Eric Dobbertin has lived his entire life in Wisconsin. He currently resides in Plymouth, a small town of a few thousand people on the eastern edge of the state. Plymouth is also the Cheese Capital of the World. Every New Year’s at the stroke of midnight, the town drops an 80-pound cheese wedge from a 100-foot truck ladder. There’s a towering statue of a Holstein dairy cow named Antoinette, erected near the bend in the Mullet River that marks the location of the old 19th century Wisconsin Cheese Exchange. Antoinette is also featured on Eric’s Dairy State Designs logo. Those Wisconsinites are exceedingly proud of their livestock. And with good reason. There’s roughly one dairy cow for every four people in the state, and they collectively produce 15% of the country’s milk supply. Not to mention the cheese.
Eric grew up near Green Bay and attended St. Norbert College, a small liberal arts school on the Fox River, a stone’s throw south of Lambeau Field. With a major in Business Administration and a minor in English, he got a job as a technical writer for a software development company in Madison. He started writing online help content and user manuals, translating complex computer programs into understandable directives for the medical community. When he moved into software documentation, he had to explain the function of code to developers and administrators, which meant having to understand the code himself. It was a crash course in programming and some serious on-the-job training. Predictably enough, he became increasingly more fluent and started designing and developing himself.
When marriage and then family came, he felt like the hours were too long and difficult to sustain. That’s when he decided to, um, buy a coffee shop. The Rock Island Café was located in Neenah, a few streets in from where the Fox River spills into Lake Winnebago. The coffeehouse/art gallery/live music venue was housed in a century-old brick building with a pressed metal ceiling, creaky hardwood floors, heavy wooden doors that were open about 90 hours a week, and a plate glass window that pointed vaguely in the direction of the Burial Chamber Haunted House Complex across the river. Eric served organic, fair trade coffees, loose leaf teas, soups, burritos, baked goods and friendly banter to a steadfast gathering of locals and tourists.
Sadly, there’s not a lot of money in coffee, local art or live music, so Eric kept learning computer technology, and after three years he took down the Rock Island shingle and started his new business, Dairy State Designs. His office is located behind his sister-in-law’s yoga studio and doubles as an art gallery featuring original works from his kids Zoey and Luke.
Dairy State Designs began simply about four years ago. Eric and his partner Chris, a graphic designer, began building simple websites for local companies—basic PHP, WordPress, static HTML. Over time, as his skills developed, Eric began creating web apps and taking on more advanced projects. He started experimenting with different technologies in search of something that felt cutting edge. “We were working on some internal app ideas using various technology that was better than the old way but it still felt like you were doing more than you needed for simple things. I wanted something easy to do easy things, and not that hard to do hard things. When I found Meteor, it stuck. I liked the way the package system worked, and I could add the stuff that I wanted.” Now he’s fully immersed in the Node.js/Meteor world, and all of his new projects are Meteor-based.
"I have several Meteor packages that are open source for everybody to use, like AutoForm, Collection2, and Simple Schema. I created all of them because I needed them or wanted them for other projects. Most of them were fairly basic in their first iterations, but then as they became popular I had to decide if I kept adding features or if I just let them sit. I try to add most of the features people request, based on what I also want and what I need for my client projects. It’s been a lot of work maintaining them but I personally hate it when I come across a great package that’s been abandoned, so that’s my passion, to not do that. It means I have to be discerning about what I release because I know I have to keep it current."
Despite what might seem like free work, it’s those packages that have made Eric quite a name in the Meteor community. In fact, that’s how we found him and recruited him to help us with Reaction Commerce.
"When I first looked at Reaction, it seemed really well thought out. The team had put a lot of thought into their design and which features were the most important. I especially liked that they were focused on what the administrators need to make their lives easier. It’s one thing to build a flashy store for shoppers but no one really builds shops for the people who have to deal with it every day. But the Reaction team has a lot of industry experience, and what they’re creating seems right and poised for success."
Eric has quickly become a vital part of the Reaction team.
"I don’t have a lot of experience with ecommerce platforms but they do all seem archaic. A lot of what’s out there is PHP-based, and that’s not going anywhere. It’s supported but it’s not under active development anymore. In that sense, you’re going to need to rebuild in order to keep your stores current. It’s become a nightmare for everyone who’s trying to keep shops up to date. They have to think too much about upgrades. That’s what makes Reaction Commerce different. They’re a potential disruptor because they’re poised to have an easier time for updates and keeping the database and that kind of stuff going."
We managed to lure Eric away from his home state for a Meteor rendezvous in San Francisco earlier this year, but it seems that he’s not inclined to join us in our West Coast offices. And why should he? Wisconsin has a diversity that California can only dream about. After all, it’s home to the Hamburger Hall of Fame, the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and the Mustard Museum (with its 2,300 varieties!). Wisconsin hosts the largest music festival, boasts the largest water park, holds the annual Cow Chip Throwing Contest and has somehow supplanted Germany to become the Bratwurst Capital of the World. California, even its etymology is so tired and passé, Spanish for "earthly paradise," while "Wisconsin" is originally from the Chippewa "Ouisconsin," a word meaning "river that meanders through something red."
Left to right: Aaron and Ben of Ongo Works, with Eric in San Francisco, August 2014.