The Charleston Digital Corridor Leadership Profile series is focused on the individuals who are driving Charleston's tech scene forward. This series is brought to you with support from Charleston Southern University.
Earl Bridges is president and co-founder of Good Done Great, a company in downtown Charleston that provides software solutions and strategic consulting for corporate giving.
Where did you grow up? What was life like there?
I grew up in Bangkok, Thailand. My dad was an Air Force pilot, and then he later became a missionary, and we spent 6 years in Thailand. Bangkok is a big city, and there's a lot of bustle. It's very international. The people I grew up with were embassy personnel, ambassadors' children and a few large multinational expats. One kid's grandfather was Secretary General of the United Nations.
It was a really eclectic group of expats with unique backgrounds, from dozens of countries trying to be normal high school teens. It was an interesting time in history. We had several coups, and a revolution in Thailand. Saigon fell while I was there, so in fifth grade, we had an influx of people from the embassy that came into the country on helicopters, and the next week they were in school with us. I still feel very close to the school and keep in touch with many of my classmates even though we are spread across the globe.
How did you come to be in Charleston?
When I came back to the states after high school, we lived in Texas, and I was planning to go to Texas Tech; however, they wouldn't give me in-state tuition since I hadn't lived there for a year. I was already married before starting college so a friend of mine said, "If your wife works full-time in South Carolina, you can get in-state tuition." I drove sight unseen from Texas to Columbia and enrolled at the University of South Carolina.
After graduating from the Masters of International Business Studies (MIBS) program, I moved to the Upstate working for Michelin. My last job with Michelin was an as expat in Mexico City. This was 1999, and like many others, I followed a dot com dream, left Michelin and moved to Charleston where my wife had taken a pharmaceutical job with veterinarians. When our venture didn't get funded, I went to work for Blackbaud, and have been in Charleston ever since.
What was your first job, or most memorable early job? What did you learn from it?
Like most kids, I did what I could to make some spare money. While in Texas in junior high, my brother and I would collect aluminum cans. We also started a lawn-mowing business, and a roofing business as well as other smaller jobs. What I learned from that was there were a lot of opportunities if you weren't afraid of the really hard work – some of that was really hard work out in the sun.
Did you have the entrepreneurial drive early on, or did you acquire it through experiences?
I have always had a drive to start successful businesses. I am still highly aware of opportunities any time I see inefficiency. I have probably worked over 20 business plans from early days of printing t-shirts, roofing, through our dot com venture, and now Good Done Great. All of these jobs required some business planning, taking risks, becoming profitable and satisfying our customers. You learn a lot from these various experiences.
In your own words, what does your company do?
We revolutionize the way corporations and individuals give back to the communities and causes they care about. Our platform addresses the company's technology barriers, and opens up the possibilities to be really creative, so our clients can engage their employees, communities and brands through their philanthropy. Our team helps 66 Fortune 500 and other companies maximize their corporate social responsibility programs.
What drew you to your current business, or inspired you to start it?
While working for Blackbaud, I became familiar with the nonprofit sector. Later, I spent about a dozen years working for different technology companies and realized there was a lot of room for a better way to engage givers with the causes important to them. In 2009, David Barach, the other co-founder, and I got back together and decided to try and push boundaries of philanthropy with the newer technologies available. We believed that there was still a lot that technology can do to make a real impact in the world of philanthropy.
The big difference for our approach was to start on the supply side of the giving equation. We decided that instead of working with the people who needed money, we were going to work with the people that had money. Our first clients were foundations and big corporations that do a lot of grant-making. Later we moved to adjacent markets in the larger corporate social responsibility space, and began providing a full suite of offerings for their employee engagement as well. No one had really spent much effort on compelling solutions for the supply side. Most of the technology was on the demand side with lots of ways to raise money for nonprofits. We knew that by providing tools for the givers, we touch all stakeholders in the giving ecosystem, and really make a difference.
What lessons have you learned from good bosses? Bad bosses?
There is a great study by Gallup, which finds that your boss is the single biggest factor in whether or not an employee is engaged with their company. More specifically, if you have a bad boss, you will have a disengaged employee. That truth has been my experience as well. I was most productive when I reported to someone that challenged me, and fostered my ability to grow. However, I have also had a couple of terrible bosses. A demoralized employee will soon become a disengaged employee.
What's the biggest misconception about being an entrepreneur?
What people don't tell you, or they don't tell you enough about, is how much you sweat payroll as you hire people. It is our largest expense, and the most important. It is a big commitment that David and I take very personally when we add to our team. We have an obligation to make sure our employees are taken care of, because most of them have others who also rely on them. Which means that we've got to get the revenue and deliver a quality product, and do it profitably. We would go without a lot of "nice to have things" in order to ensure we are taking care of our team.
What do you look for in the people you hire?
Quite frankly, I could care less if you have a degree. I do care, with our technical teams about whether or not they can do their jobs. Do they have a professional curiosity? Do they have an attention to detail? Are they dependable, and can they rock a line of code? That's it.
How would you describe your organization's culture?
Everyone at Good Done Great is here because they believe in what we are doing, and they feel like they are making a difference. It's not the fancy office, perks, or big salaries that some of the well established companies can pay. It's knowing that they are part of a startup company which is making a big difference in the world. Oh, and by the way, if we are successful and revolutionize philanthropy, then they will be rewarded.
What do you see as the future of your company?
We will double this year in the total number of clients and number of employees. We have 66 clients now with 2.5 million employees, but we'll probably be over 100 clients by the yearend and 5 to 6 million employees with access to our system. All of a sudden, we're this center for giving. We have all these people with their time and money that can volunteer and give.
We connect with about 65,000 nonprofits. We already work with every big nonprofit you have heard of. We also work with big companies that are really trying to activate their brands through charitable giving, so we expect bigger and bigger. We are one of the bigger players in this space, and we'll be the biggest by the end of the year.
What obstacles have you faced building your business? How have you overcome them?
Getting investors to understand our SaaS (Software as a Service) business model was probably the biggest challenge. Charleston still has a long way to go to foster innovative technology startups like Good Done Great. The second remains talent. It is a challenge most fast-growing tech companies face and we are no different. We continue to successfully navigate these challenges as we prove our business model and outsource certain parts of our development.
What is your biggest pet peeve in business or amongst colleagues?
My two biggest are being late for meetings and not delivering on time.
What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?
Being an entrepreneur is all about being tenacious. Be prepared for a lot of "no" or "it won't work." Come up with something that works, vet it and go to market quickly. Then be accepting of criticism, be flexible and willing to make changes along the way. Keep pursuing the dream but be realistic.
What are your thoughts on how Charleston's technical landscape has grown?
When I came down here in 1999 and worked for Blackbaud, that was pretty much your destination. There were only a couple of companies. It was a big risk for people to come here who wanted to make a whole career, because if it didn't work out with this one company, then you were packing up the U-Haul and going back to wherever it was you came from. And that's certainly changed now.
It's easy for people to come here and find a good opportunity, like ours, and to feel like, if this doesn't work out, there are going to be plenty of opportunities. There are a lot of technology companies that are doing really well. That part has helped. I do think that we are starting to get some more astute investors (locally).
Are you a Mac or a PC? iPhone or Android?
Mac and iPhone.
What is your usual Starbucks order?
Venti nonfat two-raw sugar latte.
Outside of work what keeps you busy?
I enjoy fly fishing and live music.