Fayette entrepreneur finds fast lane on Web


SECRETS OF SUCCESS

ENTREPRENEURS SHARE WHAT THEY’VE LEARNED

INSPIRING PERSPECTIVES

Each Sunday, the AJC brings you insights from metro Atlanta’s leaders and entrepreneurs. Matt Kempner’s “Secrets of Success” shares the vision and realities of entrepreneurs who started their dreams from scratch. The column alternates with Henry Unger’s “5 Questions for the Boss,” which reveals the lessons learned by CEOs of the area’s major companies and organizations.

Find previous columns from Unger and Kempner on our premium website for subscribers at www.myajc.com/business.

Powell’s tips:

— Anyone can find eight weeks and test an idea.

— If you are not someone who naturally wants to get in front of the customers, then you have to set yourself a goal of getting in front of customers.

— Be careful about having a lot of business concentrated in one big customer. That’s a scary place to be.

— Fight distractions. He blocks his access to distracting sites (CNN, Facebook, etc.) during work hours.

CallRail and i85media

Based in Atlanta’s Midtown.

Andy Powell, founder of i85media and chief executive and co-founder of CallRail.

History: He started i85media’s first site, BimmerShops.com, in 2005 and started working on it full time in 2009. CallRail launched in 2011.

Annual revenue: CallRail had $3.2 million in 2014, up from $1.2 million the year before; i85media generated $1.1 million last year, up about $140,000 from the year before.

Business: CallRail has thousands of businesses using its system to track which online pages prompted calls from customers. CallRail creates unique track-able phone numbers for businesses. The businesses can get data on what potential customers were looking at on the business’ online site before they called the numbers. I85media has online directories of mechanic shops that specialize in certain European autos.

How much Powell works a week: About 70 hours when he launched BimmerShops. Now, about 55 hours.

Staff: 20 between to the two businesses, including Powell and his wife, who now leads i85media.

Ownership: Powell owns all of i85media and is 50/50 partners with Kevin Mann on CallRail.

“Before I got engaged the one warning I had for Allison was: ‘At some point in my career I will leave my job, and I will start a business. And I can’t promise it is going to go well.’ “

“As we were developing these plans, my wife got pregnant with our first daughter. We said, let’s still do the business. We knew it looked reckless.”

“I didn’t have a learners permit yet, and we were making like $3,000 a month. It still runs to this day. Just ridiculous.”

“The fear that came out of all this success was that that was going to be the pinnacle of my career. That from there it was going to be downhill and unremarkable.”

Andy Powell launched a successful little business when he was 14. And for much of his life he worried he’d never be able to top it.

As an adult he wanted to launch a real business. But life got busy. He and his wife were expecting a baby. At such a time, could he quit his day job for a dream?

Yup. Powell, now 30 and living in Fayetteville, founded two new businesses. His wife runs one: i85media, which includes BimmerShops and other online directories of European auto repair shops. He heads the other: Midtown-based CallRail, which helps thousands of businesses track which advertising drives customer calls. Combined the companies generated more than $4 million in sales last year.

Growing up I knew I wanted to run a business. My dad worked for IBM in different sales roles. My dad also ran a franchise business. They cleaned commercial restrooms. That was not a glamorous business, but it was a good business. When he started he had no customers.

In high school I started a website with a friend. It was called DumbLaws.com. It showcases ridiculous laws in the United States and around the world, past and present. We spent a lot of time digging through municipal codes (online). You could put ads on websites and make money. I didn’t have a learners permit yet, and we were making like $3,000 a month. It still runs to this day. Just ridiculous.

The site snagged the attention of a producer on the Montel Williams show, who put Powell and his partner on the air. Then came a call from book publisher, Simon & Schuster, which signed them to a book deal ($6,000 advance for each of the boys). That led to other TV gigs, including the Today show. His share of the earnings has totaled about $500,000 over 16 years.

The fear that came out of all this success was that that was going to be the pinnacle of my career. That from there it was going to be downhill and unremarkable. I felt a lot of pressure from that.

I graduated college in December (of 2005) and over the Christmas break I decided to take on a project to brush up on software development (for a job he was about to start). So I developed BimmerShops.com on that break. I had an older BMW at the time. A 1988 M5. That vintage of the M5 is famously temperamental. It needs love and money constantly. Nobody had gone out and built this directory of independent BMW specialists. So I decided to build that.

He went on to work for others, running the BimmerShops site (with free listings) on the side and still pulling in money from DumbLaws.com.

BimmerShops had kind of taken on a life of its own. A shop owner called me and said, “Is there a way I can get to the top of your listings?”

I ended up selling to him and one of his friends the first featured listings on that web site. That ended up being the genesis of the website as a business. A customer would pay me $50 or $100 a month for these featured listings. I sold quite a few of them.

Before I got engaged the one warning I had for Allison was: “At some point in my career I will leave my job, and I will start a business. And I can’t promise it is going to go well. But I have to do it, otherwise there will be this hole of wondering what if.” She was with it, no hesitation.

I was getting to the point where I wanted to leave my job (as a product and marketing manager for an ecommerce company) and go full time into a business. My wife had a great job. She was a civil engineer. We made the decision when we have saved up enough money and have traction in the business, I can leave. We were very careful about not taking on monthly expense. We made sure the cars were paid off. We bought a lot less house than we could have.

That was the leap. There was this sense it was never going to get any easier to do it.

As we were developing these plans, my wife got pregnant with our first daughter. We said, let’s still do the business. We knew it looked reckless. She was four or five months pregnant when I quit (my job).

That was motivating. Five months later the business had grown enough that we were comfortable with her not returning to work.

I sold the featured listings myself. Then I gave a list of shops to Allison. She made five phone calls and she sold three listings. In an hour we were making $200 bucks a month that we weren’t making that morning. We hired a sales representative to start doing this all day and every day.

The business grew and always made a profit, but he fretted because most of BimmerShops’ traffic came from people doing searches on Google.

That’s a stream of traffic that I don’t control at all. It could turn off one day. That’s true of a lot of companies on the Internet. It’s kind of a scary thing.

That is what led me to going into CallRail. I wanted more diversity in income. Plus all these advertisers (on BimmerShops) need to see if we are sending them customers.

I got together with Kevin Mann, who is my partner in CallRail. We knew each other in college. He is a much more talented software developer than I am. I said, “I want to do this telephone call tracking software so we can show businesses which ads are bringing them phone calls.”

I said, “Let’s try to build the software and market it and sell it to customers all in eight weeks. Then it’s a business. If we try for eight weeks, and we fail then we will keep doing what we were doing.”

We both had other businesses we were running. This (project) was a 20-hour-a-week thing.

I wanted us to create the smallest possible product that we thought would be useful to people. Set a small goal that was easily measurable and would happen or not happen. It is very easy for software guys to develop software continuously and not ever actually try to bring it to market. Developing software is comfortable and fun for us. And putting ourselves out there and selling isn’t as natural. Today we have the luxury to surround ourselves with people who do love that (selling).

Powell never got comfortable making sales calls.

I’m nervous every time. If you aren’t wired for it, you go through that. I had incredibly small goals. Like don’t get out of the seat until you’ve talked to five people.

His wife eased into the business three years ago and eventually took over leadership of i85media and BimmerShops.

We are trying to figure out how do we keep ourselves from being all work all the time. With family you are in a time that you never get back.

I feel confident I can start a business and can create my own income if I need to do it again. (My thinking has) shifted to how can I make a good thing for other people. Everything I imagined it would do for me it did, in terms of finances and freedom. Now it is about the team. Not in an altruistic way. It’s still capitalism. By having happy people who love what they are doing I think you ultimately do better work.

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