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InsureSign Founder & CEO, Joe Floyd

InsureSign’s Floyd: The More You Learn About Tech, The Better Your Community Will Become

Joe Floyd is founder and CEO of InsureSign, a secure e-signature solutions company. Floyd, a veteran creator of software for the insurance industry, founded InsureSign in 2011, after creating a rigorous yet quick and easy-to-use online-signature tool for his family's insurance and finance company.

Where did you grow up?

Whiteville, North Carolina. It's a small town that's a lot like Beaufort, except where you see water and marsh here, replace it with tobacco fields. My grandfather had an insurance company and that's where I worked as a kid.

How did you end up in Beaufort?

My wife, Karen, is an anesthesiologist and she followed up on a job opening that led us to move here in 2000. We really knew no one within a hundred miles when we got here. But that was a fun time to be in Beaufort. There were a lot of people our age. Our two kids, who are now in college, have grown up knowing Beaufort as home. We came for two years and have been here almost 18.

What was your first job, or most memorable early job? What did you learn from it?

My first job was working in the family business. I'd walk after school to my dad's and grandfather's offices and file paperwork, which was a job that nobody else wanted to do. I learned about a small-town office and how they operated. It was a down-to-earth business. Several people that were there when I worked there after school are still there. The experience stuck with me, even now running a tech business. So many things about working in tech are grow, grow, grow. If you're a small business feeding a family, your only concern at the end of the month is whether your income is greater than last month. That one business has sustained my entire family since 1939 – it put us all through school.

I majored in TV and film at UNC at Chapel Hill. I was always interested in that kind of thing. So after college, I was in the movie business in Wilmington for a couple of years. Back then, there were a lot of feature films being filmed in Wilmington, things like Billy Bathgate andTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I worked mainly doing sets and props. Essentially, I was a glorified furniture mover. I guess I passed this along to my son. He's now a film major at Emerson in Boston.

Did you have an entrepreneurial drive early on?

It always appealed to me to work for myself. Maybe as a kid I read too many comic books.

The comic books I liked best were Richie Rich – he always had some kind of business going; always had some kind of angle. Looking back on it, my friends and I always had one moneymaking scheme or another going on when we were in school.

In your own words, what does your company do?

We provide businesses with the ability to get documents completed and signed electronically from any device at any time. We take something that has always been a paper-and-pen process and turn it into a mouse-or-finger process.

What drew you to your current business, or inspired you to start it?

In my previous business, we had to get a lot of contracts signed and people were coming in less and less, doing more online. So I started thinking, "There has to be a better way to get signatures through the internet." We looked around and saw that the existing solutions weren't easy and the easy solutions didn't exist. That's when we developed what is now InsureSign. At first, around 2011, we rolled it out to our home customers. As that caught on, people would ask us if they could use what was, to us, an in-house tool. By 2013, we had enough demand from others that we thought we must be onto something. So we decided to commercialize it.

How would you describe your organization's culture?

In our world, we are the underdogs and we like that. We're team David taking on a battle with Goliath. We're up against a lot of deep-pocketed companies and we celebrate the little victories. There's nothing better for the team than winning a customer away from a multimillion dollar company. We're a small team of about ten or eleven people and we like it that way. Our goal is to stay there. In a good way, we walk around with a chip on our shoulder. We are lean and mean and like to be small.

What is your management style? Why is that your approach?

If I do my job correctly, one of my main roles is to keep the team aligned with what we're doing, especially as we grow the company. Everyone wants a purpose when they go to work. They want a salary, but they also want to know that what they do matters. I make sure they know as much as possible about the specific companies in the specific businesses where our product makes a difference. That way I can tie their efforts to what brings revenue in the door. Business exists to turn a profit and that should not get lost. But making a difference, making people happy, is a key driver.

This emphasis on working toward a meaningful goal and making money goes back to when I went to work in the family business after college. I was not at all sure that's what I wanted to do, but as we moved from paper processes to electronic, I saw that if I could do little things more efficiently, it felt good. Sometimes it was something like automating a two-hour process down to a ten-minute process. You just gave someone two hours of their day back. Any time you can connect the work to people like that, you help create that sense of purpose.

As far as management style, I still have to keep myself from micromanaging every detail. We're small enough that I have to wear a lot of hats right now. I don't always recognize that I should give someone else one of my jobs I'm taking on. I don't always see the need to have the right person in the right position. I can be a little too slow to make the hire. Looking back, I can see that has slowed us down, so I'm trying not to get in my own way.

Do you have a routine that's important to your day? A morning ritual, meditation, etc.?

I tried meditation and liked it but can never find the time to devote to it. Every day, I have to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee. I always do that. I end the day with a glass of wine or a cold beer. Those are really nice ways to start and end the day.

What obstacles have you faced building your business? How have you overcome them?

It has been challenging to find the right technical talent in the area. We've had to look at a lot of people to find the right ones. We solved for it in Charleston, where we have an office and great talent on board. Also, you have to be willing to pay people what they're worth. It takes a while to find the right people – interviewing, calling references. But it pays to take the time. That's just a longer process here.

I still work as much as I can out of Beaufort. I will admit that for me, working remotely can be a challenge. It's getting easier, with tools like Slack, project tracking. Once you have the right tools, it's a matter of getting in a rhythm, challenging yourself to find ways to stay on each other's daily radar.

What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?

Make sure you have some angle to get your business started. I have seen a lot of bad business ideas, where you can tell they are bad right out of the gate. All businesses look like they could make money starting out. Ask: Is there a market? Am I thinking of something no one else has thought of? Do I have an in-road to move things along? This was my angle: I had a network of ready-made customers, people to call on in finance and insurance. They were my first customers and are still my customers today. If I hadn't had that in-road, I don't know if it would have worked.

You don't have to come out of the gate making a million dollars, but if you can't cover expenses and a paycheck, you have to think of another business. In the early days, I found a developer on a message board and hired him to build a minimum viable product – we built a prototype. Once we showed it to folks and it looked like it would work, I brought him on. At first, I was a salesman and part time developer. Gradually, we built a team.

What do you see as the future of your company?

E-signatures are going to become more and more integrated so we have to keep our eye on that. We're rolling out a new platform. Our product is going to start to encompass things like taking payments as part of the process, for example. The product will evolve to meet the way people want to work and that will always be a moving target. We will continue to service the insurance industry but we are also growing laterally, into other industries. We've had inquiries now from landscaping, beauty salons, and even a town in Illinois. The market itself is really growing. It's probably only about 5% penetrated.

How can the Beaufort Digital Corridor support you and your business?

Personally, I would love to see the BDC bring people out of their silos. Even though I am all set on space with our offices in Chapel Hill and Charleston, there's a cool dynamic in cross-collaboration and having an avenue where entrepreneurial and tech ideas flow. I would love to see a community of people engaged in software development in the area.

Keep looking for ways to connect local people and keep them connected. People like me, living in Beaufort, working in this newer business paradigm, who have a technology and entrepreneurial focus, we don't run across each other. Do what you're doing now: profiling people in the entrepreneurial tech areas so that it comes across our field of vision.

Sell the physical environment of Beaufort. Hold a junket for technology recruiters. There's a shortage of talent in Charleston. Pick them up in a bus and bring them here. Host them, show them around.

Are you a Mac or a PC? iPhone or Android?

I'm strictly iPhone on my mobile. For Mac and PC, I have both. That's due to legacy – certain software we have to use still only runs on a PC. I do a lot of work now online. The Chrome browser functions the same on either.

Outside of work what keeps you busy?

My wife and I are now empty nesters with kids in college so we like to visit their college cities. We like to get outside, doing things that Beaufort makes easy: spending time on the water, boating, kayaking. I like to run, but only short distances. A few weeks ago, we went to Bonnaroo in Tennessee and camped out to see the headliners: U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers. We like to travel and now we travel a lot.

What has it been like building your technical team in Beaufort?

We've been able to find the talent we need in Charleston. I can commute back and forth and they can come down. That said, this is the lowcountry. The lifestyle brings people down here. Today, more than ever, doing things remotely, I think there's a lot of tech recruitment to be done in places like Beaufort. I'd like to see us bring people out of the woodwork. Let's crack the code. Why are so many tech-accomplished people only in Charleston? Couldn't one or two of them be just as happy in Beaufort?

When you encounter tech skepticism about Beaufort, how do you respond?

I am at least as effective working out of Beaufort remotely than when I managed my family's company in Chapel Hill from afar in 2006. I'm almost more effective from the coffee shop with Slack and a phone than I was in my office in 2000.

I think people think that technology is somehow inaccessible. But that has changed radically over the last ten years. The way I run my company could never have worked ten years ago.

We outsource our infrastructure to Amazon Web Services. We have remote tools that allow us to compete with anyone. We have support people in Australia, developers in Pakistan. No reason at all why Beaufort can't be part of this.

I often think about education here. There's no reason kids in Beaufort couldn't be as technically oriented as anyone in Silicon Valley. There's no reason tech has to be geographically limited, the way, in the old days, manufacturing or farming were.

The first people to embrace this will be way ahead of the pack. For kids going through high school, we still think of computer coding as optional, elective. It should be required. As software powers more and more of our world, I can't think of anything more relevant.

Even regional businesses will be affected. We're still lucky we have a thriving community downtown. But we don't have as many bookstores anymore. Our Best Buy closes. A shoe store goes out of business. Businesses are slowly being displaced by technology alternatives.

The more you learn about tech, the better the community you can build.

South Carolina Coding School Closes After Four Years

Peter Barth is confident that six months from now Greenville will have another coding school. He just won't be running it.

Barth, founder and CEO of The Iron Yard, a Greenville-based coding "bootcamp" and programming school, and the board announced in July that the coding school which once boasted 20 to 25 campuses stretching across the United States would cease operations by the year's end.

The announcement on the school's website called it a "difficult decision to cease operations at all campuses after teaching out remaining summer cohorts."

It was the second major coding school to announce it was closing this year. San Francisco-based Dev Bootcamp, launched in 2012 and later bought by Kaplan, will graduate its last class in December.

The Iron Yard's board included Barth; Eric Dodds, its chief marketing officer; and three representatives from the Apollo Education Group, a privately owned corporation headquartered in Phoenix that owns for-profit colleges, including the University of Phoenix.

Barth said he couldn't speak about the board's deliberations related to the decision to close or whether the board's vote was unanimous.

Apollo on June 11, 2015, acquired a 62 percent interest of The Iron Yard for $15.9 million, according to a 2016 Apollo Group annual report.

In recent years, Apollo has found itself entangled in growing financial issues, declining enrollment and lawsuits, USA Today reported. In a first quarter 2017 report, the company reported net revenue of $484.5 million, compared with $586 million in the first quarter of 2016.

First-quarter new degreed enrollment at the University of Phoenix was 20,200 and total degreed enrollment was 135,900, according to a statement, respective decreases of 17 percent and 23 percent from the same period last year. The statement also said operating income for the 2017 first quarter was $8.4 million, compared with an operating loss of $45.2 million for the first quarter last year.

Apollo was acquired in a $1.1 billion deal in February by the Vistria Group and Apollo Global Management, an unrelated company.

Barth said increased regulations did not play a direct role in the decision to close Iron Yard.

"I think just as an industry in general, for-profits were out of favor under the last (Obama) administration," he said. The attitude shifted, he said, when President Donald Trump took the Oval Office in January.

Former President Barack Obama in 2014 announced new federal rules targeting issues of cost and debt at for-profit colleges. But in June, the U.S. Education Department sought to freeze Obama-era changes that would speed up erasing federal loan debt of student borrowers, as reported by The New York Times.

A Coding Bootcamp Market Size Study for 2017, led by Course Report, found coding bootcamps expected to graduate nearly 23,000 students and grow by 52 percent this year based on responses from nearly 100 percent of U.S. and Canadian coding schools.

The $260 million industry is in its fifth year, and the number of bootcamp programs has grown to 22,949 students expected to graduate this year compared with 2,178 students in 2013.

Barth, 40, started The Iron Yard in 2013 after leading several successful startups.

He was a computer science major at Vanderbilt University in Nashville for a couple of years, but never earned a degree, instead dropping out his second year. When he left he became a stockbroker and later a software entrepreneur.

Barth and his family moved to Greenville almost 11 years ago, primarily for a better quality of life.

In Greenville, he became involved in NEXT, an arm of the Greenville County Chamber of Commerce, that plays an active role in the growth of knowledge-based companies in the Upstate.

Within a year of NEXT taking off, Barth took on a leadership role and co-led a number of projects, such as building the NEXT Innovation Center off University Ridge.

The Iron Yard started as a startup accelerator out of the NEXT Innovation Center. The company started in the summer of 2012 and the coding school came next in 2013. It later split from the accelerator in 2014.

The Iron Yard was not initially founded to open as a coding school, but it quickly became the first and only coding school in Greenville, and was one of the early coding schools in the Southeast and in the country, said 31-year-old Dodds.

In spring 2014, Iron Yard added campuses in Charleston and Atlanta. Three months later, branches opened in Durham and Houston, then another three months later in Orlando and Tampa.

The following year, the company opened more campuses in Texas, launching in new cities every three months.

Apollo's investment helped to escalate campus openings.

Apollo had already started operations in Phoenix and was working on one in London. Barth said Iron Yard didn't assume operations in Phoenix, but did take over the London campus, which eventually closed.

"Economically, it never worked. It was so expensive," Barth said.

In fall 2016, The Iron Yard closed the Detroit campus and five more campus closings followed early this year.

That left the Iron Yard with 15 in-person campuses across the country, including in Charlotte, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas and Nashville.

"Definitely kind of a surprise we ended up where we ended," Barth said.

Code school critics

Barth and Dodds waved off criticism of coding schools, a trend that followed as for-profit coding schools dotted parts of the U.S. in the last several years.

A Bloomberg article published last year, titled "Want a Job in Silicon Valley? Keep Away From Coding Schools," warned potential students from enrolling due to piling debt and lack of preparation for tech jobs.

Both Barth and Dodds said they're aware of the coding school criticism. Part of that, both said, stemmed from competitors that were small, unlicensed and unorganized.

There was also the sticker shock.

Tuition for the 12-week course at Iron Yard could cost nearly $14,000. The Course Report study said coding school tuition can range from free to $24,000. The average tuition is $11,469.

Most Iron Yard students were between the ages of 25 to 35 and were looking to transition out of prior careers, Dodds said.

Dodds said Iron Yard wasn't necessarily a replacement for a four-year college degree, but he said Iron Yard students were paying drastically cheaper per hour with more one-on-one time with their instructors.

Jose Vidal, a professor and undergraduate director at the College of Engineering and Computing at the University of South Carolina, has been teaching a senior capstone course to undergrad seniors for the past three years.

Most USC students in the College of Engineering and Computing start as freshmen, but the department does get transfer students from technical schools, he said.

In a senior survey taken in the spring, Vidal said most graduating seniors had job offers before graduation, with the median starting salary at $69,000. Others went on to graduate school.

Vidal said some seniors went to work at Google, Amazon or Microsoft, though the majority stay within a 100-mile radius of South Carolina, working in Charleston or Charlotte.

While the department doesn't survey corporations, companies Vidal has talked to at career fairs told him they are looking for traits beyond just programming skills, such as good personal skills and sometimes knowledge of business and accounting.

Whether he would recommend a coding school to a student, Vidal said it depends on the person, though he leans on the value of an undergraduate degree. Vidal has taken online classes before, and said he could see himself enrolling in coding school programs.

"You can certainly get a job without a degree. ... Half of the people working on software don't have degrees in computer science. That's always been true," he said. "It's always been the case that demand for programmers has exceeded the number of degrees granted."

What's next?

There's no amount of coding to answer what's next for Barth, Dodds or the coding scene in Greenville.

Since Iron Yard's closing announcement, Barth said he's received phone calls inquiring whether the school's shutdown means the tech scene is going away.

"No," Barth said flatly.

As far as the concrete campuses go, Barth said a few Iron Yard employees will hang around until early 2018, but his or Dodd's next venture remains to be discovered.

"We will definitely be involved in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem," said Barth, who will stay on the boards of NEXT and ChartSpan, a successful medical start-up created out of Iron Yard. "I'm fully committed to Greenville," he said.

Dodds is, too. He closed on a home in Greenville in August.

"It really has been pretty cool to build a company in Greenville, and we love it here," Dodds said.

Barth said both have received several job inquiries, but all focus on major cities such as San Francisco and New York.

"Not interested. I want to be here," Barth said, admitting the reality, however, that most companies in Greenville are not looking for their next CEO or chief operating office.

Life after Iron Yard definitely brought a grieving period, Dodds said. But both said the positive feedback brought by current students and some of the roughly 3,000 alumni has been comforting.

"It's extremely sad and difficult, but I think that was a rare opportunity to look back and see the effect we've had," Dodds said. "... (It's a) privilege to be a part of it."

Other options

The Iron Yard expanded to Charleston in 2014. It set up shop near Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant before relocating to Princess Street on the peninsula.

While the Greenville-based operation is shutting down, other options will still be available in the local area for fledgling techies: JRS Coding School, founded by Jack Russell Software, now runs a boot camp in Mount Pleasant. And the Charleston Digital Corridor offers code classes for adults and kids through its CODEcamp program.

Ginger Wareham, Picklejuice Founder & CEO

For Picklejuice, Balance Is The Key To Success

The Beaufort Digital Corridor leadership profile series is focused on the individuals who are driving Beaufort's tech scene forward.

Ginger Wareham is founder and CEO of Picklejuice, a five-person ­­­­­­­­­Digital Marketing and Creative Agency based in Beaufort. Wareham started Picklejuice in New Orleans in 2004 prior to relocating to Beaufort. Ginger and her husband, Will Wareham, are partners in running the business.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Southern Illinois in a small town called Harrisburg, population 9,000. My dad worked in the tire business. It was all cornfields and coal mines.

How did you end up in Beaufort?

I left Illinois for my mom's alma mater, Ole Miss. After college, I headed to New Orleans, where I lived for 12 years. It's a great and vibrant city for art and design. Will and I met two weeks before Hurricane Katrina. After Katrina, I moved to Charleston and eventually Will joined me there. In one year, we got married, I got pregnant, and we discovered Beaufort. We drove down to Beaufort from Charleston during one of the festivals, I think it was Shrimp Festival, because Will got a marketing job offer to work there. We just fell in love with it. It was completely random, but everywhere we went on that trip, and everyone we met, convinced us that this was home. We've never looked back.

What was your first job, or most memorable early job? What did you learn from it?

When I was in college, I had three jobs that shaped my work to this day. One of the professors was hiring graphic artists and teaching us html and coding. This was in 1995. It was pretty cool because it turned out we were designing an online poker game! That's how I got into Web design. I also had a paid internship for the summer at a local Whirlpool plant, where all they made were ovens. My job was to draw out the technical sheet that hung on the assembly line – a visual tutorial of how to assemble an oven, part by part. That's all we'd do. That job opened my eyes to all the details. It took forever just to draw one screw. It also made me appreciate the people behind the product. Even today, I will pick up the most common household thing and think to myself, "Some person put that together." Then there was my internship at Amscan. They make party supplies. Designers would print out mockups and my job was to cut them out with an X-Acto knife to build a prototype. It made me appreciate the functionality of design, that, even though I wanted to be creative, there was discipline involved. Good design also has to work.

Did you have an entrepreneurial drive early on?

Yes. This is just who I am. Right out of college, I was hoping to get into a fast-paced agency, but in the end my natural drive was to create my own agency.

In your own words, what does your company do?

At Picklejuice, we are at heart a creative services firm. We bring our clients' vision to life. We live our tag line – We infuse your creative projects with zesty stuff to relish. It all starts with the logo and branding, the overall feel and concept. Then we take it across the channels and media that make the most sense – event branding, marketing, web site design, graphic design, social media and digital marketing. It all has to play together to work.

What drew you to your current business, or inspired you to start it?

I've always wanted to do my own thing and be as big and as great as I possibly could be. When I was in New Orleans, my business partner did not return after Katrina. That made being in this creative business a full-time reality. Over the years, I figured it out – how to strategize with a client and deliver something fun and unexpected. Now with Will on board, we bounce ideas back and forth. He has a different skill set and perspective and that plays on both our strengths. Will's presence on the team allows me to let go and be creative because I know he's got the other stuff.

How would you describe your organization's culture?

Fun! We try to make our space and our business reflect our personalities. Our office space says it all. It's colorful. It's playful. We want our employees to feel that way, too. I'm always changing things, moving things around. For me, the space has to feel right or I can't create.


What is your management style? Why is that your approach?

I'd call my style flexible. We don't necessarily have rules. I'm not against change. Whatever will make our lives easier and help us work smarter wins. Also, I believe in open and honest. If someone comes across something cool, they can explore it. It's good for all of us when everyone is able to learn and grow. With all that flexibility, time management is always a challenge. To keep everyone on track, we leverage a project management tool. It works for us to a point and it could always be better.

What obstacles have you faced building your business? How have you overcome them?

In a word: balance. We're in a place today that we've worked so hard to get to. Lately we've been approached by a number of creative and well-respected people in this business who want to work with us on strategy. On top of that, we have recently signed on some big clients with longer contracts. New strategy and new business can require investment in new resources: full-time hires, enhanced infrastructure. Strategic expansion – which is desirable – has to be balanced against available resources and managed operating expenses – also desirable. The other balancing act comes with being practitioners who are also building and running a business. In this situation, you're constantly balancing design and delivery of the company's products and services at the same time you're signing clients and pursuing new business opportunities, and keeping the lights on. It all has to get done. The only way to overcome these tensions in the business is to find your balance and know when to pivot.

What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?

Follow your passion. If you want to do it, just go for it. If you go for it and you fail, at least you tried. Then pick up the next thing with no regrets. Also, use your passion as a filter for what to focus on. For me, it has always been about design. So many entrepreneurs try to do it all, understand it all, pursue it all. If you don't focus, you dilute your impact and you end up working on things you have no passion for. You can't do it all.

Do you have a routine that's important to your day? A morning ritual, meditation, etc.?

While my two little people are still sleeping, I get up really early. This is my quiet time to think and bounce around online to see what sparks my creativity. These are my inspiration sessions and they're the best way for me to start my day.

What do you see as the future of your company?

We're going for it. It's now or never: we're at an inflection point where we are assembling the structure of the company in order to grow. We need to put the right elements and people together to make it happen. We want to leave a legacy for our family and we're building the company's future around that vision.

How can the BDC best serve you?

It would be great if your members could access a virtual community – an online private group that connects members to each other for solutions; something similar to The Rising Tide Society, which is a free curated community for creative entrepreneurs. A members-only online group with a tech spin – where I could post a question and get answers – would be great.

What has it been like building your technical team in Beaufort?

Its been fun. Then again, we are a relatively small shop. Between the interns from the University of South Carolina-Beaufort Campus and creative freelancers in the area we have had no issues with talent to drive our business.

What do you see as some of the challenges recruiting tech talent to Beaufort?

We have seen some of the web developers move away so having the Beaufort Digital Corridor here and making connections to developers through the organization is terrific.

What are your thoughts on how Beaufort's technical landscape has grown?

While there has not been the explosive tech growth in Beaufort like in Charleston, change is gradually coming. There are professionals who are relocating to Beaufort for lifestyle reasons with a lot of experience in tech and tech related areas including social media and digital marketing. I am confident that over time Beaufort will be able to capture its share of tech growth and the Digital Corridor will play the key role with connecting people to make this happen.

Outside of work what keeps you busy?

Our 3 and 6-year-old. We love the beach and taking in an occasional round of golf. I also really love to paint with acrylics and restore furniture. I have painted most of the furniture in our PickleJuice office. I love to have traditional art projects going on since I am digital all day. It's nice to have a little break from the computer every now and then.

Are you a Mac or a PC? iPhone or Android?

Mac and iPhone.

Spicing Up Career Day: A New Website Connects Professionals With South Carolina Schools

Stephen Murray is "the kazoo guy."

As the owner of Kazoobie Kazoos, a kazoo-manufacturing business in Beaufort, Murray is also –- unsurprisingly –- a very popular speaker on the school career-day circuit.

Bearing a kazoo for each child, he visits four to six schools every year and leads their classes in buzzy renditions of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" or "When The Saints Go Marching In." Read more HERE

BASEcamp Ribbon Cutting

The Tao of Tech

Last January Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling cut the ribbon at 500 Carteret Street officially ushering in the city's Age of Technology. In a town that dates back centuries some things are better late than never. Enter the Beaufort Digital Corridor, a hi-tech incubator sponsored by the city to grow the tech and knowledge-based companies of tomorrow in the shadow of the Antebellum South. The Beaufort model is a slightly modified spin-off of the highly successful Charleston Digital Corridor, the brainchild of Ernest Andrade – also instrumental in getting the Beaufort project up and running.

The driving force in recruiting Andrade and bringing the project to life in an astonishingly short six months is City Councilman, Stephen Murray. The final piece of the puzzle was finding someone both capable and dynamic enough to run the thing. Karen Warner seemed the perfect fit with nearly three decades spent as a manager and an executive in High Tech and Marketing. She describes her job as "managing a techno ecosystem." Her experience in venture capital factors in directly with a key element to the incubator's long term success: finding the money to fund the dreams.

I recently sat down with Murray and Warner in the Corridor's newly renovated facility in the old Bank of America building on Carteret Street. The BDC's BASEcamp has been neatly transformed from a dreary 1980's branch bank into 5000 square feet of state-or-the art office and meeting space. Private offices are available for public lease as are "touchdown" spaces, basically plug-in cubicles designed for short term and temporary use. "It's perfect for visitors or guests who need some work space for a day or two," says Warner. The modern minimalist design is meant to evoke Silicon Valley. "And we're dog friendly," she adds.

Murray, a businessman and member of the Redevelopment Commission, says it all began when Council got some disturbing census numbers in 2015.

"It was shocking to a lot of us," says Murray. "We found that over ten years we had about a 40 percent decrease in per capita income in Beaufort. At the same time we had about a 25 percent decrease of 21 to 44 year olds in the city. Meanwhile the cost of owner occupied housing is about twice the state average at around $250,000. Not positive trends when your citizens are getting poorer, older and the young folks are leaving and the cost of living is skyrocketing. So, we took a hard look at how to turn some of these things around."

The typical approach to economic development tends to be large scale industrial recruitment. This, says Murray, was simply not a reality for a place like Beaufort. There had to be another solution, one that would have maximum economic impact with a minimal footprint. The suggestion to reach out to Andrade came through a mutual friend over drinks.

Over 15 years Andrade's non-profit incubator has been hugely successful in helping to grow Charleston's hi-tech base. With an average salary just shy of $90,000, Holy City "techies" make nearly double the regional and state average yearly wage.

Stephen Murray: They had a very similar problem. Young people were leaving, there was a rapid rise in the cost of living and a very seasonal, tourist driven economy with low wage service and hospitality jobs.

Karen Warner: Over 15 years, 148 companies incubated with a $88 million in capital raised by those companies. They've got about 356 members.

Murray: We really hit it off with Ernest and brought him down to Beaufort and walked him through this space and the pieces just fell together. He's very passionate about the program and what they've done in Charleston and he was willing to help us. So, in June 2016 the Redevelopment Commission and City Council authorized a partnership with the corridor and we raised just shy of a million dollars. We were able to upgrade this facility with no cost to city taxpayers, which was pretty exciting. Even more exciting was that the time we authorized to the day we opened was about six months.

Warner: We cut the ribbon January 12th.

Mark Shaffer: The idea's based around 4 components.

Murray: Talent – cultivating innovation and knowledge-based businesses. Capital – creating access to money through investment or other areas. Space – that's the Corridor where you can rent an office here or a "touchdown" space. And community – building a formal way for the tech community to meet on a regular basis and the hope that ideas and other companies will grow out of that network.

MS: And Karen gets to coordinate and implement all of this. This all came together very quickly. How did you get involved?

Warner: I'm exactly the people we're trying to keep here. I was an executive coach and that required me to get on a plane and go somewhere else. I looked around when I moved here and I really wanted to be part of the community. I come from the Boston technology corridor and worked for over two decades there in venture capital. And so I thought: what can I start in Beaufort? How am I going to do this? And my brother in-law said 'you need to know about the Digital Corridor' and introduced me to Stephen and some others. And just looking at what Earnest was doing in Charleston was pretty amazing - the amount of growth he's managed to achieve out of nothing. I thought I had some background that might be relevant to running this thing, so I threw my hat in the ring.

MS: What's been the biggest surprise?

Warner: I thought bureaucracy and city would be a problem, not knowing the government here. I've been amazed at how everyone is blocking and tackling to help me do my job.

MS: A little unusual for this city...

Murray: I think that when it comes to economic development, part of the community's been hesitant because for a long time the mindset has been smokestacks and pollution and anti-industrial development – and rightfully so. But I think technology has a certain sexy edge to it. Everybody uses technology. Your grandparents are on Facebook now. Everyone has a smartphone.

Warner: About smokestacks versus technology in Beaufort . . . one form of technology might be clean energy and helping to keep the area pristine.

Murray: We also have some pretty heavy in-fill goals for redevelopment downtown. We have areas nearby that are in pretty poor condition. And one of the things we found about the tech companies in Charleston is they can go in anywhere. Ernest has a company that went into an old Walmart, completely renovated it. Now it's their corporate headquarters and class A office space. While we're really trying to create opportunity for people, we hope to have a broader positive impact in the city and the region.

Warner: I feel like there's a nice balance struck between doing what Ernest has a vision for here and also making sure it accommodates Beaufort, because Beaufort is not Charleston.

Murray: The public/private partnership's important. Initially we'd talked about the Charleston model which was solely a public model that was sponsored by the city of Charleston. Ernest was a city employee. The lesson they learned was that it's important to have some separation from the government. While the city is a sponsor of the program, we don't own it. It's owned by a non-profit and my job is to block and tackle for Karen to help her be successful.

MS: So, this is a non-profit and part of the Charleston Corridor?

Murray: Right now, it's run under the Charleston Digital Corridor Foundation. And we expect that this year we will come out from under their umbrella and stand under our own Beaufort Digital corridor non-profit. To get going as fast as we could we thought it was a benefit to do it this way.

Warner: There's no question that it was a benefit to get this place renovated and looking like it does. Earnest had a vision and knew how to execute it and save a nickel, I must say.

Murray: One of the cool things about partnering with Charleston is that members get free use of the space in Charleston and vice versa. I think they sort of look at us as their retreat destination. We look at them like –

Warner: The mothership.

Murray: Lots of resources.

MS: Where do things stand three months in?

Warner: We have two residents right now and 24 members. Residents have to be members but you don't have to be a resident to be a member. We have people who offer services like intellectual property law that would be available to our clients. And we vet those partners. Ernest and I really screen to see who's here to provide a unique service to our membership. Members tend to be companies and they pay a membership pro-rated on their revenue. And we have investors. Investors can be anyone.

We get a lot of people walking in who've been in Beaufort a long time who have the background and the experience to help. The best way to help is to become a member. You're going to get all the communication and know what's going on and see for yourself where we need help and jump in. We've got a lot of people aged 59 and up with a lot of experience who could be mentors. In 2015, 20 percent of the companies started were started by people in their 60's.

Murray: The real goal here is to create great jobs and create companies out of the community to give the folks who have to work here the type of living they need to offset this high cost of living. I've often said that most people don't move to northern Beaufort county because they want to live in a sleepy retirement village. They move here because we're a very diverse, authentic place – a real hometown. My fear is that if we keep losing our young professionals to this mass migration of retirees at some point we wake up and we are a sleepy retirement village and I don't think anybody wants that here.

You know, before the tourists came and brought their high cost of living with them you could hack out a living here and make it work. That's changed. The economics just don't work. I think this is us trying to shape our own destiny rather than letting destiny shape us.

Beaufort High School

Vireo Labs Kicks Off Regional Student Feedback Tour For Mobile App, C’reer

Career-focused education technology company Vireo Labs today announced a regional student feedback tour starting in the southeastern United States. The company kicked off its "C'reer Day" initiative at Beaufort High School. "C'reer Day" is an ongoing regional listening tour designed to collect feedback from high school students on the company's free career and college matchmaking app named C'reer.

C'reer is available now in the App Store for iOS devices or in Google Play for Android devices. For more information visit www.creer.us.

"The C'reer leadership and development team was thrilled to meet with students face-to-face and exchange ideas about how they will actually use our product," said Vireo Labs co-founder and chief marketing officer, Ian Leslie. "As a lean start-up, we've been heads-down the last 18 months developing and testing the product. Now that it's live, there's no substitute for watching students use the product right in front of us. We get their unvarnished reactions and suggestions in real time. It's the best kind of feedback and helps us improve the user experience."

The C'reer mobile app allows students to complete a 5-minute vocational assessment, receive career recommendations that match their preferences, and connect to the best colleges aligned with their career choices via chat.

Leslie continued, "Each year 50 million Americans research college through the question: 'What do I want to be when I grow up?' Most will use a mobile device for this research. By going on site with the students, we get to test our design assumptions. One is that today's high school students like taking this sort of personality and career assessment on their phones rather than on one of the desktop options used by some high schools around the country." He added, "We also confirmed that students like that C'reer lets them share their profile and career results with parents on what is sure to be an important conversation."

Wally Holt, Vireo Labs chief technology officer, listened not only for feedback on the current product, but also for features that might go into future builds of the product. "While our major design decisions were validated, we also heard suggestions for data sets the students think will make the product more useful to them," Holt said. "This is only the first of a series of student dialogues we plan to have in South Carolina and across the southeast over the next two months.

Karen Gilbert, the director of career and technology education for the Beaufort County School District, hosted the first "C'reer Day".

Gilbert said, "The game design students at Beaufort High School were excited to try out C'reer and gave it a thumbs up. They determined the app was easy to download and they were able to see the results of their career interests within a matter of minutes. Part of my role is to help young people make the transition from school to career and make sure they're college ready. C'reer will definitely be a tool that we'll explore further."

The company has also completed a "C'reer Day" at Ponchatoula High School in Ponchatoula, La. and expects to be on the road and doing virtual meetings with schools through May.

For more information on how schools can host a "C'reer Day" email info@creer.us or simply pick a date and time here.

The mobile app has reached more than 1,100 downloads in 20 states through word-of-mouth since launching in late January. 

Beaufort, SC Digital Marketing Firm Receives Silver ADDY Award For Creative Excellence in Advertising

Picklejuice Productions announced today that they are the proud recipient of the American Advertising Federation's Silver ADDY Award for their design of a holiday e-card series for Beaufort's Regional Chamber of Commerce. The six-card series features whimsical illustrations of the coastal Carolina town's most iconic themes, keyed to holiday messages, which could be shared digitally to family and friends.

"This is the advertising industry's largest and most representative competition for creative excellence in the region," said Picklejuice founder and chief executive, Ginger Wareham, who designed the holiday series for the Chamber. "Receiving this recognition is a great honor for both Picklejuice Productions and Beaufort's Chamber of Commerce."

"The city of Beaufort works hard to preserve and promote both our heritage and our coastal lifestyle," said Robb Wells, Vice President for Tourism in the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce. "Picklejuice's take on our holiday card perfectly captures that. Residents and visitors alike are always looking for ways to share what they love most about our city. We wanted a holiday card that they could download, customize and send online."

The Picklejuice team received the Silver ADDY Award at the American Advertising Federation's Midlands Chapter Awards Gala on February 18 in Columbia, SC. The AAF represents the interests of all facets of advertising: advertisers, agencies, suppliers and media. The AAF is based in Washington, D.C. and has more than 40,000 members through 200 local advertising clubs.

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iOS Bootcamp

This iOS bootcamp is nine weeks, Monday to Friday, 9:30am to 5:30pm at Jolly Goblin Games and is tuition-free for students. This would be a great time for anyone interested to participate. Apply HERE

IT-ology 2017 - Summit on IT

Join IT-oLogy for the 3rd annual Summit on IT as we present the findings of a major research study of South Carolina's information technology sector. Learn more and register HERE.

Fridays @ the Corridor - The Promise of Smart Communities

The idea of using smart and connected technologies to make communities work better is quickly gaining traction in municipalities across the world. Smart cities can increase economic development, drive citizen engagement and promote sustainability. 

At September's Fridays @ the Corridor, Crystal Chubeck, Smart Communities Architect for Verizon, discusses how cities can develop viable and comprehensive smart platforms to help their communities become more resilient through the incremental adoption of digital technologies and automation.

Learn more and registerHERE.

Game On!

Game On! is a code education program geared toward middle and high school students who would like to learn the practice of game design and development. Over this six-session program, students will learn the theory, tools, and practice required to create their own games. Learn more/Register HERE.