Server farm lets Airnet stalk political, nonprofit clients

photo Jeff Averbeck, left, president and CEO of Airnet, and Scott Rix, chief operating officer, stand in the basement of the Pioneer building on Broad Street where much of Airnet's equipment hums away.

What Airnet Does• WiFi• Managed, virtual or private data hosting• Advanced mass communications• Political campaigns (As SmartTech)• Corporate marketingSource: AirnetAirnet at a Glance• Founded - 2002 in its current form• Employees - 22• Does business as - Smartech• 2007 revenue - $4.1 million• 2010 revenue - $5.3 million• Three-year growth - 31 percent• Position on the 2010 Inc. list of 5,000 fastest growing companies - 4,215• Position on the 2011 Inc. list of 5,000 fastest growing companies - 4,025Source: Inc., Airnet

Chattanooga's best-kept secret isn't a secret muffin recipe, a hidden bike trail or a forgotten underground passage.

It may well be a company named Airnet, the brainchild of local tech pioneer Jeff Averbeck.

Founded as a contract marketing firm for Republican political candidates, the firm recently won recognition for the second year in a row from business magazine Inc. for its 30 percent growth and high profitability.

"We were one of the few firms that didn't lay anybody off last year," Averbeck said. "In fact, we gave everybody raises."

Better known in political circles as SmartTech, the company evolved from a staffing firm in 1994 to a political telecommunications business in 2002, and now runs some of the largest nonprofit, corporate and political marketing efforts in the country, Averbeck said Friday in his Pioneer building headquarters.

Airnet initially gained its stripes in the 1990s as one of the first groups to take advantage of a new technology called email, which was then in its infancy. The company found a way to send more than 5 million emails per hour to specific groups.

"We were more than just an email blasting provider," said the company's chief operating officer, Scott Rix. "Our real strength is getting messages out, and tying it in with our databases."

Rix denies suggestions that the company helped invent spam, because the company typically only emailed people for coordination purposes, not to sell Chinese Viagra.

"It was not spam," he said. "In fact, there was no spam at that time."

Averbeck eventually used the company's communication expertise to cultivate the type of client that loves new technology and has plenty of money to spend: politicians.

"The cool thing about politics is they're early adopters," Averbeck said.

In the 2008 presidential election, for instance, his company hosted about 2 million minutes of political phone bank activity daily through its servers, at one point becoming the largest user of online phone minutes in the world.

Political Sandbox

In that election, Airnet allowed political customers to drag and drop attributes like age, location and political persuasion into a "sandbox" to create a targeted list.

That list, which potentially includes "100 percent" of Americans, Averbeck said, pairs an advanced Internet phone service with extensive call lists that include huge amounts of information.

"If you want everyone 30 to 40 years old, you drag that in, if you want them within a six-mile radius, you drop that in," he said.

Anyone who's ever bought a car, filled out an online survey or even voted is probably in the database.

On a commercial level, family members watching the same TV program in different rooms may soon see different commercials based on their television's IP address.

"During the Super Bowl, I may get an advertisement through one of my TVs for Toyota, while another TV may carry a commercial for Jessica Simpson shoes," he said.

Airnet's computer models can even predict a person's decisions based on past trends, and each new interaction, whether by email or telephone, results in new data.

"We can actually trend how people's thoughts change over time," Averbeck said.

That's useful for picking out campaign volunteers, as a person's political fervor can be calculated based on their voting record and what types and amounts of political donations they've given.

Political Cycles

But the unpredictability of the four-year political cycle led the company to diversify into a variety of other businesses, which are now growing the size of Airnet's revenue pie, said Scott Rix, chief operating officer.

Outside of award-winning political campaigns, Airnet has worked to expand into data management and corporate mass communications. Data centers in Chattanooga, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. support the company's efforts, and managed hosting is now one of Airnet's top revenue streams.

"We have e-commerce customers who may have just one managed server, or up to about 30 virtual servers," Rix said.

Rix is on the Chattanooga Technology Council, helping to grow the city's presence in tomorrow's industries and keep talent in the city.

"They all love it here," he said of Airnet's team. "This is home."

The company keeps a massive operations center in the basement of the Pioneer building with three server rooms, as well as its technical support and research and development team.

One of the server rooms is secured with an indoor chain-link fence, a feature that allows the company to physically house private servers for other entities, secure from prying eyes and fingers.

Chattanooga is a popular destination for organizations that want their data connected yet secure, Averbeck says, because of the miles of "dark fiber" that run parallel to the city's winding railroad tracks.

"We are in the dead center of the Internet," he said over the roar of the server room's cooling fans.

The company's location is made more ideal by the fact that it has two connections to the power grid, giving it an automatic back-up in case of a power outage, a feature that predates EPB's Smart Grid.

Though the company plans to build data centers in Ohio and California, it's committed to staying in Chattanooga for the foreseeable future.

"There's a lot of talent here," Averbeck said. "We'll match any city in the nation."

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