I recently wrote a blog post for The Iron Yard that shared my story and the path that led me there. I’ve been meaning to refresh a few details about me on this site, so I added it to my about page as “The Long Version” of my story.
The Long Version
I was born and raised in Greenville, South Carolina. My siblings and I had an eclectic upbringing because my parents allowed us to explore almost any interest we had. That broad exposure propelled me into adulthood with a love for reading, research, philosophy, the outdoors, tools and mechanics, travel, good music and more.
My parents also instilled the concept of a good work ethic in me. During middle school and high school I had a variety of odd jobs, including mowing lawns, busing tables, working fast food, doing maintenance at a tennis facility, doing part time work for real estate agents, washing cars and doing part-time work at my dad’s transmission shop. Somehow I was able to find the time restore an old Jeep with my dad, which was one of the most formative experiences of my life. You can read more about that here.
After high school, I did a short stint at a rigorous private college in Pennsylvania. The cold and gray weren’t to my liking, so I headed back south and completed and a Bachelors of Science in Marketing at Clemson University. I lived on a lake during part of my time in college and spent almost as many hours wakeboarding as I did studying (which was a whole lot—I was quite the nerd in school). At one point I competed in competitions on the wakeboarding circuit, but I never placed.
I turned down an opportunity for grad school in favor of learning the ropes in the real world. Despite efforts to seek my fortune in hip cities out West, my first professional adventure came in the came in the form of an internship at a nationally-known agency in my home town.
Amazingly, my first assignment was to work directly with a PhD who had been interviewed in Fast Company Magazine (in print, no less). She taught me the foundations of critical thinking and analyzing large amounts of information well. Under her tutelage I did everything related to market research, from conducting door-to-door surveys to marrying qualitative and quantitative data about large brands.
That particular agency had a policy of not hiring students straight out of college, so for the next year or so I jumped on their contract merry-go-round as needs arose, doing everything from design work to more market research to writing to project management. Eventually I wrote a love letter to the company stating that I was tired of dating and wanted to consummate the relationship. I made an offer in the form of selling myself on eBay for $30k (my requested annual salary). They didn’t bid, but did give me an offer letter after some time off due to the economic downturn in 2008. Another company in Boulder had been courting me simultaneously for full time work, but they were a large organization and I’ve always favored responsibility and opportunities to learn over money. Greenville had succeeded in keeping me once again.
The next several years were a wonderful blur of project management, account management, content strategy, social media management and, eventually, actual marketing strategy. I had the rare opportunity to do important work for national brands like Best Buy, Double Day Publishing and Colonial Williamsburg in my early-mid 20s.
After a few years in the saddle I took a step back to do some soul-searching and realized two things:
- I had this crazy idea that I could run a company really well. It was an entrepreneurial itch that I had to scratch.
- Any time I worked on anything digital for clients, work didn’t feel like work.
Those two realizations put me on a deep-dive trajectory into the heart of tech startups. I became obsessed. I lived on Hacker News, started learning to code and began applying to startups like it was my job, until I realized that I didn’t want a job, I wanted to run my own company. That kicked off a series of unfinished entrepreneurial endeavors in partnership with one of my room mates at the time, who happened to be teaching himself Ruby on Rails. We started building rental property management software as well as a wedding website template service, both of which were retired upon discovery of significant competitors (and my buddy landing an amazing job at Treehouse).
At that point, I knew I’d entered the rabbit hole and there wasn’t any going back. I made my then fiancé (now wife) aware that some sort of technological endeavor was in my future and she graciously agreed to support me and said she was willing to move wherever we needed to (except North Dakota).
Shortly thereafter a friend pulled a favor and got me into the sold-out Grok conference as a volunteer. It turned out that a few other volunteers had bailed, giving me the opportunity to work double-time and earning me a personal thank you from two guys named Matthew Smith and Peter Barth.
Over lunch with each I learned that they were working on a new endeavor called The Iron Yard, which would be a combination of a coworking space Matthew started (chalk full of nationally-known designers and developers) and a startup accelerator program that Peter ran (then called ‘The Next Big Thing’).
The next 6 months were a chaotic mixture of salivating over the idea of working with The Iron Yard, doing freelance copywriting and web work for their new brand and website (for free, because I was so excited), helping Peter out with odds and ends for the accelerator program (where I met Aubrey, The Iron Yard’s first official employee/intern), getting married (to an amazing woman) and somehow avoiding sleep enough to completely remodel a bathroom.
When the dust settled and I started to search for startup jobs out west again, I got a call from Peter with news that a group of investors wanted him to launch another accelerator program in Spartanburg, SC focused on Digital Health and that he wanted me to jump in and help him run the programs. What’s more, he wanted to bring me on as a partner in the company. That was, quite literally, my immediate vocational dream fulfilled beyond my wildest imagination. And again, Greenville kept me in it’s clutches.
Peter trained me using the sink or swim method: read read read, fly to San Francisco and meet with founders and investors, read read read, fly to Boston and meet with founders and investors, rinse, repeat. The experience was exhausting and intoxicating all at the same time and my sponge of a brain soaked up every last drop it possibly could.
A few months after I started a fellow named Mason Stewart reached out to me to inquire about using The Iron Yard’s classroom space to teach free programming classes for kids. We loved the idea, so we let him use part of our and even contributed our own time and money to get computers and other supplies for his students.
At the same time kids classes were running, Peter and I were scheming up ways to make the Southeast a better place to start and grow a company. Specifically, we were trying to figure out the problem of scale: our geographic region was talent-poor relative to large tech hubs, so if one of our portfolio companies raised money and needed to go from 5 to 50 people in 6 months, the result would almost inevitably mean moving to a larger market.
We decided to solve the problem ourselves by training the development talent that startups needed. Mason must have overheard some of our conversations, because over lunch a few weeks after the idea was born, he told us he wanted to figure out a way to teach programming full time.
It’s been almost two years since that initial discussion and we now have Iron Yard Academy campuses fully up and running in 5 cities, with almost the same number in the works to go live later this year.
I am a blessed man. I have the opportunity to serve The Iron Yard by overseeing all of our marketing activity, helping build operations across campuses and lead the incredibly talented team of Campus Directors. Some of our team members have suggested my title be “The Director of Making Stuff Happen” or “Director of Words, Lord of Brand.” Most of the time I just go by Eric.
When I’m not working you’ll likely find me reading a good adventure fiction novel, tinkering in my workshop, or playing outside. I love mountain biking, backpacking and rock climbing, in particular.
Want to know something else? I’m an open book. Ask away.