When Jon Jones and Jason Stewart founded Asheville’s Anthroware, they wanted to be more than just a software company—they envisioned being a product company.
A software engineer and a database architect, both somewhat disgruntled in their positions with a large consulting firm, hung from the side of Looking Glass Mountain one afternoon in 2012 and discussed their futures. As they climbed, they bounced ideas back and forth about running a company that, while profitable, would be able to help others.
Eventually, the talk circled back to their current project, something that Jon Jones and Jason Stewart were working on together, though neither could figure out how their work would affect the end user. As they continued to tackle the difficult and sometimes uncomfortable climb, Stewart asked something that might be difficult and sometimes uncomfortable for employees to say out loud: “Are we helping anybody?”
“We were mad about something,” Jones says, reflecting back upon that day. “Everyone has a chip on their shoulder when they decide to start a business.”
A year later that discussion drove Jones and Stewart to launch Anthroware, an Asheville-headquartered company that builds custom software, integrations, and databases for businesses. The company, as it says on its website, “develops technology solutions that are rooted in real end-user studies that are simple and easy to use.”
“I think that’s where it started,” Jones says now. “We talked about what it might look like to start a business that had a specific aim of giving back into the communities where we live and work, directly impacting lives rather than making financial contributions to some vague charity, where the recipient of that contribution is unclear or not specific.
“Instead, we can know that our efforts have provided meals to underprivileged children in our town, or provided Christmas presents to kids whose home situation is not great. I think that was when we both knew that we needed to go and do something, and what Anthroware became was just a detail at that point.”
Jones, born and raised in Valdese, a small town of less than 5,000 in Burke County, wasn’t into sports as a young teenager. He found rock climbing through, he says, “the Girl Scouts.” No, he didn’t take up the activity to impress a cute troop, but because his Boy Scout troop was more into camping while his sister’s Girl Scouts troop tried other activities. An invitation for an introduction to rock climbing started his passion.
Eventually, Jones’ parents took classes on how to set up top ropes, and weekends soon became packed with family trips to climb rocks. Jones would even skip classes in high school and head out for an adventure.
The adventurous activity says a lot about Jones’ thinking when it comes to his business. Rock climbing, he says, “taught me a lot about taking risks and healthy fear versus unhealthy fear and decision making. It’s analogous to business in so many ways, and I feel so lucky to have had that experience.”
Learning Through Lean Times
After the initial website for Anthroware launched, Jones and Stewart, who still had full-time jobs, searched out projects. They had four bids out for projects and no employees to help complete the work.
With less than $1,500 in a checking account, the duo thought the company might win one or two of the projects, including one large job for a business they really wanted to earn. Instead, Anthroware won all four bids and now they needed help. The founders were naïve—perhaps brash—enough to ask for half of the project money up front.
Jones called another friend, James Shaw, and offered him a position. There was a caveat—Jones could hire Shaw for six months, but after that there was no guarantee. Shaw turned in his two weeks’ notice and joined Anthroware.
“Jon and Jason are both very smart, very driven, and very hard working, and in my experience, those kinds of people are always successful,” observes Shaw. “I knew that it was a fairly large risk, but I also knew that people with those qualities always come out on top. They were going to be successful, which meant that Anthroware was very likely going to be successful as well, and I wanted to be a part of that success. I wanted—and still want—to work with people that challenge me to be better each day, and working at Anthroware gives me that.”
Shaw had his concerns, and rightfully so; but through years of work at larger corporations, Shaw had learned that being laid off or being fired is out of his control. He knew that Jones and Stewart would give 100 percent to make the business succeed and they had his best interests in mind.
“My biggest fear was probably that I would let them down,” he admits. “If I didn’t do a good job, this entire thing might collapse. No matter how hard they work, if I don’t do my part then their efforts might be wasted. I certainly didn’t want to let them down.”
He didn’t. Shaw stuck with the founders through some tough times and his work as the director of engineering has led to more and more projects. When the company began to make money, Jones and Stewart gave Shaw some equity in Anthroware.
For several years, though, the economics of being a start-up was tough. Jones says that he burned through his family’s nest egg on three different occasions. There were seven months when the founders didn’t get paid, but they never missed payroll, though once they did ask several employees to miss a paycheck and get paid at a later time.
The founders received advice years ago about financing a business. They didn’t want to have investors and didn’t want a huge amount of debt, so they’ve cash-flowed the business almost entirely. There was a small loan from Mountain BizWorks needed for payroll as the founders waited on a contracted project to start. There was also a line of credit that was leveraged, but nothing more.
“There have been some lean times. But each time things go lean, we come back bigger and stronger,” Stewart says. “It is a testament to the team that we have built. I don’t think there was one moment, but a series of moments, when our people have shown the stuff they’re made of and prevailed over some opposition. We always come out wiser and with a stronger resolve to do great work for great clients.”
Jones says Anthroware’s compound annual growth is more than 90 percent, and it has been profitable each year. “Even our worst year, we were profitable. It was by, like, eight dollars and it didn’t feel like we were profitable,” he quips. “We haven’t had a lot of margin some years, but we’ve been profitable. In the last couple of years, we’ve had a lot of margin.”
That large margin, and the fact that there are no outside investors, means they’ve been able to give back to their employees. Last year included bonuses, and Jones admits he and the other owners “cried like babies at Christmas time when we handed out checks, but it was one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done. It’s because the team went through the same stress and the same ups and downs that we did, and they didn’t have to do that.”
“We have an original crew that we take care of,” Jones adds. “They risked with us more than they had to for longer than they should have, and they are still here. It’s incredibly humbling.”
Creating The Right Culture
There have been times when Jones’ passion for rock climbing has been shared with his employees. Group activities aren’t mandatory, but the team at Anthroware likes to play together as well as work as a unit, and a rock-climbing excursion has occurred.
There’s also the Anthroware Regatta (think: “Arghh!,” as in pirates) where employees float together down the French Broad River.
The culture that Jones has built is one reason why the company has grown. He hires professionals who fit in with the team and who work well with others.
“Success for us is, ‘Are we having fun?’ Why would we go through the daunting risk of starting our own company if at some point we’re not happier because of that?” he says. “I think people lose sight of that when they look at numbers. Numbers don’t show your happiness score.”
Their employees have worked at large corporations and small companies in the past and understand that Jones’ talk of balancing work and life isn’t just someone reciting corporate’s newest catchphrases or reading off a motivational poster.
“I truly believe company culture starts at the top. Many companies, large or small, will highlight things like teamwork, work-life balance, and personal improvement as part of their culture. However, many times reality does not match that,” says consultant David Le. “I feel at Anthroware, that those things are a reality for the members. But more importantly, I feel that Jon and Jason do truly value those things and believe they are the right things, as opposed to a necessary evil or burden.”
Le elaborates, saying, “Both Jon and Jason live the culture as well, so there is not a misalignment of message. It is never a question of whether or not Jon and Jason value work-life balance, teamwork, and personal improvement. It is clear that they do. This creates an environment where team members can trust that they mean what they say. So, you do not have to feel guilty if you have to reschedule something to attend your kid’s play.”
When hires are made now, there are several questions that the founders ask themselves: How will this person impact our team? Will they help others to learn? Will they be a drain on their team?
If the company grows too fast, they worry about how it will affect the company’s culture. Employees must have thick skin and be willing to put in the hours to complete projects on time, but the founders still want to make the business a fun place to be innovative.
“One of the great things about having Jon as a boss is that he trusts his team,” says software designer Lisa Mae. “We are given the freedom to work remote, hot desk at our HQ, or work from home, and it’s because we have a culture of trust that the team continually produces extraordinary results. When deadlines approach, we push through together and everyone supports each other. The culture here also fosters creativity and pursuing other outside interests, which is why I think our team comes up with such great solutions.”
“We’re actively working on making Anthroware a place where people can come and learn, play, and establish long-lasting relationships,” Stewart says. “If you’ve got the aptitude and you’re going to be a great contributor to the team and culture, then you’re in.”
No California Dreamin’
Not every high-powered tech company starts in California. Some never even headquarter on the West Coast.
For Anthroware, there was talk about a move to Silicon Valley. But the hoops that must be jumped through to start a business there can be tough and the founders knew there was something special about life in Western North Carolina which, increasingly over the past several years, has been attracting tech-minded entrepreneurs.
“In the Southeast we are set up to be nationally competitive from Asheville and that’s another chip on our shoulder. We want to make an impact here and show people that we can be better than Silicon Valley from here,” Jones says.
Because of what Anthroware does, it makes sense to be based in Asheville, he adds. Think about it: This company cares about good design, promotes creativity, and has a history of caring for people. How Asheville is that?
Jones is quick to point out that Anthroware isn’t a software company, but a product company. With a product company, there’s much more involved that just computer software. Anthroware uses graphic design to craft visually pleasing interfaces. The company also assists clients with branding, website development, and app development.
“Product is such a critical-thinking/problem-solving, creative venture, and Asheville is set up for that since Asheville is such an arts town,” Jones says. “You take the power of art and technology, and playing at the intersection of that, which is what we’re doing. You put on a filter of business savvy, and say, ‘Okay, this has to make business sense,’ and you have to walk the business model across the page and not throw it into the trash. It’s got to be a life-level pain point that people need solving. We have to solve it in a way that delights them, and, by the way, we have to build it and it has to work and it has to be secure.
“Anthroware’s vision is to put all of that under the same roof and have a full-stack product development company, and Asheville is perfect for that because of how creative and energetic the city is. We considered if it would look better for us to be headquartered in California instead of here, and we chose here.”
The business is located at 45 South French Broad Avenue, in the same building as the locally owned/independent Grail Moviehouse and Hopey & Co., a family-owned artisan and discount food and beverage shop. Anthroware is in a suite of offices that also includes Plum Print (profiled in the November 2016 issue of this magazine), a book publisher that turns kids’ artwork into custom-made coffee-table books, and down the hall is a coworking space. In the headquarters there are desks for employees, a stereo system, and plenty of space where there’s a monthly game night.
Shaw, though, isn’t often in Asheville; he is the company’s lone California-based employee. As chief technology officer, Shaw is responsible for the delivery of everything that Anthroware releases. He’s in charge of operational issues such as finance, customer relationships, human resources, and technical output, along with setting the standards and processes that ensure quality output and on-time (and on-budget) deliveries.
“I’ll be honest—it is hard sometimes,” Shaw says, about being away from his team. “There’s a camaraderie that is sometimes lacking, but I take steps to specifically address that. I think one pro is that I’m physically removed from some of the day-to-day stresses, so when a team member is struggling or stressing about something, they know they can call me and I’m clear-headed enough to help prioritize and walk themselves through the problem. I’ll be honest, I do wish I were closer most of the time. I am never prouder than when I visit and am able to sit back and watch the team we’ve built just doing their thing.”
Working For Free
One of the major reasons that Jones and Stewart started Anthroware was to help others—and not just the end users for their products.
They wanted to do more. Jones’ LinkedIn profile has the following description about the company he created: “Anthroware is a mashup of anthropologists, designers, data-driven consultants, and technology builders. We solve tough problems that clients can’t solve on their own by simplifying your processes: both human and digital.”
While there is much that sets Anthroware apart, one aspect is the company’s anthropological work. In the early days, one of the company’s slogans was based around the acronym DBUG, which stood for Design, Build, Use, and Give.
They work with nonprofits as clients, and each year the founders pick a project to which to donate. They won’t, though, just write a check. They donate their team’s time instead.
“The reason we want to choose a product instead of just writing a check is that it gives everyone a chance to engage together,” Jones says.
“We don’t always get to use the whole team on a project, but what we say is we are paying for a couple of hundred hours and that’s our donation as a company. If you want to make a personal donation and go above and beyond, go for it. Inevitably, people do that. It’s been great.”
They’ve built websites and brands for nonprofits in the past. For a while, Anthroware had an employee based in Raleigh who volunteered for an adaptive climbing program, and Anthroware built a new website for the program.
They’ve done a lot of work with HATCH, the local entrepreneur consortium that Jones helped found and serves on the board for. There have been other ways in which Anthroware has helped people, but the specifics aren’t something that Jones wants to share publicly.
“Once a year we try to do something impactful,” Jones says, modestly.
More To Come
With so many possible product development companies out there, how are clients across the United States finding Anthroware, a tiny company with only 15 employees that isn’t located in the tech world’s hotbed?
“That’s the million-dollar question. It’s a big question because we’re growing,” Jones says.
“What we’ve been doing is just doing an amazing job and caring deeply about customer service and having this hyper focus on the end user. Because we are hyper focused on the end user, the products we make actually work, and people keep hiring us.”
“It’s an important core value to our team that we understand the people we are building software for,” Lisa Mae said. “It’s important because we want our clients to come away from the experience of working with us feeling like we exceeded expectations in their vision, and the only way we can do that is by getting to know the people themselves. We are all a combined system in this world, and technology is increasingly bringing us all together. It’s because of this that Anthroware believes putting the people first will always produce the best result.”
Anthroware has been contracted by multi-million-dollar corporations and start-ups. It has worked for companies in the Asheville area, as well as elsewhere in the Southeast and others on the West Coast. Most of the revenue comes from healthcare or education companies, Jones says.
Referrals are now the norm. Potential clients can also look at the Anthroware website (www.Anthroware.com), specifically on the AntLab page, and see possibilities for their businesses.
The hope is to have several large-scale projects going at the same time, as this is where the team excels, Jones says. His squad likes projects that may last 10 months or a year and where six or seven of them can work together. “We’re already a better choice than the bigger consulting agencies on those types of projects. We kill it. They’re fun,” Jones says.
This summer there are four projects being worked on by the staff in Asheville. More are bound to come, and more staffers will be added.
“Thinking back to when I started, I don’t think I had any expectations of growth. Certainly not growth like we have experienced,” Shaw says.
“Now that we have grown, it is really exciting. My expectations in the coming years is that we are going to continue to take on really interesting and challenging work. We have a lot of great things to offer and we are building our resume and reputation in such a way that clients are excited to come to us to help them ideate and create their products.”
“I expect us to hit our growth goals and to be a leading business in Asheville and Western North Carolina,” Stewart adds. “I also expect that we’re going to hit a few big jumps in the next couple of years as we decide which risks we will take, and gain visibility by picking fights with the bigger consultancies. We’re already a better fit than most of them for a lot of cases and we keep proving it. It’s just a matter of time before we start eating into their market and making them uncomfortable.
“From day one, we have punched above our weight class, and I don’t expect that to stop.”