The Charleston Digital Corridor's Leadership Profile Series is focused on the individuals who are driving the Charleston tech scene forward. This series is brought to you with support from Charleston Southern University.
Belinda and Jake Hare are founders of Launchpeer, an 18-person company based in West Ashley that provides development, design and marketing services to startups. The husband-and-wife team moved to Charleston in 2014 and started Launchpeer in 2015.
Where did you grow up?
Jake: We grew up in southern California, not very far apart from each other, but we didn't really meet until college. We actually met the first day of college. We hadn't even had time to get oriented to campus yet. The first day of orientation we met, and we've been together ever since. Almost 11 years.
How did you come to be in Charleston?
Jake: We ended up here through the Army, really. I graduated college in 2009, and I got accepted to law school. But law school is expensive. I was working full time and going to school full time during college. That allowed me to pay for college, because I come from a pretty poor family. But they don't let you work during law school. I said, "I still want to go. So how will I go? Well, the Army will pay for it for me." So I decided to join the military. I was in there for about three years. They moved us to Tennessee, which is how we got familiar with the South.
I got a job after I got out of the military working in IT security. When I was getting out, I had a mentor who was in the business community who said you can make just as much money being a business analyst, which is what I ended up doing, as you could being a lawyer. I had no idea. IT wasn't really a thing when I was growing up. So I got out, got a job working in IT in Nashville, traveling back and forth to Boston.
One weekend, a year and a half after I got out of the military, Belinda wanted to go to Charleston. It was Mother's Day, so she obviously got to pick. I was like, "There's nothing in Charleston. I've never even heard of it." She was like, "No, no, we'll go. I like the architecture, I like the history. Let's just go check it out."
We ended up getting here on a Friday, fell in love with it on Saturday, I applied for a job on Sunday at SPARC on Daniel Island, and then got a call back the next day. Got an interview that next day. Basically, within a week and a half, we moved and I started working at SPARC. I got a job as a requirements analyst.
It all happened really fast. We really fell in love with Charleston almost immediately. We have two kids, they're 7 and 5. The way that Charleston is a growing tech scene and also really family friendly was a huge deal for both of us.
What inspired you to start this business?
Belinda: I was working in jewelry before. I was doing jewelry appraisals and I managed a luxury jewelry store. When we moved here, I decided to change careers. I went to the Iron Yard and did their Ruby on Rails course. I spent three months basically coding 24-7, and then found a job right after at Levelwing Media.
You work with some really amazing brands there, and it helped me build a really good portfolio. But at the same time, I think both of us realized in the positions we were in that there were a lot of things in the process that we didn't really have the ability to change and that we thought we could do better. It is a crazy story when you think about it. Both of us had very little experience in our jobs. Jake had four years' experience. I had one. And we left and started something that I think is really pretty incredible.
Jake: We moved here in May 2014. We started the business basically a year and a couple months later. It was June or July of 2015. And starting the business is kind of a loose term, because it wasn't really a business at first. It was just me and her. I loved where I was working; SPARC had a great culture. What I didn't like is, I've always been the, "Well, why do we do it that way?" kind of person. Both of us have always been like that. I was just tired of being that person. I also started getting more involved in the entrepreneur community in Charleston and saw that there was kind of a gap for startups and entrepreneurs. She did, too.
Belinda: People were constantly asking us, "Do you guys know any freelancers, or are you willing to freelance?" There was a big need for that.
In your own words, what does your company do?
Jake: We help founders, entrepreneurs, startups, innovators take their idea from where it is today and get it to the point where it's self-sustaining. Sometimes that's in the form of software development, where we build an MVP or a mobile application or something. Sometimes that's in the form of Belinda, who heads up our marketing department, rebranding a startup, rebranding the business, something that's an existing business. Our job is to help somebody take their idea for something innovative and turn it into a real, profitable, valuable business.
What obstacles have you faced building your business?
Jake: The first year of Launchpeer was awful. It was really slow going. We didn't really have a good grasp on marketing to our ideal customer, or who our ideal customer was. Because it was the two of us and two other people, who were mostly just freelancers, just trying to figure stuff out, we were willing to take any money from anyone to do anything. That doesn't lend itself to very clear messaging on who you work with. We did what a lot of other development agencies do, and marketing agencies included, which is, "Hey, we do anything digital for anyone. As long as you have money and can pay us, we'll do it for you."
That's a hard game to play because then you are competing against people who have been established for a while, and really the only benefit you have to them is you are cheaper. Which we were. I joke with people all the time that when we first started out we were like the Dollar General of development. If you could pay for me to eat, then I'd do whatever you wanted me to do. For the first year, we struggled with that.
About March or April of last year, 2016, we decided we didn't want to do it anymore. We were either going to completely change the business model and get it to where it was self-sustaining and leads would come to us, and things were working the way we wanted it to, or we were going to just go back to work. I had already started applying for jobs because I just didn't think it was going to work. And we decided to do some pretty crazy things. We just assumed, "Nobody is doing this, so it's not going to work."
One of those things was putting our pricing on our website. The other was blatantly saying we are only going to work with startups, which was a risk, and everybody thought we were insane because they said startups don't have any money. Just a bunch of things that agencies traditionally don't do. From April to August, we went from three or four of us to seven, and from August to the end of the year we went from seven to 18.
Why did those unconventional tactics turn the tide for you?
Belinda: I think there's definitely a perception, when you think of agencies, that you expect them to be like "Mad Men." They are all sitting in their fancy offices with their dart boards drinking scotch and just all around being ridiculous. We wanted to show them that we are them. We are entrepreneurs. We love startups. We've been where they are. That comes with just being really honest. That transparency built the trust that you need to start working with more people.
I think that really just resonated with people. It takes the fear away. There's a lower barrier to entry when the price is right on the website. You're not going to go waste an hour of someone's time thinking, "I might be able to afford it," and then they tell you it's some astronomical number.
What was your first job, or most memorable early job? What did you learn from it?
Jake: I was in the Army for three years, so that is kind of a memorable job. I think the Army really forced me to grow up. Not that I wasn't an adult through college. I was homeless when I was a kid. I was really poor. I worked really hard to get through college. But the Army just gave me that willpower and that grit to know how to deal with difficult situations and difficult people. Which definitely helps in a business setting, not only with employees and knowing how to lead a team and be a leader, but also with competition and business growth.
Did you have an entrepreneurial drive early on?
Jake: I did. I remember when I was about 10, I used to do drawings of comic book characters and I would sell them to other kids for lunch money. I didn't realize what being an entrepreneur was back then. I just thought, I wanted to get lunch money.
Growing up, I never really equated the attitude I had of, "Why do we do it this way?" – and I have had that mentality in every aspect of life – I never equated that mentality and attitude with being an entrepreneur until I got out of the military and I started working at SPARC and I started getting a little bit more involved in the entrepreneurial community here and realized that that attitude isn't me being a bad employee, it isn't me just being a jerk. It's me feeling like I want to do something I just didn't know how to do. Nobody in our family has been an entrepreneur.
Belinda: My family, a lot of them, are government employees. I think that does change your mindset. I think there is an element of safety that was instilled in me. It makes me more cautious – not to say I haven't done entrepreneurial things. I have started businesses by myself. It's just a different outlook. I approach it differently. I don't throw myself in as quickly as I think other entrepreneurs do.
What's the biggest misconception about being an entrepreneur?
Jake: That success happens overnight. I think a lot of people around town see Launchpeer for what is was in the last six or seven months. Unless they knew me, they didn't realize that for the first year we were basically not able to make mortgage payments and pay electric bills.
One thing I wish that our entrepreneur community did more is talk about that. I hear a lot of interviews with founders in town, and I never hear about them missing a mortgage payment or an electric bill. And I know they did. I talk to them in person and they talk about it, but they never talk about it publicly.
Belinda: We actually send out a book called "Unscalable" to our clients when they start working with us. It talks about all of the insane things founders have done during the time they don't talk about.
How would you describe your organization's culture?
Belinda: Cozy. We don't have the wide-open spaces like most of the tech companies here with crazy games and darts flying everywhere and beer sloshing everywhere at 9 a.m. We do things differently. Really, I'm not sure exactly why that is except that I don't want to be hit in the face with a dart. We don't see ourselves as the cool kids. There are a lot of companies that portray themselves as the cool kids. We just want people here that do their jobs and do them really well and like being here.
Jake: Our culture is very startup-like. We don't have a flashy space. The culture is very relaxed, entrepreneurial. Our culture is less about what you see and more about what the day-to-day is. We don't have really strict office times. They can pretty much come in and leave whenever they want.
Every person is probably working with two to three clients at a time, two to three startups at a time. We're not just writing code. We're not just creating Facebook campaigns. We are basically the co-founders of these clients. Which means, yes, half of any person's job is writing code. But the other half is being an adviser. When a client says, "Hey, we need to build this," it's not just saying, "OK we'll build that." Instead it's saying, "OK, we could build that, but if we do it this way instead, it will save you half of the development cost." Because our goal is to make sure that these startups are successful.
We definitely measure our company's success on how successful our clients are. Which I think feeds back into the culture, too. Everybody has ownership over the work they are doing because they feel like they are co-founders of these startups.
What lessons have you learned from good bosses? Bad bosses?
Jake: To hire good people and give them the freedom to do their job. The other thing I've learned is how to lead a team and empower each person on the team to do what they are good at. Not only in the military, but in other jobs, too, the biggest challenge I saw a lot of leaders face is they didn't do a good enough job looking and seeing what the individual skills were of people on the team, and placing them in positions that they could be successful in. People like doing what they're good at.
What's the hardest or most important lesson you've learned in business?
Jake: Not to give up until you absolutely have to. There were a lot of times during the first year and a half where we could have given up. After the first time the electric bill didn't get paid, and the lights got shut off, we could have given up. After the second time the lights got shut off, we could have given up. After the third time, we could have given up. But did we have to give up during those times, or did it just make life a little harder during those times?
Belinda: Mine is that desperation always breeds emotional decisions and not rational ones. That may be taking on a bad contract, that may be giving up too early, charging too little, anything to get by. In that state of desperation, you have to remain logical, because you will go through those states.
What do you look for in the people you hire?
Jake: An entrepreneurial spirit. Because these people are going to get a salary from us, but I also want them to be passionate about the business our clients are working with. And they're going to work on a lot of different industries. We need employees who are passionate about learning about other industries, which means kind of being entrepreneurial.
We also want employees who are sort of natural born leaders and who can say no. Saying no is a really hard skill for a lot of people. When a client comes to you and says, "We should do it this way," saying 'no', that's a very hard thing to do. The reason I like Iron Yard developers, which about half of our development team is, is that they have past experiences in other jobs where they have cut their teeth and learned how to deal with people.
Belinda: There's a lot of emotional intelligence at Launchpeer.
What advice would you give new graduates seeking to work in the tech industry?
Belinda: Go to events. Network. That was what really got me into startups. The Iron Yard pushed us to do that. It was huge.
Jake: Don't focus so much on your credentials. We hire for emotional intelligence first.
What do you see as the future of your company?
Jake: We've struggled with that a lot lately, mostly because we grew so fast. Really, the goal seven months ago was just to pay our mortgage. Now people ask, "What do you want the company to be?" We could do two things. One, we could grow to 200 to 300 people and take over as much of the market as possible. Or we can be more of a small, expert team of people who are really good at what we do, and try to stay small. I think we are leaning right now on that. I think our goal for the foreseeable future is to be around 30 to 40 people and just focus less on growth and more on specific things we can do to help startups be more successful.
Are you a Mac or a PC? iPhone or Android?
Belinda: We don't allow PCs in this office. We do joke anytime we have a bug with any Android device. We're like, "Just throw it away. Go get an iPhone."
Jake: We ask our clients, if they see a bug on something, we are like, "What phone do you have?" If they say Android, we're like, "OK, do this. Walk outside, go to the highest building, and then throw the phone off the roof."
What is your usual Starbucks order?
Jake: We are coffee with cream people.
Do you have a routine that's important to your day? A morning ritual, meditation, etc.?
Jake: We only live three blocks away from the office. In the morning, our nanny takes the kids to school. We drive past work, go to Starbucks and then we keep going. We take one lap around the peninsula to clear our heads, to remind us why we are here, and kind of get in the right mindset, and then we turn around and go back to work.
Belinda: It's our transition from our married life into our work relationship. It is a weird ritual, but it definitely helps us get into the right place.
Outside of work what keeps you busy?
Belinda: The children. We have two boys, they are 7 and 5. There's definitely a work-life balance. We do end up going to a lot of community events, and that takes a lot of time.
Jake: We do a lot of outdoor activities. We go kayaking a lot. Really just spending time with the family in the place that we love to be in, which is Charleston.
What has it been like building your technical team in Charleston?
Belinda: Different, I think, than a lot of companies here. We have no shortage of applications.
Jake: We get about five applications a week. I think a lot of that is attributed to the kind of work we do. They get to work with startups. The startups that we take equity in, they get equity in. All of our developers, as long as they are with us for a year, get vested in what we call the Launchpeer Fund, which is like a bucket of equity we have taken from startups we have worked with. So they really do have ownership over those clients.
Building the technical team, we really haven't had an issue. We are just starting to run into issues because now our technical team is 12 people, and I would say we have tapped out the people we know and those people's people they know. So now we are getting to the point where we are not hiring on anything except people applying to us.
Do you see any challenges recruiting tech talent to Charleston?
Jake: I think getting highly skilled people to come from outside of Charleston in is going to be the biggest thing. Because we have a lot of juniors, a lot of mids here in Charleston, but a lot of the seniors are doing government contracting, which is not conducive to what people like us are doing. For us, it's going to be getting a lot of that talent that wouldn't normally come to Charleston to come to Charleston. We just don't have the resources to do it.
I can't afford to market to places outside of Charleston, and then I also can't afford to pay relocation assistance and stuff like that. And there's no program I've seen from the county or the city or anywhere to say for every employee you draw from outside the city into the city, we're going to reimburse you for, I don't know, $1,500 in expenses as long as you can show it, and we'll just take it off your tax bill or whatever. There are cities that do that.
Belinda: I would encourage companies locally to invest more in the juniors, because we have a lot of talented people. We have picked people that probably no other company would have picked based on resume. And they have blown us away, blown our clients away.
What are your thoughts on how Charleston's technical landscape has grown?
Jake: Because Launchpeer works with so many startups, we get to see the tech scene in a lot of cities: Austin, Charlotte, San Francisco, Nashville, Atlanta. I'd say that very few have the potential for continued growth that Charleston has. I think that there's two things that are kind of holding it up a little bit. One is development in West Ashley. Charleston can only grow so much. You can only go as far up Upper King as you possibly can. There needs to be something done about West Ashley, and I know that they are working on it.
The second thing is, it goes back to the failure thing. People just need to be open about failure and successes and the fact that competition is good in Charleston.