Recently, I was invited to speak to a group of Maryland businesses. I was asked to tell them how Blue Corona started, talk about our journey to the Inc. 500, and offer a word or two of advice—things learned along the way. The speech is set to be short, so I thought I’d write up a blog post to serve as a supplement for people that would like to learn more.
About Blue Corona
Blue Corona helps businesses accurately track their advertising and marketing*. We also use strategies like content marketing, search engine optimization (SEO), pay per click (PPC) advertising, and others to help our clients get more leads and sales from the web. So we’re an inbound marketing company helping our clients get more leads and sales from the web, and we help them track and quantify everything.
*As far as I know, we were the first company to build a system specifically designed for small and medium-sized companies.
Where the Idea for Blue Corona Came From
Business ideas and concepts emerge in all sorts of interesting ways and Blue Corona is no exception. In 2004, I was working as the regional sales manager for a specialty ad agency. We sold sponsorship packages custom-tailored around amateur athletic events such as Muddy Buddy, Ironman, Army 10-Miler, etc. Our clients included international brands such as Cannondale to mom-and-pop local sports retailers.
One of the people in my database was Phil Coupe, the VP of DrinkMore Water. DrinkMore Water offers water delivery service to homes and offices throughout the Baltimore-Washington area. They also do custom-labeled water for businesses, health clubs, caterers, and many others as well as office coffee service. I called on Phil to see if I could convince him to get DrinkMore Water to sponsor some local amateur athletic events with more than just free water. While I was never able to convince Phil (actually, I think I convinced Phil, but he couldn’t convince Bob and John—the real decision-makers), we remained friends and kept in contact.
One day out of the blue, Phil called me and told me that he was moving back to Maine, and that he wanted me to come in and meet with Bob. I had no intention of leaving the agency, but I had heard a lot about Bob through friends and family. In some circles, Bob is something of a business legend in the MD/DC/VA region. Here’s a great article about him written by Tom Heath in The Washington Post (follow Tom on Twitter @addedvalueth).
So I met with Bob and during our meeting, several themes emerged. First, I wanted to start my own company and Bob wanted to expand his business portfolio (which at the time included two companies—DrinkMore Water, which he ran, and DrinkMore Custom Water, run by his college friend). Second, Bob wanted to build a system to accurately track all his advertising strategies. Lastly, Bob wanted to take DrinkMore Water “all in” with online marketing.
Flash forward four and a half years. Bob and I had built a system to accurately track all of DrinkMore Water’s advertising and marketing—including all of the company’s websites (yes, unlike most small businesses, DrinkMore Water didn’t have one website, it had multiple websites). Although at the time, we were both in the bottled water business, we found ourselves constantly engaging with other business owners about marketing. We couldn’t stop talking about the data derived from the system we had created.
We were making decisions about our advertising and marketing strategies using information that other businesses weren’t even aware existed!
I had always wanted to start my own business, but until that moment I never had the right idea. I can still remember the day I walked into Bob’s office and said, “Let’s do this. Let’s create another company and do for other small businesses what we’ve done for DrinkMore—track all their advertising—show them what’s working and what’s not—and take them ‘all in’ with online marketing.” In this instant, Blue Corona was born.
2008–Present: A Story of Fast Growth
Blue Corona signed its first customer on July 12, 2007 (on my 31st birthday), but the company did not official launch until January 2008. Between 2008 and 2011, we focused on building the business and continually finding ways to better serve our clients. In July 2012, we found out that we made the 2011 Inc. 500 list—ranking number 174 in our first year of eligibility! In just a few short years, we’ve helped over 100 companies accurately track their advertising and measurably increase the number of leads and sales they get from the web. The number of leads we’ve generated exceeds one million and the number of leads we track/record is even higher—both numbers continue to climb with each passing day.
Our passion is building and growing companies and each day spent doing this feels like a gift.
Lessons Learned Along the Way
Better Data Equals Better Results
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in starting Blue Corona is that better data equals better results. When we started accurately tracking DrinkMore Water’s advertising and marketing, it exposed us to metrics our competitors didn’t even know existed. We were using these numbers to make decisions our competitors couldn’t comprehend. We heard some of them call us crazy. They called us stupid. Some said we’d be out of business in a year. Guess what? Most of them are out of business and DrinkMore Water is in a better place than ever before. The same exact opportunity exists for you and your business.
Let me give you an example. What percentage of your website visitors convert into leads? Most business owners have no idea. Worse—some think they know, but they’re wrong. Most of your competitors do not know this number and because they don’t know it, they’re making asinine decisions about their advertising and marketing. By investing—just a small amount—in better analytics tools and services, you can accurately track this number and use it to find leverage points your competitors will never see. What we do at Blue Corona—and what we’re recommending you do—is exactly like what the Oakland A’s do in the movie “Moneyball.”
Your gut intuition isn’t nearly as good as you think it is. Invest in better data, understand it, and you’ll get exponentially better results.
At Infinity, the Answer is Easy
Another great lesson I’ve learned starting Blue Corona is to stop thinking about things in incremental terms. The water is awful muddy when you think small. At infinity, the answer to most questions is clear. I meet with small business owners all the time and listen to them rattle off how their marketing budgets are allocated—$500 to this, $1,000 to that, $750 to this. If you want to figure out which marketing strategy to TEST to grow your business, stop putting things in little buckets and start thinking about things like this: If you had $1 million to invest in ONE marketing strategy to grow your business, what would you do?
When we started Blue Corona, we tested pay per click (PPC) advertising. I allocated a budget of $1,500 per month. After all, we didn’t have much money. Well, in the online marketing space, the clicks cost anywhere from $15 to $25, so $1,500 doesn’t go so far. One day, while talking to Bob, he suggested upping the stakes and raising the PPC budget to $10,000 for a month. He explained that $1,500 isn’t a test. You have to do something to really make the needle move. Figure out—is PPC worth it or not? Can you use this strategy to grow your business or is it a waste? Spending $1,500 per month is like a slow bleed. You’ll need a $7,500 per month analyst just to try to figure out whether it’s worth it or not. Spend $10,000 in a month and it’ll be easy to see whether it was worth it or not.
At the extremes, the answers become very clear.