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.
Julie Moreland is CEO of Vizbii, which is short for visual business intelligence. Vizbii is the creator of Morphii, a platform that provides emoji-like tools for customers to express emotion, giving companies actionable insights on their experiences. Vizbii, founded in 2016, is located in downtown Charleston.
Where did you grow up? What was life like and your memories from there?
I grew up in a town called Winston, Ga, which is maybe 30 miles outside of Atlanta. I can't imagine it being much better. Go carts, trails through the woods, swimming in the summer in the creeks.
My mom's parents raised us, for the most part, because my mom was very career-focused, and so was my dad. I got it from both sides of my family, being very focused on business. My mom ran the largest buying group of an ad agency in Atlanta at the time. I grew up watching the commercials, as opposed to skipping – well, you couldn't skip them in those days. My dad was a developer. He developed both commercial real estate and residential properties. Rode out the markets and won and lost everything, a couple of times.
How did you come to be in Charleston?
I started my first business in 1989. I left the corporate world and started a business in Atlanta doing behavioral assessments. In 2002, I moved the business, PeopleClues, out to the West Coast and grew it. One of my partners was a Charleston-based company called PeopleMatter. They were buying our products, and they made an offer along with a Houston-based company that was bidding for us. I said, you know, this is probably the right time to get some equity back out for my business partners. So I sold to PeopleMatter (later acquired by Snagajob), went onto their executive team, and I moved in late 2013. That's what brought me to Charleston.
What drew you to your current business?
In the middle of 2014, I met Dr. Brian Sullivan, who was the founder of Morphii. I met him for breakfast, and listening to him talk about his vision for Morphii and what it could do for business and for individuals themselves, I literally got chills. I said, "This is my next gig."
I just looked at him and I said, "I don't know why I want to help you, but I want to help you. I've got a 90-hour-a-week job going, but I'm going to moonlight with you and help you build your business plan and figure out how to get your funding. This is something that needs to exist in the world."
So we started working just a little bit, after hours, thinking about what is the business model, when it dawned on me that the same business model I used to build this company called PeopleClues to sell it to PeopleMatter is perfect for this thing that you're building. One night I just looked at him and his partner, Corley Sullivan, who was the other founder, and I said, "Guys, I can take this baby that you have and go do something really special with it. And I want to work with you." So they offered me the CEO role.
In your own words, what does your company do?
We have created a digital way for people to look at a face and dial in their exact emotion, the way that they feel. Companies then, using that data, can better understand and predict what that customer is going to do next, and be able to actually affect that in advance.
To give you an example, let's say you're in Starbucks. Starbucks has an app. While you're in there getting your beverage, a Morphii could appear and say, "How do you feel about your experience with the barista today?" You could stay I'm disgusted, I'm happy, I'm meh. Let's say that you had soy milk in there and the soy milk was off, and you're disgusted by the experience.
A disgust experience is rooted in anger, and angry people will hurt you. They are the ones likely to tweet, to post on Instagram or something and say, "Ugh, look at this, this is disgusting." I actually want to lash out and hurt Starbucks. If you dialed in disappointment, disappointment is rooted in sadness. I really wanted you to get this right. I want you to make it right.
Well, in real time, that Starbucks, seeing that someone has dialed in disappointment, they can immediately push out a coupon and say your next one's on us, we guarantee we're going to get it right for you. The angry, disgusted person just wants to be left alone. You just need to apologize. All this can be built into the Starbucks app. That's a way of using Morphii for a brand.
What do you see as the future of your company?
The vision for Vizbii is we already have a couple of other technologies that we are going to do next. Morphii is the first of many platforms that we are going to build.
The vision for Morphii is anywhere, anytime, anyplace where you as a human being want to express an emotion about something, Morphii is an option sitting there for you. You're on Amazon doing a review. Instead of the dreaded five-star – that doesn't tell you anything. I don't actually know how you feel. The vision is we will live in all these platforms everywhere. Companies that even use the IBM Watson platform for analyzing text will also be using Morphii data along beside that. That becomes a way for me to be understood, and a way for that organization to understand.
And as that's happening, organizations will want to take us off of the market, and they will buy that technology from us, and then we will go build the next one.
Did you have an entrepreneurial drive early on, or did you acquire it through experiences?
My first real job was at IBM, and I said within two weeks, "I will never survive here. This is just too corporate." I went from there to Georgia Pacific. I thrived a little bit more at Georgia Pacific. This is going to date me: PCs were just coming out then, and no one had them at their desk. They were literally being rolled in on a cart. People were fighting over them and saying, "I need the PC today." Georgia Pacific put me in a role that never existed before, and it was an interpreter.
I sat in executive meetings where you had finance/CPA type people saying, "This is the type of data we need and how we need it," and then you have data processing people who were managing these massive main frame computer systems, saying, "Well, we've never output anything like that before." I would basically sketch out what you needed to build in terms of code that would give these people the kind of report and data they were looking for. Sort of an interpretive role. I would take downloads of data from a main frame and put it in to spreadsheets and build formulas and then hand it to the accounting people. I was in heaven.
But the problem was they had no female executives. They looked at me, I think I was like 24 at the time, and they said, "Let's promote Julie." That's when things went south because they took me out of this really cool entrepreneurial think-tank role and they put me into an accounting department managing like 15 accountants, in charge of billions of dollars of building products and all these distribution centers. That's not really where I wanted to be.
I left there and went to a small company, they had 25 employees, called Front End Systems. They basically went into law firms, installed computers, trained all the staff on the computers. I thought this was kind of ideal. I took everything off my resume, because I didn't want to be in charge of a bunch of stuff. I just wanted to go and contribute my thought, my strategy to something.
I worked for this company as their bookkeeper, accounting, strategy and all of that, and the owner came to me and said, "You've been withholding something from me. I heard from a CPA friend of mine that you did this, this, this and this at Georgia Pacific, and you were at IBM." I said, "Well, yeah, that's true." He said, "Why didn't you put any of that on your resume?" I said, "Because I didn't really want to run things." I just wanted to contribute. He said, "Well, I want you to run the company. I want to promote you." I said, "I'll think about it." I went away and thought, here we go again. I was being put in a role that I really was not looking for. But it was great because it was a 25-person company and I could control everything.
That was when I really realized, OK, I am an entrepreneur. I like to run things. I don't want to be put in middle management someplace where you have all the responsibility for it, but you have no authority to make any real decisions strategically for the company. That was really the turning point for me. From there, I went out on my own and started my first business, and I loved it. I started selling behavioral assessments. I was fascinated by the idea that you could measure people and match them to jobs and go, these are your core characteristics, and this is the type of job that would be suited for you.
What one person has been the biggest influence on your business life? And why?
If I had to put everything in perspective at this point, I think my family ultimately ended up being the biggest influence because of the longevity of that influence.
My mom and dad both instilled in us this work ethic of just keep going and always do the right thing. I learned a lot from my mom. One of the jokes we had is, she had people coming in and out of her office all day long, and I would say, "Mom, how do you deal with all these interruptions?" And she said, "Well, when I'm done, I stand up, and they know to leave."
And then my dad, he has a really thick accent. In my early career at IBM and Georgia Pacific, people would actually sort of make fun of me for my accent because everyone I worked with at IBM was from White Plains, N.Y., and had moved to the South. They would say, "Hey, tell me something else." They literally just wanted to hear me talk. I thought, "OK, they're kind of making fun of me." At Georgia Pacific, they were all from the Northwest and had moved to Atlanta, so the same thing. I said to my dad, "How do you get around this in business?"
He kind of got a grin. He said, "Well, that's my secret weapon. Everybody underestimates me." This country boy shows up for meetings, in his jeans, and most of the time he had a beard. He said, "They totally think I'm a hick and I don't know what I'm doing. So, I just let them think that way all the way to the end till closing, and then I'll say, 'Well, you know, maybe we could just throw in this or that, it might be kind of nice if we could do this a little bit differently.'" He said they never see it coming that he's negotiating really well because they assume he doesn't know what he's doing.
I had some really good mentors in both of my parents.
What's the biggest misconception about being an entrepreneur?
That you're in charge of your own destiny and you get to set your own hours and you don't have to answer to anybody. The reality is, everybody answers to somebody, period. I answer to a board. I answer to my customers. I answer mostly to my team. I am ultimately responsible for meeting our goals, nobody else. The buck stops with me.
I have to generate return on investment for my shareholders. I have to return vision and strategy to my board. I have to return growth and career opportunities to my team members. I answer to all of them.
What's the hardest or most important lesson you've learned in business?
I've been through multiple lawsuits. All of them I've won. The painful lesson is it doesn't matter how well you attempt to create really great contracts and ways for people to really collaborate and build constructive relationships – sometimes people just lose their minds. They wake up one day and they say, "I don't think this is fair, so I think I'll just sue you." You can have the most integrity in the world, and you're still going to have other people lose their minds and not do the right thing, where they can't even sit in a room with you and say, "Can we just work this out, because we're both actually trying to do the right thing?"
Do you have a routine that's important to your day? A morning ritual, meditation, etc.?
No technology for the first half hour in the morning, and no technology for the last half hour at night. That is very hard. For a lot of people, their mobile device has become the lifeline.
It's just to be able to get quiet. I am a huge lover of wine. That routine in the evening of sitting with a glass of red wine – I call it getting quiet. There's no noise. I can hear my dog four feet away from me breathing. There's no stimulation of any kind except for me thinking back on the day. What did I get out of today? What could I have done differently that would have made the day more productive or even more peaceful?
Likewise, the first 30 minutes is no noise, no distraction. A cup of coffee. I'm a certified Reiki practitioner. A lot of times in the morning that's what I'm doing.
What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?
Surround yourself with a group of people including bankers, CPAs, lawyers, other entrepreneurs, marketing people, and cultivate relationships with those people. These would be mentors. Figure out ways that you can help them, but really ask them to help you. It's a coffee every couple of weeks. Go out for a beer with them.
Cultivate these relationships with these mentors around you because you are going to need them. Meet with them and ask them what the challenges are that they are facing. Build these really tight, bonded relationships. This becomes your circle of mentors. Really listen to them. Don't pick people who are just going to tell you what you want to hear.
What advice would you give new graduates seeking to work in the tech industry?
Take any internship you can convince anybody to give you. Work for free. Don't be so hyper focused on, "Oh, because I've got this degree, I should be able to get a six-figure job." That will come. Go and offer to help companies.
I think a mistake that a lot of people make coming out of college today is thinking, "I put in my time, I need to get a job." You might have student loans. You might have a lot of good reasons for saying I need to go get a job. But focus on the community and those companies that are doing things that you think are really interesting and just showing up and saying I'd just really love to help, here are some thoughts I have. It's not about getting paid. If you can actually help them, they are the ones that are going to see your talent and are more likely to find a place for you, even if they don't have an opening.
Are you a Mac or a PC? iPhone or Android?
What is your usual Starbucks order?
Double short Americano. That just means it's a really strong cup of coffee. It's basically two shots of espresso with just a little bit of hot water.
What is your biggest pet peeve in business or amongst colleagues?
Probably my biggest one is selfishness. People that are just not thinking about anybody else but themselves, and therefore they become toxic inside of an organization. You see it in big corporate entities.
Outside of work what keeps you busy?
I ride Harleys. Love motorcycles. Huge animal lover. Always had dogs, mostly rescue dogs, so I spend a lot of time playing with them, getting to the beach, things like that. Really love to boat. That's a great thing here in Charleston. Wine-tasting. I really enjoy playing tennis. Anything with a ball involved, I enjoy that as well.
What has it been like building your technical team in Charleston?
I really won the lottery because the people that I needed were available and willing to go on this journey with me. When we started in January 2016, it was nothing other than an idea and some prototypes.
That's a very different experience than I had at PeopleMatter trying to hire technology folks. It's very hard to hire because the tech sector here is growing so rapidly. It's very hard to compete for that talent and be able to afford that talent.
What do you see as some of the challenges recruiting tech talent to Charleston?
I don't think we're doing enough to recruit diversity in our tech talent here – women, minorities. I think one of our biggest challenges is drawing those individuals. It's like anything else: If you're always drawing the exact same pool of individuals with the same backgrounds and experience, you're not going to get the types of ideas that you would from people who have a diverse background. I think it's going to get worse, not better, and that's just because we are seeing such an uptick in tech activity here.
What are your thoughts on how Charleston's technical landscape has grown?
There's been a few companies here that have clearly led the way for massive growth, and I believe that the former mayor and the current mayor have really done a good job of staying focused on making Charleston a really attractive place for technical companies.
I don't think the companies have budgeted enough to really get the type of talent that you need here. I think they are suffering from that right now. But I think Charleston as a whole, and certainly groups like the Charleston Digital Corridor, have done an amazing job providing an environment for technology to thrive here.