September 27, 2016 LEADERSHIP PROFILE

McElveen’s Cold War and War on Terror Work Spurred Hearing-Technology Firm Wave Sciences

Ashley Frampton Fletcher  /  Charleston Digital News
J Keith McElveenJ Keith McElveen

The Charleston Digital Corridor's Leadership Profile series is focused on the individuals who are driving Charleston tech scene forward. This series is brought to you with support from Charleston Southern University.

Keith McElveen is President, Chief Technology Officer and Founder of Wave Sciences Corp., a seven-person firm based in downtown Charleston that develops audio and video technology.

Where did you grow up? What was life like?

Hartsville, S.C., near Florence. It was a quiet, sleepy town. It was tough to get in trouble there, not that I was the type that was looking for it. I was a geek and my head was either in outer space, a fantasy book like Tolkien's, or puzzling over electrons, protons and quarks.

Hartsville has unusual demographics for South Carolina. If you look at a lot of these little small towns in South Carolina, they are mostly sleepy little affairs, mostly farming communities. Hartsville had really diverse demographics. It had farming, but it also had Coker College, a prestigious women's college at the time, and a nuclear power station. It now even has the SC Governor's School of Science and Math. So it was a mix of everything from farmers to engineers, to academics, to light industrial manufacturing. Unusual for a lot of South Carolina back then. Charleston, of course, has all that, but not so for typical small South Carolina towns.

**How did you come to be in Charleston? **

I came here after a three-year tour over in England. We had been living in Raleigh, N.C., but while we were in England was when the Great Recession happened. Raleigh was not doing so well then and looking that recovery would come slowly. We had sold our house before we left and we were looking for where to settle next while our kids went through their high school years.

Charleston appealed to us because it was kind of like where Raleigh was 20 years before that- just beginning its rapid growth phase. We could see the same general trends happening. Charleston was starting to get in top 10 lists for best places to live or best places to start a business. Looking at Raleigh, where the house prices were plummeting, and Charleston, which at the time had a better cost of living – although that's changed – we decided to move here. This was around 2009.

What was your first job, or most memorable early job? What did you learn from it?

I have always been a geek, so the nice, normal Hartsville High School path wasn't quite enough. I did the normal academic program, but I also went to vocational school where I got a three-year electronics degree. Because of that, I got a job in a TV repair shop. So I was leaving school at like 1 o'clock in the afternoon, which you just didn't do on the normal academic-only high school career path, and went to work in an electronics shop fixing TVs and installing car stereos.

I learned a lot in that job. It helped me when I got to Clemson University because I actually knew which end of the soldering iron you were supposed to hold, versus get burned on. Basically, it was the equivalent of a lot of the first two years of the electrical engineering courses I took.

Did you have an entrepreneurial drive early on?

No. I did work - cutting grass and working in the town library to make money. But when I said my head was in the clouds or in atoms or in a fantasy book, that's where it was. I spent more time trying to understand how the world works and how it should work. So it was physics or literature or people that I was thinking about. Everything was like a science project. I was like an investigator with a magnifying glass or the microscope studying those things. I was not into anything entrepreneurial.

In your own words, what does your company do?

If I can digress a little bit, my background was out of Cold War and War on Terror. That's what I did for 25 years, basically on the investigation side – war crimes, counter-intelligence, counter-terrorism. Those conflicts led to a bunch of technology, like GPS in your phone, for one. A lot of the stuff we do also came out of the technology that was developed in those conflicts.

We help people hear and see in difficult conditions. The tagline for the company is "Hear and be heard through all of life's commotions." On our government-applications side, that can be investigations or officer safety or search-and-rescue or a military mission.

Most (but not all) of what we do is hearing-related. We make laptop covers and are now getting into tablet covers. So you can pop a laptop with our cover up in the lecture hall over at the College of Charleston, and a person with hearing loss can listen and steer around the room kind of like sonar is used on a submarine. So a student can sit there and follow the professor and listen to other students ask questions, just with a slide of a finger choose, "Now listen over there, and now listen here." We won an innovative research project contract from the National Institute of Standards and Technology for the US government that eventually led to this. We now also put other variations of this technology in vests, laptop covers, and other host objects.

The next generation thing that we are working on is a T-shirt version. So you will put this T-shirt on - which can also be a camisole or a sports bra for women - and if you have hearing loss and a wireless hearing aid, then our clothes pick up the sound you want with greatly reduced noise, even in the Starbucks or the concert or wherever you are – like a noisy street or Chuck E. Cheese for all we care, you could even hear in there.

What inspired you to start your business?

It was a natural outgrowth of what I had been during my professional career – fighting in the Cold War and the War on Terror.

We started in 2008, but it was primarily just doing research for government agencies and filing patent applications. We didn't start to productize things until relatively recently.

How would you describe your organization's culture?

I would call it loose but reactive. Most everybody here, other than our interns, are experienced. They have 10 years-plus of experience under their belt. So we pretty much know what's going on technically and business-wise. We don't have a rigid command and control structure. We are kind of a loose association of get-it-done people.

We have around seven employees. If you want to count everybody who is affiliated with the company, it's a much larger number, but a lot of them are part-time, on-call people that hop in where and when needed. We are definitely still a small business.

**What is your management style? Why is that your approach? **

I'm more the mentoring-type manager. Walk the halls. I want to talk to people, get in their heads, discuss things and give people the freedom to express themselves, their knowledge, their insights. That doesn't mean I don't have a task-oriented side to my personality – you've got to be able to run a business. But at the same time, I think individuals have a lot of capacity to be inventive, think outside of the box and to think of helpful things that you don't think of by yourself.

What lessons have you learned from good bosses? Bad bosses?

My worst bosses were bosses who played politics. It was more about the bureaucracy and the internal politics, whether budget or control politics, inside the organizations. Most of that I experienced in larger places – like the federal government and the larger defense contractors.

In small companies – small companies that have managed to stick around - tend to know a lot, unless they are just unbelievably lucky to stumble into easy money, they've learned to balance the need to market versus the need to just ship product and get paid. If you just keep shipping the same thing day in and day out, eventually you're going to have sold to everyone who is going to buy your product and then they stop buying. So you have to have some marketing, some innovation.

But if you're all innovation and no sales, you're probably going to go out of business, too. So I would say my best bosses have been in smaller companies, and they have taught me how to make money by paying attention to that balance. Not only make money today and stay alive, but to also try to be alive 10 years from now and 20 years from now - to find that right balance between innovation and selling.

What's the hardest or most important lesson you've learned in business?

Exactly that same lesson. Don't let that balance get out of whack. Particularly when you are overextending yourself. When your commitments are greater than your income, you get in trouble really quickly.

What's the biggest misconception about being an entrepreneur?

I think that many entrepreneurs deceive themselves when they tell themselves that they can walk away from it. I have not been able to walk away. I cannot imagine myself going to work at a 9-5 job in a multibillion dollar company, sitting in a cubicle, doing the same paperwork day in and day out. I might tell myself that I can do it, but this (Wave) is what I really want to be doing and I would have a hard time doing anything else.

If you've been bitten by this bug, you're truly bitten. It's almost pathological. You're practically incapable of doing anything else. And if you don't feel that way, unless you're insanely lucky and just happen to strike the right idea at the right time and the money flows in the door, you're going to be in trouble.

What obstacles have you faced building your business? How have you overcome them?

Capital is the biggest obstacle. I had a bit of a golden parachute from a previous company that I took when I spun what I was doing out of another company and sold off to investors. But this is a capitalist economy. To get something to happen, you have to have capital, particularly at a technology company.

If you go out and buy a car, the bank's got the car as collateral for this debt. But when you've got a patent, and you walk into your banker, and say, "I've got a patent," they say, "Yeah, that's a nice piece of paper you've got there."

That's why you have venture capitalists and angel investors. But the vast majority of venture capital lives in New York City, Boston or San Francisco. There's a few around here, but if you're not in one of those three centers, and you're not an experienced hand at this kind of game, capital is the big issue.

This company was funded basically off my golden parachute and American Express for the first several years. Then we got the SCRA big check and a bit of friends and family angel funding to augment our product and services revenue and have been able to get a long way on a little bit of capital. But it takes longer this way and we are fortunate that the longer time-to-market hasn't hurt us.

Do you have a routine that's important to your day? A morning ritual, meditation, etc.?

I have four kids, so my morning ritual is get them off to school. Get them fed, get them watered, get their book bags and musical instruments together and get them off to school.

I have taken to drinking matcha, the ceremonial green tea from Japan. When you get to the bottom of a cup of matcha, most likely you've got ground-up tea leave sludge. They grind the tea leaves up very, very finely, and that's just suspended in the water, so you get this huge caffeine kick, but there are these chemical compounds in matcha that also have a kind of calming effect so you don't get the caffeine jitters.

So while I'm getting the kids out, I drink a cup of matcha tea. Followed by a trip to the Kudu Coffee shop for my daily cup (or cups) of coffee.

What do you look for in the people you hire?

I'm looking for geeks. We are a technology company, for the most part, so we need geeks. But not all geeks make good employees. The trick is to find geeks who can work as a part of a team. Who, when they've got a task, can actually work with other people, communicate and get stuff done.

**What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs? **

Make sure you have a cushion because things always take longer and cost more than you think they will. If you've got hungry mouths to feed at home, you need more of a cushion. And then there are the hungry mouths of employees. Not every employee can work for mostly or only equity.

What advice would you give new graduates seeking to work in the tech industry?

Be competent. Know your stuff. I think that education in the United States has moved to a race, but when you rush through and you're doing calculus in middle school, to use an extreme example, you lose something. I personally would rather have an employee who has learned slowly but very deeply rather than one who raced through and was doing differential calculus as a junior in high school but really only knows things about an inch deep. A good employee really needs to know what they're doing at a deep level. That's what makes a standout employee. Knowing a little bit about a lot doesn't really make you that valuable of an employee in the types of things we do.

**What do you see as the future of your company? **

The last 15 years of consumer electronics technology have been about digital cameras and GPS. Most money in consumer electronics has been spent on those things and audio has mostly been ignored other than MP3-compressing the life out of all of your music tracks to fit them into a stream or mobile device. High fidelity audio used to be a big thing, and now it's coming back around. The timing is just right for what we are doing with the demographics of baby boomers aging and losing their hearing, and the fact that we've been living with low fidelity audio for a few years and that current hearing aids really don't work well in noise, despite all the marketing to convince us otherwise.

We're hitting our stride. Everything is going wearable and the wearable industry is huge. Our timing is such that with audio interest coming back, our customer base of people with difficulty hearing in noise is exploding, and wearable technology is the in thing. I see us as a high-growth company during the next seven years or so as the stars align for what we do – wearable stuff to help your hearing.

What is your biggest pet peeve in business or amongst colleagues?

Talkers, not doers.

Are you a Mac or a PC? iPhone or Android?

Mac and iPhone. But it's partly because I had the pleasure of meeting Steve Jobs and developing a relationship with his company called Next. This was when Steve Jobs wasn't with Apple – the in-between years. I had two Next machines – one in my office and one at home. I even had one with me when I was stationed in Moscow during the Cold War.

I admire Apple products for their industrial design. They are very well thought out.

What is your usual Starbucks order?

I don't drink Starbucks. It is Kudu Coffee shop for me. It's part of my morning ritual. The people at Kudu know me very well. Nine times out of 10 it's a drip coffee. If I've gotta have a big caffeine hit to get something done, it's an Americano order.

Outside of work what keeps you busy?

Four kids, the Church of the Holy Communion, and Palmetto Scholars Academy - the gifted and talented charter middle and high school. I helped set it up and am currently on the board of directors there, plus being a parent of two kids that are students there now.

What has it been like building your technical team in Charleston?

It's been a case of finding out that Charleston was one of those places that even though we lack a major engineering college, there is this eclectic, diverse community of very brilliant people.

What are your thoughts on how Charleston's technical landscape has grown?

It's grown a lot. The Charleston technical landscape, like I said, is very eclectic. You've got a lot of influence lately from Boeing. You're running into a lot more mechanical and aeronautical types. So it's grown a lot. It hasn't necessarily grown in my little eclectic area of sound and vision. It's not like all of a sudden I've got 100 more hearing professionals around here. But it is expanding a lot, particularly in the software and cybersecurity areas. You've got a lot of computer-oriented people, programming people, which will eventually help us with our mobile apps and big data offshoots.