When Rivers Pearce ’01 started at Boomtown in 2010, the company had 10 employees. Today, the company employs over 200.

Rivers Pearce ’01 didn’t just dream of playing in a rock ‘n roll band in front of thousands of screaming fans. He actually did it for several years.

But when it finally came time to trade in his guitar for a day job, in the true spirit of a liberal arts education he pivoted in a totally different direction. In the mid-2000s he found his way into the then still-emerging field of search engine marketing.

It all worked out. Today, Pearce is director of marketing for BoomTown, a thriving real estate sales and marketing software company based in Charleston, S.C.

In the Q&A below, Pearce, a philosophy major and graduate of the Honors College, reminisces about his touring days, explains how he wound up working in tech and offers some excellent career advice for the digital age.

Q: Tell us about yourself and your path to the College of Charleston.

I grew up in Greenville, S.C. for the most part; but also spent a lot of time in Jacksonville, Fla., where my dad lives. For the majority of my life, I thought I would be a musician and attended the Fine Arts Center for the last two years of high school, studying jazz guitar and music theory. Upon graduating, I spent my freshman year at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, studying jazz guitar.

However, I felt I’d had enough formal training for guitar (10+ years at that point) and decided to move to Charleston to “make it.” That proved to be a bit more daunting that I anticipated, so I enrolled in the Honors College at CofC after taking a semester off.

Q: How did your experience in CofC’s Honors College help prepare you for life and a career?

After graduating from the College, Rivers Pearce ’01 toured as a professional musician for several years.
Photo: John McNicholas Photography

I loved being a part of the Honors College! The program challenged me to think bigger than I had previously. I liked the fact that the program also required additional coursework outside of my major and core classes, too.

For example, I had taken a philosophy of science class in the Netherlands that focused on the period when Newton & Leibniz were developing their mathematical theories. So when the Honors College required that I take Calculus, I had a theoretical background in the subject already; which, along with a LOT of office hours help from my professor, allowed me to escape with a B!

I also really loved doing the bachelor’s essay/thesis. I spent the better part of my senior year studying independently with Dr. Lee Irwin, with more of an interdisciplinary focus across religion and philosophy. Reading countless books, writing a 100+ page thesis, and then defending it in front of a panel was an invaluable experience. It was something that would not have happened had I not been part of the Honors College.

Q: Tell us about your music career.

I’m a guitar player by trade, but play piano, organ, bass and “sing” too. Literally, right upon graduation I started playing live music semi-professionally with several bands across the Southeast. I eventually toured full time after a move to Atlanta, probably doing about 200 shows per year across the country. The two “biggest” bands I played with would be Five Way Friday, and a songwriter named Bain Mattox.

The largest concert I played was a Christmas show that the main alternative rock station in Atlanta put on each year. We opened up for the Violent Femmes at The Tabernacle for a crowd of about 3,000.

Touring nearly non-stop for 5+ years really takes its toll on you. While I definitely was “making a living,” it became clear that my youthful visions of fame and fortune were most likely not going to happen. I hit a point where I had to make a choice to continue or move on, and ultimately I moved on. The thing I tell people about a huge life decision like that is that if you can “quit” without feeling like you gave up on your dreams, then it’s probably time. I gave it 110% for years and basically started over at 28.

Listen below to Rivers Pearce playing the song “Back to Her” with his old band, Five Way Friday. 

 Q: Where did you land after the whole music thing ended?

After a stint of restaurant jobs, and figuring out how to turn my past into a marketable resume, I landed a job at “The Rejection Hotline.” Keep in mind, this was around 2006, and phones were not yet “smart.” The hotline was basically a local number that you could give out to unwanted suitors. When they called, they got a recorded message explaining why they weren’t given a real number. It was a gag thing, but they were getting tens of thousands of calls per month. It was in that position that I first started learning about digital marketing.

Eventually, I landed a great job at 360i in Atlanta, which at the time was a fairly decent-sized search engine marketing agency. This is when I really cut my teeth in digital, learning the search engine world inside and out. It was a great time to get into the industry, as it was still fairly nascent. To get a job in digital at that time you needed to (a) be able to use Excel and (b) be able to breath. I had “b” down very well and learned the rest!

Q: How did you find out about and land your first position at BoomTown?

My wife, Leigh Ann Pearce ’03 (psychology) and I had for years said that if we could ever find a digital job in Charleston, we would make the move. We always wanted to raise our family here. So after seven years in Atlanta, we decided to start looking in earnest.

I basically stumbled upon the BoomTown job posting for a search engine marketing manager. Being very well-qualified for the job, I started doing some sleuthing to see what this company was all about. I ended up having many mutual friends with the CEO, Grier Allen, and after several phone calls and a four-hour in-person meeting (that felt like 10 minutes), I got the job and we packed up for Charleston! At the time, BoomTown was only about 10 people, and I came in to help them scale their search engine marketing operation for real estate lead generation.

A mural on BoomTown’s current headquarters building at 635 Rutledge Ave.

Q: What are your responsibilities in your current role as director of marketing at BoomTown?

My main focus at the moment is working to champion the vision of BoomTown across the real estate industry. I work closely with our VP of Marketing to ensure that we are delivering quality leads to our sales team, while at the same time pushing BoomTown as a thought-leader in the real estate and digital marketing space.

Additionally, I am responsible for BoomTown’s marketing technology infrastructure, or “stack” as it’s commonly called. The rise in digital technology has enabled marketing departments to have an unprecedented amount of data and new tools. However, you have to be careful not to get caught up on what we call “shiny object” syndrome, whereby you are choosing technology simply because it’s cool. It’s my job to ensure that the technology that supports our marketing efforts is in place because we need it, and that it all works together to seamlessly provide benefits to the team and the company.

A rendering of BoomTown’s new offices on upper King Street. The company is slated to move in early 2017.

Q: What do you like most about your job?

I love working at BoomTown, period. I’ve seen us grow from 10 people to over 200, and we’ve built (and maintained) a company that has a foundation in strong core values, which is reflected in our company culture. So in a word, I love the: people.

But, on top of that, we have over 1,600 clients across the U.S. and Canada, with about 30,000 users on our platform each day. Our clients are helping people make their dreams of homeownership a reality every day, which is incredible. Additionally, I’ve seen clients go from one or two agents struggling to make ends meet, to $100 million in annual real estate sales. That’s literally life-changing, and to have someone approach you at a conference and say “BoomTown changed my life” is amazing.

RELATED: Read how BoomTown’s growth is fueling a move to new offices.
Q: You’ve been involved with search engine marketing since the early 2000s. How have you managed to stay relevant and up-to-speed in such a fast-changing industry?

LOTS of reading, conferences and networking! I consider keeping up with the industry as a part of my day-to-day, and have it baked into my daily routine. That includes blogs, social media, etc. Every. Single. Day!

Q: What advice do you have for students interested in careers in technology?

Embrace the fact that you’re a digital native, first and foremost, and leverage that! I’m old enough to remember life before the Internet, and I thankfully had the right people helping me navigate my way into making a career out of digital marketing.

I teach a digital marketing class at the College’s North Campus, as part of the continuing education program, as well as lecture for several undergraduate professors. What I consistently find is that students (and even people actively in the marketing workforce), are very comfortable with today’s digital tools (Google, Facebook, Snapchat, etc). However, they have not really ever considered and/or learned how to leverage these tools for marketing purposes. It actually blows my mind sometimes.

But, the bottom line is that if you’re looking to get into marketing, advertising, communications or PR … you better know digital or you’re not going to get hired. There’s really no online and offline anymore. It’s all marketing, period.

In 2013, Outside magazine named BoomTown one of the 100 Best Places to Work in the U.S.

Q: What does the future look like for Charleston’s technology hub?

The future is bright! When I first came back to Charleston from Atlanta, I thought, “Man, if BoomTown doesn’t work out, I have no clue what I’m going to do!” There just weren’t that many tech companies in Charleston in 2010.

Now, though, there are a lot of tech companies that are flourishing, as well as organizations like – the Digital Corridor, The Harbor Entrepreneur Center, ICAT at CofC, etc. I think students should know that they don’t have to leave Charleston for “the big city” nowadays if they’re interested in tech.

Q: What lesson or piece of advice from a professor at the College sticks with you to this day?

Right after I graduated, I remember talking to Dr. Irwin and saying something like, “I think I need to take some time to go out into the desert now.” Basically saying that I needed to get out into the world and “find myself.” (Keep in mind I was a philosophy major). He said, “That’s a great idea, just make sure that you don’t go so far that you can’t come back.” That has stuck with me for the past 15 years!

RELATED: Watch a video about two CofC alumni who turned internships with BoomTown into jobs.
Q: You were a philosophy major at CofC. Has that background had any influence on the way you approach and interact with technology?

Interesting question…I’d say yes, even if only at the very base level of my training in logic and problem solving. Philosophy was never about “how can I leverage this in the future” for me. It was more about embracing the fact that I was still young, and wanted to learn more about something I was passionate about, while challenging myself at the same time.

As I’ve mentioned, I cut my teeth doing search marketing, which is basically the business of searching for answers. As a search marketer, you have to understand how people think, why they ask questions, anticipate what questions they’re going to ask; and, then put a relevant advertising experience in front of them. In a way, the philosophy training has paid off handsomely in regards to that!

Q: What question have you always wanted to be asked, and what’s your answer?

How about this: “Would you like to jam with Slash and Paul McCartney?”

Answer: YES!!!

Rock on, Rivers!
Photo: John McNicholas Photography