Damien Stevens balances risk-taking with learning — and some luck along the way

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photo: Will Crooks

Damien Stevens was 14 when his grandmother bought him his first computer. He had combed the local newspaper ads and classifieds and eventually found one they could afford. When his grandmother came to visit a week later and see how he was enjoying it, she was shocked at what she found: pieces of the computer strewn across the small living room in their Spartanburg apartment.

“She was horrified,” he laughs.

The 14-year-old, who tore a computer apart so he could figure out how it worked, is not that far removed from the 38-year-old entrepreneur who sees voids and tries to fill them, whether he knows anything about them or not. Steven’s personal journey is a precarious, but successful balance between risk-taking and a passion for learning — and trying — new things.

One thing Stevens is not, however, is reckless. Although there’s no doubt that he has been lucky. “I don’t believe in luck, but in God’s timing and providence,” Stevens corrects. “I am a very religious person, but I wasn’t always.” He admits that most of his life, “I was running from God.” Stevens didn’t bring his religion up, but he does put “I am so blessed” as part of his email signature on business and personal emails. “It’s a small thing I can do,” he says. “I never force my beliefs on anyone, but I’ll talk about it if people ask. And you’d be surprised how many do.”

Respect hard work

Stevens and his sister were raised by a single mom after his dad left when they were 2. From an early age, he had to work to contribute to the family.

He dropped out of high school at 15 after “35–40 days” of class, so he could work full time. He took a job in a cotton mill and immediately signed up to take the GED the next time it was offered — and he passed. When he tried, Stevens recalls, he did well in school. “I was not the dullest crayon in the box, but I wasn’t any genius phenom by any means. I don’t know that the GED is that high of a bar.”

The cotton mill was hard work, and although he worked a minimum of 48 hours a week, he registered for Spartanburg Technical College, where he found an intriguing robotics program. He worked second shift from 3 to 11 p.m., studied at night, and got up and went to class from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. “It taught me two things: to respect hard work, and it forced me to realize that life is hard and I should really focus on what I am doing here.”

He heard about and was one of two students accepted into a Kohler internship working with factory automation systems and robotics. At 17, though, he was too young to work in the factory, so he had to wait for the second year of the program.

Throughout college, he jumped from full-time job to full-time job: slinging burgers at Hardees, installing car audio, configuring computers, and helping users get connected to the brand-new World Wide Web.

“I had a lot of jobs, but I didn’t stick around long,” Stevens says, citing “a combination of wanting and opportunity for growth and being young and impatient and not willing to wait for that growth.”

Risk and reward

At 19, with one semester left to go to earn his associate’s degree, Stevens dropped out of college and made his first risky play. “I wanted to start my own business and was looking for something to do,” he says. Stevens and his best friend perceived “this computer stuff is red hot; let’s do that.” Financed with his life savings of $3,000, they started Utopia Net in Spartanburg and decided to build websites — something they knew nothing about.

Stevens sold his first website for $1,000 to a former boss. “So then I had to figure out how to build one,” he remembers.

Was it risky? Not to Stevens, who saw it as betting on himself in a fledgling area. There was an unfilled void, and Stevens jumped in. Utopia Net grew from two guys working out of their house to one of the Upstate’s top website developers just seven years later.

Success didn’t fill the void for Stevens — at least not for long. And he started looking to acquire a business. “We needed it for our own business. We were hosting but didn’t have the budget for either backup or disaster recovery for our clients. The products we looked at were either overpriced, didn’t work, or both.”

Stevens, who describes himself as a parallel entrepreneur, formed Servosity in 2005 to solve a problem for Utopia Net and address an unmet need in a growing market.

Never scared to ask a question

In June 2010, Stevens hired himself, closed Utopia Net, and jumped headlong into Servosity.

“I really knew nothing in the earlier days. I sought out and sought out and sought out mentors. I called everyone in Greenville who was even moderately successful and asked if they would talk to me,” he remembers. “At one point I realized I had sat down with more than 100 entrepreneurs and picked their brains.”

Relationships, mentorships, and connections have been essential to the growth and strength of both Servosity and its founder.

“Getting involved with Next was foundational for us,” Stevens says, noting the many relationships that were forged in the hallways and at the monthly meetings of the Next Innovation Center community in Greenville.

At Utopia Net, he networked at Spartanburg Business After Hours, but found a more energized tech community in Greenville. He got involved with groups of IT leaders that later became the Greenville Spartanburg Technology Council (GSATC), of which he is a founding board member.

Success has, if anything, deepened his belief in the importance of mentorship. He has a group of CEOs that are a board of advisors for Servosity, and a 12-year relationship with an accountability partner. Together they hold each other accountable for business goals and force each other out of comfort zones.

He cites two mentors: Walker McKay, a sales consultant and trainer, and Leighton Cubbage, co-founder and board chair of Serrus Capital Partners. He’s had a more-than-decade-long relationship with both. And the experience has instilled in him a greater desire to pass along what he knows to others.

Stevens is also quick to point out that he knows what is important. What’s the most important thing he’s ever done? Getting married, having a family, and holding on to it despite all the challenges. “I got married and started Servosity in the same year. Both were frightening,” he jokes. He and his wife, Evelyn, have two children — John, 6, and Peter, 4. “I am super thankful to have her, my boys, and the rest of my family,” he says.

What’s the plan?

Servosity has been a bright shiny object for investors and acquisitive entrepreneurs. Between 2013 and 2015, the company received $2.2 million in investment capital. At the same time, it fielded several acquisition offers.

But for Stevens, it’s never been about the money. “I am not a build-it-to-flip-it person,” Stevens says. “My goal is to do what we set out to do, which is to make the world’s servers uncrashable. And until we achieve that, I’m not willing to stop. I’m not just going to sell. I’m not building a company just for the money. If we do an awesome job, the rest will take care of itself.”

Stevens’ personal journey has benefited from some lucky breaks. And what some would call risk-taking has paid off. But Stevens says he is no gambler: “I don’t bet, and I don’t buy lottery tickets. But I will bet on myself and on my team all day long.”

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