A Digital Town Hall In Your Pocket
By Ron Callari
Southern hospitality has long been a South Carolinian staple. Our town embraces a traditional charm dating back to the Reconstruction Era. Beaufort is a microcosm of America at large – a melting pot. It’s a unique blend of the young and old. Many locals have stood the test of time, passing their heritage down from generation to generation. We are home to green-behind-the-ears recruits who transform into polished Marines, right before our very eyes. We attract retirees flocking to our harbors, rivers and marshes from all parts of the country, seeking a pastoral setting for their golden years.
While Southern hospitality might equate to old-world charm, our town is far from being stuck in the past. Beaufort is home to a good number of visionaries who have a discerning eye on our future. To Beaufort’s demographic gumbo, these city alchemists are wisely adding a pinch of technology to enhance the town’s make-up. This is not to say they’re discarding traditional roots. On the contrary, they’re building upon it — stirring it up, evolving in the 21st century, as something old, something new, something we might call: “Silicon Hospitality.”
Tale of Two Cities
This conceptual change began in a larger metropolis to the north. Charleston is home to more than 250 tech companies with a payroll tally of over $14 billion. The city’s affordability, laid-back lifestyle and fledgling tech scene are its selling points – so much so, they’ve earned their own moniker: “Silicon Harbor.”
At the College of Charleston, academia has also embraced the advancement of technology. Their ImpactX Accelerator curriculum is an educational initiative that motivates students to transform a tech idea from concept to commercialization. It’s an opportunity to actively engage in the real world and create a globally scalable, high-tech firm from ground-up.
The program is somewhat competitive in nature, offering prize money in a “Shark Tank” type of setting, presented before a panel of judges. Each “dream team” is comprised of a “Hipster, Hacker and Hustler,” representing students in Liberal Arts, Informational Technology and Business curriculums.
This innovative idea caught the imagination of our mayor. In an Eat/Sleep/Play Beaufort post, Mayor Billy Keyserling noted: “For the past three years I have followed ImpactX for existing and future Charleston businesses. To witness the presentations at the end of each semester is amazing as it demonstrates what students can accomplish with the right mix of inspiration and support.”
This led to a summer live/work/mentorship program supported by the Beaufort Digital Corridor in partnership with the Rotary Club of the Lowcountry and the City of Beaufort.
According to BDC executive director Shelley Barratt, the housing portion of the program was supported in part by City Councilmen Stephen Murray and Mike McFee, who hosted the Charleston students in their homes for several weeks.
Murray described the sponsorship portion of the program as “a demonstration of regional cooperation in support of students engaged in creating innovative companies.”
Nascent Tech Company rising
One of the teams in the College of Charleston’s final pitch competition was subsequently selected to advance its product in incubation space at the BDC. In simplest terms, their app can be described as a “digital town hall in your pocket.” It allows a community’s constituency to recognize and prioritize local issues of concern while the software allows them to vote up or down.
It’s a win-win for all parties. On the civic end, the town can help test the app during their beta stage and the BDC can assist with the complexities of getting their business launched in Beaufort. Murray adds, “This bridges the gap that can make the difference between successful start-ups that launch right here and create good-paying jobs [versus] becoming someone else’s employees elsewhere.”
The lead mentor for PollPit is BDC Board of Directors Chairman Kevin Klinger. He rightfully boasts that PollPit is “the first company where we are accomplishing a full cycle [from idea to market] … and a great example of what we can do for a nascent tech company looking to grow in Beaufort.”
The Team with the Steam
Pollpit’s team consists of three College of Charleston’s students: Karisha Desai, Culley Deisinger and Bryan Ko. They describe their product as “an application that allows individuals to easily communicate with those who represent them, as well as giving representatives a way to connect back.”
Desai underscores the need for PollPit, based on the limitations of its competition. Surveys, Polls, Facebook, Twitter and even community-oriented networks like NextDoor all fall short in comparison.
Email is a perfect example. Desai says it’s “an effective way to communicate with numerous constituents, however it is more of a one-way communication system since it doesn’t accomplish getting input back.”
Another means of reaching the town’s people is through actual town hall meetings, but Desai notes, “this can be time-consuming since people have to physically be at the meetings which can be at inconvenient times.”
Christopher Starr, PhD., one of the lead mentors of COC’s program noted “Beaufort, unlike any other city, opened its arms to this young, entrepreneurial team,” where the Digital Corridor and the city “set a new bar for university collaboration, community building and economic development for cities in South Carolina.”
Boot Strapping it
One of the reasons Silicon Valley remains dominant in the technical field is its ability to attract funding — from ground zero to hundreds of thousands. PollPit, on the other hand has less access to the venture capitalists (VCs) and other types of fund-raising. So securing backing will be a challenging task. As of this article, they have raised $14,000, with most of those funds going to the development of the first iteration of the app.
“We bootstrapped the initial cost ourselves with help from the College of Charleston, friends, family, and people from the community,” Desai said. “At this point in time we have 350 subscribers on social media. The user base would be a mix of colleges and cities in the Lowcountry, which will further help us test the app and get us ready to roll it out nation wide.”
Silicon Hospitality in Beaufort
As far as Beaufort becoming a burgeoning tech metropolis, time will tell. The success of PollPit could be the start of it all. If both Baby Boomers and Millennials gravitate to this app – each seeing advantages from their own cultural vantage points – there is great potential. With the PollPit launch, our Silicon Hospitality welcome mat has officially been laid out for others to follow.
As professor Star aptly put it: “Beaufort is quite the jewel. Who wouldn’t want to relocate and grow their technology company in such a beautiful, historical and thriving waterfront city, replete with enthusiastic citizens who offer their resources and expertise to engage the next generation of company founders and business leaders?”
Ron Callari is the VP Sales & Marketing for HD Hospitality, which will open the innovative Hilton brand Home2 in Beaufort in 2019.