TalkTools President: Entrepreneurship Includes Taking Out the TrashAshley Fletcher Frampton / Charleston Digital News
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.
Luke Blessinger is president of TalkTools, a North Charleston-based company that helps families with special needs in feeding and speech difficulties. TalkTools has 13 employees locally and 10 consultants globally. Blessinger purchased the company in 2011 and moved it to Charleston from Arizona.
Where did you grow up? What was life like and your memories from there?
I grew up between New York City and Connecticut. My younger years up to third grade were in New York, and we moved to Connecticut after that. It was sort of like being split between the two communities because both of my parents were New Yorkers, and they moved out for the dream of the suburban life. For 17 years, my dad commuted from New York City – the World Trade Center, basically – all the way out to Connecticut, every day. It was two-and-a-half hours one way. It was insane. That was a good early memory of something I never wanted to do.
How did you come to be in Charleston?
My wife and I – we were dating at the time – were living in San Francisco. We loved it; it was just so expensive. We didn't think we'd ever be able to buy a house there, or, if we did, it would be two hours outside the city. I didn't want to do that. So we moved back to the east coast. She's from New York as well. We just did a road trip south. Her requirement is no further south – we're not going to Georgia because we're from the North. So we just stopped here.
Had you been to Charleston before the road trip?
Never. We'd heard good things. This was before smartphones. This was 12 years ago. When we planned our trip, you couldn't really tell if Beaufort, N.C., was a big town or a small town. So we stopped at a lot of small towns. Georgetown was one of our stops, and we just kept driving right through. When we got to Charleston, we said, "This is where we want to be."
We liked that it was a small city. We were going to get married soon, and we thought we could grow within it. It was affordable, a lot of charm and we love the beach. We needed to be near the water because of my job at that time, so it was a lot about the beach, too.
What was your first job, or most memorable early job? What did you learn from it?
I started caddying at 11. With a dad who was a cop and a mom who wasn't working, there was not a lot of extra money in the house, so getting a job to me was independence. I liked the hard work. It just gave me power. I was only 11, but I was like, oh my gosh, I can go get that Starter jacket that was so cool back then. It was really cool at that time to have that independence, to be able to get up early and go to work and see what comes of that.
Did you have an entrepreneurial drive early on?
I did. I think it was around fourth or fifth grade I got in with a smart crew of people, sort of geeky computer people. Ended up going to Radio Shack a bit and started putting together motors and batteries, and then I started selling them at school. Then I got in trouble for selling them at school. The teacher was so upset that I was doing this. They actually called my mom and said, "He sold this for $12." My mom said, "What's wrong with that? He put it together for $3."
In your own words, what does your company do?
We help families with special needs in feeding and speech difficulties. At Special Needs Essentials, we provide products in any area to special needs. It's very broad. TalkTools is our main business, and it's focused on speech and feeding. For TalkTools, it's really helping those children, families and adults with speech and feeding difficulties and disabilities.
What drew you to your current business?
I was working in government contracting after moving to Charleston. It was interesting work. You may propose something and it goes on the shelf. There's just a lot of waste in government contracting, and specifically with military and homeland security contracting.
I was approached by my in-laws to purchase this business. I had finished my MBA at The Citadel. I wasn't using a lot of those skills or knowledge, and it was really exciting to have the opportunity to use it. It was also really exciting to be doing something that makes a difference. It makes a real difference – even if I'm not specifically helping a child, I know it's happening.
We moved the business here from Tucson, Ariz., in 2011. It's almost like moving your house – it was great to see it there, but it was also great to move it and define it here and bring it up to modern-day technology and have the ability to help more customers.
How would you describe your organization's culture?
We're mission-focused with a Charleston style. We're working hard to help as many kids as we can – we actually have a goal every year of helping a specific number of children – but we do it with a Charleston style in that we're a small business and we operate a bit more like a family than a business. We're not as casual as some of the companies that may have no leave policy, but we're pretty accommodating to people's lives. Things come up, and we like to support each other.
The Charleston flair is work hard but still have a great quality of life. Things we do in that nature are we leave after about half a day every Friday in the summer, we're off from Christmas to New Year, things like that.
What is your management style? Has it changed over time?
Motivator and communicator. I like to encourage people toward goals so that they can figure out the path to get there. I don't like to micromanage. I hate people who micromanage. That sort of led me to be a motivator-communicator. I want people to understand our mission, I want them to understand our goals as an entity, but as far as the specifics of how they do that, I just want to motivate and let them figure it out. Help along the way. Communicate along the way.
Has it changed? Without a doubt. I think when I first took over the company I was more directive. I think I was in every decision, everything that we were doing. Maybe at that time that was good, or not. But I really don't enjoy doing that. I'm more of a big-picture person rather than an every-little-detail person. I think at that point I was definitely a directive leader – staff meetings every day, everybody has their marching orders – but I am really happy I'm not doing that anymore.
What's the hardest or most important lesson you've learned in business?
When it comes to the customer, I've found I need to trust the advice my team is giving me but really verify with the end user. If we build a product that is not understood or not needed by the customer, then we sort of fail as a team.
What's the biggest misconception about being an entrepreneur?
That it's all about ping pong and kegs in the office and lunch every day brought in. We've grown the company quite a bit, we've launched into new markets, we've done a lot of great things, but none of that's really happened for us. That's not part of our culture.
If you were to really ask those other entrepreneurs that may get the ping pong table and the keg, I think they'd answer that there's a lot more taking out the trash, or delivering an order when the post office shuts down or you miss a pickup at your warehouse. That to me is what really is happening, rather than the hype.
Do you have a routine that's important to your day? A morning ritual, meditation, etc.?
I plan my week on a Sunday based on what are the most important projects I'm working on. I work out three times a week in the morning with a workout group called F3. It's a men's workout group. It's sort of a nice stabilizing force in my life. You get to know everybody in the workout group. What happens is, you start to become friends with everybody, and if you don't show up, they start to call you out in the grocery store. Or they call you out online, like, "Hey, I haven't seen you in a while, what's going on?" It's just a constant motivation for self-improvement.
That's 5:30 a.m. three to four times a week. That gets me going quick, and I find I can accomplish things before most people even come in the office. It helps me really get rolling.
What obstacles have you faced building your business? How have you overcome them?
One of the obstacles we faced when I first bought the business was the view among employees of, "This is the way we always did it." That is so contrary to how I view life. I just sort of preached to them that those words are not available to us anymore. That's going backward; we are moving forward. It was really just a constant PR campaign.
What do you look for in the people you hire?
I look for a desire to learn, a desire to improve. I look for flexibility. Someone that is not going to say to me, "This is the way we have always done it." And then I look for someone that has a little grit, a little bit of motivation to just push through tough situations.
What is your biggest pet peeve in business or among colleagues?
Over-analysis that stalls actions. Analyzing an idea, an opportunity, an initiative so far that you lose sight that if you just get it close enough to take action, you'd be so much further ahead. But it's scary for people to do that.
One of my favorite business heroes is Seth Godin. One of his mantras is "ship it." The idea is that whatever it is, your article, your book, my product – it's never going to be perfect. But at a certain point you need to get over yourself and get over your issues with it and ship it, and let the customer give you feedback and improve.
What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?
They should seek experience in their career starting out of school. Don't worry about the mighty dollar at that point. Go for the experience over anything. No matter what it is, go for the experience. And learn from that, and find someone, whether it's a boss or the CEO of the company you are working for, find someone that you can learn from who is willing to teach you, and run with them as hard as you can before you try to do anything on your own. Because you can learn so much and you can skip so many bad turns if you can find that person and find that organization.
What advice would you give new graduates seeking to work in the tech industry?
Find an inspirational boss or company to work for and learn with them.
What do you see as the future of your company?
I see continued innovation to improve the lives of those with special needs. Innovation in the form of therapy approach, products we can launch.
What one person has been the biggest influence on your business life?
It's someone I worked for many years ago, right out of college. I was working in the Merchant Marines. She was the captain of a ship, a U.S. government ship. We were taking U.S. military supplies for the Iraq war. We were loaded with tanks and missiles and helicopters, whatever you can think of, we were taking it over there.
I think what was inspiring about her was being a woman in a predominantly male environment – she was the only one on board. But more important was how she led. It was definitely a humility-leadership approach. She'd make everyone feel like they were important, whether you were washing the dishes or navigating the ship. That was, for my nearly first job out of school, really cool to see. The crew on that ship would do anything for her.
Are you a Mac or a PC? iPhone or Android?
Android. I'm a PC guy.
What is your usual Starbucks order?
Regular medium coffee.
Outside of work what keeps you busy?
My family. I have three kids, 10, 8 and 6. Every weekend it's something that they're doing. I enjoy it.
What are your thoughts on how Charleston's technical landscape has grown?
I think it's grown amazingly, and I like how there have been a lot of companies involved in that growth. It's not just one employer coming in and dictating everything.