A firm that is helping clients enter the 21st century is reaching back to the 19th century for inspiration. Terralever, a start-up online marketing company formed by entrepreneur Chris Johnson, has expanded its operations by moving into a restored historic building in downtown Tempe.
The 1898 Tempe Hardware Building at 520 S. Mill Ave. is one of the oldest surviving commercial buildings in Maricopa County and one of the few still standing from Arizona’s territorial days.
For Johnson, moving to the historic district has been like receiving a shot of adrenaline. Previously the company was located in a nondescript industrial-office building in south Tempe that had the sole benefit of being cheap.
"We have to have creative people, and this is an environment that fosters that," he said of the downtown location. "Just the people walking by outside, the energy down here, does a lot. Even the street musicians don’t bother us."
A side benefit is that clients are more motivated to visit, said Andy Richter, Johnson’s business partner.
"In two weeks we had more clients visit us than in the whole time (nine months) we were at the industrial park," Richter said.
The move doubled the space available for the rapidly expanding company, which has been growing at a pace of about 150 percent annually since the company was founded in 2002.
The firm has seven employees and expects to add five or six more by the end of this year.
Johnson looked at similar types of "creative" office space in downtown Phoenix and in Scottsdale, but wasn’t able to find the ambience he was looking for. "It seemed a little more youthful and creative here," he said.
The Victorian-era building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, played an important role in the commercial, social, political and religious life of Tempe, having served as meeting space for the Odd Fellows, American Legion, Rotary Club, a Mormon church and other organizations.
The ballroom and its weekly dances were central to the early social life of the community, and the building also served as chambers for the Tempe City Council and headquarters for the Salt River Valley Water Users Association, according to the Tempe Historical Society.
The Tempe Hardware Co. occupied the ground floor of the three-story building for more than 70 years, finally closing in 1976.
The building was refurbished in 1982 and has been occupied by various offices and commercial businesses since.
An old building has been no impediment to setting up a high-tech operation, Johnson said. A digital subscriber line serves the building to provide band width, and the staff runs a wireless computer network in the Terralever office.
Johnson, 30, a 1998 Arizona State University engineering grad, gained experience with Internet marketing during six years that he worked for Integrated Information Systems, a Tempebased company that grew rapidly during the dot-com boom of the 1990s but dramatically contracted after the boom went bust.
He started his own company in 2002 with his wife, who handled the finances, running it initially out of their Tempe home. It was entirely self-funded; no angel investors or venture capital were involved.
"It was a matter of finding clients who are willing to pay you," he said.
His concept was to blend technology with marketing, helping clients develop their Web sites and providing other services such as digital printing that help clients increase their sales.
Other services include Internet strategy, search engine optimization, pay-perclick marketing and e-mail marketing.
Among Johnson’s clients have been the National Basketball Association, SunCor, Ensynch, CSK Auto, Mesa Arts Center, Hewlett Packard, Courtesy Chevrolet and Red Bull.
Johnson chose the name Terralever in homage to Archimedes, the ancient Greek inventor and mathematician who said if he had a lever and a place to stand, he could move the Earth.
"It’s the concept of leverage," Johnson said. "Clients leverage our talents to move their companies."