July 15, 2012

Some Charleston Area Tech Firms Tie Their Fortunes To Specific Businesses

Brendan Kearney  /  Post and Courier

Twelve South's singular focus is stated plainly on the home page of its website: "We're not just Mac friendly –- we're Mac only. "Since its founding in 2009, the Mount Pleasant-based company has designed and sold accessories just for Apple products.

Andrew Green, who started the business with wife Leigh Ann out of their house, said Amazon and another large computer company have asked Twelve South to complement their devices, but he has refused. "So we say that we're Apple-exclusive, and we've been tested on that and we remain that," Green said in an interview.

It may seem crazy for a young, 10-worker firm in South Carolina to pass up any business, never mind big-brand partnerships, but that's part of Twelve South's strategy: If it ain't broke, don't fix it; keep accessorizing it. "We truly think that, given the space we operate in ... being small and nimble is the best way to stay competitive and profitable," said Green, 41.

The approach may seem like a gamble, as syncing with another company is a bet no matter how wildly popular that company is.

Mount Pleasant business consultant John Carroll, who advises Charleston tech firms but none mentioned here, said throwing your business lot in with a larger company can be "a bit of a high-risk maneuver," as it relies on the staying power both of the larger company and its product. "When you do that in the world of technology, which turns on a dime, when most of your eggs are in that one basket, that's high wire, maybe without a net," Carroll said.

But several Lowcountry tech companies have chosen that path, and apparently thrived.

In addition to at least two more Apple-associated accessory companies, iCache and Distil Union, there's mediafeedia, which helps small businesses market on Facebook; CSS, which implements Oracle's software suite; and a few companies that collaborate with Blackbaud.

Given the inherent risks of business ventures, they say, tapping into an established market is smart specialization.

Build, extend

Jeff Montgomery has been following this phenomenon for years, from the communities of companies that have grown up around Facebook and Salesforce.com to those that partner with his former employer, Daniel Island-based Blackbaud Inc. O-matic Software, the company he founded in 2003, is a prime example.

"So what you're seeing is companies that can work within the ecosystem that these big companies have created and find ways to build on that platform and extend it," Montgomery said. "To fill that need in the marketplace for all those people who have that thing in common. It's worked out well for us."

Based in North Charleston, O-matic works with Blackbaud's nonprofit customers to personalize and optimize the software giant's fundraising and other financial management tools, such as its flagship product, Raiser's Edge.

Blackbaud benefits, too, Montgomery explained, as the company continues to position itself at the center of the nonprofit money-raising and the so-called customer relationship management worlds.

"They know that they need to partner to accomplish those goals," Montgomery said.
Like O-matic's close relationship with Blackbaud, Twelve South's rapport with Apple, the Cupertino, Calif.-based consumer electronics giant, and their shared customers has enabled the niche approach.

Apple offers advice, Green said, and stocks some of Twelve South's covers, cases and holders in all of its retail stores worldwide. Twelve South has been profitable since its first year, according to Green, and some customers have even said its accessories drove them to buy Apple's products, reinforcing the companies' connection.

"That's happened. We get e-mails like that all the time," Green insisted. "We are blown away."


Even some who see the appeal of the "dedicated" business model are still hesitant to limit their business that way.

Lindsay Windham, who worked under Green at Digital Lifestyle Outfitters before that local electronics accessories company was acquired by Philips and eventually moved from Charleston to Connecticut, recently started Distil Union with two other DLO alumni.

Distil Union's two products, an iPhone alarm clock dock called Snooze and a red, fabric-colored cord called Weave, are both products intended for use with Apple devices, but that pattern won't necessarily hold, Windham said.

"We're definitely Apple fans and have iMacs and iPhones and iPads, and we've bought into it, but we recognize that your whole gadget life, it's growing beyond just the Apple devices," she said.

Like Twelve South, Distil Union is not interested in every potential money-maker and doesn't want its accessories to show up on the shelves of big-box stores; the start-up just pledges allegiance to something bigger than Apple. "It's more that design is king rather than just Apple being king," Windham said.

'Gold rush'

Ridgeland-based mediafeedia has no problem affirming its loyalty. Its homepage tagline is "The business tool for Facebook. "The company has scheduled millions of posts on the popular social media for small businesses as well as converts companies' websites into Facebook pages and enables them to offer deals there.

Co-founder Justin VanBogart, who lives in Charleston, believes in Facebook's future and thinks mediafeedia stands to profit by hitching its wagon and going along for the ride.

"If there's a gold rush," VanBogart explained, "you want to be the guy who makes the pickax."