Alternate Reality

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A serial tech entrepreneur explains the perks of being local and bids adieu to the concept of a traditional workspace. Betty Darby shares his story. Photography by Katie McGee.

Blake Ellis considers Savannah fertile ground for entrepreneurs, and he ought to know—he’s started five successful technology businesses here, including Rails Machine, Res Engine and his current baby, CommerceV3.

What’s so singular about this city when it comes to birthing a new business?

“I think Savannah has a particularly creative, independent mindset,” Ellis tells me when we meet his “satellite office,” a local coffee shop near his home. “When I was in Atlanta, I was thought of as crazy. Here, nobody bats an eyelash when you want to do something crazy.”

Aside from its mindset, Ellis extols the benefits of Savannah’s deep talent pool, thanks to the large number of colleges and universities in the area.

“CommerceV3 has 30 people working for it, a good number of whom are direct hires out of Savannah Tech, Georgia Tech and Armstrong,” Ellis shares. “I think we have hired from literally every local college. We get funneled some good people.”

Reinventing the Store

CommerceV3 grew out of the frustration Ellis experienced at his start up Color Maria. The company built websites when websites were white-hot innovations. But it dawned on him they were inventing the wheel over and over again. An e-commerce website with standardized operations and customized appearance grew into CommerceV3’s product, and now it serves some 500 merchants, nationally and internationally.

“We have one cloud-based application that runs in the ether and it runs on hundreds of servers,” Ellis says. “The application has these layers in it like a layer cake, and the way it looks is like the icing, so each site looks different. You get the functionality from the lower levels of the application but you can make it look any way you want.”

A Virtual Existence

Instead of fighting Atlanta traffic to call on one client in the morning and another in the afternoon, Ellis can now meet with four or five different people in a morning at his satellite office, a coffee shop near his home. In fact, the entire company exists virtually.

“In the old days, we were on Bay Street, then we went out on Fairmont behind Books a Million, then out to Georgia Tech,” Ellis explains. “All of our servers were in Atlanta, and we started to hire people in different places. I would find myself having a really long instant message conversation with someone who was in the next room. So we sent people home. Instead of sitting in my office all day to see if people would come in and ask me anything, I went home.”

Brace and Learn

With a number of successful startups under his belt, I ask Ellis about his personal recipe for success. His response is twofold: Brace for ambiguity and learn to delegate.

“In coding, something either works or it doesn’t work—it’s a one or a zero,” Ellis shares. “In business, it’s not even close to that. There are a lot of gray areas.

“Also, you have to recruit the right people and train them on how you want things done,” the serial CEO adds. “I wish I could be involved in everything, but it’s really hard when you try to scale something up.”

Blake Ellis’ 100 %

How important are each of the following to achieving business success:

10% Who you know

30% What you know

40% When you know it

15% Where you know it

5% Why you know it

“To be successful you need to be good at what you do and get the timing right. It helps to have a supportive community and access to influencers. And people will always ask why (I do what I do). Coming up with a crazy idea and getting extremely good at it is an addiction. Who cares why?”