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Interview With Ryan Allis – Founder of iContact

By:     Topics: Entrepreneur Interviews

Ryan Allis Interview

Ryan is the founder and CEO of iContact, email marketing and surveying software. Ryan’s entrepreneur career started at just 11 years old when he offered a computer service for $5 a hour, now 24 he expects his business to turn over $25 million this year! I got the pleasure of meeting Ryan last month in Washington at a Internet Marketing seminar and he was a very talented young man with lots to share so make sure to read this interview guys!

First off – can we have a little background information on you Ryan – Where you live? How old you are? (if you don’t mind answering) What motivates you? What inspires you?

As for my personal background, I’m originally from Pennsylvania but grew up in Bradenton, Florida. When I was 18, I came to Chapel Hill to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and majored in economics. Right now, I’m 24, and still live in Chapel Hill. I currently work full-time as the CEO for iContact in Durham, NC, which I co-founded in 2003 with my friend and business partner Aaron Houghton. I’m also very passionate about giving back to my community, and currently serve on the board of several humanitarian organizations. What keeps me inspired is the fact that I’ve played a big role in creating 150 jobs. I get so much energy from being around our team. Being an entrepreneur is truly my passion. I love it, but the experience is what I can only imagine raising a real child would be like. What one has to sacrifice, to give, to devote to the effort is immense.

1) What gave you the idea to start iContact ?

When I was 11, I started helping senior citizens in Florida learn computer skills for like $5 per session one summer. I kept building my client base for a few summers and by 8th grade, I had made over $400. I learned basic HTML and web site development, which would prove to be very useful down the road.

Right before my junior year of high school, I had this amazing experience traveling around Spain and Mexico. While I was in Mexico City, I came up with this idea for my first company, a web development firm that I named Virante. I had officially become an entrepreneur. When I was 18, I made the decision to go to UNC, and that’s where I met Aaron Houghton. He ran a company called Preation who had developed the initial technology for iContact. I saw the many advantages it had to other products we were using to do email marketing for our clients. We decided then to create a company around the product.

2) You have managed to build a company to $1 Million in sales by 21, now 24 you expect to do over $25 million in sales this year from your web business iContact, what advice would you give a entrepreneur trying to earn money from their website?

I want to sincerely emphasize that when you are becoming an entrepreneur and are about to start a company, anything is possible. You never know how far it’s going to go until you give it your maximum effort. It can sometimes take up to fiveyears to successfully start a business, so make sure you’ve got the passion and the drive to see your idea through to the end.

If you create a company without any initial monetary investment or financial backing, then you are doing something called bootstrapping. In this situation, you can expect to work 70+ hour weeks for a year or more without a salary. You also need to be very creative and learn how to improvise to extend what little cash you may have at the very beginning.

When Aaron and I were starting iContact , he told me that I should be ready to be the “Chief Executive Officer, Chief Executive Painter, and Chief Executive Janitor.” My first official office headquarters was on the 6th floor of my dorm at UNC. For a long time when iContact first began, we lived off of Ramen Noodles, and went dumpster-diving to find $50 rebates for office supplies. It’s very important to have a “whatever it takes” attitude when it comes to your company’s finances, especially if you are not initially backed by venture capital.

3) I understand that at 16 years old you set a goal to achieve $1 Million in sales by 21, What advice would you give a young entrepreneur trying to set and achieve goals young?

I believe what makes a successful entrepreneur is having a bias towards action and having strong work ethic. Having a bias toward action and taking the initiative means that a person will never become idle due to indecision. If they see a problem, they will be proactive and figure out a way to solve it, and are always looking for ways to improve the company. Having a good work ethic means that a person is able to see any issues that arise through until a solution is reached. These people will often have to multi-task and work on several different projects at once, and being able to focus to complete the tasks at hand illustrate strong work ethic.

I would absolutely encourage young entrepreneurs to type up their goals in a 1 year, 3 year, 10 year, and lifetime format, print them out, and then hang them in your office or bedroom so you see them a couple times per week. Then update them annually. This process has been extremely helpful to me.

4) You Raised $5.3 Million in Venture Capital at Age 22, how in the world did you manage to raise that capital? What advice would you give other entrepreneurs trying to raise capital for their startup.

Aaron and I managed to raise capital from having persistence and finding the right people who would take us seriously. If you have patience and examine all options of funding (whether that be angel investment, venture capital, etc.) you will find the right resources to match your business aspirations.

The advice I would give if you presently do not have the financial resources, a great piece of technology, or a good business idea, intern or get a job at a company in an industry you are interested in to start building your network or partner with someone who does have those resources.

The best advice I can give to someone trying to raise capital is to build relationships 6 to 9 months before you need them and to never send in an unreferred plan, especially via email. Rather get introduced via an entrepreneur, accountant, or attorney who has worked with the investor before and has their trust.

5) Do you think that entrepreneurialism is something that is in your blood? Or is it something that can be learned?

I believe that becoming an entrepreneur is something that involves constant education. When I started iContact, my business partner and I faced large obstacles such as financial burdens of launching a company and finding people that took our idea seriously. As an entrepreneur, it would be hard to say that working through these barriers, haven’t made me who I am today.

6) Is there anyone that you look up to and model yourself on?

Yes—a number of people:

SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR/ACTIVIST ROLE MODELS
Mahatma Gandhi (The non-violent revolutionary)
Mother Theresa (The lady who cared for the sick and poor)
Martin Luther King, Jr. (The Man with a Dream)
Susan B. Anthony (Civil rights and suffrage leader)
Paul Farmer (Doctor for the Poor, Mountains Beyond Mountains)
Mohammed Yunus (Banker to the Poor)
Dennis Whittle (Founder of Global Giving)
Bill Drayton (Founder of Ashoka)
Matt Flannery (Founder of Kiva)
Jessica Jackley Flannery (Founder of Kiva)
Dan West (Founder of Heifer International)
Bernard Kouchner (Co-Founder of Doctors Without Borders)
Kerry Kennedy (Human rights activist)
Sergio Vieira de Mello (UN human rights commissioner)
Laura Arrillaga (Venture philanthropist)
Samantha Power (Human rights activist)

BUSINESS ROLE MODELS
Bill Gates (the innovator and hard-line businessman)
Jeffrey Skoll (the eBay founder and social entrepreneur innovator)
Marc Benioff (the SaaS phenomenom-maker)
Marc Andreessen (keeps hitting home runs)
Steve Jobs (he comeback kid)
Larry Page (the technologist and business innovator)
Sergey Brin (the dynamic duo part deux)
Richard Branson (loses his virginity every day)
Thomas Edison (succeeded by failing 3,635 times)
Andrew Carnegie (the library funder)
John D. Rockefeller (the competitor)
John D. MacArthur (the PBS funder)
Sam Walton (the great retailer, scaler, and SIFE founder)
Henry Ford (his ability to scale, not him per say)
Larry Ellison (his ability to sell, not him per se)
Tom Perkins (his ability to put together venture deals, not him per se)

INVESTOR ROLE MODELS
Jim Simons (the physicist billionaire hedge fund manager)
J.P. Morgan (the financial system saver)
Steve Jurvetson (the VC gadget-lover)
Warren Buffett (the smartest fundamentalist around)
Charlie Munger (Buffett’s partner)

ECONOMIST ROLE MODELS
Jeffrey Sachs (End of Poverty, Common Wealth)
Hernando De Soto (The Mystery of Capital)
George Soros (Open Society)
Milton Friedman (Capitalism and Freedom)
John Maynard Keynes (The General Theory)

JOURNALIST/AUTHOR ROLE MODELS
Tom Friedman (Lexus and The Olive Tree)
John Perkins (Economic Hitman)
Robert Kiyosaki (Rich Dad Poor Dad)
Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich)
Jim Collins (Good to Great)

POLITICAL ROLE MODELS
Abraham Lincoln (The Uniter)
Benjamin Franklin (The Inventor)
John F. Kennedy (The Dreamer)
Benazir Bhutto (The Fighter)
John McCain (The Fighter)
Barack Obama (The Changer & Inspirer)
Al Gore (The Authentic)
Bill Clinton (The World Changer)
Jimmy Carter (The Carer)
Hillary Rodham Clinton (The Courageous)
Nancy Pelosi (The Caretaker)
Mario Cuomo (The Speaker)

…And anyone who worked or is currently working to increase human prosperity, ensure an economically prosperous and sustainable world, and reduce human suffering, poverty, disease, warfare, and genocide.

7) Do you have any favorite business related or entrepreneur related books that you can recommend to other entrepreneurs?

To the aspiring entrepreneur, I would recommend these 5 books without hesitation:

1. Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki

2. Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill

3. The Lexus and the Olive Tree by Thomas L. Friedman

4. The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs

5. Zero-to-IPO by David Smith

8) What is the best advice you have ever been given?

Have a sense of urgency. Take action today. Write down your goals and frame them. Play for the long term.

9) What advice would you give to a Young Entrepreneur setting up their first business?

As an aspiring entrepreneur, your success will depend on your work ethic, initiative and a strong desire to push your business to the next level. Here are the top 5 tips that I think will help you reach your goal:

Becoming a successful entrepreneur is not easy. You must have persistence, dedication, tenacity, and the ability to deal with adversity.

You will not be able to do everything at once. Take a long-run approach. Play life like a long-term game.
Take a proactive role in planning, goal setting, and personal evaluation.
If and when you succeed, give back to your community as an enlightened entrepreneur. We have unprecedented wealth and opportunity in this time and age, and I believe that with our combined entrepreneurial talent and resources, we can help repair our broken world.

10) Have you any plans (personal or business) that you can share with us about your future plans / goals / lifetime goals?

For the foreseeable future, I plan on staying at iContact as the full-time CEO and see where our growth can take us. We are growing at a tremendous rate: we just eclipsed 40,000 customers, and now have a team of more than 150 outstanding employees. I am proud to say that we are a leader in our industry in terms of what we offer to our customers, and in what we give back to our community. iContact donates 1 percent of our quarterly payroll to local and national non-profit organizations. Even though we are a business who wants to succeed at what we do, it is very important that we are socially responsible for the sake of our community and our world.

I believe I should take it upon myself to lead other CEOs and entrepreneurs in the direction of being responsible corporate citizens by giving back to their communities. We have the entrepreneurial talent and resources to end extreme poverty and ensure universal access to education, healthcare, and other basic necessities. I believe this generation of enlightened entrepreneurs can have a dramatic affect on these issues and help build a stronger, safer world in the process.

In the future, I hope to work as an entrepreneur, social entrepreneur, writer, investor, and public servant.

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