Headwaters

The Zeal of ZaneRay

A Whitefish company with a funny-sounding name carves out a
home in the tech industry by building quality websites for some
of the biggest brands in the outdoor industry.

STORY BY JUSTIN FRANZ

“T he internet is not a ‘Field of Dreams.’ You can’t just build a website and expect that people will come,” Reed Gregerson, CEO and co-founder of ZaneRay Group, said recently while walking through the company’s airy office space on the north side of Whitefish.

For anyone who doesn’t remember 1989’s “Field of Dreams” starring Kevin Costner — long before he donned a cowboy hat to become one of Montana’s most well-known fictional characters — Reed was referencing one of the film’s most enduring lines: “If you build it, he will come.” The idea was that if Costner, playing Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella, replaced his crops with a baseball field then Shoeless Joe Jackson and other beloved knuckleballers of his youth would magically appear. (Spoiler alert: He does and they do.)

Reed doesn’t believe in simply setting up shop, putting an “open” sign out front and hoping for the best. Especially in that noisy, clamorous, raucous and rowdy place called the internet. Instead, Reed and his team of 40 or so software engineers, developers, designers and project managers in Whitefish and across the country work tirelessly for every set of eyeballs and every click. By making beautiful, responsive websites, ZaneRay has been able to secure some of the biggest names in the outdoor industry as clients, including Patagonia, Black Diamond and Osprey. That is the zeal of ZaneRay.

But when Reed and his friends first incorporated the company 23 years ago, they weren’t looking to change the way people interact with iconic brands or shop online. They were simply looking for a way to maintain their careers in tech in a community that they had grown to love: The Flathead Valley.

Team photo for the ZaneRay Group at a recent company get together.

 

OUR ADVERTISERS RULE!

Reed first came to the Flathead in the mid-1990s. At the time, he was working as a programmer for Egghead Software at their offices in the Gateway Mall and doing some side projects for Patagonia, where he had previously worked. Like many people who came before and came after, Reed was attracted to the work-life balance the Flathead provided and easy access to the outdoors.

Egghead Software started to falter, closing its Kalispell office in 1995. Reed stayed in the Flathead, piecing together work for Egghead, Patagonia, and some brands in the fly fishing industry. He got to know Dean Hamilton (now ZaneRay’s senior software engineer) and Henry Roberts (now president), who had been working in tech as well, and they discussed starting a business together. Reed recalls that Henry was particularly ambitious, ready to go out on his own with Reed before they even knew if they would have enough clients.

“(I remember telling Henry) that I would think about it but then a few days later he called me and said ‘I quit my job, let’s do this,’” Reed said. He later added, “It was the perfect three to start the business, and continues to be. We had all the right pieces. Dean knew everything about computers. To this day, we joke that he’s a rocket scientist; he worked on things at Boeing that he still can’t talk about. Henry was the creative and I was the business guy. We were all really lucky that the three of us got together, because you hear about partnerships and they usually fall to pieces, but 23 years later we’re still kicking.”

ZaneRay was incorporated on March 29, 2000. The name was Reed’s wife’s creation: Zane was the name of their newborn son and Ray, she thought, just sounded good with it. Together, the words don’t mean much, but they are memorable, which was perfect for an upstart company looking to stay in people’s minds.

“If you look up the meaning of the name Zane it means ‘gift from God.’ And one of the meanings of ray is ‘a disclosure of mental or spiritual enlightenment.’ So you could put the words together and maybe it means something, (but really) it just sounds good,” Reed said. “The name has worked. We go to conventions and other gatherings, and people see our name on a badge and they say ‘I’ve heard of you.’”

Reed said there were other initial advantages to the vague name.

“We didn’t know if this business was going to work out or if we’d all have to become used car salesmen the next week,” Reed joked. “But if we did have to open up a used car lot, we figured we could do that under the ZaneRay name too.”

Thankfully for the three partners, they didn’t have to go out in search of old beaters to drum up business. Reed, Henry and Dean stayed busy in a small rented office in downtown Kalispell, first in the Whipps Building (above what is now Big Sky Martial Arts) and later in the KM Building. They had steady work, but when they landed Patagonia as a client, ZaneRay took off.

“Patagonia made the phone ring,” Henry said.

“We grew by referrals,” Reed added. “And that continues even today.”

Reed Gregerson of the ZaneRay Group

Photo by Mandy Mohler

 

It also helped that the trio got into the website-building business at the right time, when companies were figuring out exactly how to use the internet to their advantage. ZaneRay first built sites for business-to-business transactions (connecting Patagonia to their suppliers, for example), but as the decade rolled on, their clients started coming to them for retail websites.

Another site that put ZaneRay on the map was for Competitive Cyclist. For serious riders, having a lightweight bike is huge and keeping track of the weight that every accessory adds to it is important. To do that, ZaneRay created an application where customers could “build” their bike online and not only see it come together but see how much it would weigh. Reed said it sounds simple but at the time it was revolutionary. The webpage got so popular that other builders or biking enthusiasts started using it even if they had no intention of buying a bike online.

Little details matter too, Reed said. One of the things ZaneRay specializes in is optimizing the shopping experience for customers. For example, more than half of all sales online are done via mobile devices, so making sure a website works well and looks good on an iPhone or Android device is critical. Also ensuring that web pages accept payments from apps like PayPal is huge in ensuring a sale is complete (Reed says you’re not alone when you end up leaving something in your online shopping cart permanently because you have to go find your wallet in the other room).

Besides the talent that Reed and his team have gathered, another edge Zane-Ray has in the outdoor industry is that its employees are often intimately familiar with the products their clients sell. And clients love coming to ZaneRay’s office in Whitefish, where they can mix business with pleasure, getting out to enjoy the many recreational opportunities the area offers.

After a few years in downtown Kalispell, the ZaneRay crew moved north to a house in Whitefish’s Railway District. They outgrew it almost immediately, and then outgrew their addition. In 2019, the company partnered with Whitefish-based Basecamp Coworking to design and build an 8,000-square-foot building on the north end of Whitefish, not far from the local-favorite Bonsai Brewing Project. At the time, just about everyone who worked for ZaneRay worked in the office. Then the pandemic hit.

“Our philosophy is if you have a great life, you’ll do great work.”.

Despite remote work becoming the new norm, ZaneRay and Basecamp kept building and finished their new two-story structure in 2021. And our sudden collective shift to life online turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the company as more businesses sought out ZaneRay’s services. Since 2020, the company has expanded significantly and today employs over 40 people, about 30 of whom are in the Flathead with a dozen or so others scattered across the rest of the country. Reed said the company could probably hire even more people, but that’s not how it operates.

“We will only ever hire someone when we know that we will have a job for them indefinitely,” Reed said.

Those secure jobs are highly sought after and Henry attributes that to the office culture they have built over the years. The company’s open floor plan allows for collaboration between coworkers and there’s always local beer on tap in the breakroom. The company also likes to host employee retreats, cookouts and get-togethers. But perhaps most importantly, the bosses don’t mind when people take some time for themselves and enjoy the great outdoors, Henry said.

“When it snows, we all go skiing,” he said.

“Our philosophy is if you have a great life, you’ll do great work,” Reed added.
Twenty-three years after the company started in a cramped office space in downtown Kalispell, Reed said it’s amazing to see where this company with a funny-sounding name has ended up. Reed and his team all say they are confident about the company’s future helping other businesses reach and engage with their customers.

“We’re now doing work for billion-dollar companies,” Reed said with astonishment. “I mean it when I say that I never thought that would happen.”

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