Sixteen people registered for the seminar at the Earlewood Community Building on the morning of November 2nd called “Connecting the Dots: Planning Your Online Marketing from Goals to Results.” Patrick Willoughby, Vice President of The Karcher Group, was happy with that turnout.
“Given the timeline, and the number of people who know who we are in the area, I think it was a success,” says Willoughby.
The seminar was The Karcher Group’s first event in Columbia. A digital marketing agency started in 1997 in Canton, Ohio, the company assists clients in areas such as website development, content and email marketing, search engine optimization, and social media management.
“Our customers are people that have a website, and maybe are wondering why it isn’t contributing to their business, or why their brand isn’t being recognized in a digital space,” says Willoughby. “Above all else, we’re looking to bring consistency and a plan to their overall marketing strategy.”
With the company’s only office in Canton, President Geoff Karcher, Willoughby and others had been discussing expansion for a few years.
“Being honest, one of the driving factors was climate, says Willoughby. “We’ve got some pretty challenging winters here in Ohio.”
They looked for new locations in all parts of the country – out west, and farther south in Florida, for example. And they found out that not many locations had the pieces in place for their company to thrive.
“We do a lot of business in manufacturing, government, industry, higher education,” says Willoughby. “These tend to be the types of people we work with. So we needed to be in a business-friendly climate.”
South Carolina turned out to be a state that caught their eyes.
“I’ve always really liked the Charleston area, so we started working our way in from there, and started doing research on demographics, economy, geographic location, and we really liked what we were seeing around Columbia,” says Willoughby. “We liked the kinds of businesses that were there, liked the growth and trend of the way things are going, liked the big university there.”
The Karcher Group immediately began tapping into Columbia’s resources for business development.
“We’ve been very successful locally [in Ohio] over the past 20 years by getting involved with the Chamber,” says Willoughby. “So we reached out to the Columbia Chamber, explained what we were looking at doing. They suggested we talk with Cecil Hannibal at the Office of Economic Development, we got a meeting set up with them. Came down [to Columbia], had a good two-day meeting, tour, sales pitch if you will. They did a great job. They really sold the area well, they said the things that, as a small business, we wanted to hear.”
The trip also helped calm nerves about the possibility that expansion would force a change in company culture.
“That was a concern of ours as a business: ‘Are we going to have to try to be somebody else?’ That made Columbia an easy decision,” says Willoughby. “We realized ‘they are going to allows us to be us no matter where we are.’”
And so, The Karcher Group chose Columbia as its expansion location. They partnered with 52inc, a startup app development company in town, to add that expertise to their arsenal. They also share the app developers’ office space when they come into town. They want to establish a client base that allows them to generate revenue before renting their own office space and hiring new employees.
“It’s a step-by-step process, so it’s slower than we’d like, but it ensures that we don’t ever have to retreat,” says Willoughby. “If we’re committing to the [Columbia] market, we’re in it for the long haul.”
Willoughby says the Office of Economic Development has provided great support in The Karcher Group’s effort to establish themselves in Columbia.
“They’ve put us in touch with different people, like Bill Kirkland at the University of South Carolina, who has also helped us connect with people,” he says. “Everyone we’ve been introduced to so far, whether its business, whether its restaurant, hospitality, everybody has been very personable, very friendly, very welcoming to people that are clearly not from the area and not quite sure how to navigate not only physically, but conversationally sometimes as well, in terms of what to ask for or where to go for certain things.”
Willoughby also feels the people of Columbia are very excited about the prospect of a business like The Karcher Group coming to the area.
“I’ll be honest, when we first started having these conversations, I felt like I needed to qualify our business,” says Willoughby. “We’re a 35-person company that’s been around for 20 years. But when you start talking to the Office of Economic Development, the business incubator at USC, I felt like I needed to disclose to them ‘We’re not Boeing. We’re not building a multimillion-dollar manufacturing plant and employing thousands of people. Are you sure you really want to spend any time with us?’”
As it turns out, of course, they did. And that really made an impact on The Karcher Group.
“It’s very clear that Columbia is a relationship-oriented town,” says Willoughby. “We’re very much a relationship-based company. And we’re big into ‘you do business with people you like.’ So we want to build those relationships [in Columbia]. Our goal is going to be ‘Can we help businesses, and even the Office of Economic Development, do things to bring some of that message to the digital space – that Columbia is a great place to do business.”
“We’re big believers in being good stewards to the communities that we’re part of,” Willoughby says. “We were a sponsor of the Columbia Chamber’s Annual Gala last month. And I think there are ways to leverage the experiences we’ve had so far to help better tell the story.”
Even before he and his company establish a true presence in town, Willoughby is already working to frame that story.
“For people that are contemplating [coming to Columbia], there’s a really good vibe going on in town,” he says. “There’s a revitalization that’s become very clear, having been there on multiple trips now and talking to people in town. It’s exciting. There’s urban renewal, there’s a great dining district, arts, entertainment. The University of South Carolina is beautiful, and it adds a lot. It shouldn’t be sold short that the city and the businesses in the city can benefit greatly by having a premiere university right in town. And as a small business, the access to resources that the city and the community can provide is huge. You don’t get that in a lot of other towns.”
“Our company’s mission statement is ‘We can do better together than we can on our own.’ That’s how we operate as a team, and I think that’s the message that the [Columbia] community is trying to get out,” says Willoughby. “The more people we get rowing in the same direction, the faster we’re going to get there.”
“Everybody I talk to, they’re very optimistic about the tract that the city is on, and the growth that is already happening,” Willoughby says. “I Look forward to being a part of that, and hope to contribute to that.
Based on the success of their seminar, it may not be long before The Karcher Group starts to make its mark on Columbia.
“We had some really good conversations with some local businesses, and we’re going to be following up with them,” says Willoughby. “Who knows if we’ll do business with them, but we’ve made some new friends, and you never know who talks to who and what comes out of it.”
“If you had asked me a year ago whether we would be doing a seminar in South Carolina, I would have been like, ‘I don’t know how that would happen.’ But here we are, Willoughby says. “We did it, we got one under our belt, and the snowball is now rolling and it will continue to grow.”
Learn more about The Karcher Group at www.tkg.com