Local Technology Startups Find Homes in the Hill City

Published in News and Advance, Nov. 16, 2014

A Silicon Valley tech startup probably would employ 20-somethings dressed in casual attire, working in sparse urban lofts with exposed brick, hardwood floors and plenty of computer equipment. But that also can be found at 1023 Commerce St. in downtown Lynchburg.

“We’re seeing … the globalization of software development,” said Tony Erskine, founder and principal engineer at SharpTop Software.

“If you had asked 10 years ago where to work, they all say ‘Move to Silicon Valley. Period. End of story.’”

Erskine started SharpTop in July. Before that, he was the lead developer in Liberty University’s information technology department for six years.

When he started at LU, Erskine said, there were maybe 150 people in the IT department. Today, there are about 300.

“There were few enough of us [in software development] that we all went to lunch together on Wednesdays,” he said.

Erskine’s business shares the second story with locally owned digital marketing company Carrot Creates and eDocument Solutions, which is based in Irvine, California. His company has one other full-time employee.

“SharpTop has really, really high-end developers,” said Dustin Slightham, who started Carrot Creates about three years ago. “Like really, really high-end developers.”

He recently completed software called Cloud Card, which allows incoming students to upload their photo ID to universities to circumvent long lines.

“The strategy is to build niche products,” Erskine said. “You don’t want to be the next Facebook.”

But Erskine’s strategy also is to dip into consulting for other tech startups in the area. Both he and Slightham have a strong confidence in Lynchburg’s computer science talent pool as well as its ability to compete on a national level.

Erskine cites a tech startup called Knapsack Creative Co. on Jefferson Street that designs websites and works in branding.

“They’re one of the startups that are growing out of ex-Liberty [University] people,” Erskine said.

Erskine still has a strong relationship with the school, and both he and Slightham spoke about the university’s strong computer science program as well as talent from local corporations like Genworth.

“It’s sort of crazy to think Lynchburg of all places and getting that on the map, but the talent here, there’s a great team that’s getting fostered right now,” Slightham said.

Carrot Creates started with just one employee, Slightham, and now has seven. Its revenue is on track to grow 360 percent year-over-year, Slightham said.

“We started at the kitchen table, went to Starbucks. That was our next office … the classic startup process,” Slightham said.

Erskine also mentioned Lynchburg’s low cost of living as a way to attract talent, and Slightham said it would make competitive pricing a lot cheaper.

“In the tech space, a lot of stuff can be done remote,” he said. “I think that it’s more just getting it on the map. And we’ve got a lower price point, and I think that’s very attractive.”

So what’s the most difficult part about being an entrepreneur after having a full-time job?

“Reading contracts," Erskine said. "It’s like coding for humans.”