Given that Maine ranks 49th in the nation for quality and availability of broadband access, it probably isn’t the first place that most people would think to launch an Internet marketing agency.

But after spending years in Silicon Valley working for corporate giants like Knight-Ridder, Shannon Kinney wanted to move back to Maine to be near family and raise her daughter here. And she was determined to create a Maine-based company that could serve customers – and have employees – regardless of where they were located.

“I just felt this huge draw to solve this problem,” she said. “It was like a magnet drawing me that was so strong, I couldn’t resist.”

In 2009, Kinney opened Dream Local Digital, which provides businesses with online marketing assistance, including website development, email marketing, social media management and search engine optimization.

She set up shop in an 8-by-22-foot space above her garage in Thomaston, and signed up for a standard business package from a local Internet service provider. But it wasn’t long before her growing staff needed more work space, and digital firepower.

“When we were small, five of us were running on what should have worked for nine people,” she said. “When we hit 15 people we were just really struggling with speed of upload and reliability.”

As she was scouting for places to relocate, she met with Fletcher Kittredge, founder and chief executive of GWI Inc., the Biddeford-based telecommunications company, to identify the best places to hook up with the “Three-Ring Binder,” a state-owned fiber-optic network that brings broadband Internet service to some of Maine’s most rural communities.

She found space in a building on Rockland’s Main Street that abuts a utility pole strung with fiber-optic wiring, and moved there in 2012.

The cost of connecting to the network was nominal because she was so physically close to it. Plus, it was exponentially faster for half the cost of the service she had in Thomaston.

“We couldn’t function without it,” she said. “High-speed connectivity is as important to productivity as beer and coffee.”

Fast, reliable service has enabled her to bring money into Maine’s economy from beyond the state’s borders. About 80 percent of Dream Local’s clients are outside Maine, which has been critical to its success, she said.

“Dream Local couldn’t grow if we were entirely dependent upon the economy in Maine to support it,” she said. “Now we’re able to balance clients in several states, cities and economic factors and are more immune to slowdowns in any one market. We also have more opportunity to seize with this diversity.”

It also allowed her to attract and retain top talent wherever they were physically located. Kinney now employs 26 people who work in the Rockland offices and remotely from Portland, Bangor, Denver, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Virginia. She’s been able to keep staffers and accommodate their changing life circumstances through the company’s online connectivity.

But making a virtual workspace succeed took more than just securing reliable broadband access.

Kinney had to create the technology infrastructure to facilitate communication and coordination. Dream Local Digital uses project management software and a custom-built accounting system to manage projects. All of its systems are cloud-based. Collaborative software like Google Docs allows multiple people to work on the same document simultaneously, and video conferencing tools like Skype enable meetings that feel as productive and intimate as in-person events. Tools like Dropbox allow for easy document sharing.

She worked with GWI to get a VOIP phone service that allows Dream Local to transfer calls to cells and landlines all over the nation and still have it be seamless to outside callers.

But a lot of the work involved creating an internal culture that fosters flexibility and work-life balance, and empowers employees to do their best wherever they are sitting.

“If you try to do it halfway, it’s distracting and a drain on productivity,” Kinney said. “If you are deeply committed as an organization, and treat people like grownups, and empower them from wherever they are, it works. I can’t create a culture of empowerment if I tell them what hours they work.”

Her efforts seem to have paid off. Revenues at Dream Local Digital are on track to hit $1.2 million this year, and the company now has clients in 19 markets in the United States, and Canada. But the benefit extends far beyond the bottom line.

“I used to work with bigger businesses, like Google, eBay and Microsoft,” she said. “But it’s not as gratifying as being able to take a small local business in Maine or any community where you can take it to the next level.”

Kinney is happy to see government and business officials rallying to improve Maine’s digital complexion. In August, a public-private partnership based in Rockport launched Maine’s first municipally owned, ultra-fast fiber optic Internet network to deliver speeds up to 100 times faster than a regular broadband connection. In September, South Portland announced a plan to deploy a fiber-optic, “gigabit-per-second” network that will bring ultra high-speed Internet service to much of that city.

“Maine needs a whole lot more of that,” she said. “Many people don’t even know how close they may be to high-speed fiber-optic network. And high-speed Internet is one of the tools to create a vibrant community, just like cell service and great restaurants and museums. I believe municipalities need to be thinking about this infrastructure the same way they think about sewer, water, electricity. It has to be that available.”

Jennifer Van Allen can be contacted at 791-6313 or at:

[email protected]