Prodigy: Ryan Allis

Ryan Allis started his first business venture at age 11 — helping others use and communicate on the Internet. He hasn’t stopped working since.

Allis started designing websites at age 14. As a high school senior, Allis got a marketing job with ActiveX America, a provider of arthritis pain relief products, and learned many valuable business lessons, including the power of online marketing. During his time with AcitveX America, the company grew from $1,000 in sales per month to $200,000 per month, putting Allis in charge of a sizable marketing budget, managing a brand, meeting with banks and managing accounting and payroll, all while he was 17.

Allis entered UNC-Chapel Hill as a freshman in the fall of 2002. There he met Aaron Houghton, with whom he would eventually partner and co-found iContact, the Morrisville-based email marketing experts. IContact’s Web-based software allows small- and medium-sized businesses (which they define as 1 to 500 employees) to create, manage and deliver email marketing campaigns to their customers.

“We said opportunistically, ‘Let’s turn this into a business, and let’s create a tool that helps small businesses communicate easily at a low cost with their customers,’” said Allis. At the outset, Allis developed the marketing and sales for the company and Houghton, a computer programmer, developed the software. IContact was founded in 2003 and has since grown to 300 employees and more than $100 million in sales.

But the success was not instant. Acquiring startup capital proved to be challenging for the young founders. “When I was 18, 19, 20, we couldn’t raise any money,” said Allis. “We couldn’t get a loan from the bank without any assets, and we couldn’t get an investment from venture capitalists because we had no track record. We had to figure out how to create revenue without spending any money.”

They worked for free and slept on futons at the office, doing whatever it took to keep expenses low. By 2005 the company had reached $1.5 million in revenue, and with a proven record of growth received its first outside funding. ”It was definitely hard to get people to take me seriously initially,” said Allis, now 26. “But once we were able to grow the company and get revenue, it’s actually been an advantage being younger.”

In addition to helping small businesses connect with their customers, Allis wanted to create an engaging work environment where employees could feel challenged and have fun at the same time. IContact moved into its Morrisville location in October 2010, and the office features a slide between floors, Nintendo Wii, foosball and pingpong tables and employee-decorated workspaces. While these perks draw attention to the fun culture at iContact, Allis says it’s definitely not just about the slide. “It’s about being able to contribute to building a company where you can do well and do good at the same time.” Such as giving employees 2.5 paid workdays off per year for volunteering and allowing free use of iContact’s email marketing software for qualified non-profit organizations.

Allis has also written two books sharing his experiences of starting and growing a company. The first book, titled Zero to One Million, outlines how Allis built a company to $1 million in sales. His second book, scheduled for publication later this year, will follow his journey of growing a company with purpose and passion to $100 million in sales.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *