Should I Stay or Should I Go?: Entrepreneurs debate merits of setting up shop in South Carolina during LeadSC Summit
September 19, 2014
New companies are launched daily across the country, but not all have the secrets to success. Three entrepreneurs on Thursday shared how doing business in South Carolina has helped them thrive.
Thousands of 20- and 30-somethings gathered at the Columbia Marriott this week for the first-ever LeadSC Young Professionals Summit, an event organized by the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce.
People had the chance to hear from three business owners from Lowcountry, Upstate and Midlands during the “South Carolina: Should I Stay or Should I Go?” break-out session. Ben Rex of Cyberwoven, Allen Stephenson of Southern Tide and Karl Phillips of WordPress Charleston shared why they chose to launch their brands in South Carolina and why they think the state is a welcoming place for others like them.
“I make a big deal out of South Carolina,” Stephenson said.
Southern Tide apparel and lifestyle brand is headquartered in Greenville and employs 55 people. Stephenson said a semester spent abroad in Italy made him miss the Southeast’s classic style, which has been sported by generations of students and is still popular today. He founded the company over the course of a year and elected to keep it local even though people told him a more fashionable part of the country would be better.
“There was never any question of where we would have the company,” Stephenson said. “All the places where Southern Tide is doing well, those places understand the South … and (its) mentality.”
Stephenson knew from the start that he wanted to stay in South Carolina, but Rex said he had no plans to remain after graduation. But Cyberwoven found its footing in Columbia after Rex connected with the right people during his studies at the University of South Carolina Honors College.
“We worked hard to position ourselves … we wouldn’t have made it without some very open-minded people here in the Midlands and across South Carolina who befriended us, counseled us, hired us … ,” Rex said.
Cyberwoven has launched more than 500 websites during the past 13 years. The company has worked on designs for clients in places as far-reaching as Belgium and as close to home as down the road in Orangeburg.
“It’s a lot of fun to have that diversity coming into South Carolina,” Rex said. “Almost all of Cyberwoven’s clients … come from relationships built and fostered here in our state.”
Phillips came to South Carolina through a different route but said he is excited to see the opportunities in his home of Charleston. Recruited by Charleston Southern University to play soccer, the Trinidad and Tobago native later came to Columbia to earn his master’s degree at USC.
Phillips now is busy gathering local talent together for WordPress Charleston, a group that meets monthly to discuss how to have an effective online presence and utilize great design. He encouraged the young professionals attending “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” to find their own way to stay engaged and up-to-date, whether through attending conferences or organizing online gatherings.
Phillips said he thinks South Carolina’s pace of innovation can be a positive thing for those working on the inside.
“Yes, you might think South Carolina is a bit behind the times, but that is actually an advantage if you are an entrepreneur,” he said. “We are still evolving … and growing. You … learn from (others’) mistakes and implement it here.”
Panel moderator Greg Hilton, co-founder of Evolution Partners, a supporter of startups in the Southeast, said much of South Carolina’s growth can be attributed to transplants who now call the state home.
“(There’s) a lot of new talent coming in,” he said.
Rex said he thinks a combination of South Carolina’s weather, affordability, opportunities for local involvement and access to influential people is drawing professionals to the area. When polled, other young professionals agreed and said that things like hospitality, education, the growing manufacturing sector and tourism were big factors as well.
“The corporate community here has been very inviting (to startups) … and that’s hard to match,” Rex said.
“The state is pretty open-minded to young businesses … I’ve seen people make it out of nothing,” Stephenson agreed. “Maybe it goes back to the welcoming and friendly aspects of our state.”
The entrepreneurs still see room for improvement for South Carolina. Their suggestions for the future include taking down the Confederate flag at the State House to show social progress, building a state-traversing commuter rail and having quality education that’s accessible to everyone.
“We have the ability to make our state what we want it to be,” Rex said. “South Carolina is positioned for growth. It’s up to us to make it the right kind of growth.”
“The next 25 years belong to us … if we stay,” Hilton said.
Thursday’s break-out session was one of several events designed to connect and inspire young professionals during the LeadSC Summit.
Tamara King, a Columbia-area public relations specialist, said she thoroughly enjoyed the CEO lunch, which paired a South Carolina CEO with a table of young leaders.
“We were able to pick their brain,” she said.
Hearing about the benefits of her state as others see them during the “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” session also was encouraging to King.
“It’s nice for someone else to tell you why your state is so great … we can take it for granted,” she said. “I was really inspired by the (South Carolina Chamber’s) innovative approach to bringing us together.”