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Behind the Company — Founder William Wnekowicz

As historic numbers of businesses shut their doors and new college graduates struggle to find employment, one Cedar Grove resident has taken matters into his own hands to buck both of those trends.
By Michael O’Leary | NorthJersey.com

William Wnekowicz, 24, owns and operates the Cedar Grove-based Altum Design Studios, a company he started while still an undergraduate that develops websites and web marketing tools for businesses and non-profit organizations.

One thing I hated was seeing these old sites, or people getting new sites with the web developers stuck in 10 years ago,” he said.

Wnekowicz said Altum Design’s goal is to incorporate the latest technologies into organizations’ websites so the sites remain up-to-date and relevant.

For the Cedar Grove-based non-profit, the Center for Italian and Italian-American Culture, Altum Design created a new website that delivered a threefold increase in search engine traffic, a 600 percent increase in Facebook fans and a 15 percent bump in newsletter subscribers, according to Altum’s website.

Wnekowicz said the name of his company was inspired by an inscription written by a friend in a 2005 birthday card. His friend wrote the Latin phrase “semper in altum,” which roughly translates to “always strive for the highest,” he said.

The young entrepreneur’s first foray into computer-assisted design came in high school when his father asked him to design an advertising journal for a non-profit organization his father was involved in.

I didn’t know anything about design or laying anything out,” he said. “I learned pretty quickly and actually, from that, I got a ton of those non-profit journals to do.”

After graduating from Cedar Grove High School in 2004, Wnekowicz went to Georgetown University to study management and operations and information management. Although he had done some graphic design work while still in high school, it wasn’t until Jan. 2006 that Wnekowicz registered Altum Design as a business.

Now, I’m satisfied that I didn’t go and take a job after school,” he said. “I’m making more than I could have if I took a job.”

It wasn’t until sometime last year though, that he was certain he could run Altum Design for a living, he said.

Wnekowicz said he gained web insight co-creating Debatepedia, a website that launched in the summer of 2006. He spearheaded the effort with a graduate student at Georgetown and credits the experience for establishing his ability to create viable web products.

As with the content of the popular web encyclopedia Wikipedia, anyone can create and edit the entries on Debatepedia. Instead of having strictly informational articles as Wikipedia does, Debatepedia features user-generated arguments debating the nuances of numerous issues.

During the development of Debatepedia, Wnekowicz and his collaborator, Brooks Lindsay, enlisted the help of a four-person development team in India that Wnekowicz managed from his dorm room.

After managing the team exclusively over the chat client Skype for months, Wnekowicz traveled to India immediately after graduation for several weeks to finally meet and work face-to-face with the team of programmers.

Now operated under the auspices of the non-profit International Debate Education Association (IDEA), Debatepedia has drawn over 3 million views since 2007.

When it comes to learning how to build websites, Wnekowicz said textbooks and classes on the subject lose their relevancy quickly since web technology evolves so rapidly.

Take the first step toward teaching yourself and you’ll find that you literally can teach yourself everything online, and that’s the best way to do it,” he said.

One summer while taking classes at New York University, Wnekowicz spent his commute reading a thick, dryly written instructional manual on how to use PHP and MySQL, two programming tools every WordPress developer needs to know, he said.

It taught me a lot and then I started experimenting,” he said.

After weathering the recession and using this last year to better establish Altum Design, Wnekowicz offered some advice to anyone who wants to start their own business.

Do something others aren’t doing and don’t spend money unnecessarily when starting up, he said.

The second piece of advice has kept Wnekowicz from expanding into a new space, but he said the company will soon need to find a new home. Currently, he and his two staff members all work out of their homes.

As more and more advertising moves away from print and toward online outlets, he expects the demand for Altum Design’s services to scale dramatically.

Altum Design builds all its websites on WordPress, which many people may know as a blog publishing platform. The average WordPress user, who might be in need of a simple personal blog, will likely employ one of the thousands of extant templates which offer a limited amount of customization.

The company designs their unique WordPress sites from scratch, a process that requires mastery of several complex programming languages in addition to a detailed understanding of the unique ways in which WordPress, as opposed to other content management systems, works.

WordPress is a beastly sort of program and we build only on WordPress because we’re really good at it and we focus on being even better,” Wnekowicz said.

E-mail: oleary@northjersey.com