Tech-Driven Companies Open Shop

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“Recruiting just got a lot easier,” said Mike Romano, regional president of Shift Digital, who relocated the company’s west coast office a block from the ocean in Laguna Beach last month from its previous site in Aliso Viejo.

Local contractor Al Oligino, left, led the transformation of a Broadway Street office now occupied by Shift Digital and its regional president, Mike Romano.
Local contractor Al Oligino, left, led the transformation of a Broadway Street office now occupied by Shift Digital and its regional president, Mike Romano.

A new coat of paint freshens the unassuming wood-covered building that is the former home of Firebrand Media, the Indy’s parent company, though it lacks any signage. Inside, it’s a different story in the wake of a five-month makeover.

Now, Shift Digital’s local employees can catch a few waves before work, and shower in the upstairs bath before heading down to the black and royal blue walled offices with polished concrete floors and rows of shiny white desks. One-person soundproofed rooms with clear glass doors, what Romano calls “phone booths” line one wall. Also sporting a clear glass door is the original vault from the building’s previous incarnation as a bank. Romano’s not sure what they’ll use it for yet, but he and contractor Al Oligino said neither could bear to destroy it.

About 25 employees work in the local office of Shift Digital, based in Birmingham, Mich. Founded by Steve St. Andre in 2008, the company devises digital marketing strategies and performance analysis for more than 20 auto brands, four homebuilders, a jet-ski maker and Allied Bank. “We’re right between an agency and a software company. Our specialty is lead generation,” St. Andre said in a 2010 interview with Crain’s Detroit Business, a trade newspaper.

Poler Laguna manager Brandon Smith with the company’s signature product, the “napsack.”
Poler Laguna manager Brandon Smith with the company’s signature product, the “napsack.”

Shift’s growth springs from the trend toward digital advertising. Daryl Simm, chief executive of Omnicom Group’s media operations, which oversees $54.4 billion in advertising spending, began advising clients to allocate a quarter of their television ad dollars to online video in an interview in 2014. Today, Shift Digital employs 350 people between its two U.S. locations and ones in Canada, Italy and Australia.

Another new business that relocated to Laguna Beach at 1370 S. Coast Highway is still transforming a location long-used as a nursery into another type of retail space.

Poler Outdoor Stuff, begun four years ago in Portland, Ore., plans additional improvements to its new flagship store in Laguna, said manager Brandon Smith.

A café offering coffee and ice cream is scheduled to open “as soon as the city issues a permit,” he said.

The company sells what they call “quirky camping gear” for surfers, skaters and snowboarders and showcases the outdoor adventures of 15 team members at #campvibes on their website and on Instagram, where Smith says the company has 500,000 followers. It is their primary advertising tool. “Everyone is making the shift to digital advertising,” he said, in an interview last week.

The former home of Laguna Nursery has been remade with whitewashing, new lighting and landscaping. The street-facing storefront displays Poler tents, their signature napsack, clothing and accessories while the inner gallery, formerly used by the nursery’s previous owner Ruben Flores for cabaret-style concerts, will serve as seating for the café and be used for live music performances and film screenings.

A crowd jams the recent opening of Poler Outdoor Stuff’s Laguna Beach store.
A crowd jams the recent opening of Poler Outdoor Stuff’s Laguna Beach store.

Poler products are carried by “a few hundred” retail outlets including Amazon, Smith said. The company has another flagship store in its hometown of Portland, Ore.

Benji Wagner, whose dad took him camping as a kid and taught him the basics of photography in the family’s basement darkroom, founded Poler. Starting out as a freelance photographer and filmmaker, he still shoots some of Poler’s adventure videos.

Poler’s president, Chris Noyes, lives in Laguna Beach. He attended Irvine Valley College and came up through the retail ranks of sales and distribution of lifestyle products, according to his Linkedin profile. Smith, who lives in Capistrano Beach, says that Wagner and Noyes like to keep low profiles, preferring to let him manage the day-to-day events in Laguna.

While both companies are privately held and declined to disclose their annual revenue, representatives say both intend to become involved in the community. This summer Shift personnel at the corporate headquarters participated in benefit runs for a Detroit homeless shelter and Boys and Girls Clubs of Michigan. Romano says they’re exploring similar opportunities in Laguna Beach.

Poler is getting their feet wet in Laguna with several events planned, including a pottery night with artists, live music and a screening of the surf flick “Lost Track” on Thursday, Sept. 1, during Art Walk. Poler is planning to open the venue for the Laguna Beach Mountain Biking Club’s Christmas party, Smith added.

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