By: CCGA Web
February 26, 2024

Justin Henshaw and his management staff at The Henshaw Companies wanted a system to recognize employees and reward them for their efforts.

So they did what all good businesspeople do — create a spreadsheet. It wasn’t the perfect way to track performance and show the employees their managers appreciate their hard work, but it did the trick.

“We had an idea,” Henshaw said. “And it was spurred by our own desire to engage with our employees and to recognize them, and reward them to build better teams within our businesses.”

The Henshaw Companies at the time included Jimmy John’s, Smoothie King, Fuse Frozen Co., Ironside Coastal Georgia Café and Island Sound, among others. They eventually honed in on an algorithm to create a score to gauge employee performance and recognize their accomplishments. The spreadsheet wound up being successful, Henshaw said.

“The first thing we learned was that it worked,” he said.

The employers had a clear and tangible way to monitor employee performance and the employees knew when they were excelling and were rewarded for it. That is when Henshaw knew it was time to seize the opportunity to add a new business to The Henshaw Companies’ portfolio, albeit one in an entirely new arena — tech.

A new mobile app was born. GAGE, a workforce development app designed to measure performance and create a winning culture within businesses, launched in 2022 and less than two years later has amassed more than 60 clients in the Golden Isles. Clients use the app to measure employee performance and satisfaction by providing a score to employees that measures their performance and provides feedback for growth.

The quick growth to 60 local clients caught the attention of Eagle Venture Fund and a group of angel investors who recently provided funding to take GAGE to the next level.

Henshaw is now leading the first-ever Golden Isles-based tech startup, something he never imagined.

“I never sought out a career in tech,” he said. “I was more or less forced into this world.”

Which meant there was, and still is, plenty to learn.

“There is never a moment where you stop,” Henshaw said. “The product always evolves. The world around the product evolves. It’s a train that never stops.”

But going from a spreadsheet to a working mobile app required the help of experts in the tech field. For that, Henshaw partnered with Whiteboard, a digital platforms, activation and branding company out of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Getting Whiteboard as a partner was a major step in GAGE’s development, he said.

“They’re an incredible company. One of their core principles is to do good for the world,” Henshaw said. “They are sought after and turn down projects all the time, so we had to get them in the door first.”

Once in the door, GAGE began to come together. That included a little help from his alma mater at College of Coastal Georgia, where he attended after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps.

“As GAGE was being developed, some of the college’s marketing students were exposed to how market research for a tech start-up works,” CCGA President Michelle Johnston said. “And it’s not the first-time that Justin has reached back to his alma mater and engaged our faculty and students with his many successful business ventures.”

The college became an early adopter.

“GAGE enhances engagement between supervisors and our student employees, and it gives students immediate and regular feedback that helps them grow and improve,” Johnston said. “The ongoing communication and feedback loop helps build a sense of belonging.”

A couple of those students who helped with market research now work for GAGE, Darwyn Ramirez and Antonia Bahir, who serve as marketing and support coordinators. The GAGE team is rounded out by Sara Baker, vice president of sales, and the Chattanooga based design and technology team of Michael Anthony Turner, head of design, and Jeffrey Cole, chief product and technology officer.

Together they will be building the new, more robust version of GAGE for a broader audience.

Feedback from clients like Kelly Hanrahan, who owns Stretch Zone on St. Simons Island, has already helped GAGE develop and will continue to do so in future iterations. Like Henshaw, she and her manager wanted to develop a system to provide feedback to their employees. GAGE made it easy, she said.

“We thought, ‘why do we have to do all the work if they’ve done it already?’” Hanrahan said.

They use the app’s “high five” feature to commend employees for work well done. At the end of each month employees with five high fives get a reward. At the end of each quarter, collecting enough high fives earns a more significant reward, Hanrahan said.

“Employees like feedback,” she said of her employees who are mostly in their 20s. “They really like positive feedback.”

But she also uses GAGE to “nudge” the employees in the right direction and address problems, like being late. That was happening with some employees, she said. After a few nudges through GAGE, the issues subsided. She said Stretch Zone has seen a turnaround in behavior, morale, and employee retention since using the app.

Hanrahan also said there are a couple of features she would like to see in future GAGE versions, like the ability for employees to reply to employers to say thanks for the high five or to discuss ongoing issues.

Those features may well be part of new versions of GAGE. Henshaw said as it continues to develop into a platform for widespread national use, more employee features will be added because they are the end users who see the real benefit from the app.

“It’s my belief that the employees will drive this product,” Henshaw said. “The good thing about our product is that people are inspired by it.”

And as GAGE is poised to grow beyond the borders of the Golden Isles, Henshaw, who grew up on St. Simons Island, has had to sell a few of his other ventures to allow the time and energy to focus on taking GAGE national. But, he said, he has no intentions of going anywhere.

“This is my home,” he said. “I was born and raised here. This place matters.”

Story written by Michael Hall of The Brunswick News

Photography by Chris Moncus Photography

Republished with the permission of The Brunswick News.