Tech execs say Wichita’s a pretty nice place to build the Next Big Thing

Kevin Owens and his high-tech company, SNT Media, are expanding to take over two more floors in the High Touch building at William and Main. (Oct. 31, 2016)
Kevin Owens and his high-tech company, SNT Media, are expanding to take over two more floors in the High Touch building at William and Main. (Oct. 31, 2016) The Wichita Eagle

Kevin Owens has a plea for his adopted city: “Stop apologizing!”

Owens is the CEO of SNT Media, an internet media company that’s about as high-growth and high-tech as they come. It’s trying to become The Next Big Thing in online news media content.

The company is expanding rapidly downtown. It already has two and a half floors in the High Touch building, at William and Main, and is in the midst of renovating two more floors, with a third in the works.

Wichita has played a role in that expansion, Owens said. It has provided quality employees who work hard and a lower cost for everything. He lauded many of the city’s cultural values, so different from Silicon Valley, he said.

Owens and every other executive at the company say they are mystified by why people in Wichita don’t understand what a good thing they have.

Owens and chairman Stuart Bruck, both veterans of the tech world, moved their fledgling company from California to Wichita in 2014. Today it has 103 employees. That will likely double next year.

SNT Media plans to hire 100 people for its Wichita operation before June 2017 (Bryan Horwath/The Wichita Eagle/May 2016)

For a city that worries that it has lost its ability to create high-growth, national-caliber businesses, SNT’s executives are reassuring.

Bruck drew a distinction between a typical company that is growing slowly, where managers are interested in efficiency and keeping costs down, and SNT.

It’s dedicated to high growth and is more interested in racing to develop the product and enter new markets, he said. The company is so focused on growth that it caters in food twice a day to entice its workers to stay and work.

“We chose this area very specially not just to operate a business, but to invent a business — that’s very different,” Bruck said.

What is SNT exactly?

SNT stands for Social Networking Technologies Inc., and it is creating a powerful new product at the intersection of the internet and media.

It buys huge data sets — demographics, financial data, census, sports data, all the homes for sale across the country — and uses artificial intelligence programs to compile them into written content. It distributes that information through the websites of established media companies.

A reader on those websites would see the regular business or sports page containing stories by local and national reporters, and they might also see, on the side, a box containing lists or statistics. Click on that box and the reader can keep clicking through to a vast number of related lists and stats.

SNT also produces actual stories written without human hands. The artificial intelligence will collect enough facts from a database or several databases to write its own story. The stories automate many of the formulaic game stories in sports and earnings stories in finance.

These stories are actually pretty ingenious for robot work, with an artful recitation of facts that can draw on past results — such as, “This will be the Chiefs first chance for revenge after their fourth quarter collapse at Mile High Stadium last season.”

The stories are written as events happen, so they are constantly up to date, but they lack description and analysis because the stories do not steal language from any story.

The company is working with a number of companies, such as Accuweather, that analyze data in order to make correlations and predictions.

Next year, the company has big plans for deeper and more complete packages of AI-generated content as well as offering its products in Europe.

It may be one of the waves of the future. Tronc, formerly Tribune Publishing, said earlier this year that it would move heavily into AI-generated content.

SNT can localize those stories based on the data so that every little newspaper could carry a local story on weather or sports or finance. It can even write a six-paragraph story about the house for sale down the street.

Expansion plans

Two floors of the building already are packed fairly tight with programmers and designers. The company came to Wichita in 2015 with 10 people, Bruck and Owens, and quickly started adding employees.

SNT has 65 employees on the 10th floor of a downtown office building. Some community leaders say the company could play a key role in the city's tech ambitions.

Today it has 103. It may add 50 to 100 more in 2017.

The company will be almost entirely based in downtown Wichita, he said.

The company is in the midst of renovating the fifth and second floors. On the second, the company plans a commercial kitchen and cafeteria for its workers, as well as conference rooms.

On the fifth floor, the company plans space for a public display demonstrating how its AI system creates content. Next to it, it plans for a pod where human designers work to create the eye-pleasing display for all that information to flow into. The two work together to create the company’s product.

Also on that floor, Owens said, will be work desks and conference rooms for the company’s visitors.

Owens said the fifth floor will be open by Christmas and the second floor by early next year.

The Wichita advantage

It’s those visitors that SNT’s executives think of when they praise Wichita.

Bruck, Owens and chief financial officer Massimo Messina all praised Wichita’s amenities and ease of living.

All are well-traveled tech executives, and they’ve lived in London, New York, San Francisco, Dallas and Milan. Wichita may not be where they want to retire, but it is where they want to build this company.

They praised Wichita’s workforce, its commute, its school choices, its downtown, and the fact that someone can get a four-bedroom house in a great location for the same price as a small condo in an iffy location in California.

All those cities that Wichitans point to with envy?

“I hate Austin,” Bruck said, and described looking out of his hotel room window throughout the day and always seeing traffic jammed up.

They praised their Wichita employees’ Midwestern values and high competence.

It’s all good, they said. That’s why they kept saying that they are puzzled by Wichitans’ insecurity about their home.

Even visitors from Chicago and New York come away with a pretty positive view, they said. The new airport is a “massive asset,” Owens said, and the restaurants and hotels are West Coast caliber.

And when they come to Wichita, they’re at their hotel in 10 minutes.

“I keep hearing people say, ‘Oh, sorry you had move here,’ ” Owens said. “Don’t be sorry – own it!

“Be appreciative of what you are and what you have – it’s an amazing place to live.”