Alex Melen is an award-winning serial entrepreneur and keynote speaker. He is the founder and CEO of web hosting company T35 Hosting (founded 1997) and advertising agency SmartSites (founded 2011). SmartSites now manages over $30 million/year in advertising spend and has six offices worldwide. SmartSites has been featured on the Inc. 5000 for three consecutive years as one of the fastest-growing digital agencies and Alex has been featured in Businessweek‘s “Top 25 Entrepreneurs”, Forbes, NPR, and more.
How did the concept for SmartSites come about?
SmartSites came about as a combination of several other business ventures, forming a single full-service digital agency. The general idea to start the company was to fulfill the digital void for small- and medium-sized businesses. Having worked for three years at Publicis (as a digital manager of the Samsung and Walmart accounts), I noticed the exceptional digital service that big clients received. Smaller companies were mostly left in the dark, not being able to afford the full-service agencies and usually stuck with using a friend or a relative to help them with their digital needs. Even bigger companies who could hire a digital specialist were often lacking since a single person could never cover the entire digital spectrum – website design, development, coding, SEO, PPC, social media, etc. With SmartSites, we set out to offer the same five-star, full-service digital experience that has been offered to the Fortune 500 companies for over a decade, except offering it to SMBs.
How was the first year in business?
The first year in business was dicey. On the one hand, we were scrappy, agile, and a group of very small individuals who could accomplish anything in the digital space. On the other, we were not focused and experimented a lot more than we should have. For example, in our first year, we decided to run a full eCommerce store as part of our operations since we had all of the capabilities to develop and market such a store. In the end, we wound up spending dozens of hours in packaging, customer support, and other things that were obviously not our core competency. After the first year though, we quickly learned what our core competencies were and where we provided the most value to our customers. We dropped all other services (even though they were profitable) to focus on our best value add for our clients: website design/development, SEO, and PPC. As an inside look to the first year, here’s a trailer for a TV show we were being considered for.
What was your marketing strategy?
As a bootstrapped company, our initial marketing was mostly word of mouth. Happy customers referred other happy customers, and so-on. Of course, we eventually reached a scale at which we had to start marketing to keep growing. However, we could have easily continued a much slower growth rate with almost no marketing. Being on the Inc. 5000 for three consecutive years now, we’ve been growing at a steady 100% every three years. Meaning, we doubled in size as a company every three years, and now have over 85 employees.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Starting with just eight people, we tripled in size by the third year to 24 and have now grown to over 85. We’re hoping to end 2019 at over 100.
How do you define success?
Aside from the financial definitions, I think success is best defined by happy customers and employees. In that regard, I think we have been very successful with nothing but five-star reviews on Yelp, Google, Facebook, and even Glassdoor.
What is the key to success?
The key to success is to focus on where your can add the most value for your clients. It took us a few years to really hone in on this, but that really is where the success lies. It’s not about finding out where you have the biggest profits, or where you can get the most publicity. At the end of the day, if you can provide value to your clients, still make money, and keep your employees happy – that’s success for you.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Between both SmartSites and a few other companies I’ve been involved in, I think the greatest lesson I’ve learned is to be very careful with growth. Grow the company too slowly, and you can become irrelevant (especially in the tech space). Grow it too fast, and your quality, employee moral, and much more can drop. There is no one specific formula for this, but my advice to any entrepreneur is to always keep a close eye on growth to make sure you’re not growing too slow, but also not too fast.
What are some quotes that you live by?
My favorite quote, and the one I really try to live by is “Begin, the rest is easy.” There are many parts of starting and running a company that seem very daunting. However, the hardest part is always just starting.
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I wouldn’t say any days are necessarily tough, but the toughest part about being an entrepreneur, and one of the founders of the company, is the extra responsibility that it brings. In a corporate job, at the end of the day, people can just go home and not worry about the company. Or when push comes to shove, they know they aren’t really responsible for it. As a founder of a company, you’re always the one responsible. Not to say that it’s a negative per-say, but it’s definitely a tough part of being an entrepreneur that people don’t often realize.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
There is adversity in everything you do. The way to push forward is to be passionate about what you do. I am really passionate about the digital space, about helping small businesses succeed, so much I recently took on public speaking (something I’ve hated and avoided all my life) to help others succeed online. If you’re passionate about what you do and love it day in and day out, no adversity will stop you.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
My biggest advice is to just do it. I was in your shoes. I started my first company at 13 years old. I attended a school for entrepreneurship. I’ve interacted with dozens of young entrepreneurs – many of whom have helped shape the digital space today. The hardest decision, no matter young or old, is to pull the trigger. You’ll never regret pursuing your entrepreneurial dream, but you will always regret not doing it. And let me tell you, it’s a lot easier to do when you’re young (and have less responsibilities) than when you’re older.
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This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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