Behind every startup, there’s a story

Meet five entrepreneurs who are quietly shaping Madison’s tech scene 

By Allison Geyer, Isthmus

Jon Hardin – The reclusive genius

Hardin_webBy any measure, Jon Hardin is the portrait of millennial entrepreneurial success. His name is on the door of one of Madison’s oldest and most successful tech companies. And he made the UW-Madison Alumni Association’s Forward Under 40 list when he was just 25 years old.

But the 29-year-old president and CEO of Hardin Design & Development tends to shy away from the spotlight. And when he gets home from work, you won’t catch him near a computer.

He lives in a gorgeous house on eight acres in Verona, which he owns free and clear. His garage, which he remodeled all by himself, is filled with luxury vehicles — Porsche, Jaguar, Mercedes. He loves fine dining and wine so much that he hand-built his very own cellar, with room to store more than 800 bottles. He’s addicted to home improvement projects, harvesting timber from his property to build things like an outdoor fire pit with seating for up to 40 friends. Life is good in the Hardin household.

“People joke that I’m kind of a recluse,” Hardin says. “I’m not someone who’s going to 10 networking events a week. I’d rather be out working on my land.”

Madison’s tech and startup scene has exploded in the last decade, with local innovators and industry groups continually pushing it to become the entrepreneurial epicenter for the entire Midwest. Many of the local success stories have since become household names — Epic Systems and its various spinoffs, EatStreet and the ever-growing stable of local food tech companies, PerBlue, Raven Software and the array of other gaming companies. But while some startup stories have garnered attention and grabbed headlines, other innovators tend to fly more under the radar.

Hardin says he’s “not really wired to seek out publicity” — a personality type that makes him unique among CEOs.

“Jon is definitely an enigmatic figure in the tech community,” says co-founder Scott Resnick, who serves as the public face of Hardin Design & Development. “I get to go do fun outreach and sell the Hardin brand, and Jon’s back at HQ doing programming — and that’s what he does very well.”

Hardin’s close friends like to joke that he’s always one stroke shy of perfection — he scored 35 out of 36 on the ACT; he got one B in college. But he’s earned a reputation for hard work and intellect through his record of solving some of the toughest software engineering problems brought forth by his clients.

“Folks may not see that side of Hardin, but he’s the engine that drives the company,” Resnick says.

Since the company’s humble beginnings in a dorm room on the second floor of UW-Madison’s Chadbourne Hall, Hardin Design & Development’s business has grown considerably. What started as two college kids trolling Craigslist for freelance web development gigs has evolved to a fully fledged boutique software development firm with offices in Madison, Chicago and Dallas and an extensive list of clients, both domestic and international.

These days, Hardin Design & Development has as an average of 30 different projects in the pipeline at any given time. They range considerably in size and scope — the smallest can be knocked out by a single developer in three days, and the largest can take a team of five developers up to four years to build.

One such project, which Hardin describes as the “crown jewel” of the company’s portfolio, is called Visual Manager, a commercial real estate management and business intelligence platform that the company developed at the request of a client, Fischer & Company. It’s now being used by FedEx, IBM and a host of other big companies. The technology is a complex marriage of data storage and analytics, which allows users to take information from disparate sources and gain insight on things like competitor locations, market characteristics and demographic trends.

The Visual Manager project was a massive undertaking — not to mention a huge get for the small company — but both Hardin and Resnick speak modestly about landing the deal, crediting the intersecting relationships they’ve built over the years and the stellar reputation the firm has established.

“At the end of the day, it all goes back to talent,” Resnick says. “And Jon is one of the best developers, if not the best developer, I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.”

Hardin is hardly the only hard-working entrepreneur to escape notice. The city is filled with people quietly pursuing innovative ideas and shaping Madison’s future. But, like Hardin, they all have a story to tell.

Read about four more Madison entrepreneurs …


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