offer custom code-based websites as well.

“Ninty-five percent of our clients, they just need something to work with,” Nathan said, “A lot of folks just need a digital presence but they don’t know how.”

The nonprofit organization Big Brothers Big Sisters, a recent client of theirs, was in need of a new website, Nathan said, adding that they were able to bring the website “up to 2017” and change the interface to allow the nonprofit to make changes as needed.

Learned Reality also helps businesses with brand identification, and to figure out what their competitive advantage is.

If people are looking at multiple businesses online that appear the same, they won’t know the difference, Nathan said, adding that by finding the competitive advantage — whether it be locally made products or a faster turn around time for services — and bringing it to the forefront of the website businesses see an improvement in growth.

An older website also creates a problem for businesses, Nathan said. “If it looks like maybe it hasn’t even been touched in a couple years, they get the idea that the product or service will be the same.”

And a website or Facebook page alone isn’t enough, he added, noting that the average consumer needs seven to eight impressions and those have to come from different platforms.

And most importantly, he said, people need to be able to search for the business online. “People don’t drive door-to-door anymore, they just Google it.”

A huge part of what Learned Reality does is education, Nathan said, “All of our websites tie back to e-learning.”

Throughout the two years Learned Reality has been in business, the company has saved businesses a total of $1.4 million in training time, Nathan estimated.

Learned Reality goes into each new business with the question: How do we create a better learning situation?

The Stolls said a lot of businesses have hours of training, using PowerPoints and other materials, for something that could be trimmed down to 12 minutes.

“Students coming out of school now are not as apt to sit through and read a large employee handbook,” Joni said, noting that digital learning platforms have become more popular and tend to be more efficient.

The online training uses the same elements incorporated into Learned Reality’s websites, with a focus on how to simplify and declutter the information.

They’re also working to create a subscription-based e-learning portal — with generic, industry-specific trainings that businesses can use and customize as they want. The portal, which is expected to launch later this year, will be a more affordable option for businesses that can’t afford to retain Learned Reality to come in and do the training from the ground up.

The couple describes the portal as similar to MasterClass, the online learning tool featuring classes taught by top industry professionals. The portal also will be simple and usable for everyone.

“Just because you’re in the baby-boomer generation doesn’t mean you can’t do it,” Nathan said, adding that the pair uses his 66-year-old father-in-law and their 6-year-old son to test the e-learning materials to ensure “anyone can do it.”

In addition to the portal, Learned Reality will also be using funds from the Big Sky Trust Fund for office equipment, software and employee training as they continue to grow. The company is eligible for up to $15,000 in reimbursement for expenses used for operational costs and to grow the business. The Stolls hope to add 10 to 20 employees over the next five years, and the fund will help them add employees as well.

Learned Reality also is making plans to move into a new office on Main Street, which will be located above the new Montana Coffee Traders set to open early this summer.

For more information, visit https://www.learnedreality.com/ or call 253-209-0327.

Reporter Alyssa Gray may be reached at 758-4433 or agray@dailyinterlake.com.

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