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The Region’s Authority for Business News

February 2004

By Don Jacobson

Business North Editor’s Note: Web designers and developers are establishing a welcome presence in Northeastern Minnesota and Northwest Wisconsin. In many ways, they represent the region’s economic future: small entrepreneurs working in a clean industry who live here because they love the northern lifestyle.

We … profile … area sole-proprietorship Web designers who have hung out their e-shingles. They show that an area long associated with primary industries can attract young entrepreneurs who, thanks to the Internet, can live anywhere but choose to ply their trade here.

It takes a certain self-confidence to call yourself a “Web goddess.” But Ely’s Irene Hartfield has all that and more. In addition to designing Web sites from her home in the Northwoods, she’s a singer-keyboardist who isn’t afraid to climb up on a stage and please the customers.

Hartfield is a “prodigal daughter” who returned to her home town of Ely years after she left to go to Gustavus Adolphus College and then seek her fortune as a musician. She actually succeeded, spending about 15 years in New York as a full time musician. But in the mid-1980’s she decided she wanted a change and took a word processing course at the dawn of PC age — a fateful decision that put her on the road to becoming a Web Goddess.

“At that time, the legal industry was using WordPerfect, and I started taking jobs in the legal industry,” she said. “I ended up being a word processing supervisor, then a network administrator. Then when the Internet came along in 1995 or so, I started doing Web sites just for fun. When I decided to move back to Minnesota from New York, I had these Web pages up, and interviewed for a job with a start-up company called WAM!NET.”

In some ways, Twin Cities-based WAM!NET was the poster child for the Internet boom in Minnesota. It raised tens of millions of dollars in venture capital for its idea of using a private high-speed network to send huge graphics files through cyberspace, targeting the printing and advertising agencies. After struggling to turn a profit, it was sold in 2003 to SAVVIS Communications Corp.

“I worked for them for three years, and it was great,” Hartfield says. “They needed someone to do their Web sites. I established their external Web site and their intranet. I automated all of that, that was fabulous. But then the company grew and grew and got less and less fun.”

Irene Business North InterviewIn 1998, she decide to move back to Ely and start her own business, made possible by satellite technology. [Irene’s note: WebGoddess was founded in 1998 as a sideline in the Twin Cities, but I actually moved back to Ely and began the business full-time in 2002.] Living “out in the woods” she uses her satellite dish for high-speed internet access. [2008 update: Frontier now provides a new, farther-reaching DSL connection, so we’re off the satellite!] [2014 update: I’ve moved to Ely and now have Midco fiber.  The best!]

Hartfield says she has 15 full-time Web customers and business is “pretty good.”  [This interview was in 2004 and, happily, business has grown!]

She says the key to making a living out of Web designing is the ability to combine the bricks-and-mortar know-how of writing code and using hardware tools with a creative flair that really can’t be taught.

“I’m an artist and a creative person, and I’m happiest when I’m doing that,” she says. “The kind of person who will succeed in this business is usually somebody who would hear ‘you’re not a great team player’ if they were trying to get a corporate job. They’re mavericks, artists, really independent types and thinkers.

“And you can’t be afraid of sacrificing that paycheck,” she says. “I’ll take the tradeoff of having a little of that fear in exchange for doing what I want to do.”