The biggest visible change around Blackbaud Stadium this month isn’t the makeup of the home side, but the shirts on their backs and the logo on their chests. The team’s new jersey sponsor, SPARC, is a rapidly expanding local software firm headquartered about two miles north of the stadium on Clements Ferry Road, and the name SPARCET (pronounced “Spar-KET,” not “Spar-SET” ) promotes its unique “peer recognition tool.”
To get a better feel for the company and its relationship to the Battery, I set up a tour of the place on Thursday. But before we get down to that, I should tell you the news.
They’re building a Battery app.
According to Eric Bowman, SPARC’s CEO, overhauling the Battery’s website was just the first step in an ongoing digital makeover that will eventually feature a mobile app that will change the way fans connect to the team. He expects to roll out the app in the next few months.
The goal is to “engage their spectators as much as possible inside the game,” Bowman said. “We’re going to set it up so you can actually send a SPARCET (a digital appreciation message) to a player if you thought they did something great. I can’t give everything away right away, but there’s going to be some really innovative ways that not only the consumers can interact with the team, but also have a greater experience while they’re at the game.”
Which is, to put it mildly, a nifty feather-in-the-cap for a USL PRO franchise. In an age when some teams in the league are struggling to to fill borrowed (and sometimes borderline inadequate) stadiums, the upgrade from the club’s antiquated website to a dedicated app is a quantum leap beyond the status quo.
So there’s that.
Chad Norman, the company’s marketing director, gives a rapid-fire building tour, because there’s just so much to cover. They picked this building because it was so open, with so much natural light. See that screen over there? It tracks energy use in the building in real time. “If we turned the lights on, you’d see it spike,” he says, mentioning that one of their employees came up with that idea. But then it’s on to the next idea.
There are almost no offices here, he says as he points out the open floor plan, gesturing toward the reconfigurable desks and dividers, the constantly morphing arrangements of collaborators and teams, the lack of desk phones, the screaming internet connection, the high-end laptops, the unlimited sodas and Keurig coffee.
“Everybody reforms these cubes to suit their needs,” he says, strolling past a tableau of engineers celebrating a coworker’s 40th birthday while tossing foam darts aback and forth with another group of workers in a rival cluster. “People create these little lounges.” Around another bend, a remote control helicopter buzzes by.
“It’s a badge of honor to not have an office,” Norman says as the tour passes some unmarked lockers. Bowman likes to show his off, Norman says, and later in the tour the CEO does exactly that, opening his to reveal photos of his wife and children. “Sometimes I do yoga in there.”
If there’s a dot-com playground feel to the place, it’s because the company was founded on “Chief Evangelist” John Smith’s belief that “if you get the culture right first, everything else will follow,” Norman said. And considering the innovate-or-die pressures on modern software companies, SPARC’s emphasis on creating a great workplace makes bottom-line sense. Ultimately, innovation depends on creativity, sharing and engagement. In the context of enormous defense contracts and the high-speed evolution of competitive tech markets, the free coffee and beer at SPARC is a tiny expense compared to the value of a single winning idea.
These days the company is heavily involved in building a system for the Veterans Administration, and designs products in the health care and benefits fields, too. But SPARC engineers have also been coming up with wider-market ideas, like their SPARCET peer recognition system, and their KNAPSACK mobile-app management system for enterprises. As an example, Norman mentions “Beer-Thirty,” the SPARC internal app that lets employees know when it’s time to tap one of the kegs of high-gravity beer in the break room.
“You may know about the Starbucks business model,” Norman said. “The founder was like, ‘We wanted to create a place that people wanted to hang out between work and home.’ And so John Smith, our Chief Evangelist, (said) ‘Let’s just make that place work.’ The idea is to create a place that people want to hang out, and you’re working with all your friends because everyone’s been hired on culture fit… And it pays off when it gets busy. Some of these gov teams, when they have to meet deadlines, they’ll work like 70-, 80-hour weeks. “They don’t even bat an eye, and they’re happy to be here doing it with their friends.”
TEAMING UP WITH THE BATTERY
Bowman, a Battery season-ticket-holder, said employees who are fans of the team were the first to suggest the idea of replacing AvVenta as the club’s jersey sponsor.
“I had the opportunity to meet Andrew Bell and Tony Bakker, the owner of the Battery, and he’s just a great entrepreneurial story. Moved to Charleston, started his company, Blackbaud, and on the back side of that has grown something in Charleston that most communities should be very, very proud of, to have such a level of a professional organization.
“He’s privately funded that himself for such a long period of time. He’s built a great leadership team there, right? Coach Anhaeuser and Andrew Bell are phenomenal people. Their entire staff has given so much back to the community. They have a great product, and that product is entertainment, right? But they are giving and growing the awareness of a sport in a small town that is fast growing up. And people are slowly starting to realize how awesome it is to have a USL soccer team in Charleston.”
After Accenture acquired AvVenta, which had operations in Charleston and several other cities, the Battery were “basically looking for another home-team kind of sponsorship,” Bowman said. “And I know there were some pretty big big names that we were going against, but we looked at what they were doing at the Battery, and really wanted to do a couple of things for them.”
Such as: Rebuild the club’s website and create a new mobile app.
Asked what partnering up with a soccer team did for the company’s image, Bowman challenged that assumption. “I don’t think we do it for an image standpoint. I think we do it because we have the ability to help, and we really do enjoy giving back to the community. And if this is one way that we can give back, and it’s something that many of our employees are passionate about, then we’re grateful for the opportunity to do that, right?”
In return, the club gets about 20 seats in a suite at Blackbaud Stadim, plus exposure for SPARCET, the current star of an integrated group of applications that the company calls an “employee engagement platform.”
Less than a year after its initial release, almost 1,000 companies are using SPARCET, Bowman said, and SPARC appears to be on a similar rising trajectory. Founded in 2009, the company has already moved up to bigger accommodations, currently employs 170 people, and is developing plans to expand its campus with a new building. Bowman believes the company’s future will feature a continuing relationship with a rising Battery franchise.
“We’ve definitely made a multi-year commitment to the team,” he said. “Based on what we’re doing. I’m confident that the Battery’s business is going to grow.”
Top photo: Jeff Jensen, an I.T. support specialist at SPARC, flies his new Battery colors on his chair at the company’s Cainhoy headquarters.