Willis Writes Own Ticket

June 5, 2002
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NUNICA — Her career goal was to write and illustrate books for children.

It didn't work out that way, as her writing went in a different direction — explaining to people how to use things.

Years after a job writing user and instructional manuals, Chris Willis is still telling people how to do something, albeit in vastly different formats that are geared for today's fast-paced, high-tech world.

"The programming and the art have come together in a way I never dreamed of," said Willis, president and CEO of Media 1 Interactive, a small Nunica company that started out doing desktop publishing and now specializes in producing customized, Web-based training presentations.

"I couldn't dream this big," she said.

The company also uses CD-ROMs, corporate Intranets, and laptop and hand-held computers to deliver its training presentations, which range from showing corporations the latest ISO and QS quality programs, to teaching teen-agers how to bag groceries.

While the methods used to deliver instructions have evolved over the years, the goal has not: providing employers and people lessons that are easy to use in the workplace.

"This is exactly the same, only different," Willis says as she shows off a short instructional presentation on a hand-held computer that uses Flash software. The idea is to provide managers with a portable tool they can use to quickly demonstrate a technique and provide an employee short, on-the-spot training presentations about the task at hand.

"It's right there, right on the job, when you need it," she said. "This is not big-picture training. This is broken down to the task level."

Willis' career started slowly following her 1982 graduation from Grand Valley State University with a degree in illustration. Jobs were scarce at the time, with the nation stuck in a recession, so she took work in a print shop, doing keylining, layout and even operating presses.

After two and a half years, she went to work for Rowe International, a Grand Rapids maker of jukeboxes and machines that accept paper currency in vending machines. She started there doing illustrations for user manuals, but soon became interested in another area.

Working in close proximity to the company's engineering staff, Willis learned about the technical writings that accompanied her illustrations.

"I found it quite amusing. 'You mean there's somebody who writes these and gets paid good money for it?'" Willis said.

She soon began an "informal apprenticeship," as she calls it, learning how to write technical manuals.

After seven years, and feeling that she wanted to move up in the world, Willis left Rowe and joined TelCom Associates in Grand Rapids, using the AutoCAD skills she learned at her previous employer to help TelCom develop a geographic-information system, or GIS.

The job, however, was fraught with frustrations, as TelCom ran into financial trouble and eventually failed. During her time at TelCom, Willis was preparing for the future by taking courses at the Small Business Development Center in Grand Rapids on how to start and run your own business.

As the spring of 1993 neared, Willis decided to pursue her goal of working for herself. She left TelCom and formed Media 1 Technical Publishing Services on March 17, 1993. Working out of a back bedroom in her Nunica home, Willis produced instructional and user guides and manuals.

Willis' decision to start her own business stems partly from dissatisfaction with jobs she held years earlier, after college. Those jobs, she said, never gave her the opportunity to grow professionally.

"I wasn't learning anything new. It wasn't about trying anything. It wasn't about innovation," Willis said. "This was the only hope."

At Media 1, Willis sought to create a company with an environment "where everybody's opinion matters."

"To a fault, I make sure their opinions matter here," she said of her 18-person staff.

Willis' first big break came when she landed work from Rowe to develop an instructional manual. She then connected with a Kalamazoo technical communications firm, The Bishop Co., as a sub-contractor. Through the partnership with Bishop, Willis learned more about inter-office collaboration and the benefits of creating a work environment that valued innovation and creativity.

She later wrote what she calls a "manifesto" for Media 1, outlining the company's core values and beliefs.

The collaboration with The Bishop Co. also led to additional customers.

Over the years, Media 1's role and name changed as technology evolved. As the company moved into other areas, it became known as Media 1 Technical Communications, before settling on Media 1 Interactive — a name that reflects the broader array of formats used today to deliver instruction.

The biggest format used today is Flash software, which enables Media 1 to develop the equivalent of an instructional video that's played on a computer. An employee suggested to Willis two years ago that Flash was "the next big thing" on the Internet. She gave him the OK to begin delving into it, and today the software is the cornerstone of the company.

"It is now the core competency of our business," Willis said.

Media 1, in fact, recently signed a deal with the REW Group, a Grand Rapids consulting firm, to develop Web-based training courses in ISO 9000, ISO 14000 and QS-9000 quality certification standards using Flash software.

Eight years after she started the company and, like any entrepreneur, went through the struggles of building a small business, Willis sees bright times ahead.

"It has its little moments, but there are things happening right now that are the culmination of all the hard work," she said. "It's just starting to come together right now." 

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