By: Diane Stirling
|Stephen Marsh '97|
A dedicated focus on customer needs and on finding innovative ways to fulfill them has taken alumnus Stephen Marsh from consulting on single projects to leading a worldwide firm whose accolades include being one of Inc. magazine’s fastest-growing companies in the U.S.
Marsh was back on campus for the first time in more than a dozen years recently to speak with students about entrepreneurship. As a dual major (information technology at the School of Information Studies and economics at SU’s Whitman School), he graduated from Syracuse University in 1997.
After graduation, Marsh worked for firms that were hybrids of his financial services and IT interests: two years at Fidelity Investments; two more at CCBN. He founded Smarsh in 2001 as a consultancy after doing some project work for individual clients.
One of those customers helped spark Smarsh’s phenomenal growth. The company asked for an IT system to meet regulatory requirements for archiving digital materials, a relatively new need at the time. Marsh thought a software-sourcing and implementation plan would do the trick, but found no appropriate software or technology existed, so eventually compounded a system. Before long, another customer had the same request. Soon, a woman who heard of his work called him from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, saying “there were 15 companies like hers there who all needed the exact same requirements,” Marsh recalled. “That’s when the lightbulb went off.”
An undeniable reinforcement of that trend came on Marsh’s Hawaiian honeymoon. With rare spare time to read the Wall Street Journal each day, he kept seeing stories about email as evidence in courts and in investigations, and “that’s when it became clear this was a real opportunity.”
Smarsh now has 20,000 clients all over the globe as the premier cloud-based archiving and compliance solution for electronic communications, helping an array of companies manage and enforce compliance and records retention strategies.
In 2008 and 2009, the firm was named to the “Inc. 500,” the magazine’s annual analysis of fastest-growing U.S. companies. It has been on the “Inc. 5000” for six consecutive years and was honored by Deloitte with a spot on the Technology Fast 500 list for four years straight. The Portland Business Journal ranked the company among its top 100 fastest-growing companies in Oregon each of the last six years (No. 1 in 2009)—among numerous regional tech and business accolades.
While Marsh never expected to be on the West Coast, Portland’s tech community was startup supportive. The fast growth Smarsh experienced was unanticipated, he noted, because “I went into the business with no expectations. I was worried about the next 12 months.” Marsh was “always focused on the next customer, the next 10 customers, the trends we were observing, and addressing them. I never expected to get to three times the size over 18 months. It was just, ‘Let’s just focus on one customer at a time, provide good service and innovative products, and the recurring nature of business will allow us to grow.”
The company now provides a full suite of content types and file types that we capture—“and not just capture and store and put away in a digital filing cabinet,” Marsh explained. “Much more interesting is the question, ‘What you do with data once you’ve compiled it?’ We can do analytics across content types, looking for business trends, gaining intelligence about what customers think, doing sentiment analysis, reproducing all the communications about a business project that occurred, integrating with other applications.” Besides the original client base in the financial services and government sectors, the firm now serves online retailers, large computer companies, and other industries.
Advice for Others
On his iSchool tour, Marsh talked to students about his experiences and offered them some business advice.
On business challenges: “One thing I would do the same is to be as naiive as I was about starting the business. There are a lot of challenges that if I knew I was going to face them, I might not have started the business–financial, technologicil, some of them at the time [were] enormous. When you deal with them because you have to, you find a way to overcome them.”
On funding: “We never had any outside funding for the first six to seven years. So for that reason, every single customer mattered, every single deal mattered, we couldn’t afford to throw money at problems, and because we couldn’t, we had to throw smart solutions at them.”
On hiring a team: “Get a flexible and versatile team….people who like learning and who have a diverse skill set; people who are smart and can figure out problems. Needs change and the kind of people you need change along the way; the team that is curious, that wants to learn and solve problems is critical.”
On starting a business while in college: “There’s probably no better time or place to try than in college. It’s much easier to take the risks typically associated with being an entrepreneur when you don’t have to worry about making rent, feeding a family, quitting a lucrative or more secure job to go pursue your dream. The iSchool offers a wealth of resources that you might struggle to assemble for a startup elsewhere.”
The iSchool Now
Though the iSchool looked much different during this visit, the CEO was pleased at how it has strengthened a teaching focus based on business strategy and application.
“It’s clear that the iSchool is increasingly connected to the outside business world. It’s always been able to help students develop themselves for the workplace. When I was enrolled, the program offered what was then a unique combination of business and technology subject matter. Today, the immersion programs offer students the chance to see companies firsthand and there are multiple projects with employers that aim to prepare students for roles in enterprise technology, based off of real workplace needs.”