Matt Frary – Founder & CEO, SmarterChaos.com

Matt Frary is founder and CEO of SmarterChaos.com, a digital performance marketing agency focused on driving customer acquisition for large brands such as eBags, ValueMags, Dollar Shave Club, JewelScent, Meredith Magazines, FabFitFun, and many more. SmarterChaos.com has been recognized two years in a row as one of Colorado’s top 100 fastest-growing companies, listed three years in a row on the Inc. 5000 Fastest-Growing Companies in America, and as a Forbes Agency Council member.

Matt has achieved great success in building highly-profitable companies and loves to share his knowledge. As a founder institute mentor in Denver, Colorado, Matt has worked with thousands of startups to drive profitable growth and build award-winning marketing campaigns. A national expert on brand management and customer acquisition, Matt is a frequent speaker and influencer in the affiliate marketing and digital marketing community. A passionate serial entrepreneur, Matt is also founder of SheIsMedia.com, founder of Pollen-8, and founder of Elite Media Partners.

Tell me about your early career.
Early on, I knew that I wanted to work in business and marketing, but I really didn’t have an idea what that meant. After graduating from the University of Colorado in business and marketing (and Russian language), I looked for a job in marketing or sales. I was lucky to come across a posting for eBags.com in 1999, which was just starting along with the great rush to build eCommerce sites. My first job was to build links for eBags through their affiliate program, and later to manage merchant relationships at an affiliate shopping mall for charity called Kickstart.com. I was told to call as many websites as possible and have them place ads on their site for luggage and bags, and through those links, they could earn commissions. This was called affiliate marketing and everyone was starting to do it, including Amazon and eBay. I was hooked, voraciously learning everything that I could early in my career about affiliate marketing, online tracking, ad placements, ad sales, media buying, and search.

After a year at eBags and Kickstart, I moved onto DriveOff.com, which was later CarPoint.com and MSN Autos. My job there was to build an affiliate program to drive auto dealer leads for more than 5,000 auto dealers across the U.S. Here I got chops in lead generation, and building out lead paths for auto programs, including partners such as Costco Auto Buying, as well as Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds.com. Microsoft quickly purchased DriveOff.com and I was looking for a new position.

From there, I went to a traditional advertising firm called The Integer Group, and we launched a digital division called Integer 2.0. Anything that was even remotely considered “digital” was passed along to me and my team, and we developed creative interactive strategies for large brands. I realized quickly that I wanted to have a larger part of the digital space and moved to another position with a software development firm, and then decided that if I was going to have a real shot at business, I’d have to take it to another level.

In 2003 and 2004, I went back to school to get my MBA in International Finance and Brand Management from Thunderbird School of Global Management. I focused on how to build brands profitably, and with a positive return on investment (ROI). I had to learn accounting, finance, statistics, organizational management, and cross-cultural communications – all of which became valuable as I built my own businesses. During my time there, I interned at Mercedes Benz, working on the launch of a massive brand called the “Smart Car”. Taking on the monumental task of working on this brand and researching the market, so that Mercedes could determine when to launch into the U.S. market, was eye opening and a quick schooling on how large corporations make decisions.

In the spring of 2005, I found myself starting from scratch with a newly-minted MBA, $100,000 in student debt, and no job. I reached out to a former friend that I had worked with online before Thunderbird, and he told me that he was making millions doing Internet marketing. I called him, and we agreed that I’d consult for him so that I could help build his business and earn some income myself. After a few months, he and his business partner asked me to build them an affiliate network, which I did. We built ROI Rocket from 2005 to 2009 into one of the top 25 affiliate networks in the U.S., grossing millions in revenue. The result, when I sold my 25% share in 2010, was over 1,600 advertisers with more than 60,000+ affiliates. We had built from scratch a profitable digital affiliate ad network.

How did the concept for SmarterChaos come about?
Even though I had been a part of building a profitable online digital company at ROI Rocket, I had also faced quite a bit of adversity through my partnership. Through some discovery and investigation, I had found that my partners were doing things in the business that were not in my best interest and in fact were very detrimental and inequitable. After intensive litigation, I prevailed and settled.

The concept for SmarterChaos came about when I was sitting on a beach in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico trying to recover from the dizzying, pending litigation and stress from my exit at ROI Rocket. I started to draw out the eco-system of the online advertising universe, and when I was finished, the players were all interconnected in a very chaotic, very unstructured way. I thought that if I could provide clarity and value to the advertiser, I could help develop more profitable online channels than an advertiser could do for themselves.

When I returned home, I went to work right away to find software and build a business that could easily track online channels and help me manage the chaos for large brands. I also had to jump on the phone and begin calling every affiliate, affiliate network, advertiser, and ad tech company out there to shop this idea and get them on board to build my business. I discussed the idea with a few friends and neighbors, and my two business partners, Doug Davis and Stu Butler, immediately jumped at the chance to help me build this business. We met in the Castle Rock, CO Library on February 3, 2010 and bought the domain and sketched out a business plan for SmarterChaos.com. The rest is history.

How was the first year in business?
Our first year in business was an absolute struggle. We had several battles to fight. One, I was still fighting litigation from my former company and business partners, and that was time-consuming, expensive, and energy-draining. In addition, I needed to quickly educate and socialize my business partners to the online marketing world, but luckily they were driven and smart and picked up very quickly. We relied on some of my past business relationships to build the business and drive revenue and sales. We also had to choose and invest in technology to run our business, but found a great partner in Impact Radius. Almost immediately, Impact Radius helped us wire up our business so that we could track, pay for, and serve great ads through our affiliates for our clients.

What was your marketing strategy?
Our marketing strategy has always been to drive referrals via past clients, relationships, and thought leadership. We participated in conferences, speaking engagements, and articles about the industry and best practices. We asked friends and family to refer us to anyone that they knew that needed digital strategy and execution. We were fortunate to be able to trade on my past reputation and to quickly grow that into current clients that would also recommend and refer us in the future. We aimed at landing large clients that were growing fast so that we could become a part of that growth. In the early days of SmarterChaos, we landed large accounts such as Meredith Magazines, Dollar Shave Club, BeachMint, Fab Fit Fun, and more.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
The company grew at a profitable enough rate to bring on employees, but not profitable enough for the owners to pay themselves for a while. We had to let go of our desire for security and a paycheck to drive our vision for growth of the company. Our name grew faster than our profit, but that’s often what happens in a start-up. You spend most of your money hiring the next person, investing in the next technology, and doing marketing. We would eventually, after three years, get listed on the Inc. 5000 as one of the fastest-growing companies in America, and then earn that two more times. We also made the top 100 Colorado companies to watch, two years in a row. The top line revenues were growing, and our company was stabilizing. We did all of this organically with no outside investment or investors.

How do you define success?
To me, success is defining a goal, and then reaching and surpassing that goal. If you stop and look around you, and you want what you have and you have fulfilled your short-term goals, you should feel successful. If you are working towards your long-term goals, and putting in the work to achieve those, you should feel successful. You can’t feel successful without knowing where you are going and measuring whether you got there.

What is the key to success?
There isn’t one key to success, but there are factors. The factors that play into a person’s success, and that make them more likely to be successful are:

1. Be willing to take risks – without risk, there is no opportunity for reward. Take measured, calculated, and large risks.

2. Be willing to work when others won’t – you may not have more money or resources, but you can outwork your competitor or the other person.

3. Build a team around you – you cannot do anything alone. Everything in life that makes you successful requires a team around you. Choose your team wisely, and be willing to cut from that team when necessary.

4. Always be learning – there is no such thing as an expert, but only those that continue to learn and evolve in a certain subject. Consume information about your work, industry, peers, competitors, and also for personal growth including your health, money, spirituality, hobbies, and family.

5. Don’t stop, keep moving – if you stop growing, learning, building, dreaming or executing, you are dead. You have to have a restless quality that never quite gets fulfilled and that allows you to yearn for growth and movement. Settling, quitting, or giving up is not an option to reach success.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
The greatest lesson that I’ve ever learned is that failure is an opportunity for growth. When we view failure as an opportunity for growth, we can find many growth opportunities in many different situations. Fail fast, grow often.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Never give up”, “Always be closing”, “Want what you have”, “Make it happen”, “Without rain, there would be no rainbows”, and “Don’t let worrying about yesterday take away your today.”

What are some of your favorite books?
The Bible, Know Your Why: Finding and Fulfilling Your Calling in Life by Ken Costa, Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive by Harvey B. Mackay, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher, The 4-Hour Work Week: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich by Timothy Ferris, and The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It by Michael Gerber.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
It’s very difficult to choose one tough day, but I’d rather have tough days on my terms than “normal days” on someone else’s terms. One of the toughest days I’ve ever had as an entrepreneur is when I realized that my business partners were stealing from me by using company funds to enrich themselves, and that they were providing me with false documents to cover their tracks. I realized that all of the hard work that I had been doing, other people were profiting from without having to put in the work themselves. They had frozen my cash, told me that I wouldn’t be able to work there anymore, and pushed me out of a company that I had built. Essentially, I had to start all over and to fight them at the same time. Building a brand new company while draining current resources to get out of an old one, were my toughest moments.

The lesson learned is make sure that you know who you are in business with and build your team very carefully. You are only as good as the five closest people around you. Loyalty to the mission, to the company, and to me is a key trait and more important than anything else when I’m looking for talent and partners in business.

The other lesson learned, and this is THE KEY, is never, never, never give up. You might be on your knees begging for mercy from the tough days, but don’t forget to be on your knees rejoicing when you reach success. If you give up, you can’t experience the latter. What separates a successful entrepreneur from someone that you have never heard of is that the successful one didn’t give up.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
When facing adversity, you must have faith. You need to have faith spiritually that your God or someone greater than yourself will pull you through, but you also need to have faith that the people you love and your family and friends will be there to support you. Strengthening my family and being able to give them everything they need drives me. My wife and kids push me to move forward, and at the end of the day, I realize that, “Without rain, there would be no rainbow.”

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
I would advise entrepreneurs not to get wrapped up into trying to “act” like an entrepreneur. You either are, or you aren’t. Don’t get wowed by the stories of people making millions or billions, but instead by those that have faced adversity and overcome it to be successful. Be ready to adapt and overcome anything that is thrown at you in your business and personal life, because you will NEVER be able to stay on plan. Build plans, build goals, but realize you’ll never stay perfectly as planned.

This interview was conducted for research purposes by Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.