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 County Economic Development.
Graham Smith is a general partner at SageSmith Consulting, which he owns with his brother and father. SageSmith Consulting focuses on election management software and counts New York City among its clients. Smith is based in Charleston, and the company has offices in New York City and Burlington, Vt.
Where did you grow up? What are your memories from there?
I grew up in New Hampshire till I was 13, and then my family moved to Vermont. I enjoyed Vermont. It's a great place to visit. It's fun to go visit up North when the snow's around, but I prefer not to live there anymore.
My folks live on Lake Champlain. It's a beautiful lake and beautiful mountains. Growing up there was a lot of fun. I was able to go to a school I loved, a really nice high school.
How did you come to be in Charleston?
In high school, I applied to colleges all around the area – Boston, New York, etc. I happened to have one English teacher who knew someone at Clemson and asked me to apply to Clemson. And that's how I ended up down this way. It was a fluke. I applied there and fell in love with it. I toured in April. It was freezing cold and snowy in Boston. It was 80 degrees and sunny at Clemson, so that helped.
At Clemson, I met my wife, and she is from Charleston. We spent a couple years in Greenville. My wife always jokes that she had a whole argument planned on how to try to convince me to move closer to her family in Charleston, but as soon as she mentioned it, I said, "Great. Our lease is up in two months, let's go find a rental place down there."
What was your first job, or most memorable early job? What did you learn from it?
I've been a nerd my whole life. My father taught me how to program when I was 9. My first job was working as a programmer building websites and web applications for a handful of companies at a company called Nybor. It's since been sold. They gave me a part-time job, so I was able to juggle my high school schedule. I went to school every other day and then went to this company every other day.
It was very entertaining. They had a lot of University of Vermont interns. I was the youngest there as a high school intern. They were always trying to walk that line of a fun atmosphere – we had a foosball table, people were playing video games – and getting the work done. I remember one meeting where they were trying to break bad news to us about the dot-com bubble bursting and we were going to go through some lean times. Somebody put a Whoopee Cushion under the president's chair. It was a goofy environment.
As we grow this business, there are some things I'll take from that. It is important to have fun, I think, but it is important to have that line.
Did you have an entrepreneurial drive early on?
Yeah, I think so. My senior year of high school, I had a car accident and injured my hand, and it made it very, very difficult for me to do much. It was my right hand, and I lost the use of it for a year and a half. I ended up deferring Clemson for a year. In that year, I started the original SageSmith – now it's a different makeup with my father and my brother – but I started an earlier version of it, and we built software for a construction company. I always wanted to be doing something.
In your own words, what does your company do?
Right now, we focus exclusively on election software, election management systems. That's everything from recruiting poll workers, capturing candidates and their fillings and any court challenges. It's facility management systems, where we're keeping track of all the poll sites: Who's the contact over there, and what does the room look like? We have an entire ramps system: Are there ADA ramps and all the other accessibility issues? What's needed to overcome that, so that on Election Day, everything goes off without a hitch?
We have Election Day operations systems. We have support tickets. If anything happens at the poll site, we have tablets onsite that the poll workers have, and they can immediately record an issue. We have technicians and other monitors that have smartphone and tablet applications where they can say, "This machine isn't acting properly," and it will immediately dispatch somebody out there.
We have poll worker standby dispatch. We have an automated poll worker check-in at every poll site. When poll workers come in, they can scan their phones. We give them reminders before the election, saying, "We need you to show up next Tuesday. Are you available?" They can say, "Oh, shoot, I'm not available." And then election administrators will know right away, three days beforehand, that they've only got, say, 80 percent coverage, 90 percent coverage, and then they can fill in.
Then we have election night reporting, and then a whole certification system to help them certify results. I'm sure there's a million other things in there. We have a very large product suite. Above all, we try to solve with software whatever the problem is. Our clients have the election knowledge. Our mission is – whether it's our off-the-shelf offerings or custom consulting work – we will get the information to you, and we will give you the tools to overcome it.
How did you get into elections software?
We started as a subcontractor with New York City a long, long, long time ago. We had done consulting work. Later, when it came to bid on new contracts in 2004, we were there onsite, we were working hand-in-hand, and we were doing what a lot of the bigger companies don't do. We were the owners of the company, we were the programmers, we were everything, the three of us, and we were sitting there in their headquarters, we were at their poll sites, we were watching everything happen. A larger company would have an intern sitting there, and if you need an answer, well, they'll send it up the chain, and maybe you'll hear back. I think that helped us win the contracts outright.
How would you describe your organization's culture?
It's like family. I very much enjoy working with my dad and brother. I don't think all family businesses work out well. Since 2001, in some form other another, the three of us have been working together. We've also worked with my uncle and my cousin. They do software as well. I've heard stories of it not working out very well for some families. For us, it's been great.
It's been helpful to know our own strengths and weaknesses. I think you need double the communication because a lot of things go unsaid in families. We meet every morning at 9:30 via Skype. We do a standup scrum, which is five minutes of what you did yesterday, what you're doing today, what are the roadblocks. We have to do that every day. If you don't say things out loud, if you don't communicate, there's a lot of history as a family where you think you know what they're going to do. It's important when you're running a business to have a roadmap.
What's the hardest or most important lesson you've learned in business?
We do all these amazing web systems for all our clients, and I love it. I love just rolling up my sleeves and helping the client solve their problems. But we sometimes neglect our own sales and marketing site. We'll go years and someone will say, "You know, I was just looking at your website," and we all go, "Ohhh, the website."
We've had to force ourselves to schedule times where we say, "OK, everybody put down the keyboard. Now we're going to discuss our sales targets and we're going to discuss these other things." As a real nerd, it's tough. It's tough to pick your head up out of the keyboard and stop trying to invent new things for our clients.
What obstacles have you faced building your business? How have you overcome them?
A similar answer to the previous one – we're really focused on solving problems for our clients, and starting with somebody like New York City, we're just diving into it and doing some really cool work there. So as a company, it's like, "How do we grow? What's the right way to grow?"
Do you have a morning routine or ritual? Or, how do you start and end your day?
Well, first, I have two boys who are ages 2 and 3. So a lot of the morning ritual is getting them up and ready for the day. They throw all kind of curveballs at us.
I belong to a free men's workout group called F3. It's a starfish type organization where there's no central administration of it, and what makes it free is you just show up and you take turns leading the workout. It's 45 minutes at 5:30 in the morning. It tends to be a lot of guys in a similar boat with kids, a lot of entrepreneurs, a lot of guys who just can't hit the gym after work because you have to pick up a kid from daycare, you have to grab groceries on the way home, you do all kinds of different things. Most of us don't have time except 5:30 in the morning.
I do that three to four times a week. Those days I have the most energy. The other days, I feel like I'm getting more sleep by sleeping in, but I end up being groggy the rest of the day. Nothing beats getting up and working out.
What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?
Really understand your strengths and weaknesses. I think that's hugely important. I was fortunate enough to have courses at Clemson in the business department, and they really hammered that home, to really understand yourself as well as you can because that's a huge issue for a lot of entrepreneurs. You think you're good at something, but maybe it's a blind spot for you and you don't realize that you can best give that to someone else or hire outside help.
If you can really hammer that home, then you can find the right people to work with. And you can find the people that bring out the best in what you do best and can fill in on your weaknesses. That way you can really start cooking.
What advice would you give new graduates seeking to work in the tech industry?
That one is something I feel very strongly about because I started as a computer science major and switched to economics. The biggest frustration is how fast tech moves. The programming language, the technology you use, all the things you use to make your software, by the time you graduate, those are all outdated.
I switched to business, and I'm very happy I did. I think I was one of four graduates with a B.A. in economics. I just wanted a very wide range. I took a language, I took extra English classes, I took extra calculus classes. I took a wide range because you have to stay flexible and you have to love to learn.
The tech sector in particular – everything's changing so fast. You have to just roll with it and be willing and eager to absorb new stuff.
What do you see as the future of your company?
Absolutely, we're looking to grow in the election space. We're really hitting on a time right now where we have something unique, especially in the operations aspect of it. Everywhere I go, I'm like, "Man, I wish they had my software here." Not even from a dollars and cents perspective. It's really just like, "I know I can help make this more efficient." It's just helping more jurisdictions. Growing our business and being in more locations.
Having two little boys, I love being in the election space. I love that aspect of our democracy. You go in and everyone thinks they know what's going to happen, but who knows what can happen? Democracy is sometimes messy, sometimes crazy, but it's the best system we have, and it's something I love trying to brainstorm ways to make it as smooth as possible so my boys can grow up and focus on voting, when they're of age, and it looks like it's easy behind the scenes. Like a good wedding. The voters shouldn't be worried about the operations of it.
How do you prevent burnout?
It really is all about family. My wife's family has a lake house in North Carolina. We get away. We just kind of unwind. There's no cell service up there. I'm as disconnected as you can be.
I come home every day to my boys and throw my cell phone on my bedside table and I go upstairs and build a fort or do something. Those are the best times. I'm not going to look back and say, "Man, I'm glad I answered all those emails."
It's the boys and my wife. Getting out in the boat, going out to Morris Island or something.
Are you a Mac or a PC? iPhone or Android?
PC. We've done all PC stuff growing up. All of our clients are PC based. And then I have the new Pixel 3. I've been Android from the start.
What is your usual Starbucks order?
I very much stick to just a plain iced coffee.
What are your thoughts on how Charleston's technical landscape has grown?
I thank Ernest Andrade in particular for doing all he's done through the Charleston Digital Corridor. I think it gives focus to growing the community and really showcases what's done here.
We are somewhat unique, at least for a small business, in that we're in Vermont and New York City and here. My brother is at a WeWork in New York City, so there's a lot of direct comparisons. The City in particular obviously has a massive tech community, and they're doing everything they can to attract tech companies. Then you've got Vermont trying their best to attract, everybody's falling over themselves in the states to attract tech business. Here in Charleston, we've got the advantage of a beautiful city and the beach and everything else. There are a lot of people that would love to live here but don't realize how vibrant the tech community is here.
It's very cool to be part of something that has a lot of momentum, that's reaching a new level every day. It is very interesting and cool. Whereas my brother is in a very established city, we're in one that's very up and coming. It's been a pleasure to really get to know a lot of hungry entrepreneurs who are trying to shed the "it's just the pretty beaches" and "it's where you have your second home if you're someone investing," or "it's just a stopover point," and transitioning now to, "Hey, we are a pretty competitive city and we are developing some really cool tech here." It's fun to be in that environment.