Summit Reaps Benefits: Insights for High Country Entrepreneurs

By David Rogers. November 15, 2015. BOONE, NC —  

Not an accidental tourist, but an accidental entrepreneur, Brandon Adcock, CEO of Direct Digital LLC, is just one of the many student success stories coming out of the Walker College of Business and — quite by accident, it turns out — a product of the Carole Moore McLeod Entrepreneur Summit offered each year by Appalachian State University. Mr. Adcock was the kickoff keynote speaker on Friday for the 2015 Entrepreneur Summit in the standing-room-only, Grandfather Mountain Ballroom of the on-campus Plemmons Student Union.

In the fall of his senior year at Appalachian State, in 2005, Adcock “sat in” on a presentation about online marketing, particularly about Search Engine Optimization during Entrepreneurship Summit — and it was a presentation that morphed into a major turning point of his life.

"Move fast and break things."

He told the estimate 300 students and business men and women jamming the Ballroom, “I didn’t know anything about (online marketing), but the presentation pretty much put me on the path that I am on now, even though I didn’t realize it at the time.

“In 2005,” Adcock noted, “search engine optimization (SEO) was pretty new. It was totally revolutionary. Virtually no one had heard of it and I was totally in awe of the presentation. I thought, ‘Ok, there are no classes being taught about SEO, which means there can’t be very many experts in the field. I could probably become an expert very fast…I’m going to learn everything I possibly can about this.'”

His self-education paid off. While taking a consulting job for a year in Washington, DC, planning military installations in other countries, he spent his off hours studying all he could about Internet marketing. That landed him a job managing Lowe’s Home Improvement’s $25 million search marketing program.

"There is something inherently wrong with not trying."

Adcock admitted to the crowd that the military installation job was unrelated to his real career ambitions in digital marketing, “…but I knew that I could learn skills in this job, which were planning, process documentation, and how to take an idea from beginning to end. I didn’t know a lot (about what he was doing in the consulting role), so I had to figure out who I needed to talk to, how to get it done, and map the whole thing from beginning to end. Those skills are very much helping me now, so sometimes you end up in a job that is not the right fit for you long term, but ultimately you can and will learn things from it. It is important to remember that regardless of what job you are in.”

The young entrepreneur disclosed that “…at night I was working on all of these websites. I wasn’t making much money, but I was getting better and better…After a couple of years I realized that I needed to focus on what I really wanted to do, which was Internet marketing. Entrepreneurship never really crossed my mind. I wanted to go back to North Carolina after living in DC. I interviewed for a job at Lowe’s Home Improvement and they gave me this job managing a $25 million (budget in search marketing).

"You need to be your biggest advocate."

“I was 22-, 23-years old,” he smiled, “and constantly meeting with senior executives — and I thought I knew way more than I did. I thought, ‘I am so smart, I am going to go into these meetings and tell them things they don’t know.’  Looking back on it, I was probably one of the best — and worst — employees. I was constantly speaking out of turn, telling people they were wrong, but at the end of the day, now Lowe’s spends over $100 million in search and I am happy to know that I helped to grow that program.

“I learned a lot there,” continued Adcock. “How to manage people. How to know when you don’t know. How to speak up when you know something. Being the loudest person in the room is not always the best thing.”

Adcock recalled that in 2008 he decided to leave Lowe’s and start his own marketing firm. “I had been doing some things with credit cards and was making a good side living that equalled my salary (at Lowe’s) on a monthly basis.

“The first month after I left Lowe’s,” he admitted, “I got a ‘cease and desist’ letter from American Express because they didn’t like how I was promoting their credit cards. So my income went from about $8,000 a month to zero, overnight.”

"Without risk there is really not much reward."

The 2006 graduate from App State reported that he hooked up with a friend who had a (nutritional) supplement business and signed on to help him grow that business. “I got a flat fee for every new customer that they got and I was spending my own money in advertising dollars to generate those customers for them. The first couple of weeks I was losing money. My ads weren’t profitable. They were getting customers, but I wasn’t able to make money on it. I remember that I had our first profitable day on Homecoming, 2009.  We had a function at Sledgehammer Charlie’s in Blowing Rock and I texted my parents and said, ‘Hey, I made $10 today.’  They said, ‘You need to do better than that.’

“When I left Lowe’s,” Adcock recalled, “my parents said, ‘We support you, but we’re not going to finance you. If you are going to start your own business, then you need to do it.'”

He said a couple of weeks later he called his parents to report that he had made a thousand dollars that day and called them back the next day to say that he had made a thousand dollars again. “I didn’t call them anymore after that (with those kinds of reports).”

You will always need help and advice from others.

Adcock reported that in the first nine months his fledgling company did $3 million in revenue. “It grew quickly because I had access to changes in online trends. I went from someone making a little bit of money to having a real business, even though I was my only employee.

“I had a friend who was doing the same thing as me, except he was way better,” Adcock said. “He dropped out of school to work with me in Charlotte and we had another friend in Boston. Together we started Direct Digital with the idea that we were just one piece in the ecosystem that was the supplement business. We were driving customers to somebody else, but after we drove those customers, we didn’t have control of the quality of the product, the distribution, or making sure they bought again. We knew that the (supplement company) couldn’t really grow without us, but that we could get way bigger if we (also) did what they did.”

Well, Direct Digital did get bigger — way bigger — and it didn’t take very long. Adcock’s timeline after graduation:

2005 — attended Entrepreneur Summit and sat in on SEO session
2006 — graduated from Appalachian State University
2006 — Washington DC consulting job in planning military installations in other countries
2007 — got job at Lowe’s Home Improvement in Charlotte, managing $25 million search marketing program
2008 — started own advertising firm, generating $3 million in revenue in first 9 months
2009 — started Direct Digital LLC, partnering with two friends. Over $20 million in sales in first year
2014 — expanded business to internationally and achieved category leadership in Walgreens stores. SPENT $27 million in advertising
2015 — continued growth in 5 of largest U.S. retailers, but 60% of business is online. Now over 30 employees. Over $120 million in cumulative ad spend

In his powerpoint presentation for the benefit of the Summit audience broadcast over three large dropdown screens simultaneously, Adcock offered some important texture to the hows and whys of scaling with digital media — “What made us successful,” he said:

Increased Inventory — Online ad inventory is exploding every year when other media is slowing or shrinking
No Absolute Truths — Advertising is not an absolute science; it’s just a jigsaw puzzle that is iterative. Most things are never immediately successful
Access to Data — No other media source allows for as much data gathering as online advertising
Easy Access to Media — Never in the history of advertising has media been so easy to access. Very low barrier to entry.
We Had An Identity — We knew who we were and we stuck to our identity. We didn’t try to be things that we were not.
Consumer Profiling — Using the data gathered to create and implement consumer profiles. “Know who buys your product and how and when to target them.”
Willingness to Fail — We were willing to try anything, knowing we would fail many times along the way. “Facebook’s motto was ‘move fast and break things.'”
Everything is Iterative — We understood that everything is a work in progress and it will go through many iterations. Constant improvement.
Immediate Feedback — No other media source allows for near immediate feedback to an advertisement, product or offer.

For Adcock and his online marketing firm, being data driven is a must to achieve scale. “Numbers don’t lie,” he noted.

Choose Analytics — All online marketers need an analytics platform. Google Analytics is free.
Track All Ads — Every advertisement should be tracked at the most granular level: keyword, site, version of ad, etc.
Test Your Website — Test all aspects of your website: button placement, colors, fonts, images, headlines. “Everything makes a difference.”
Store Consumer Information — “You need to gather and store as much information about your consumer as you can. You never know when you will need it.”
Analyze Intersections — “You must analyze the intersections between ads and the consumer: what causes someone to be valuable vs. someone who isn’t.”
Make Changes — “Just having the data isn’t good enough. You need to make decisions and changes based on the data.”
Start Over — “Whenever you think you are done, start over. There is always a way to improve everything.”

For an “accidental entrepreneur,” Mr. Adcock has some sound principles to live by as he closed his presentation:

You Must Try — It is impossible to succeed without trying. There is nothing wrong with trying and not succeeding, but there is something wrong with not trying.
Don’t Be Afraid to Fail — Everyone will fail at many things over the course of their career. Once you recognize that you will fail sometimes or even often, it isn’t scary anymore.
Take Risks — It is important to take risks. Without risk there really isn’t much reward. It is important to take appropriate risks, but everyone’s threshold is different.
Listen To Others — It is important to acknowledge that you don’t know everything. You will always need help and advice from others.
Believe in Yourself — If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will. You  need to be your biggest advocate. You have to believe in your core that you are capable and can accomplish your dreams.
Never Stop Learning — Every day is a new day and no one knows everything about everything.

In addition to the keynote address by Mr. Adcock, the 2015 Entrepreneur Summit, which was hosted by the Walker College of Business and its Transportation Insight Center for Entrepreneurship, featured focus and breakout sessions, as well as a luncheon address.

The luncheon keynote speaker was Mr. Donald Thompson, Jr., with a presentation titled, “Break Down Barriers and Reach New Heights in Business.”  Thompson was introduced as an author, advisor and serial entrepreneur.  He served as CEO of i-Cubed, a leader in Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) software and consulting and supply chain analytics. He grew the organization from 16 to 130 employees until it was acquired in 2014 by global technology enterprise, KPIT. Governor Pat McCrory recently appointed Mr. Thompson to the North Carolina Board of Science, Technology and Innovation.

Focus Sessions included:

“Tales from Inside the Shark Tank” presented by Kate Steadman, Founder of Frill Clothing and a winner on ABC television’s “Shark Tank.”
“You’ve Got a Great Idea, What’s Next?” presented by Louis Foreman, CEO of Edison Nation
“How to Think Like Angel Investors” presented by Tim Janke, Director, Inception Micro Angel Fund

Breakout Sessions included:

Turning Your Passion Into Profits, with Chris Grasinger, co-founder, Center 45, re: the challenges involved in opening a new business in Boone and his plans to grow the venture over time.

Building a Business for Good, with Sean Spiegelman, CEO, Appalachian Mountain Brewery, re: insights on running a business sustainably, equitably, profitably, while still creating a fun place to work

From Dorm to Downtown, with David Holloman, Founder and CEO, Appalachia Cookie Co., re: the company’s organic growth, marketing techniques, and business development with limited startup cash

The Legal Aspect of Entrepreneurship, with Tyler Moffatt, Attorney, Moffatt & Moffatt, re: legal considerations for a startup business, including formation of LLCs, contracts, patents, trademarks, partnerships, operating agreements, and more

Creating Viral Digital Marketing Campaigns, with David Bentley, Founder and CEO of MobRocket, re: the secret to viral marketing campaigns that launch your business like a rocket

The Key to Crowdfunding, with Kimberly Daggerhart, freelance communications professional re: how to decide whether crowdfunding is right for a project, the preparation required, common mistakes, and tips on strategy for success

International Entrepreneurship, with Tyler Norwood, an App State alumnus who spent the past three years in Southeast Asia working for top investment firms and technology startups in Vietnam, re: building and leading high-performing teams that focus on the impact they are having on the world

Producing Products in China: the Pitfalls and Profits, with Dale Tweedy, Founder and Partner, Stonegate Developers, re: the process of leveraging the competitive advantages from other countries for manufacturing and labor, how to locate and evaluate a potential factory overseas

Doing Well While Doing Good, with Bradley Rhyne, Vice President, Bank of America, Charlotte, and co-founder of Ole Mason Jar, re: social entrepreneurship, vision and motivation

Leveraging Digital Technologies in Website Design, with Boomer Sassman, Founder, Big Boom Design, re: taking the mystery out of website design, development and optimization