Peter Barth hadn’t planned on living in Greenville. In fact, he was in the process of moving his family from Boca Raton, FL, to Charlotte, NC, 10 years ago when a leisurely stopover here turned his head. Charlotte’s loss has been Greenville’s tremendous gain, as Barth hit the ground running with the NEXT organization. There he took a lead role in launching the NEXT Innovation Center and eventually the accelerator, through which he has mentored and invested in a number of young tech entrepreneurs.
Through this, Barth recognized a critical need for local software engineering talent in order to keep those startups anchored in Greenville, and five years ago The Iron Yard was born. The Iron Yard trains programmers through a gritty, intensive 12-week vocational training program. Today, it operates in 22 cities around the world, working closely with local employers to build a curriculum relevant to each market.
This string of success earned Peter Barth recognition as The Entrepreneur for the 2016 UBJ Who’s Who Awards. UBJ sat down with him to learn more about how he got to where he is and his vision for the future.
We’ve heard you crossed career paths with the Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort. What was that experience like?
I didn’t work directly for Jordan, but if you’ve seen that movie, I worked at the country club where Jordan was a member and got to know him over playing golf. He encouraged me to become a stockbroker, which is the first real job I had. I dropped out of Vanderbilt and became a stockbroker in New York at a firm that Jordan was affiliated with – Jordan wasn’t running it because he was already in trouble. In the movie when the yacht sank, that’s about when I met Jordan.
It was the best sales experience you could ever possibly have. I came in as a cold caller for the firm where I had to make 400 calls a day. So I learned a ton about talking to people and selling things.
Does Greenville have what it takes to keep and attract more companies like The Iron Yard?
That’s specifically why we’re doing what we’re doing [training software engineers], because it was a big challenge I saw with the young tech companies we were investing in through NEXT. It was great when it was five people; then all of a sudden they raise some money and they need to hire 20 people. That becomes really hard to find. It’s been a challenge as we’ve scaled, so we recruit a lot of people from other parts of the country to come here.
Especially for young tech organizations, we don’t have human resource professionals here who have ever employed a tech workforce, and we don’t have marketing or PR people here who have scaled a technology organization. There are plenty of successful salespeople and PR people and marketing people here, but they’ve never done it in the software world. It is definitely a challenge that we face.
It’s getting easier. If you can get them on the ground in Greenville it sells itself. But getting them to Greenville when they’re considering San Francisco is hard. I think the great thing Greenville has going for it is that the quality of life is amazing and the cost of living is amazing. And Greenville, I think, is doing a really good job of selling itself nationally.
Once a year we fly in 10 or 12 venture capitalists for the weekend around Euphoria, and we try to make it a different group every year, so they get to come and experience and know Greenville. I think that’s really helped in the circles that I run in, so when I go to meet with venture capitalists in San Francisco they know where Greenville is, they’ve heard of it before. It’s been a huge change. It’s helping to be able to recruit, but still a lot of folks we have to recruit from outside.
What opportunities are in front of us right now as relates to your industry?
For the space that we’re in, which broadly is education, there are a lot of challenges, mostly around college debt. I think we’re in the very early stages of a huge shift in education because of the cost and because employers – again, we’re super early in this, but specifically in our industry – are no longer valuing credentials, or at least not near as much. At this point if you go work at a major tech company, they probably don’t care about your college degree; they care about can you do the specific skill.
I think we’ll start to see that in other fields. I think you’re starting to see it in sales and marketing and other fields where things change frequently. That’s the problem with traditional higher ed now. It’s about a four- or five-year cycle to get new a curriculum in the classroom, and we change tools every six months. So the curriculum is not possible to be current in that paradigm.
Which is why Iron Yard works. We teach 12-week classes, we can change out the tooling from one 12-week session to the next, and we develop a really tight relationship with the employer who’s telling us what they want to be taught.
I think an interesting thing now is there’s a big [public] swing toward STEM education. Actually most employers that I talk with don’t really value that near what the public dialogue is. They really are interested in the liberal arts degree long-term – it’s a more well-rounded employee – but they want them to have the skills.
I don’t know if we’ll get there, but I kinda hope we get to a model where there’s short-term vocational education – whether it’s 12 weeks like Iron Yard or it’s a yearlong apprenticeship kind of model – and then a longer-term liberal arts kind of education where you’re learning management skills and people skills and those kinds of things as they’re needed, as you’re moving up in the organization.
It’s going to be interesting. There are going to be big huge shifts over the next few years.
I try to be intentional about spending time with other entrepreneurs in town. On a regular basis I go to lunch or coffee with somebody new who just moved to town or reaches out cold. I was in their shoes 10 years ago, and this is only working for me because Bob Hughes took that meeting with me, or Craig Brown took that meeting – so I try to pay it back in that regard.
One of the really great things about Greenville that other folks starting a business should take advantage of is that sense of community. Most of our community leaders will take that time, if it’s intentional, relevant and you’ve done your background. That’s something you should take advantage of – because you can’t do that in New York or Atlanta or other big markets. We have some really successful people in town who are approachable.
How do you motivate?
I think we’re different from a lot of places in that there’s pretty wide-open space to work in. We try to set a very clear mission and vision of where we’re going on a routine basis, but inside of that you should kind of own [it] like it’s your own business. There’s definitely no micromanagement. We’ve got some clear things we need from your role, but how you get there is totally up to you.
What is your proudest business achievement?
That’s a tough one. I think the thing I am mostly internally proud about is employing people, providing a good place to work and recruiting really talented, fun people to work with.
How do you celebrate success?
We just took one of those five-factor tests. On the emotional scale, I was like a zero. I’m one of those guys where if you just broke something or your car ran through the front window, I don’t tend to get upset about it because it already happened. We’ve just got to figure out how to go forward. The same thing is true if we just closed a $10 million deal – I don’t really care, because we gotta work on the next one.
I don’t tend to celebrate. I don’t know that that’s good. The rest of my team was not on that side of the spectrum. But my wife would say, yes, that’s exactly me.
What is your idea of work/life balance?
That’s a good question, because I don’t know that I see a lot of separation, which is interesting. I think that’s probably a big change in the workplace in general. I’m very intentional about being home. I pretty much leave the office at 5 every day. Sometimes it’s 4:30, sometimes it’s 5:30, but I’m not in the office at 7. I just don’t do that. So I’m there when the kids get home, try to be around for all their activities, have dinner together, that kind of thing. But at the same point it’s not like I don’t work after 5. At 3 a.m. last night I was still doing emails, and that’s just normal. So they kind of bleed together. I don’t know if it’s healthy, but it’s what’s worked for me.