Interview with Trail 9

This week, we have an interview with our very own Mike Michalak, owner and lead developer of Trail 9! We want our readers to know more about the company, what we do best, and how we came to be. Let's get started!


How would you say that Trail 9 stands out in the web design field?

Mike Trail 9 Lead Developer

I'd say that we do more than just web design, unlike a lot of other companies out there. We focus a lot on user experience and search engine optimization. And, where we really excel is in integrations and customizations, and even eCommerce. So, we focus on heavy functionality overall, and in unique cases. If you have a weird product that you want to sell, we're your guys. Or, like right now, we're working on an API (Application Program Interface). (Image Right: Mike at his desk at Trail 9)

So, that's a pretty big project, an API Installation?

Well, not too big. Right now, there's just an internal website associated with it— a website with no design. So, the client white labels things. Basically, their client will send them an order, we'll create an order in their system, and then we'll push it back as shipping status.

What would you say the ratio is like between Trail 9's internal projects, like APIs, and their external projects, like company websites?

I'd say it's kind of a combination. You know, a lot of people have a simple website. Then, we come in and help their business processes however they need, whether it's an internal or external project or both. For example, like with the Magnets website (International Magnaproducts, Inc)— now, they're getting two to three leads a week, which they didn't have before. I found out how they wanted to use the website, and they basically wanted to create more lines of communication, to talk to their prospects faster. So, now they can do that quickly with the website's chat feature. We'll be adding an eCommerce website for them soon as well, so that will be fun. And, it'll be good for them because their current eCommerce website is... it's been moved to a different provider, and it's all broken up and hard to use. So, we'll help refresh that and make it easier for them to maintain.

How did Trail 9 get started?

I was working at a company in Chicago— I was their third employee. They liked to work too much, and they especially liked to micromanage. And so, for a project, half the project cost would end up just being project management. And, they were just making it more difficult because they chose to talk to the clients themselves and then tell us what happened after the fact. There was a communication gap that was tough to work with.

So, my goal for Trail 9 was to try eliminating project managers as much as possible. Then, any developer can talk to a client. That way, the developers know what the clients are talking about first-hand, and they'll be able to answer whatever questions the clients have immediately. See normally, project managers have to go find someone technical and ask, "Can we do this?". But here, a developer will know the answer off the bat, and they'll be able to respond to the client, even if it's with, "Well, let me look into a better way for that". So, we can move faster and have less overhead of people trying to micromanage other people, because it's not needed. That's the basis on how I started Trail 9.

Yeah, that type of management sounds like it would be complicated and frustrating for everyone.

Sometimes it's good, but theirs was overkill. And then, I was doing almost everything except for sales and marketing. So, I was quoting jobs, I was training people, and I was leading teams on projects.

So you were training to open your own business, kind of!

(Laughs) In a way, yeah. But with Trail 9, I focus on more efficiency within the company and then making it easier to do the work without it being overwhelming.

What sort of customer base do you typically serve?

People that have unique scenarios or that want to invest in their website, so they can use it for more than just a business card. Basically, people who want to build an online presence. In that way, their website is like the central hub of their digital marketing. That'd be the goal. So, right now, we're focusing more on helping local professional service companies, like engineering firms, as well as some nonprofits.

Can you tell me about the software that you've chosen to use, Drupal?

So, the main three content management systems (CMS's) are Drupal, Joomla, and WordPress. Joomla seems like the middle ground between the other two, and WordPress— a lot of people are using it— I would call it a bit more inferior, like with its functionality and definitely its security. Any of the three CMS's can be insecure, depending on who sets it up. Even Drupal, if it's not set up right, can be hacked pretty easily. So, you have to know what you're doing in order to set up a secure CMS environment. (Left Image: Joe, a developer at Trail 9, working on Drupal tasks)

It's often said that Drupal has a higher learning curve, but there's a lot more than you can do with it, and more quickly, than with the others. Basically, you can build a stronger foundation with Drupal, and as time goes on, you'll have fewer problems with additional functionality, like plugins or modules.

The Drupal world is more focused on working together, rather than finding a way to make money off your plugin, like WordPress is. More people are involved with the development of different parts of Drupal— not just the main part of the Drupal software. So, like with Drupal Commerce (their eCommerce feature), there's a team of people in charge of the development, so they'll steer those decisions, but there will be many more people involved with the maintenance. And, there's a security team that everything is submitted to before release.

Whereas, with WordPress, anyone can make a plugin and then sell it. So, the team of, say, four people are the only ones developing the plugin, and they're licensing it, so no one else modifies or messes with the code. It's just those four people who are responsible for its development, security, and everything. With Drupal, about 40,000 developers contribute, and hundreds of thousands of people are working with it. They can make it all more secure and robust.

How long has Trail 9 been a member of the Valpo Chamber?

Two to three years, I believe. The Chamber was helpful for us becoming more known throughout the community. We've since evolved from going to a lot of events to targeting clients more specifically. It's been great for building relationships, so people know who we are. And, they know we can build good stuff. We had a referral come in yesterday from a big organization in Valpo, so that'll be interesting. That came from networking with the Chamber— we gave them our marketing pitch, too.

How has Trail 9 changed since it was started?

We evolved our process, and it now allows us to work better and more closely with our clients. So, instead of just making something and giving it to them, we make a prototype first. We want to make sure that the client knows how the project is working before we hand it over. And, with a prototype, they can see it before even approving the work, or they can modify it as we move along. So that way, we don't just give them something and say, "Here, you go, good luck."

Then, we try to build our relationships to be long-lasting relationships. So, maybe we do just a basic website, and then the next year we do something that further helps the business, like adding eCommerce functionality. We build them something that will last for a good three to five years, and then we offer to help them with an updated design. That way, they keep moving forward, and it will help lower the cost of their website development over a span of five years. With regular redesigns, they don't have to recreate a website from scratch again.

What's your educational background? Did you go to Purdue?

Yeah, Computer Engineering. I was always interested in the internet and websites, so I've been trying out website stuff since forever. But, I really started to do things when I had to do a senior design project. I worked with the school— they had an on-demand taxi service, and they wanted a new scheduling system. So, that was what I built for my project.

Then, working in the steel mill, I was always trying to find web-based stuff I could do so that we'd have full control of our systems, and so it was only internal. At the second steel mill I worked at, I built a resource repository followed by a change log, because people would always be doing different things, and no one would know what was going on. No one used the change log as much as they should have— but if I made changes, I recorded them there. And then, resources, as in people were afraid to work, so creating documentation helped them get through scenarios.

Like, dangerous scenarios?

Not dangerous. So, in that mill, there were booby traps left by a previous contractor. If you touched something on one side of the room, then something else would turn off on the other side. It was unpredictable, so people wouldn't want to touch anything. And then, we were working with liquid metal, so we didn't want something to turn on that wasn't supposed to. We had to be super careful.

That sounds like an important project!

Yeah, it was good. 

What's the best thing about owning your own business? And, what's the biggest challenge?

Trail 9 Office

The biggest challenge is getting work. The best part... I like working with everyone, and the flexibility is great. And then, there are clients we've had that were really interesting to talk to. Like for Tudor (Tudor Cleaning and Restoration), when I was working on their website, James gave me a whole tour of his building. So, I got to see everything that the business did, and I got more motivated and interested in his project than I would have if he'd just told me to make something for him.

There have been a few cases where we've gone a little over budget— we didn't bill the clients for it, but I knew that we could make the project better for them.

So, you get more of an insider's perspective?

Yeah, we see what their process is. So, maybe there's something we can add on later, or even during the project, to make their business processes work better. Or maybe like— I can only think of a proposal we put together, but they had a customer portal, an eCommerce tool, a website, and, say, one more thing for fun. So, instead of paying them for different tools all over the place, we can put everything into one system so it's convenient for them; they'll just need to log in once. So, finding the best, most convenient solution for the customer is what's the most fun.

One more question: What's in the future for Trail 9?

More fun projects! Well, and to keep growing. I'll be bringing on another developer soon as well.