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.
Ben Cash is founder and CEO of BlueKey, a 14-person digital agency located in downtown Charleston – soon to be a 60-person digital agency with additional offices in Toronto and Dublin. See their big news here.
Where did you grow up?
How did you come to be in Charleston?
I started the business in 2000 in Virginia. In 2005, I brought a partner on who actually lived in Charleston, so we opened an office here. Then in 2009, I came here to help grow the market, fell in love with Charleston – surprise, surprise – and decided to stay.
In your own words, what does your company do?
We are a full-service digital agency. We do digital strategy, brand identity development, digital marketing and content strategy, and web design and development.
What was your first job, or most memorable early job? What did you learn from it?
My first job was working in a movie theater. I've always had a passion for movies. I would make the popcorn, tear the tickets, clean the theater, but mainly when there was nothing else to do, I'd go sneak in and watch movies. I probably saw some movies in the '80s a few hundred times. I think that grew my love for movies, but my career path was pretty different.
I actually have a bachelor's, a master's and half of a doctorate in trombone, in music performance. So that was really kind of my first career. While I was pursuing my doctorate, I started taking computer courses as electives. Got interested in it. Taught myself web design. Put an ad in the paper, got my first client and then just kind of faked it for a number of years and figured it all out and bought books and taught myself.
What I took away from my music career was that technique serves creativity. Meaning that you play your scales, you learn your technique, all so that you can communicate, express yourself through the instrument, to say something meaningful. I found the same parallel in web design which is what drew me to it. All the code and technical stuff serves the creative design, and not the other way around. I think that is something that set me apart when I was starting out.
What inspired you to start your business?
Through certain circumstances, I had moved to a town where there were no musical opportunities and it afforded me extra time to learn and explore digital more. I also had to generate an income as my enormous fortune from years of being a freelance musician had dried up. It was just perfect timing.
Did you have an entrepreneurial drive early on, or did you acquire it through experiences?
I think musicians are naturally entrepreneurial. To be successful as a musician, you have to be very self-motivated, create your own schedule, work hard and be very disciplined. Those are the traits that made me successful as a business person because in music, you were only as good as your last performance. You always had to keep practicing. You never stopped. And I think that that drive for perfection and constantly reinventing and creative expression really helped me.
I also think there are some other characteristics about being a musician that carried through. The collaborative aspects – in the music world, it's all about ensemble playing, collaboration and working with others to create a great piece of music. The same thing happens in digital agencies. You've got a lot of people with different disciplines, different skills coming together to create something unique. I found those parallels of creativity, self-discipline and collaboration critical to entrepreneurial success.
What's the hardest or most important lesson you've learned in business?
These are somebody else's words – I can't remember who wrote them – I found them online one time: You either make things happen, or you watch things happen, or you wonder what happened.
In running a business for a number of years, you get this sense where you start to see things happen in your business, whether it be trends with clients or profitability or your team or the quality of the work. You see trends and your gut tells you there's something there, and if you don't address it or make those things happen, you're going to wonder what happened.
So, acting sooner rather than later and fixing problems before they become unmanageable or unfixable.
What's the biggest misconception about being an entrepreneur?
That entrepreneurs have all this freedom to do whatever they want and go in different directions and carve their own path. The reality is that entrepreneurs often don't have a lot of freedom because the buck stops with you and you're the one that has to order the toilet paper and solve problems when they occur, like Saturday at midnight, right when something comes up. There's the old joke that once you're an entrepreneur you can set your own schedule, it just happens to be 24-7.
What do you look for in the people you hire?
Curiosity would be the first thing. Technology and methodology are always changing, and skills are constantly being refreshed. If you don't have basic curiosity to learn and to improve, you won't last long-term.
Obviously, in the short-term, you have to check the boxes of the skills and the experience; they have to be able to come in and do the job. So that's a given. But the real thing is curiosity. And then also self-discipline. With our culture being more about empowerment and self-control, we don't want to have to manage people to tell them to do it. They should be motivated.
What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?
Find something you are passionate about doing, and don't stop. Don't worry about money. Don't worry about being successful right away. Having drive will only get you so far. It has to be something you are passionate about because you have to be able to sustain through the lean times, the hard times, etc. If it's something you're passionate about, it will be a lot easier to do that.
What advice would you give new graduates seeking to work in the tech industry?
Specialize. Whether that's a skill set or a certain role – specialize in certain types of software, certain platforms, certain languages. I think the problem is universities and colleges are creating a lot of generalists, which is great because you teach a broad range of skills. But most good agencies or tech firms are specialized in certain markets or industries or certain software or languages or methodologies. You are going to be more attractive to successful agencies and tech firms if you are specialized yourself.
What do you see as the future of your company?
I see us long-term as strategists and creative thinkers, less than technology service providers for a given set of services. Because technology is constantly changing and there is always a lot of disruption, but the one thing that can never be automated or outsourced or disrupted is critical thinking and insightful strategy.
Are you a Mac or a PC? iPhone or Android?
Mac, iPhone. Have always been. I think it comes from a respect for their thoughtful software user experience that is intuitive. But also Apple has a great digital identity-based brand, and as a digital marketer, I can respect that.
What is your usual Starbucks order?
I don't drink coffee, don't do caffeine. The one thing I like at Starbucks are the hibiscus gummy bears.
Outside of work what keeps you busy?
What has it been like building your technical team in Charleston?
It's been very challenging to build a technical team in Charleston because there is so much competition and so little talent. If you go to our jobs page, we're not even targeting local. It says, "Do what you love in America's best city," and we link to the page touting Conde Nast's selection of Charleston as the No. 1 small city in the United States.
The Iron Yard was a good thing, and JRS Coding School is doing good things to help grow talent here. But there just needs to be more investment in education, especially in the technology area, at an early age. It's not just Charleston, it's across the country. We are falling behind the rest of the world, and we've got to catch up because technology is only going to grow.
What do you see as some of the challenges recruiting tech talent to Charleston?
Cost of living. Salaries are high because the market demands it, but they're also high because people can't afford to live in Charleston. They want the Charleston lifestyle. People come to Charleston because they love the city and lifestyle, but they realize that the cost to rent or buy a house is astronomical and they end up having to be way outside of town.
There have been occasions where we have made an offer to someone outside of the state, they are excited, they want to take the job, but then they do their research and they can't make the math work.
What are your thoughts on how Charleston's technical landscape has grown?
It's grown tremendously, and it's exciting to see. I think that's the result of a lot of successful entrepreneurs building businesses, the business community and its support, and the Charleston Digital Corridor and all that they've done to help foster the tech community. I've been very impressed since I've been here to see the depth and breadth expand in Charleston for technology. I hope it can continue. I think for it to continue we need to address affordable living, talent and education.