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Kalispell business puts Internet connections to the test

1300597214 40 Kalispell business puts Internet connections to the test

KALISPELL – In the basement of one of Kalispell’s historiceastside homes, Mike Apgar makes sure computer users the world overare getting what they pay for from their Internet serviceproviders.

That’s his job as chief executive officer of Ookla, a startupventure he co-founded in 2006 that’s now considered the globalleader in broadband speed testing and Web-based network diagnosticapplications.

Ookla services almost every Internet service provider in theworld, and its solutions have been translated into 32 languages foruse by thousands of small businesses and Fortune 500 companies.

More than 3 million times a day, Internet users tap into Ookla’sfree and licensed diagnostic tools such as Speedtest.net. to datethe company has tallied more than 2.1 billion speed tests.

Ookla recently announced a completely revamped version of itsimmensely popular Speedtest.net site.

Not bad for a 1986 Flathead High School graduate who honed hiscomputer skills on a simple Apple IIe when he was 13 and spentsummers working at American Timber co. sawmill near Olney where hisstepfather, Peter Larson, was chairman and CEO.

Apgar’s pioneering work in the computer industry could havesomething to do with the same kind of perseverance hisgreat-great-grandfather, Milo B. Apgar, displayed when hehomesteaded on land that would later bear his name – the village ofApgar on the shore of Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park. MiloB. Apgar reportedly came over Marias Pass with his belongings in atwo-wheeled cart.

Mike Apgar had that same drive when he headedto Seattle not long after graduating from high school, but hedidn’t immediately figure out where his niche in the business worldwould be. he attended Northwest Bible College for a semester, thendropped out and took a job with Yellow Cab to make ends meet.

He soon met his wife-to-be, Gretchen, and together they createda business selling Americana items in Japan.

“We did that for a year, but it didn’t feel very scalable,” hesaid.

It wasn’t until a stint as a customer service representativewith Airborne Express that Apgar’s computer programming abilitycame into play. When he nonchalantly programmed his computer to be200 percent to 300 percent more efficient by reducing shortcuts andimplementing other efficiencies, his superiors took note and Apgarwas awarded the largest employee bonus in the company’shistory.

Looking back, he realizes he was simply in the right place atthe right time to springboard a career in computer work.

While he was a contracted programmer for another company, heworked one floor above one of the first Internet service providersin Seattle and thus was able to access high-speed service beforemany people even knew it existed.

“I felt the Internet needed champions,” Apgar recalled. “It wasfree and open and I was personally very passionate and driven in anidealistic sense.”

With access for all in mind, Apgar, his wifeand Apgar’s brother Tyler opened one of the first cyber cafes inthe Seattle market in 1995. The Speakeasy Cafe was located in anold warehouse space in downtown Seattle and was a labor of loveliterally built from the ground up with two-by-fours andtwo-by-sixes supplied by his stepfather to help them savemoney.

The Internet cafe was good exposure for Apgar, but 12- to14-hour days took their toll, and they knew they couldn’t do itforever.

In another entrepreneurial twist, Speakeasy Inc. evolved intoone of the first broadband ISPs to focus on elite residentialservice and small-business needs. The company was sold to best Buyfor $100 million five years ago.

“It was like getting an MBA,” Apgar said about his time withSpeakeasy.

The sale of his company came during the “dot bomb” downturn andhe had to raise money in a very tough climate. When he sold to BestBuy he had just a fraction of the ownership.

After Speakeasy, Ookla came to life.

Ookla? It’s a memorable name to be sure, Apgaracknowledged with a laugh.

When Apgar and his founding partner, chief technology officerDoug Suttles – also one of the creators of Speedtest.net – werefiguring out a name for the company, Suttles mentioned he had adomain, Ookla.com, a namesake for his scruffy cat, who was namedafter a character in the “Thundarr the Barbarian” Saturday morningTV show of the early 1980s.

Ookla’s Speedtest.net is now one of the top 1,000 most popularsites on the Internet, both in North America and worldwide. AsApgar describes it, Speedtest allows anyone to test an Internetconnection, either to validate true speed or just for fun, andcompare the results to others in the immediate area or on the otherside of the globe.

Speedtest.net has more than 80 percent market share and recentlywas named in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology report as themost accurate assessment of true broadband performanceavailable.

“We’re pretty much the only company doing this,” he said, addingthat the beauty of Speedtest.net is its user-friendliness.

While the company gets some advertising revenue from itswebsites, the real moneymaking side of the business is licensingfees that more than 1,000 companies worldwide pay to use Ookla’scustom speed test and proprietary testing engine technology.Companies pay $500 to $1,000 per server annually.

Among Ookla’s select customers are CNN, Toyota, AT&T,Verizon, Vonage, Reuters and Disney. Local providers Bresnan,CenturyLink and Montanasky.net also are Ookla clients.

Ookla continues to be headquartered in Seattle, with sales andservice operations in Kalispell, Chicago and Montreal.

The beauty of the business is that Apgar can do his job fromhome. When the Apgars and their two young daughters moved toKalispell in 2007, he was drawn to the eastside neighborhood wherehe’d spent time as a boy at his grandmother’s house, just a coupleof blocks from the historic Keith House where the Apgars nowlive.

And, he says with a certain emphasis, it’s great to be backhome.

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