From Dumpster Diving to Running a $50 Million Company

Ryan Allis talks about how he went from sleeping in his office and dumpster diving to running a $50 million online-marketing-software business

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In the summer of 2003, Ryan Allis dropped out of the University of North Carolina to launch iContact, an online-marketing-software company, with co-founder Aaron Houghton. Now 27, he runs a 280-employee company that serves 1 million customers, brought in $50 million in revenue in 2010 and has offices in Raleigh, Miami and London. Here’s his story:

On Dropping Out of College
I figured I had little to lose and could always go back to school. I’d caught the entrepreneurial bug at an early age, setting up a computer consulting business when I was 11 years old. For $5 an hour, I taught local senior citizens how to use the Internet to keep in touch with friends and family. By 14, I had moved on to website design, and at 16 I founded a Web marketing consultancy.

Bootstrapping It
For the first three years following the launch of iContact, Aaron and I worked without a salary to keep costs low. I lived in the office for the first few months. I was 18 years old, sleeping on a futon, cooking on a George Foreman grill and showering at a friend’s house every few days. I once jumped into a dumpster to recover the proof-of-purchase tag from a chair box to claim the $50 rebate. We worked until we fell asleep, and we slept until we woke up. Time was amorphous. Our fundraising strategy was simply to acquire customers and reinvest the revenue. We started by giving iContact away to a local sandwich shop called Jimmy John’s. There was a fishbowl on the counter for customers to drop in business cards. Once a week we’d collect the fishbowl and type the contacts into Jimmy John’s newsletter database. When they began seeing an increase in returned visits from customers receiving the newsletter, Jimmy John’s became a paying customer.

(See how the CEO of College Hunks Hauling Junk made it big.)

Learning to Grow
By September 2003, iContact had 10 customers, and we even hired our first employee to help with customer service and marketing. By the end of 2003, we had a grand total of $12,000 in sales and $17,000 in expenses. We had spent a year of our lives building iContact, and all we had to show for it was negative $5,000 in earnings. Our sole server crashed that Christmas, bringing the website down and product offline for a week. We lost a third of our customers. But we persisted. iContact had a basic business model. We charged between $10 and $699 per month to manage a client’s contact database, send out e-mails to customers and potential customers and track the results. The average customer paid $50 per month and remained a customer for three to four years. Over time, we found that, on average, it cost us $500 to acquire a customer who would pay $2,000 in revenue over time. It was clear, in other words, that if we could invest more in marketing, we could grow the company profitably — but we needed outside funding to make that happen quickly, before other companies filled the niche and the opportunity disappeared. In 2006, we hired a CFO to help us raise a $500,000 seed round of funding, which we invested primarily on pay-per-click ads on Google and kept a close eye on return-on-investment metrics. We saw that for every $1 we spent in Google ads, we earned $5 over time — so naturally we kept scaling the advertising model and doubled in size from 12 employees and $1.3 million in sales in 2005 to 30 employees and $2.9 million in sales in 2006.

Building a Team
With the scalability of our model demonstrated, iContact closed an additional $5.3 million in funding in 2007. We invested in building out iContact’s senior management team, hiring experienced heads of technology, sales, support and marketing. I was now a 23-year-old managing a 100-employee company and overwhelmed with my newfound responsibilities. Fortunately, I was surrounded with a strong executive team to help grow the business. Over the next two years, iContact revenues grew 271%, ending 2009 with $26 million in revenue and 500,000 users. The execution was hard work, but the formula was simple. Build a product customers love, and market it aggressively across search engines, websites, partners and the radio within very clear mathematical guidelines.

Discovering the Bigger Picture
Our success turned bittersweet when iContact co-founder Aaron Houghton was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in late 2009. He underwent surgery and, happily, was declared cancer-free a year later. But the episode made us reflect deeply on our current situation and our goals. We wanted to build the company in a way that represented our belief that businesses earn the best financial returns when, in addition to driving returns for shareholders, they work to make a long-term difference in the world for customers, employees and community. We launched a program called the 4-1s, under which we would donate 1% of the company’s payroll, equity, product and employee time to local and global communities. iContact hired a corporate social responsibility manager and became a B Corp , a designation from a nonprofit organization called B Lab certifying iContact as a socially responsible company. We firmly believe that to attract the best people you must create a fun environment and have a deep sense of collective mission.

The Next Phase
In 2010 we closed on a $40 million round of funding from JMI Equity, which we hope to use to grow to $500 million in annual revenue in the years ahead. Our customers send 1.5 billion e-mails every month to their subscribers. This quarter we’ll be launching a social-media marketing product to propel iContact into new opportunities. We’ve come a long way from the days of sleeping in the office and eating Ramen noodles.