The Charleston Digital Corridor's Leadership Profile series is focused on the individuals who are driving Charleston tech scene forward. This series is brought to you with support from Charleston Southern University.
Levi Morehouse is founder and CEO of Ceterus, a firm that provides accounting software and services for small-business owners. Ceterus is located in downtown Charleston.
Where did you grow up? What was life like there?
Kalamazoo, Michigan. It's a small town about two hours from Chicago, two hours from Detroit, kind of between the two. I was home schooled. It was a good place. I spent a long time there and actually started the business there in 2008. We moved our headquarters down here in 2013. It was a good place to grow up, just a little too cold for me.
How did you come to be in Charleston?
The business has customers nationwide; it's all cloud based, it can be done from anywhere. We really did that knowing that we wanted to be able to locate to a bigger city or a different type of area at some point. So back around 2012 or 2013, we started realizing we needed to be somewhere with a little more access to talent, somewhere where people wanted to relocate.
If it wasn't going to be a huge metropolitan area, which I wasn't really interested in, it had to be a place that would be attractive for people to move to. As much as Michigan is a good place, it's not exactly a prime destination for people to relocate to. Along with that, just personally, I wanted somewhere slightly warmer. So we looked around at a handful of cities around the Southeast as well as Texas and ultimately settled on Charleston.
In your own words, what does your company do?
We empower small-business entrepreneurs with niche-specific accounting solutions. We focus on franchisees and a couple of specific franchise concepts.
I started the business in 2008 as just an outsourced accounting business, purely a service business. A little over a year and a half ago, we switched and started developing our own software and becoming a software-as-a-service business.
What was your first job, or most memorable early job? What did you learn from it?
I had a lot of early jobs working with small-business owners. I worked at a bakery. I worked at a telecommunications company. I always really enjoyed watching the owners do their thing. I was always very entrepreneurial minded. I was always very interested in: Why does this business work? What's working there? Why do customers want to choose them? Do they make money or not?
Did you have an entrepreneurial drive early on, or did you acquire it through experiences?
Once I gave up my dreams of being a professional baseball player, which ended at 11 when everybody else was better than me, it just shifted gears to, "OK, this seems like a really fun way to make a living and to try to create something and build something." I'm not an engineer. I'm not a builder of physical things. So building a business, working with people, working with customers, working with employees – all of that started to become interesting to me at a very early age.
I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur; I didn't always know what I was going to do. I spent a lot of years trying to figure that out. I started businesses from the age of 19. I bought a house. I did some real estate – I sold and rented and flipped. My wife and I went through seven houses in our first five years of marriage. God bless her, she's put up with a lot. So I tried that. I started several businesses throughout college as well as after I got my first jobs.
What drew you to your current business, or inspired you to start it?
When I went to college, I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do. I took an accounting class just because I was on the business track. I said, "Wow, this kind of clicks. I actually enjoy this stuff." So I went down that route. I ended up getting a job at a pretty good-sized regional accounting firm and getting my CPA, all the while knowing that this isn't what I wanted to be doing. It was a great job, and I had a great time there, but I always had that urge, the itch, that I do need to do my own thing.
Ultimately, I put the pieces together and said this small-business thing that I've always been attracted to, these small-business owners – they have a big need in accounting. They do it poorly, and I enjoy it. Is there a way that I can provide something like that to all these small-business owners? And the pieces kind of just clicked.
It was the same time cloud software was really becoming useable and trustworthy and accessible. So I said, let's try a business that provides a turnkey way to do the accounting. We don't just give you tools and consult you on how to use them, but we actually do it. None of these small-business owners have the time to do it.
You recently began offering software in addition to accounting services. Why the shift?
When customers sign up, they say, "I want you to do my accounting," and it's off their plate. It's on our plate. We're running through their transactions, telling them how they're doing, giving them reports on how they're doing. They don't have to manage it. What changed was instead of sending them reports or having them get into QuickBooks and look at a report, they now log into our Ceterus insight system, which is reporting that's tailored to their niche specifically.
So they don't just see information about their business. They see their business and it's benchmarked against their peers. So they can see, "How did I do last month, and how does that compare to everybody else in my state or everybody else in the nation that's in this same kind of business?" It's highly valuable information. It lets them zero in on where they're spending too much money or should be spending more. It pulls in non-financial information as well – other key performance indicators they may want to monitor.
How would you describe your organization's culture?
It's very results-focused and fun. Everyone has a lot of autonomy, a lot of flexibility. Every position has a really clear set of objectives. Within that, everyone has the ability to do the job how they want, when they want, where they want.
What is your management style? Has it changed over time?
I really enjoy delegating things and not thinking about them again. I've got a really good team that's hungry for that. On the flip side, if something starts going wrong, I zero in and ask a lot of questions. But I try to stay pretty hands-off as long as things are going well.
I used to really want everyone to feel great and like me a ton. I learned in doing that, you end up making people sometimes hate you more by not addressing something that's a problem. So by the time you finally do address it, you're a jerk because you didn't give proper expectations. They didn't know they were falling short.
I think I've become a lot better at being very honest, very up front very early on about anything, and not always trying to make everyone happy every minute.
What lessons have you learned from good bosses? Bad bosses?
I think, again, learning that you don't have to be everybody's friend. Be honest. Be nice to people, but ultimately they'll like you a lot better if they know you're out to shoot straight with them.
What's the hardest or most important lesson you've learned in business?
To have a really clear objective of what you're doing and then to focus exclusively on that objective. And never to settle for anything short of it. If you put those three things together, it really works well.
What's the biggest misconception about being an entrepreneur?
That it's really exciting and glamorous. It's mostly a whole lot of hard work, a lot of stress. Your mind doesn't turn off.
Do you have a routine that's important to your day?
Really the only thing that I've always consistently done as long as I can remember is try to get up earlier than pretty much any sane person would get up. I try to get up at 4:47 a.m. Sometimes I work out right then. Sometimes I just go straight to work. Sometimes I make a cup of coffee. But I always get up very early and try to get a lot done before the rest of the world is up and about.
What do you look for in the people you hire?
I look for people who are passionate in general, just passionate toward life and toward what they do, and who like being responsible for the duties they are supposed to accomplish. Once they understand something, they don't want to ask a million questions, they don't want to have to have somebody looking over their shoulder. They really want to be a little bit autonomous and just do an amazing job. And I look for people who want to get rewarded for the value they create, not for the time they sit at their desk.
What is your biggest pet peeve in business or amongst colleagues?
Everything takes too long. I'm very impatient.
What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?
Really get a clear objective of what you want to do and focus on it exclusively, and don't settle.
What advice would you give new graduates seeking to work in the tech industry?
There's not nearly enough talent in technology right now. So I would say get into it and find a business that's doing something real. Find one that you really believe is serving a need and will be there for the long haul.
What do you see as the future of your company?
We love working with and empowering small-business entrepreneurs. We get to have a part in helping hundreds of them today. We want that to be thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. So we built the software, the automation, giving us a scalable platform. We really think this is going to be a substantial business that really does a lot of good for the entrepreneurs in this country.
What one person have been the biggest influence on your business life? And why?
My wife. She's really taught me over the years the value in having some routines and more organization. I've always been about ideas and chasing crazy things and working really hard, but to be able to put some more structure to that is super valuable.
She has helped me with management techniques and leadership styles. I can't tell you how many times she has said, "Well, if what you just said and the way you just acted makes me feel like this, I can't imagine what your employees feel like every day." I've tried to take a lot of those lessons. I owe her a lot of gratitude for helping me be a better business person, a better leader. My employees probably appreciate her, too.
Are you a Mac or a PC? iPhone or Android?
About 99 percent of my work I do on my iPhone. When I do have to sit down at my desk, I use a Surface Pro.
What is your usual Starbucks order?
Whatever the darkest roast is, black.
Outside of work what keeps you busy?
I have five boys, ages 4 to 14. It's a lot of fun, but it's crazy.
Ceterus also has a basketball team. What we lack in size we make up for in intensity.
What has it been like building your technical team in Charleston?
It's been tough. We're just getting into it. The available talent here seems low. Getting people here has been OK. People are attracted to the city. There's just not a whole lot of available talent looking around here, that's here currently.
We just raised a venture capital round. I talked to a lot of VCs, and a big issue was, "You're in Charleston, is that even going to work?" I went around town and interviewed various tech CEOs, and to a person, I heard that it's harder to recruit people here. They do want to move to Charleston. But it's tough. It's not like, obviously, Silicon Valley or New York or Boston, or not even like Atlanta or Denver. There's fewer people, fewer applicants. But once you get them, they said the loyalty and the turnover is great. They don't leave.
In talking to people who would be interested and who would like to relocate here, I think the fear is that either you decide you want to move out, or the company doesn't make it, or the company does make it and gets acquired and moved to somewhere else. In tech, I think a good person is worried that if that happens, they'll have to relocate again and they won't want to. They'd like to be in Charleston, but I think there's a fear that there's not enough opportunities.
I think as it becomes known that it's not just one or two companies – that it's five or 10 or 20 – then I think people will realize there are other alternatives in the area. That strikes me as a part of it.
I know a big part of it is not having a school here that's kicking out technical talent, so everyone has to relocate here. And, honestly, I think it's a nationwide issue. I don't think it's a Charleston-only kind of thing that it's hard to get good technology people.
What are your thoughts on how Charleston's technical landscape has grown?
I've been here about three years. Even in that time, though, it's impressed me. Just this area we're in here, businesses are popping up. Better offices, bigger places, more people. It seems to be that the non-Blackbaud and Benefitfocus firms are starting to grow and really get some traction as well, which I think is exciting. It continues to build out the rest of that ecosystem. Again, I haven't been here long enough to really weigh in, but it feels more like a tech place than it did three years ago.