Like many Cal Poly students, Ryan Miller envisioned a life in San Luis Obispo long after college.
In the late 1990s, while classmates searched for jobs in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, he was busy laying the foundation for a career locally. An environmental engineering major, he made financial ends meet by working on Internet-related projects, including several of Cal Poly’s first distance-education websites, as well as work for a few local businesses. That experience helped him land a job at The Grid, a former San Luis Obispo Internet provider, where Miller eventually became a co-owner before it was sold.
He began work consulting for Level, now Rosetta, and then with a company that owned and operated plastic surgery centers. With its headquarters in Atlanta, a place Miller described as “having humidity and really big bugs,” he declined to make the move. Instead, Miller negotiated to take the firm on as his first client so he could remain in San Luis Obispo.
Initially, he was reluctant to start another venture, but his client list soon began to grow, and that morphed into Etna Interactive, a Web marketing firm catering to medical professionals that he founded in 2002.
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“The company started with me for the first 18 months, doing everything from sales to design to development and promotion for our clients,” recalled Miller, who named his company after the volcano in Sicily, Italy, where he had vacationed.
Today, Etna Interactive has 60 employees, many Cal Poly graduates or professionals who want to relocate to the area. Miller, 38, said the company’s rigorous hiring process, including asking candidates to complete a take-home test, is a source of pride as well as its culture, which promotes work-life balance.
It is also profitable and growing, with revenues better than 20 percent each year for the past five years.
Miller acknowledged that, even with the convenience of a local airport, San Luis Obispo can be a tough place to do business.
The pool of talent for jobs requiring specific skills is limited, he said, and there are few large, commercial spaces to accommodate growing companies.
He anticipates opening an East Coast office in the next few years to support clients there, in Canada and in Europe.
“While private and group medical practices in the U.S. and Canada will always be at the core of our business … much of our growth in the coming years will be with larger corporate clients, such as medical device manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies, as well as medical clinics in Europe and South America,” he said.
Etna Interactive’s clients may be global, but Miller is committed to staying put, adding “SLO will always be our headquarters.”
“You can’t help but be reminded of the value of life outside of work when living in SLO … and I think the company’s culture would have been very different (for the worse) had I set up shop somewhere else,” he said.