The Charleston Tech Community lost one of its earliest founders and first leaders last week. John E. Smith was instrumental in the beginnings of some of our first and biggest successes: Benefitfocus, PeopleMatter, and SPARC. He continued helping to push the development and growth of the tech scene through mentoring at the Harbor Entrepreneur Center and being a board member at Launch Pad. However, those are merely his accomplishments. John was much more. John was a constant mentor and an evangelist for culture.
Many folks entering the tech scene in Charleston were introduced to it through John. He was not just willing but excited to help anyone. He would explore your interests, your strengths, your weaknesses, what you hate to do, and what you love to do (all in a neatly packaged worksheet). He would connect people. John knew everybody, where they used to work, what they were good at, and what they were working on. His help had no bounds: I recall watching him help a former employee edit his resume. Every day was a lesson with John. Sometimes what he said seemed ludicrous, but his experience backed him up, so you listened. John pushed people and challenged them to be better, and we all benefited from just being around him.
When it comes to culture, even the word “evangelist” doesn’t seem strong enough to describe what a company’s culture meant to John. John’s belief in culture came with passion, slide decks, and formulas. He consulted with companies on building their culture and gave speeches at conferences on culture. While doing a culture building exercise he revealed that his BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) was to build a 1000 employee company with great culture. Culture wasn’t fluffy stuff to him. He was serious about it, and it showed: employees would follow him from company to company. Even John’s vocabulary was influenced by his beliefs: John didn’t have co-workers, just friends he worked with. There were no employees, only talent. John didn’t have arguments, only passion. There were no problems, only opportunities. Culture will play a part in how anyone who spent time with John moves forward in their work and in their life.
We’re going to miss John. He was constantly smiling, laughing, supporting, connecting, developing, challenging, and loving. He helped shape Charleston in ways that people outside of the tech sector are largely unaware. There are few people in Charleston who have impacted as much of Charleston as John did. He helped shape many of our lives in ways seen and unseen. We’re on our own now, so let’s be thankful for all he taught us and try our best to apply the lessons John gave us as we move forward.