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Spin-off effect Startups, talent rise from local tech sector

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Eric Bowman changed his career course in 2008, when he left the software firm Benefitfocus Inc. A year later, he founded SPARC, which works with government contractors.

In doing so, he joined the club of restless entrepreneurs who have left large, established technology employers to join a risky startup or even launch one of their own.

And Bowman has seen the trend play out within his own company. Of his 290 employees, he said, nine have moved on to work on their own projects.

“If it weren’t for those early pioneers, SPARC wouldn’t exist,” Bowman said, referring to his former employer and others, such as Blackbaud Inc. “If SPARC didn’t exist, then the nine people that started companies in the last couple of years that worked at SPARC probably wouldn’t exist. ... We’re all learning.”

While most bosses hate to see their top talent jump ship, the free movement of skilled labor within the local tech field is largely viewed as a virtuous cycle — and another sign of the industry’s evolution and expansion.

Bowman said that if he hadn’t worked at Benefitfocus, he wouldn’t be able to do half of what he does now. His former employer also has led to the creation of other companies, including Charleston-based PeopleMatter.

“It’s those early guys when there was no tech community in Charleston, ... they laid the base,” Bowman said.

At the same time, their growth and success of the area’s flagship tech employers help draw an even larger base of workers to the region, which, in turn, can help lure more employers.

“If they didn’t continue to grow, and they didn’t continue to have that base, and they didn’t continue to recruit people from out of state, then there wouldn’t be the talent that you see here,” Bowman said.

Peggy Frazier, vice president of global talent acquisition at Blackbaud, said workers leave and others return to the Daniel Island-based company, the world’s largest seller of software and services for nonprofit organizations.

But the trend bodes well for the area’s economy and for the industry, she said.

“It’s good for Blackbaud, it’s good for Charleston, it’s good for technology. ... We’re excited that we’re seeing people go off and do other things ... continue to kind of grow the technology effort in Charleston,” she said.

Among the local companies launched from within Blackbaud: North Charleston-based Omatic Software, which has about 40 employees, according to its website.

Tim Wolf has made multiple moves within the industry.

After spending just more than six years working at Blackbaud, Wolf went to BoomTown in 2010 when the company, which makes software for the real estate industry, had about 15 employees. BoomTown today has 180 workers and has raised at least $20 million from investors.

Wolf left about a year ago for another startup that didn’t work out, and this spring he went to Echovate, a young data-science firm that helps companies identify their best hiring candidates. His new employer, which is funded partly by investments from family and friends, has about six employees, half of whom are full-timers.

Wolf said he simply prefers a smaller workplace.

“For me, to know who you are when I pass you in the hall is really important,” he said. “That’s why I don’t like to work at 800- or 1,000-people companies. ... I kind of prided myself on knowing every person and their significant other and their dog’s name ... up to the first 100.”

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Another downside of working at a bigger business, he said, was that he ended up “spending a lot of time in meetings, and spending a lot of time in organizational complexity.”

That’s when he knew it was time to find a new job.

“We had a lot of really great processes in place, a lot of really, really great people to be able to take over in my absence and so it felt like it was the right time,” he said.

But leaving a company that’s stable and established isn’t easy.

“I’ve got a family, a large family at that, so how do I leave the big ‘mothership’ and jump on little dingy out in the middle of the ocean was a pretty huge challenge for me,” Wolf said. “But it was well-suited for my personality to take a big risk and to work in something that was extremely risky day to day, like it’s sink or swim.”

For the employers, all of the coming and going probably doesn’t help the bottom line, given the costs of recruiting and hiring workers, said John Osborne of the Harbor Entrepreneur Center, which has a program for beginner companies.

“The bouncing around probably is not necessarily a great thing for each of those companies,” he said.

There is an upside, Osborne added.

“As a business community having multiple options for talented people ... is a good thing,” he said.

Wolf of Echovate said one of the consequences of the increased mobility is that newer companies are having to show people the money in order to recruit them.

“Unfortunately, the startups needed to be able to compete somehow with the big mothership in town, and so they had to start offering higher salaries,” Wolf said.

Earl Bridges, who’s now president at Good Done Great, a local startup that helps companies manage their charitable activities, took a similar path as Wolf did. He’s also a former Blackbaud employee.

Bridges left the Daniel Island firm in 2003. when the local tech landscape was less populated, he said. He worked for a couple of other entities before landing at Good Done Great in 2008. He’d “always had that entrepreneurial spirit,” he said.

“It’s not a bad thing for people to constantly want more from their jobs and to constantly want more from their professional career development,” he said.

Bridges said he feels the local tech industry has untapped potential, some of it tucked within existing companies with “really good ideas” seeking to find the “light of day.”

“I know that there’s a lot of creative talent in Charleston,” he said. And I know a lot of those creative people ... sit behind a computer working on other people’s projects when they think that they have a better way to do exactly the same thing,” Bridges said.

Reach Allison Prang at 937-5705 or on Twitter @AllisonPrang.

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