One of ALINE's differentiators is the fact every website we design and develop is custom-built. We don't outsource the design or programming, and we don't use open-source templates. Our internal programming team handles everything from a technical standpoint — from development to hosting to security.
ALINE co-founder Drew Refshauge leads that team. Drew built ALINE's proprietary PluggedIN content management system, and he either builds, assists, and/or reviews the programming of every website ALINE builds before it is delivered to the client. Drew has been building websites for more than 20 years. In fact, he started his first company, QTS, in the spring of 1999.
Needless to say, the landscape has changed A LOT since then. Hundreds of IT, web development and digital services businesses have come and gone during that time. While there have been a few iterations and a couple of name changes, Drew has been at the helm of a business in this dynamic field that entire time.
I recently sat down with Drew to talk about this journey, what he's learned, and how he sees digital marketing evolving today.
Will: Twenty years is a long time. It's an eternity in terms of technology. When you look back on when you started in this business, what are a couple of the biggest changes or tech breakthroughs that have changed what you do?
Drew: The Internet! I took my first job out of college as an IT consultant. That was back in 1998. I can remember a huge stack of programming books sitting on my desk. I was constantly flipping through them trying to memorize exact syntax for each language so I could be efficient. Now with Google you can find any answer to any question in seconds.
Will: Just as Spartanburg has grown and its business community has changed over the past 20 years, so too have you and your business. What has been the key (or a couple of keys) to your success and continual growth as a businessman?
Drew: The key for me has been a willingness to change as the world changes around me. Advancements in technology have opened a lot of new doors over the years and closed a lot of old ones. QTS was formed in 1999 as an IT consulting company. That’s back in the days of the dotcom boom and before companies were using off shore labor for IT. There was a lot of opportunity and that business model was very lucrative. When the twin towers fell in 2001, business began to slow and billable rates began to drop. By the time the economy had come back, the landscape was different. It was saturated by low-cost contract workers and teams of cheap overseas programmers. It took me a few years to figure out what to do after that cycle.
Will: What was the turning point for you in the wake of that change?
Drew: The smartest thing that I ever did was to team up with my brother, Charles, to start a website company called Refshauge Web Solutions. That was obviously before we were in marketing. Can anyone even say or spell “Refshauge?” We learned a lot in those days when websites were still considered an IT function. Do you remember those days? When you would call the guy that fixes your computer to build your website?!
Will: How did the two of you build Refshauge Web Solutions into the full-service digital marketing firm ALINE?
Drew: After a couple of years as Refshauge Web Solutions we connected the dots and realized that we needed to push into the marketing world. We rebranded as ALINE in 2012 and started bringing on a team of talented marketing experts.
Will: 2012 wasn't THAT long ago. But things have changed immensely in this business since then. What changes are you focused on right now?
Drew: Change is one thing that is consistent, and it’s happening faster than ever. Over the last couple of years, a new trend is happening within digital marketing and we’re working hard to be at the forefront. That trend is being driven by data and artificial intelligence. And that’s great news for ALINE. With our company’s foundation in IT, the transition into this next chapter has been very intuitive. We’re ready for this chapter and looking ahead to what will be the next one.
Will: Experience counts for a lot. At the same time, in technology, things change so fast. Does that minimize the importance of experience? How do you stay ahead of the curve?
Drew: Experience is definitely important. As technology advances, there are more tools and techniques available. But there is no substitute for real world experience. The hardest part is gaining an understanding of strategies for building things that engage people. Whether it’s a marketing campaign or a web application, you have to be able to understand your audience and what their needs are. The ability to step back and do the planning is usually much more challenging than the actual implementation. The ability to do that takes experience.
Will: What advice would you give to a young programmer, designer or marketer who would like to have their own shop? Advantages of being a freelancer vs. owning a small shop vs. working for a larger agency?
Drew: Take the time to figure out what life you want to live. Each career path has pros and cons, but it really comes down to how you want to spend your days. If you don’t have much real world experience, then it may make the most sense to start with a larger agency. Going that route will allow you to learn on projects that someone else if overseeing. Once you have some experience, then it’s much easier to come up with a plan to start your own business. And depending on the agency that you work for, you may be able to establish a few small clients while you still have a “real job”.
Will: What are the next steps for ALINE?
Drew: As a company, we’re pretty happy with where we are. We have a great team, amazing clients and are part of a very special community. We plan to continue to pay attention to industry trends so we can continue to provide the best work for our customers. We may try to add a few more members to our team this year. We want to grow slowly and intentionally so we can be sure to preserve our company culture.