September 21, 2008
Last night marked the finish of the Inc. 500 conference here at the Gaylord Hotel and Conference Center in National Harbor, Maryland just outside of Washington, DC. iContact was honored with the 85th position on the list and the 7th position nationally among marketing and advertising companies when the Inc. 500 list was released in mid August. The three day conference (more pictures from the event) included highlights like a two hour keynote by Jim Collins, famed entrepreneurial researcher and author of business bestsellers Built to Last and Good to Great. Other sessions included a one hour chat with marketing extraordinaire Seth Godin and longtime explorer of excellence Tom Peters.
As a leader of a top 100 company on Friday I was extended the opportunity to join Jim Collins after his morning keynote for a private lunch round table to discuss issues currently facing entrepreneurs. Jim provided characteristically sharp but detailed responses to my questions which focused mostly on his new research that he included in his morning presentation. As an example, he mentioned his previous interpretation of the data collected in his Good to Great research project showing that the strength and quality of leaders in great companies was not substantially different from those in the comparison companies. His new research has segmented the leaders of these companies by leadership style instead of experience and conviction and has found a distinct difference in the leadership styles of those at the helm of great companies. Particularly, what he describes as a Level 5 leader, a leader who puts the cause her company serves before herself. I asked Jim specifically if he thought a Level 4 leader could become a genuine and effective Level 5 leader… or if this was a talent or style that one must non-consciously assume. He responded with an adamant yes but clarified that an experience much like an epiphany must occur, something of enough substance to humble a leader into inverting her priorities. I generally agree although I can only assume that sometimes an entrepreneurial leader (who will often succeed because of a level of arrogance that powers her motivation) will also require a life or career change before she can find a cause so engulfing that it proves to be of higher worth than self perpetuation.
The conference closed with a black-tie awards ceremony gala overlooking the setting sun on the Potomac River on Saturday night. The evening program included video profiles of a handful of companies each closing with their founder(s) on stage under a bright spotlight declaring their success and boldly stating “… and I’m an entrepreneur.” Profiles and specific awards for the highest ranking 10 companies followed including the number one company with over 30,000% three year annualized growth. That leading company had an amazing story of building to $150M in annual revenue in just five years. They were founded in 2003, the same year Ryan and I started iContact. Both their success as a business (they’ve been profitable for the last two years) and the honest passion with which they deliver their services (they help underprivileged elderly take maximal advantage of the services the government makes available to them) made their top position a real inspiration. Taking a company from zero to one hundred and fifty million dollars of annual revenue in just five years sounds like fun to me!
After seeing many of the companies on the list described in some detail in the opening session and as part of the top ten list and as each company’s name was announced I compiled a short list of interesting take-aways in my head. I decided to take a leasure day to write and reflect after the conference so although I jumped on a 40 minute flight up to DC Thursday after work I’m returning home today via a six hour route on AmTrak. As I write now we’re meandering through the countryside of rural Virginia. Here’s what’s left on my mind to ponder in conclusion to the conference.
1) There were far fewer technology companies on the Inc. 500 list than I expected.
I guess my own personal interest in technology and my tightly focused view of business models in the technology space led me to believe that technology companies would primarily be topping the list. That wasn’t true. Business models ranged widely from products to services and consumer goods to government contractors in industries like health care and consulting. Quite a few companies were in the construction business. Fellow North Carolina company and Triangle Fast 50 winner Mainline Contracting was among contractors in the construction space high on the Inc list. I wonder with the drastic cut in construction spending over the last 12 months if construction companies will fall against their peers in the Inc. list next year. I might have assumed this six months ago but with the continued collapse of financial markets in result of the mortgage-backed security crisis it looks like all companies (regardless of the industry) depending in some way on the capital markets will descend the Inc. list together. Companies topping the list in 2009 will likely be those who maintained very conservative cash reserves and who were thus able to use their own capital instead of others’ to make the push through.
2) There were far more family owned companies on the Inc. 500 list than I expected.
Again, it probably has something to do with my personal bias against working with family or friends. I’ve tried the working with friends thing specifically before and it only further confirmed my thoughts here, and that was even with someone three tiers removed from me within the organization. I’ve certainly had the best luck becoming friends with people who have first been business partners or simply remaining an acquaintance of those who I know marginally. A number of businesses took it a step further as husband and wife executive pairs. In the examples I remember one held the CEO title while the other was the President. That dangerous territory if you ask me but some couples can do it. On top of the additional stress it imposes on a marriage it’s also a classic example of putting all of your eggs in one basket from a personal capital and cash flow standpoint. But for some people it works and it looks like for them it works really well. It’s hard to argue with that.
3) The event is a joint gathering of Inc. 500 and Inc. 5000 companies
This is the second year that Inc. magazine has extended their 25 year tradition of doing only an Inc. 500 list out to a larger list of 5000 companies. For the magazine I’m sure this makes sense for a number of reasons not excluding revenue. At the dinner ceremony each company was given either a Inc. 500 or Inc. 5000 item of recognition. I think it’s worth mentioning that companies on the Inc. 500 are also on the Inc. 5000 and therefore I would like a second item of recognition to close this hole in mathematical logic Work with me people… or next year they should name it the Inc. 500 | Inc. 501-5000 Conference. Then, I’ll rest my case.
4) A lot of Inc. 500 companies have names that are hard to remember.
Despite their success I would personally never start a business with an acronym at its name. I figure that most of these companies have arrived at their shorter abbreviated names because their longer names were simply impossible to remember or even say in the first place. As an example, which I believe I remember from Geoffrey Moore’s book Crossing the Chasm, business names like Federal Express and American Express have been shorterned into smaller unique names greatly in part by common usage, FedEx and Amex respectively. Of course other longer names like International Business Machines have been shortened as well. When it comes to readability and speakability I think it’s clear that shorter names are better. But when it comes to memorability unique words do the best. So, if you’re starting a business and you want to call it Scott Rogers Business Consultants, SRBC is probably not the best name to take to the market. Although, either way you slice it, long or short, this name is hard to remember. In my opinion you’re much better off naming the business something like Green Tea Business Consultants or even better something that’s really off the wall like Slippery Tea Business Consultants. Just avoid words or phrases with any commonly known negative connotations and pick the wierdest combination you like. This also gets you tons of bonus points when it comes to finding an available domain name and in being at the top of the list when someone searches Google for your business by name. I mean honestly, who else is going to have already named their company Slippery Tea Business Consultants? But, as I mentioned in the prompt, the Inc. 500 is full of companies with names like SLFI Technologies, OPW Consultants, and The DLW Group (all fake names). Maybe they would have been much more successful had they given themselves better names, or maybe I’m just totally wrong here.
September 11, 2008
Internet Retailer decided last week to break the news of iContact’s June 29th 2007 funding… nicely timed on their website on September 4, 2008. I was a bit confused to see the headline “E-Mail marketing and blogging provider iContact gets $5 million in funding” arrive in my inbox from my “iContact” email alert I’ve configured with news.google.com. Good work Internet Retailer.. it’s only a bit over a year out of date.
For me the untimely news release with its automatic relay through Google News was good for a laugh and a minor inconvenience. I deleted the news alert without giving it much thought. Only today did I realize what this type of mistake could actually do… and it did.
This Monday (September 8th) the South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper accidentally republished an article from 2002 announcing United Airlines’ (UAL) filing for bankruptcy. In an identical fashion to how I received the reposted and outdated iContact funding article the Google News alert system noticed the target keywords included in the article (probably either UAL, the stock ticker for United Airlines, or the name United Airlines itself) and quickly sent out emails to all recipients with alerts registered for those words.
As it turns out, a number of recipients of that email were people with their fingers on the pulse of the public stock markets and upon seeing the article on the South Florida Sun-Sentinel website they quickly began selling UAL’s stock. Within the day UAL on Nasdaq fell from $12.50 to $3.00 at which point the market froze further trading. Although the stock rebounded to $10.60 the following day the difference represents a 15% drop in value due greatly to the accidentally posted article in South Florida. I’ve included UAL’s five day chart below from Yahoo Finance to illustrate the activity on Monday.
Taking a second look at the Internet Retailer article again I’m noticing something interesting. At the bottom there’s a single paragraph about Sendmail Inc that mentions their revenue growth and one of their products by name. Sendmail is in a similar industry at iContact. They are a provider of email sending infrastructure including software and hardware although they aren’t a direct competitor of iContact. I’m wondering if the tactic being used here is to republish an old article about a company with a visible brand name likely to have a lot of Google News alerts configured for it and to then include news about a company hoping to get their message in front of that same audience. In concept it’s a brilliant way to segment an audience and then use Google as the conduit for your message at zero cost to you.
I think this could get someone in a lot of trouble because it does involve using a trademarked (most likely) brand name to the benefit of someone other than the trademark’s owner. I’m not sure if this technically is illegal but clearly using a trademark in a confusing way to promote another brand or company or product is illegal. Although I feel like I’ve discovered a brilliant new guerilla marketing tactic and have discovered the cause of the reposted article mentioning iContact some facts point the other way including the fact that I couldn’t find an earlier posting regarding iContact’s VC funding on Internet Retailer site and the fact that the blub about Sendmail mentions their revenue over the first six months of the year. Had this content been first written in late June 2007 when it was actually announced by iContact the timing mentioned in this statement would make perfect sense. Although maybe the piggyback news alert concept was actually utilized back in 2007 if the article went live online then for some period of time.
July 8, 2008
Joe Pulizzi of Junta 42 wrote a nice post in his content marketing blog today about a great customer service experience he had with iContact regarding our second quarter upgrade sale which ran for the last five days of June 2008. The month of June was a huge success for us as a record number of new customers joined during the month, in part because of the sale. In fact, new customer adds in June were up 19% from the month of May. Wow.
Joe wrote about receiving an email for the sale pretty much immediately after signing up only to realize that he hadn’t been able to take advantage of the discount offer it provided because he upgraded his account before the sale began. He emailed our support team and was happy to learn that the discount had been applied to his account retroactively because of his request. From his blog post he mentioned “Needless to say, iContact will be keeping my business.”
Now that’s the type of experience I’m proud that we’re able to create at iContact. We’re all about making online communication easy but we’re also all about our customers and their success. It’s great to see both of these philosophies in action among our team at the same time!
July 8, 2008
Sarah and I and about 15 friends and spouses of iContact employees spent Saturday a week ago in Chapel Hill working on a beautiful Habitat for Humanity home. The home is for a family who lived previously in a Habitat Home in the area that burned down recently. The lot is within an incredibly peaceful and quiet neighborhood just south of Chapel Hill that was an entire Habitat for Humanity neighborhood going as far back as 20 years ago. A previous house on this same lot was recently demolished to make way for the new construction.
Our team for the day was broken into a morning crew and an afternoon crew. Our morning crew began around 8AM and had 15 people.
We spent the morning putting our new iContact Habitat t-shirts to work while nailing vinyl siding to the back and two sides of the house. Vinyl is very easy to install because it basically just requires lightly tacking roofing nails into small slots within the top of each row of siding. But, it’s not easy to get right. Each row requires measuring and remeasuring and you have to get it perfect or the rows of siding won’t line up on the corners (which looks real funny if you get it wrong).
Another part of our team dug out around a pipe in the back of the house that would need to be replaced. It took a number of hours to get through the thick rock and root systems around the pipe but we eventually got it done by using multiple shovels and a tall vertical pick. I jumped in because breaking rock and roots was a bit more dynamic and enjoyable than hanging siding and I got to use some brute strength which is always fun. I worked hard enough at that to get a nice blister even through my work gloves.
At lunch we joined the afternoon crew at noon and passed on what we had learned in the morning to them so that they could finish the projects we began earlier that day. Cindy and Michelle brought in four huge bags of Subway sandwiches and coolers of drinks so we had everything we needed to recharge.
June 13, 2008
Ryan and I were extremely humbled to be selected as Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneurs of the Year in the Emerging category in the Carolinas region as announced last night at a black tie ceremony that we attended at the Westin in Charlotte, North Carolina. A full list of winners was posted on the E&Y website today. Nearly 500 people were in attendance including a number of entrepreneurs, sponsors, and the folks from Ernst & Young. It was quite an event including two pre-dinner receptions, formal photo portraits, video interviews, a marching band, comedy segment, and a number of creative table accessories that kept everyone entertained.
We are extremely thankful for the nomination from our friend Laney Dale of Vaco and for the support of David Hood of Ernst & Young who visited us months back to compile the details of our profile and who was able to join us for the celebration. By way of our selection Ryan and I will now attend the national event competition in Palm Springs in November.
As I’ve mentioned in post-event media interviews I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished at iContact together. We have a world-class team that is delivering the future of web-based marketing solutions and truly empowering small businesses and entrepreneurs everywhere with a low-cost product that outperforms the competitive solutions. This comes from a team that outperforms as well.
The Emerging category finalists were all companies that call RTP home like us which was great to see. This region clearly has the people and resources required to grow many more companies like these. Finalists from some categories were much more experienced and well-known to say the least… including folks such as Matthew Szulik of RedHat and Thomas Millner of Remington Arms Company. It was flattering to just stand on the same stage as them. One was even kind enough to point out our juniority with an offer to “trade ages with us” as the group dissipated after the closing photographs.
Thanks to LocalTechWire for covering a question and answer session with Ryan and I immediately following the event.
June 12, 2008
I’ve just gotten set up at my mobile workstation en route to the Charlotte Westin where Ryan and I, our dates, and our Director of Corp Comm Chuck will be attending the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards dinner for 2008. Twenty four North Carolina entrepreneurs in a number of categories have been selected as finalists and the final winners will be determined and announced tonight. The five of us are riding in a huge black Lincoln Navigator, with black tie attire to match, cruising toward Charlotte down I-40 through the light haze of the smoke that has blown west from some open fires in Eastern North Carolina today. The sky looks cloudy from the smoke even though it’s likely a perfectly clear day just above.
I’ve sent a number of important emails and actually done a fair bit of work while on the road from my laptop with mobile broadband card this year. The rides in and out of Chicago, San Francisco, and New York City are all great times to finish up a work day while in the downtime inherent to taxiing around. My Bose headphones drown out any noise and I’ve found that as long I keep my palms pressed tightly against the laptop it’s possible to type rather quickly even with the bumps and breaks of the road. In May I sent my mom a Mother’s Day greeting email with photo attached as I cruised in a cab down Lakeshore drive just north of downtown Chicago. I was returning from a Chicago Cubs game and heading to Midway Airport on my way to Las Vegas for a conference. My foray with high tech was of course complimented by a long phone call to mom after I cleared the security line at the airport.
But when it comes to web business, emails and online communication tools like blogs are perfect for the traveling business person. With the power of the Internet and interactions and transactions happening literally everywhere, it’s just as easy to check in and be productive from anywhere. And in this case, a great distraction before the energy of the evening to come.
June 6, 2008
Tonight I attended the Council for Entrepreneurial Development’s 2008 Entrepreneurial Excellence Awards in Bay 7 at the American Tobacco Campus in downtown Durham, NC along with 15 of our closest friends from iContact. We had two full tables and a few people even overflowed to join nearby groups for dinner. iContact was a headline sponsor of the event so we were able to bring a ton of people. It was great to have a great showing from our team at the dinner.
The event was as it always is, one of the best I find each year to network with business people, entrepreneurs, vendors, supporters, and friends from the Triangle who support iContact and Preation and Ryan and I personally. I mentioned to Ryan as we sat down for dinner that it was amazing how many more people among the total attendance I knew and had relationships with than just four years ago when we first began to get involved with CED and really with any people outside of the UNC community. We speculated that we could together name 50% of the people in attendance and probably had established relationships with at least half of those. There are few regions of the country that I feel are as full of people as passionate and motivated and willing to help than as in the Triangle area of North Carolina.
iContact was honored with the CED Growth Company of the Year distinction for 2008 which was truly an honor. CED’s website provides the following description of the award: “The Growth Company of the Year award is presented to an entrepreneur of a high growth company who has successfully navigated the early stage waters and had a large impact on maximizing long term value for the company. The nominee should have played a major role in the company’s success and have a large part in crafting the company’s strategic focus for the future.” It’s hard to believe that we’re being considered a Growth Company now. For five years straight we’ve been called and proudly called ourselves a startup. I guess we’ve recently grown enough to graduate to the next level. Very cool.
Ryan and I had the pleasure of accepting the award on behalf of the iContact team. Video of the award announcement is now on YouTube. In our audio presentation, that we recorded at CED in advance, Ryan and I spoke about our strategy for success, how the team has contributed (as if any of this could have been possible without an incredible team), and our unique culture that values fun. It was a nice opportunity to speak briefly about the company and hit some of the high points in front of a local crowd that’s followed our progress for many years now. It’s incredible to think that we’ve been running iContact solid for nearly five years now… although I guess it’s only been called iContact for 12 months .
June 4, 2008
The folks at MailChimp had a good enough sense of humor to bring a hilarious side-effect of dynamic keyword insertion in an iContact CPC ad to our attention this week. They captured our inadvertent pat-on-the-pack in a screen shot they posted on their blog. This is a great example of how dynamic keyword insertion can get you in trouble, or at least cause your ad to say something you didn’t quite consider.
But all is not lost, our ad started what is likely to become a long standing romance between our CEO Ryan and the MailChimp team. That is unless they send us a Dear John letter on legal letterhead first.
Just in case this happens I want to go ahead and mention that… MailChimp, we do love you, ever since we got over that messy little misunderstanding at first when we thought we were getting hit on by a male chimp (ahhhhh, that was awkward) we’ve been really comfortable with you. I hope we can make this last, and yes, at some point it would only be fair if you said I love you too iContact with a CPC ad in response. I know we always say it in private but it really only counts when you say it in front of all of our friends. I know you’re still getting over that nasty break up with My Emma, but it’s really time we move on, together. At least consider it.
June 2, 2008
A few weeks ago the marketing team brought home a huge iContact banner from a recent trade show that iContact sponsored, and as luck would have it, it fit perfectly over the railing above the main entry stairwell. I couldn’t help but snap a shot of the massive banner in its new home. It’s fun to see as I pass by. It’s a great touch.
The banner has to be at least 12 feet tall and it references our booth number from the event as well which is sort of funny now that it’s hanging on the wall in the office. I hope we got our point across with the main tag line of “Really Easy Email Marketing” which I believe is wider than I am tall. That should get it done.
Just two weeks back I received a Google alert that pointed me to Mediapost’s coverage of their recent Email Insider Conference where iContact sponsored the opening reception on a private island. Nice work sales team… and apparently my invitation to help host got lost in the mail. These pictures surfaced shortly thereafter, all work no play, must be tough to work at iContact.
And finally, pictures don’t yet exist but an unnamed person at iContact will soon be getting an iContact tatoo after her recent loss of a bet with our CFO regarding 2008 milestones (which were reached in May). Oh, that hurts, literally.
After a recent phone system overhaul and upgrade (many many months in the making) our new phone system is in place. Many of the phones remain the same (some of the new phones look awesome) including this Cisco IP Phone but with one great upgrade. The iContact logo. I was walking through the lobby minding my own business when out of the corner of my eye I spotted the logo. This reception phone now displays the communication I from our logo to all who visit.
Shortly after moving upstairs in our building we installed this plasma display screen that rotates through a few slides including the primary one with the logo. The screen was updated with this message on the day we transitioned from the name IntelliContact to iContact in June 2007 and as we held an open house event to celebrate our closed series A funding round near the same time. It’s been left in the rotation as a reminder of that time and the event. It says “Welcome, iContact Family, The Future of Communication Begins Today.”
Following Ryan to the restaurant for our executive team lunch last week I realized that the back of his Mercury Mariner Hybrid had recently become a driving billboard for iContact. Before being installed on the vehicle I had seen the iContact license plate in his office and had cautioned him that he would now be projecting an iContact brand impression to others on the road by the manner in which he drives. He responded that he would be curbing his driving technique accordingly. Of course the license plate wasn’t enough and it needed a logo sticker on the bumper below and the full color photo of the entire team as well. Good form sir!
And finally, admittedly this one doesn’t have the iContact logo in it, but it does have Ryan our CEO and Jeffrey and Brandon who run our marketing team so I’m gonna let it slide. At a recent conference iContact sponsored a mini-kiss band event where a rather wild looking group of face-painted costume-wearing little people rocked out at a performance for conference attendees. I cannot remember if this was at Ad:Tech or maybe Search Engine Strategies but one thing is for sure, it was rockin!
An original iContact brand name celebration backpack from our name change from IntelliContact to iContact in June 2007. It was on the kitchen floor of one of our original shareholders’ apartments in Chicago. The backpack had recently been taken to the beach along Lake Michigan and had seen a few hours of beach volleyball on a sunny summer afternoon in downtown Chicago… hence the folded net sitting beside the backpack and the backpack’s sandy appearance. It probably had some sand inside as well.
Earlier this year we sponsored ad:tech Miami and had this fantastic setup at the entrance to the event. The vertical signs on each side of the main ad:tech board were all about iContact and had some really neat little offshoot signs that read “booth # 404″ beside each. It’s sortof hard to miss the fact that iContact makes email marketing really easy when it’s written on two 25 foot signs at the entrance to a conference with thousands of attendees.
June 1, 2008
The iContact team spent Friday night at the Durham Bulls minor league baseball game in downtown Durham, North Carolina. We watched the game in a private pavilion in the right field corner as the Durham Bulls played the Pawtucket, Rhode Island Red Sox. We had about a hundred people in attendance including friends, significant others, and children. There was free food and drinks and two levels in the pavilion for people to watch the game.
The highlights of the evening included iContact team dancing to YMCA, Wool E Bull doing a go-cart lap around the baseball field, and a Bulls home run landing on the deck above us and bouncing straight up to then land right in the middle of our group. The weather was perfect for a spring night, warm and clear and most people stayed until the end of the game for the about Fireworks at the Durham Bulls athletic park.