Silicon Valley — home to Google, Facebook, Apple — has long been considered the hub of cutting edge start-ups and swanky new global technology companies. But times are changing.
Thousands of miles away from the wall-to-wall bustling offices of California, a South Carolina company is making its mark and staking its claim to the burgeoning tech scene. Swampfox Technologies, Inc., based in downtown Columbia, is growing its presence and notoriety as a company specializing in voice portal systems, bringing call center-based products and services to market.
“If you’ve ever called a large company, like Time Warner, Delta or SCANA, the software that answers to collect information from you or help you solve a problem is more than likely technology by Swampfox here in Columbia on Washington Street,” company president and cofounder Rick Ulmer says. “This is the self-service voice portal technology that’s used around the country.”
Swampfox Technologies CEO and co-founder Bob Cooper explains that as a small start-up, the company was able to build one of the most successful software products by daring to use unconventional ideas.
“We’re not trying to be a Silicon Valley company. We’re not trying to move to a big metropolitan area. We’re not trying to recreate what’s already out there, either,” Bob says. “We’ve built our company by striving to be different, staying small and local, and just thinking outside the box. That has been a model of success for us.”
Swampfox was founded by five associates six years ago, around the time of the economic recession. Originally a venture start-up company building Siri-type software, it was bought by telecommunications company Avaya, later spinning out of the large company. Today, its clientele includes Fortune 100 businesses. Though it’s been through a lot of changes in just a few years, Swampfox officials say the name and founding values have stayed the same.
“Even the name shows our ties and commitment to the state,” says Bob. “Francis Marion’s nickname during the Revolutionary War was Swamp Fox. We wanted a name that would be remembered and could easily be tied to the state.”
Why not South Carolina?
The tech sector is growing nationally, experiencing more than an 11 percent growth margin in the past year, according to a New York Times profile of the industry. Software companies, like Swampfox, saw the second highest tech industry growth behind IT services and consulting.
“The rapid growth of demand for software reflects its character as a genuine ‘general purpose’ or enabling technology that has been adopted and adapted by virtually every other industry and sector,” researchers from Software & Informational Industry Association wrote in its 2014 report, The U.S. Software: An Engine for Economic Growth and Employment. “For more than 20 years — from 1990 to 2012 — business investments in software have increased at more than twice the rate of all fixed business investments.”
In South Carolina, the tech sector is also on the rise. The state’s information technology sector employs around 30,000 people — and those numbers are growing, according to a recent report by the state’s Department of Commerce. In 2013, Google announced a $600 million expansion of its state-of-the-art data center in South Carolina. Other new and expanding high-tech companies like Shutterfly, SPARC and Diversified Information Technologies have announced more than 5,500 jobs in the state and invested more than $823 million since 2012, commerce officials say.
“The knowledge economy represents a vital part of South Carolina’s present and future,” says Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt. “South Carolina has become a magnet for high-tech and innovative companies. Experts predict that by 2020, our state’s high-tech jobs should increase by nearly 20 percent.”
Experts point to the state’s lower cost of living, high quality of life, business incentives and talent pool.
“If today’s leading software can be created anywhere, why not in South Carolina,” Rick says. “Young workers can afford to locate here, start-ups can find support through incubators and other resources, and businesses can grow quickly because of the state’s good business climate.”
Bob says, “There are almost two different directions. You can look at a place like Google, and many, many software companies, and see how they try to get as many people per square foot as they can. Then there’s the philosophy that you should tailor the environment to be as nice as possible. We wanted Swampfox to be every bit as good as a home. Everything — the imported wood floors, the open, friendly environment, even the building itself — speaks to our corporate culture, how we value every developer and our start-up roots.”
The talent is in South Carolina. So are the companies to grow that talent.
“There are several really good software companies in Columbia,” Bob adds. “They’re every bit as talented as you would find in bigger metropolitan areas like San Francisco, Boston or Austin, Texas,” he says. “We recruit sharp graduates straight out of college from Clemson and the University of South Carolina and really, all the colleges in and around our state. South Carolina is a nice place to raise a family. You can live on the lake and own some property. We could have our company anywhere but it’s hard to compete with Columbia, in my opinion.”
While there will still be the Apples, Microsofts and Intels of the world, Rick feels assured that Swampfox and other tech companies in South Carolina can compete.
“Start-ups can definitely be successful here,” he adds. “In addition to a healthy business climate, there are a lot of resources and good advisors through incubator sites, Vistage and the University. There’s also technology that lets you interface remotely with customers all over the world. I don’t see a reason a start-up company couldn’t do well here. The possibilities are endless.”
What’s on the Horizon for Swampfox?
Bob shares that there are numerous applications, and his schedule stays busy. It is common for him to travel to and from Atlanta one day and fly out for a meeting with a client the next.
“This is the norm. All in a week’s work,” Bob laughs.
The busy schedules of Bob, Rick and others in their company are the result of a shift in the sector. Driven by a change in the way software is created, delivered, used and sold, physical infrastructure has changed to cloud infrastructure, and there has also been a shift from desktop computing to mobile computing.
“This has opened the door for innovation at Swampfox,” Rick says. “We’re innovating as the technology advances.”
The company has recently started a hosting business, a service to free businesses from having computer equipment in their buildings. There are other ventures on the horizon, too.
“The next thing we’d like to get into is virtual healthcare. What if you were a patient who needed to be kept in contact with 24/7? You could have a virtual nurse stay connected with you through a virtual system,” says Bob.
Rick added, “There are innovations in the call center technology area, too. If you think about it, we went from technology where you pushed a button to give ‘yes’ or ‘no’ commands, and now to almost free speech commands where you describe your problem. We continue to see innovations in that area, all aimed at ensuring that people’s wait times are as minimal as possible and bettering the customer’s experience.”
Rick says that there’s room to grow the company. “We started out doing more work that was specialized for each specific customer and doing specialized solutions for each customer. Now, we’re moving toward having more products so that we can sell them to a lot of customers. So, our strategy is changing from just a professional services company to a product company, like Microsoft, that sells to everybody versus having to create it for each customer.”
If there’s a need, chances are there’s an app or software being created for that. The United States Labor Department listed tech jobs among the fastest-growing this decade, for both its robust hiring trends and competitive wages. Software developer was listed in the top three of the latest U.S. News & World Report list of best jobs. Job growth is expected to reach nearly 23 percent by 2022 for the sector with “supurb job prospects, low unemployment and excellent median salary,” the report includes.
“There are the application developers, who design computer software and databases, then there are the systems-focused developers who build operating systems, such as Linux or iOS. Growth for both types should balloon,” the report states. “The Labor Department predicts there will be nearly 140,000 brand new positions created before 2022.”
For Swampfox executives, only opportunities lie ahead.
“There is more opportunity than there are people,” Bob says.