Web design startup features live conversations

Keen Webcam

The real-time chat feature on Keen Studio’s website allows the company to interact with businesses from all over the world. Courtesy Keen Studio

Keen Studio, an emerging web development firm on the West Side, is aiming at bringing web practices from big-city markets to Grand Rapids. The 3-year-old company uses web technology inspired by international companies to interact with businesses all around the world via live chat and webcam feed directly to its studio.

James Mikrut, user interface and experience director for Keen, joined the company started by his brother and another business partner in 2015.

Coming from working for Cleverbridge, a German e-commerce company in Chicago, Mikrut experienced larger companies’ use of language platforms like JavaScript and AngularJS to make complex web interfaces more manageable.

Mikrut wanted to apply the Cleverbridge’s approach to web innovation, which he said is present locally but not as prominent in larger markets.

“I kind of miss that from the bigger markets,” Mikrut said, “the focus on the newest technologies, the most reliable technologies, the more progressive outlook on the web, and that’s what we’re trying to do here — bring that to the West Side and to Grand Rapids.”

In October 2017, the team began formulating how to make its website “memorable” to visitors.

“We wanted to do something different other than the sea of creative websites out there,” Mikrut said.

Keen had two major sources of inspiration. The webcam idea came from a design firm in New York, called Sagmeister & Walsh, who also uses a live webcam in their studio.

“We were like, ‘Whoa, that’s awesome,’” Mikrut said. “It kind of makes you feel like you know who they are.”

The technology Keen used to build its website, Mikrut claimed, is even more forward-thinking than what Sagmeister did with its website. Keen’s website is powered by React, which is made and used by Facebook and makes complex web interfaces more scalable.

“If you look at Facebook and all the things that are going on on the page, writing that out of code would be pretty difficult to do,” Mikrut explained. “So, the framework that we use kind of distills it down and makes it all a bit more manageable to write and manipulate.”

With its recently launched website, the small company, with a full-time staff of just seven people, is interacting daily with visitors from all over the world.

“We’ve seen some pretty good results from it,” he said. “Just (last week), we had a couple different people from Malta come on.”

With the webcam and live chat interface, the Keen team has held live conversations with clients in France, the Netherlands, Spain and other parts of the world, representing a wide variety of markets, including e-commerce, health care, law, startups and B2C marketing.

So far, Mikrut said the team hasn’t had any visitors from Grand Rapids companies.

“We’ve done a lot of advertising in Grand Rapids, and we’ve done a lot of promotion about the website through channels the internet uses … but we want Grand Rapids to start thinking about the internet in a different way,” he said.

According to Google Analytics, Keen’s traffic has quadrupled in the last week. The average session duration, how long people stay on the website, is up to around four minutes, compared to one minute before the new site was launched.

“People hit the site, and they just strike up a conversation about, ‘What dev technologies are we using, what are we working on lately?’” Mikrut said. “It’s cool. It makes people remember us.”

For security purposes, Keen has anti-spam protection in place. Even though anybody can come online and start a conversation, users automatically can be banned from the site if they send 20 messages within a certain time frame.

Keen also keeps a list of users and can ban anyone from the site if they’re sending inappropriate messages. So far, no one has been banned.

“We’ve had some very thoughtful discussions with people all over the world. It’s pretty cool,” Mikrut said.

For the future, Keen also wants to push JavaScript as a language platform. Even though it’s been around for a while, Mikrut said it has evolved to the point where larger companies, like Google and Facebook, have been shifting back toward it.

“We’re trying to push JavaScript here because of its presence in larger markets — trying to bring that to Grand Rapids, trying to show that we know how to do it and trying to show the benefits of it,” he said.