Embark on a journey of digital transformation with Alex Melen, one of the masterminds behind Smart Sites. In this episode, Alex sheds light on the art of building a powerful personal brand, the intricacies of nurturing a thriving business in the tech-centric marketplace, and his innovative strategies that are shaping the future of digital marketing.Listen in as he offers a blend of insightful experiences and groundbreaking ideas, making this episode a treasure trove for entrepreneurs and marketers eager to understand the future of digital marketing.
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About Alex Melen
Meet Alex Melen, the dynamic Co-CEO and CFO of SmartSites, an influential player in the digital media realm with a career spanning over a decade. Alex is the visionary founder of T35 Hosting, a pioneering free web hosting service from the late 1990s. His expertise expanded while leading digital analytics for Walmart at Starcom MediaVest Group.
Alex's entrepreneurial flair has earned him widespread recognition. He's been featured in prestigious publications like BusinessWeek and Forbes. Celebrated as one of America's top young entrepreneurs, Young Biz Magazine listed him as #19 in the U.S. His academic journey at Babson College, renowned for entrepreneurship, concluded with honors and the esteemed Babson Student Business Initiative Award.
Alex's story is one of innovation, foresight, and remarkable achievements, making him an exciting guest on "We Built This Brand," where he shares his insights into the evolution and success of digital enterprises.
Highlighted Timestamps from the Podcast
(00:00) Intro: Chris Hill introduces the episode of "We Built This Brand" featuring Alex Melen, founder of Smart Sites.
(01:10) The Birth of Smart Sites: Alex Melen describes the premier of Smart Sites and its early days, highlighting bringing digital solutions to small, medium sized business who don't have access.
(07:45) The Personal Branding Journey: Alex delves into the importance of personal branding and how it has played a pivotal role in his career and Smart Sites' success.
(9:20) Navigating Entrepreneurial Challenges: A light-hearted moment where Alex humorously recounts the unexpected challenges he faced in his entrepreneurial journey.
(13:50) Leveraging Tech Innovations: Insightful discussion on how Alex and Smart Sites have utilized technological advancements to stay ahead in the digital marketing industry.
(18:35) Building a Digital Empire: Alex discusses the strategies and decisions that were instrumental in scaling Smart Sites into a digital marketing powerhouse. Navigating the challenges and finding what’s right for your business.
(22:10) Future of Digital Marketing: Alex provides his thoughts on the future trends in digital marketing and how businesses need to adapt.
(34:00) Writing a book to streamline your thoughts: Alex discusses the impact and learning experiences from publishing his book.
(47:45) Closing Remarks: Chris and Alex wrap up the episode with final thoughts and where listeners can find more information about Smart Sites and Alex Melen.
🔗 Connect with Alex Melen:
Chris Hill: Welcome to We Build This Brand. I'm your host as always, Chris Hill. And on this episode, I'm talking with Smart Sites founder, Alex Melen. Alex is an award winning entrepreneur, a keynote speaker, and a best selling author. And today we're talking about his career journey, what inspired him to start Smart Sites along with his brother, and we also get into the challenging process of creating a personal brand that expands outside of your business.
Chris Hill: Now, I really enjoyed this conversation, and I think you will too. So, with that said, let's get
Chris Hill: into it.
Chris Hill: Welcome to We Build This Brand, I'm your host Chris Hill, and with me today is Alex Melen. Alex, thank you for joining me. Yep, thank you for having me. Yeah, it's great to have you today. We're here today to talk to you about the brands that you've built, your personal brand, as well as building smart sites and everything that that company has turned into.
Chris Hill: It's, it's a fascinating story and you've taken this business quite a way. So I would just love to dive into that and talk to you more about how all this got started and, And just kind of go from there. So, as we look at the business that you're in today, tell me a little bit more about what Smart Sites is.
Chris Hill: What is it today?
Alex: So, Smart Sites is a full service digital marketing company. So, what that means is we do almost everything digital. So, we make the websites SEO, pay per click, social media, everything that comes with establishing an online presence, typically for a business. And then market again, right?
Alex: Yeah, it's, it's certainly come a long way. I always, I always have to redo the math because it gets more and more years since we started, we started in 2011. So it's now, uh, geez, uh, 11 years started it with my younger brother, kind of bringing together a lot of different competencies and a lot of really smart people to really offer the best in class solution for small, medium sized businesses.
Alex: So my background before that, uh, was, uh, I had a couple other startups. I was involved in, uh, A lot of tech startups stuff in the 90s. So I have a lot of background coming from that, but right before smart sites, I was at Publicis for three years, managing digital for, uh, Samsung and then for Walmart. And I saw a lot of really, really cool things being done there.
Alex: And this is, I don't know, so started 11 years ago and three years before that. So rough, rough math there is 15 years ago. So I mean, digital is already really important, right? But not to the level it is now. Uh, but even then seeing the kind of, uh, solutions that were available to enterprise clients was really mind blowing to me.
Alex: There was a lot of really, really cool audience targeting and a lot of cool stuff being done that's more common now, but back then was really not. Um, and the idea with SmartSides, at least for me, was to bring those kind of solutions to small, medium sized businesses who didn't really have access to that and didn't really have the ability to hire companies like Publisys and such.
Alex: Um, so that's how we started. Um, we're now, we're now 400 employees. Um, we double in size every 18 months and starting. So, uh, 18 months ago we had 218 months, we'll have 800. So it's always. The challenge is not always, there's a lot of challenges, right, but the, the, the main challenge is, uh, to keep providing excellent services that are good for our clients, right?
Alex: We have, uh, one of the best, if not the best reputations in the agency space. If you search smart site reviews or something like that, we have almost all five star reviews, which as you can imagine, it's not easy to come by in any, in any industry. And then the challenge is to, to keep scaling, right, to be able to, uh.
Alex: Not only provide things as they are now, but to be able to provide it at a bigger scale and, uh, obviously keep all our employees happy and that, that's a big part of the scaling component too. To be able to, but by scaling, it's not just scaling. Oh, we want to make more money, right? A lot of times as we grow, we actually make less money.
Alex: But the big thing with scaling is that it creates opportunities for employees. So if you're, if you're a company with 400 employees or even four employees, right? And you say, I like where I am. I'm going to stay in this, in this spot. And let's, let's, let's say 10 employees, right? Those 10 employees will never have an opportunity to do anything new or to advance their career or anything, right?
Alex: It's, it's like those, uh, you have like law firms with like four or five partners, right? And the only way you become a partner is if one of the existing ones like pass away, right? It becomes like one of those situations where there's no advancement. So, uh, one of the big reasons to continue to grow and scale and all that is of course, uh, for our employees.
Alex: And we, just like we care about customers, we really care about employees because At the end of the day, uh, we're not Ford or GM. We don't produce anything, right? Our, our, uh, our product is, uh, the service our employees provide. So that's, uh, that's, that's the background of SmartSight. So we, we're hoping to continue, uh, what we've done in the last 11 years for at least another 11 years.
Chris Hill: that's, that is so cool. So you say you started it to give small, medium businesses access to. Technology services that they normally wouldn't have access to. Like what inspired you to go this route? I noticed in your background, as I was looking you up on LinkedIn and checking out your history, it looks like, um, you did, like you mentioned, you spent some time in the corporate world.
Chris Hill: Did that inspire you to go, Hey, other people should have this too? Was it an itch? I know. Um, let's even take a step back a little bit further and look at your. Um, talk about where you got started, um, cause you got started young, if, if I remember correctly. So I,
Alex: I started my first company, T35 Hosting, in 1997.
Alex: So that predates Google and almost any other tech startup that exists today, right? Um, that was the web hosting days. So the idea with T35 Hosting And it's a similar theme as smart sites as you'll notice, but the idea with T35 hosting was to be able to give people the ability to have a page on the internet instantly and free, which sounds like a [00:06:00] no brainer now, but in 95, 96, 97, it just wasn't the case, right?
Alex: If you wanted to have a website In the early, mid 90s, you would call up probably your internet service provider, I don't know, Bell Atlantic in the East Coast at the time, which now is kind of Verizon, but, call up one of the BabyBell, uh, legacy internet phone service providers, right? Tell them you want a website.
Alex: It'll probably cost you, I don't know, 50, 100 grand. They'll tell you they'll put something up on the internet in three to six months, right? That was the process, and it was very prohibitive. Um, that gave birth to not only the hosting industry, but the free hosting industry. So, for those who have been around, um, long enough, that was the time of, I don't know, GeoCities, Hypermark, Tripod, um, all those companies that don't exist anymore.
Alex: Yahoo! wound up buying GeoCities for a billion dollars, I think, right? And then Yahoo! itself was sold for a fraction of that. So, there, there's, there's a lot of, uh, it was, I don't know, it was, back then it was like the Wild, Wild West. There was a lot of, a lot of crazy things [00:07:00]happening. But yeah, that's where I started off and Uh, even then the idea was to be able to give, uh, people, businesses, everyone, uh, the ability to really be found online and to have a presence online.
Alex: And my idea at the time, at the very least, was, was so it could be done cheaply in, in For free, but originally for free and instantly. So that's, that's, that's where I've come from. Since then I've started a lot of companies, a lot of websites. I'm on the board for a lot of companies. I've, uh, helped oversee a lot of brands and companies being built.
Alex: So starting smart sites, it was both the corporate exposure to really enterprise grade solutions. Uh, but more so my continual really desire to, to have everyone be able to have a presence online or build, build a presence correctly, right? It's, and having built many of my own websites, many of my own businesses, it's not easy, right?
Alex: It's not easy. And usually if you think about small, medium sized businesses, uh, the ones that are successful are successful because they're really good at that one thing they do in their industry, right? Even if you go to like the one man shops, like the plumbers, roofers, whatever, the ones that are successful, how's that roofer so successful to get so much business?
Alex: So he's really good at roofs, right? Um, should that roofer be spending his nights, his or her nights? Uh, learning how to build websites and, and SEO and pay per click and both of those are like changing, uh, very quickly, right? No, the, the, the value add of a small medium sized business is to really focus on the service they provide that they're good at.
Alex: And it was always very strange and frustrating to me that there was really not a lot of Solutions for, uh, those kind of people to build a website, do marketing. You of course have like the GoDaddy website builders, the Wix, right. But I don't think anyone is gonna tell you that that's a good solution, especially for a, like, maybe one person business, right?
Alex: But if you're a growing business and have [00:09:00] aspirations to grow. Even on the SEO side, you're not going to get very far with a one page GoDaddy
Chris Hill: website builder. Yeah, I can, I can identify with that.
Alex: And there's, you know what, there's not a lot of companies that, certainly there, let me rephrase that, there are a lot of companies that existed that did that.
Alex: Uh, most of them did not do it well, uh, the industry is starting to consolidate a little bit now, but still there's no like one go to brand or solution for like a full digital service. There, there's some and there's, they're starting to become bigger players, but if you, if you go back, I don't know, 15 years or when we started 11 years ago.
Alex: Who would be making a website for small business? I don't know. Uh, most of the time it'd be like your friend's cousin's girlfriend, right? Like, oh, like, um, my, my son is in high school and his girlfriend's really good at making websites. So she's gonna do it. Um, or
Chris Hill: you've not I've been the friend's girlfriend's husband, whatever, by the way,
Alex: so Yes, which is, which is, uh, [00:10:00] doesn't mean necessarily it'd be a bad website, right?
Alex: But it's just not, not Enterprise Grid or whatever. It's
Chris Hill: not a different set of structures and things you have to build
Alex: out. And then by the way, I don't envy you being in that position because whoever builds a website is then responsible for the website. I don't know if you've been in those situations, but when you need something changed, when the website breaks, when the website gets hacked.
Alex: That's going to be still the same person, right?
Chris Hill: Yeah. Well, thankfully I've, I've managed to dodge that bullet and throw it off to somebody else or recommend somebody that I know. But yeah, I've definitely been, Hey, Chris can do this. No.
Alex: Right. And it's, um, and then it gets even worse. Usually that person who builds it, even if they do a good job, let's say they're a very skilled website developer, they'll build the website.
Alex: Is that website developer also going to be good at SEO, pay per click, social media and everything else in the marketing side? Absolutely not. I've yet to meet a person that has all those competencies because those competencies are so different, right? You're not going to be a very good programmer and a very good [00:11:00] graphic designer.
[Alex: Usually it's like different sides of the brain. Right, and
Chris Hill: quite often what I run into is the other side of the coin, which is you're asking one person to do this. If they disappear, if they find another job, if they Leave the state, whatever, like, you're stuck with whatever they built, and if it was custom programmed, you're stuck with all of that.
Chris Hill: There's nothing you
Alex: can do to fix it. Yeah, so we handle a lot of those. We handle a lot of those, and there's so many issues that come with it. A lot of times those people who build it, wind up buying the domain. You don't own your own domain, step one, that is terrible. Uh, number two, they wind up putting on their own web hosting that they own.
Alex: So now you don't have access to your website. And let's not even consider the malicious cases where there certainly is tons. But yes, that person disappears, I don't know, like gets run over by a bus. Now you don't have your own domain, you don't have your own website, right? And we've, we've had, I can't say Fortune 500 companies, but we've certainly had Fortune 5000 companies.
Alex: for listening, and we'll catch you in the next video. Uh, clients always own everything. Uh, we specifically tell funny clients are like, why don't you register domain, the domain? It's going to be, it'll be easier for me not to do it. We're like, absolutely not. Right. And not, not like it doesn't hurt us to do it.
Alex: Right. It's just that I don't want to own another business's property. Right. There's a lot of, uh, of these, uh, I guess, undertones in the internet space over the last 10, 15, 20 years that. We've been slowly trying to solve. Well, it's good to hear
Chris Hill: you do that. Cause like we have a similar philosophy in our business because we've seen exactly what you described happen where, where people just disappear.
Chris Hill: And all of a sudden it's like, well, how do I get access to this? And you don't want to be on the receiving end of those angry phone [00:13:00] calls. After the fact, you'd rather just have it to hand off and have it to make it easy on people to move on. So yeah, that's, that's really neat. So that, I mean, it sounds like you're solving a lot of problems for those small businesses that would otherwise have those issues and those challenges.
Chris Hill: So that's, that's great. Um, so. You, you get out of the corporate world, you come into starting Smart Sites. What was your first
Alex: customer? Uh, so we were very fortunate with Smart Sites. So when we started Smart Sites, my brother at the time, uh, well, my brother at the time forced me into it. I actually, uh, I switched a lot of.
Alex: Jobs between companies I founded, corporate jobs, professions. I worked, I don't know, I worked in, uh, investment banking. I worked as an actuary. I worked in corporate finance. I was, I was, I was trying everything out and, uh, my job at MediaVest, which is a division of Publicis. I really, really enjoyed and that was the only job I've ever stayed at.
Alex: I was there almost three years right before, right before starting Smart Sites. Uh, my younger brother at the time was, uh, kind of [00:14:00] convincing me to, to leave and start a company like Smart Sites. Uh, so at the time. He, he ran Backlink Build, which was one of the first SEO companies. So it was, it was the days of SEO where it was dominated by black hat SEO.
Alex: If, if you're familiar with that term, big companies would hire Backlink Build and my brother to get them to rank very well on Google. And, uh, if shit went down, they would say we have no idea what they were doing. That was the agency. And there was a lot of very big publicized cases like that. I, I forget which department store.
Alex: I think it was Macy's. But if you, if you look, if you look, or if you Google around later, I'm sure you could find it. But Macy's did something like that. And, uh, Google blacklisted them. Like, delisted them from, from Google. And they came out publicly and they were like, we, we didn't do it. It was this agency that did it.
Alex: And then the Google's like, Oh, okay. And put them back and still cost them millions of dollars. But that was, that was, uh, so when my, when my brother's running back and go, though, those were the, those were, uh, the [00:15:00] years of where Black Hat SEO was very prominent, it was, it was, uh, As Backlink Build says in the name, a lot of it was link building related, so there would be all these link farms.
Alex: If you were around using the websites and internet back then, those were the times where you would scroll to the bottom of the website and it would be like random text, the same color as the background, so you couldn't see the text. But Google would be like keyword stuffing into, into the footers of websites.
Alex: So it was, it was that kind of stuff. So he was doing very well with that in college and he was like, Oh, we got to start something as soon as possible because now is like the, now is the time. And I was like, I don't know. I really like it here at Pooplicist. And he was like, I'm going to, he was at Cornell.
Alex: He's like, I'm going to graduate Cornell a year early. And we're going to start it. I'm like, all right, if you're great. And this was like, he was already starting his, his, uh, his third year in Cornell. I'm like, if you're going to do two years in one and graduate a year early, I guess that's fine. So he wound up doing that.
Alex: And then we started, uh, we combined his backlink build [00:16:00] business with, with the hosting and a couple other things I was doing. And start at Smart Sites. We didn't even call it Smart Sites at the time. It was uh, it was Melon LLC. So we used our last name. We both have the same last name, so that was easy enough.
Alex: Um, he had a bunch of really, really smart kids from Cornell that came over with us and, and, That's, that's how we started it, but we were fortunate enough that we already kind of came with some customers from his backlink business. Um, I had some from my hosting business. Of course, it was the new company we created was providing a couple of different services, but we didn't have to like completely start from zero.
Alex: We were fortunate in that regard. And, uh, we had, we had the expertise to, to really be able to attract customers. So we were profitable since day one and always have been. So we're not, not all businesses are that fortunate, right? A lot of people have to take on, uh, investors, equity, all of that. So we were fortunate that regard, but we also, it took us a little while to really zero in on [00:17:00] our core competencies.
Alex: And I always. When I talk to, at conferences and at entrepreneurial events and to businesses, I always stress the importance of that. Um, what I mean by that is, so as As a newly formed Mellon LSE company, we were good at a lot of things. We could make websites, SEO, pay per click, everything in between, right?
Alex: The social media was just coming out that, that we were doing really, really cool things with, but we really didn't have a good grasp on our value add. So what do I mean by that? Uh, we made websites really cheaply. So we, uh, I don't know. Uh, I think we were, we made full, full custom made websites for a thousand bucks.
Alex: Uh, at the end of the day, and prices were a little bit different then, but it was, yeah, so at the day, we made almost nothing, right? Our profit margin was like 5 10%. Clients were not happy because it wasn't a good product. Because they were like, can you QA our entire website? No, we can't, we're already losing money on it.
Alex: The client's not happy, right? Um, we're not happy, we're not making money. Uh, [00:18:00] employees are very frustrated because they have a lot of extra work, and they're not being rewarded for it and all that. So, from that regard, it took us a little while to figure out. Uh, the exact products we want to offer and the price point and where it made sense for everyone.
Alex: And then we also kind of threw darts in a lot of different directions. We were really good at marketing. Uh, so we were like, why don't we start our own company to market, right? So we started, uh, um, e commerce brand and e commerce was just, I don't want to say coming out, but just becoming more prominent at the time.
Alex: We started a outdoor gear brand. And literally bought the domain outdoorgear. net and started running a e commerce store because we were good at marketing and we assumed we're, if we're good at marketing, right, like we're doing it for this other company and making them tons of money, why can't we do it for, right?
Alex: So we were like, they're going darts all over the place. Uh, and we actually did make money with, made revenue with it, but the amount of headaches that came with that. There was like all these things that I would never [00:19:00] think of. So we now had to deal with shipping items, right? Some would drop ships, some would not.
Alex: We had to store inventory. We had to deal with returns. We had to deal with customer complaints. So all of a sudden, like a marketing company where we have very skilled people at web development and marketing, they're taking customer service phone calls. This lady from like Atlanta was like, I bought an extra, extra large shirt, but it's not fitting me.
Alex: It's clearly, even though it says extra, extra large on the label, I swear it's not. I'm sending it back. Uh, we had another lady that bought, uh, gloves that claimed there was glass inside of the glove that cut her hand. So she's like, I want ten grand or I'm suing. So it's like this kind of like, I'm like, holy shit, we threw the dart in the wrong place.
Alex: So there, there are certainly a lot of, uh, a lot of things that we could do well, uh, but we have to really figure out our, our, our real value ad. Like our value ad was not handling customer service and shipping, even though we could do it. Right. That wasn't, that wasn't our core competency. So we kind of.
Alex: Trim things down. We were doing some social media stuff at the [00:20:00] time, which proved to be a little bit controversial. This is again, when social media stuff was just coming out, but we had a lot of clients who wanted to have more likes on Facebook and surprisingly, a lot of political clients. So we were selling likes, we were selling Facebook likes, which NN now, now sell negative, but if you search my name and Facebook likes, you'll, you'll see the the PR that came outta that.
Alex: Uh, so we kind of trimmed that back down. We stopped, we stopped doing that service altogether. We do social media now, but for a couple years we really trimmed down to our core, core basics and what is our val, where do we provide the most value? Do we provide the most value selling Facebook likes to politicians who wanna.
Alex: Make themselves seem more prominent than they are. No, that is not a core service that we wanted. We could do it, but it's not. Do we want to be a e commerce company selling our own outdoor gear products? We could do it. We could be successful at it, but no, that's, that's not what our core value add is. So it took us a little while to really trim it all down.
Alex: And then even things like, so yes, we could make your website, right? Is, [00:21:00] is our, is our, is our value really making you that website? And here's your website. We're done. Uh, it turned out to be, no, it turned out to be the, the, the best value we provide is when we become, uh, really, uh, digital partner to a small business.
Alex: So we will make you the website, we'll maintain and we'll do SEO with pay per click. You want a logo design, we'll design your logo. We really, our value add is being your digital partner and we could take care of anything on the digital side that you need us to take care of. Not just here, we made you a website, see you later, someone else has to maintain it.
Alex: So, but it took us a little bit to really get to that and. And, uh, polish it off and, and figure that out, and only after that do we start planning growing and everything else, right? So, uh, for, for entrepreneurs, I always, uh, give them this, that story because I, I think it's common and I think it's okay to throw a couple of darts in a couple of different directions because it's a very good learning opportunities.
Chris Hill: got to test the waters. I mean, we we've done that at Humble Pod and, [00:22:00]you know, tried different things that work. Live streaming during the pandemic was something we dipped our toes into and. May not have had the best results with because live streaming is one of the hardest things you
Alex: can do. That was interesting, by the way.
Alex: So during the pandemic, I wonder, did you wind up? So I'll tell you my background to it and then then you could tell me if you were involved with any of it. So, um, and this is a good segue actually to the next topic. But during, so I was doing a lot of public speaking right before the pandemic started. And during the pandemic, everything, all the conferences, everything I was scheduled to, obviously went virtual.
Alex: Well, not all, I actually did fly to a couple. Uh, many became virtual. And I remember in the beginning, it was actually a lot of excitement about it. A lot more people attended. So there would be people who couldn't physically fly over, didn't fit their schedule, didn't fit their budget. Uh, where the company would send one person, now the whole company could work.
Alex: So there was a lot of excitement about the live conferences, live streaming, all of that, maybe for like six, nine [00:23:00] months. And then, and then it's, I, I, it just completely dropped off. And it just, uh, I, I remember I was even excited about it. I'm like, wow, usually I speak to like a thousand people. Now I could literally speak to 10, 000 people.
Alex: Um, but it's, people stopped joining and then I remember, I don't remember which moment it happened in, but there was definitely a moment where it became weird. I remember, I have a specific, I'm not gonna name the conference, but I have a specific conference I remember joining. Uh, and the speech, speech went okay, although there, it was always weird speaking and not even knowing if people are there.
Alex: Listen, like, like, I'd still be like, is this working? Can, can someone tell me the So that was weird, but I remember there was a specific moment where I joined the, the, uh, the happy hour. So the conferences had to have digital happy hour. So the happy hour, everyone joined. So it'd be like 5, 000 faces on zoom, everyone joined.
Alex: And then they had some like European DJ playing like techno music. And everyone was just sitting there drinking their own beer in their own like room. Like they could see people's picture, like in their bedroom. [00:24:00] And I'm like, man, somewhere, all of this went really, really wrong.
Chris Hill: Uh, we were definitely there for that on a, on a multiple levels.
Chris Hill: I've I'm, um, and locally I'm the current president of our American Marketing Association chapter. And this is my second time. My first time was during the pandemic. So we dealt with all that then. And we had to deal with, okay, how do we get community together? And then beyond that in our business, it was clients doing exactly what you were doing.
Chris Hill: Hey, I'm going to a public speaking event. I need to be able to present. A lot of times we did it pre recorded stuff and we still do stuff like that today. But like live streaming in and of itself is just a challenge because of exactly what you said is, is it on? Are people listening? Is the stream going out right?
Chris Hill: And even, um, I've got a, I got a colleague of ours works for another company that we work with that has PTSD from his experience with live streaming. And I won't say where he worked, but he worked at a very, very large firm in it. So, um, so like, it's, it's just insane how [00:25:00]difficult that time was for that era.
Chris Hill: But yeah, you, you learn, okay, we're not doing that again. We, you know, somebody got mad at us or, and it wasn't even our fault. It's just a matter of we chose to do this thing that we didn't realize all the challenges and issues that would come about of it. And so I totally get throwing the dart at things and figuring that stuff out.
Chris Hill: That's. Yeah. Very, very relatable to building a brand, building a business. So yeah. So, so once you, once you narrowed down, once you niche down, I'm sure that was a little scary too. Cause you're like, I'm giving, getting rid of revenue. I'm getting rid of risk. I'm taking on more risk by making it more focused.
Chris Hill: So. When did you realize you were having success and that things were starting to grow to where frankly, to where you are today? It took a
Alex: while, it took a while. For sure, when we increased significantly our website prices, it was a huge risk. Um, and there's certainly still companies, mostly outsourced, but there's still companies where you could go get a website done for 1, 000, right?
Alex: So you have to be confident in your product and price point. Because you will still have [00:26:00] clients where you quote them the 10, 000 and they're like, I was expecting 1, 000. So there's definitely, there's definitely, there's definitely a lot of risks. I still would encourage everyone to experiment with things continually.
Alex: We always experiment, even with our business now, that I guess we have the track, successful track record. We still set aside budget to experiment with things, with new services, with new ideas. I think that's, that's always super, super important for almost every kind of business. But yeah, I think, I think that's, that's what it is.
Alex: I think you have to experiment early. You have to be, you have to be willing to take risks, right? If you talk about what makes a successful company, successful entrepreneur, right? You have to be willing to take risks, which, which might not always be easy. I think you have to be very agile. And I think if anything, COVID showed us that.
Alex: That was the big word I used. Um, I got asked to speak at a lot of events during the COVID years and really give companies and the entire industry guidance on how do we come out of this? What do we [00:27:00] do? Um, I think agility, uh, being agile was, was a huge, huge one. And just, just as a quick example, I do a lot in the automotive space.
Alex: A lot of car dealerships were not allowed to be open and you're in New York city. They closed. You weren't allowed to be open. They're like, how do we sell cars? Right? So they had to rethink their entire business model. And if you think about who were the ones that came out of it better than they went, than, than going in a, it was companies who did take the risk and continued marketing.
Alex: A lot of dealerships that stopped all their marketing, stopped everything. Um, they lost their, their, their funnel, right? Because buying a car is a very, very long funnel. And a, a lot of them went outta business actually. So the ones that were like. And we ourselves, by the way, we, during COVID, we, we actually, we gave, gave everyone bonuses to set up home offices.
Alex: We actually hired instead of fired. And we kept investing in our marketing, even though it was losing money because it was bringing the funnel and giving our salespeople. Uh, work and everything. So you have to be willing to take the risks, right? Uh, even when it doesn't make [00:28:00]sense. Uh, and, uh, being agile back to a car, car example, the dealerships that were successful were the ones that realized shit now, instead of selling cars in person, our salespeople have to be willing to, uh, do the sale on the phone, do the sale over text, do it over like chat or do it in person, right?
Alex: Everyone during COVID had different comfortable comfort levels. If the client does want to come in and you're allowed to be open. That works, right? If the client wants to talk about their car lease over the phone, that's fine, too. If you think about the car business, pre COVID, if you wanted to buy a car and you called up a dealership and you said, let's talk about the numbers over the phone, I promise you not a single dealer would do it.
Alex: They, they wanted to get you in, in, in the dealership right now, all of a sudden you have to talk about finances and deals over phone calls, over text, right over like chat on your website. Uh, you have to be really agile and flexible and those businesses that were came out much better, uh, than, than, than they did coming in.
Alex: So those. I think those are the big traits. And
Chris Hill: I mean, that's, that's definitely, definitely a challenge. And I think that kind of segues into the next topic, which is your personal brand. I noticed behind you, you've got automotive research marketing, the book that you wrote. So before we get into the book, I'd like to know, like, where did the personal branding side of things start for you?
Chris Hill: Because again, like you were young, I noticed you got on a Forbes list at a young age. And so did you realize that then were you just kind of like, Hey, cool. I got in Forbes. Like how did that, how did that start?
Alex: So I'll tell you. So I was being involved in tech space very early. I was lucky enough to have a lot of opportunities to do speaking and what I would now call thought leadership, but I was very, very bad at it.
Alex: I was, I was one of those kids that high school, college. Um, I avoided presenting altogether. Uh, I was, and there's, there's plenty of people like that. I just, I, I, I was like, I'll do all the work you guys presented. And if I had to, I would take a failing grade and make it up on the tests. Right. I'd be like, I'm not, I'm not present.
Alex: So. You'd be, you'd think that the, [00:30:00] the US school system would force me to present at one point or another, but I somehow managed all of high school and all of college without it. I just, I just wasn't comfortable. So I did, I did present once at a conference, web hosting conference. When I was probably 16 or 17, and that was my first and last, uh, presentation for, for a very, very long time.
Alex: And then maybe five, six years ago, I just decided that it was very important for personal development, right? To the skill set of public speaking and be able to articulate your thought and communicate with people in that way was super, super important for my role in the business. And I was fortunate enough that I still get invited to speak at a lot of events.
Alex: So it was just as simple as me finally forcing myself to accept it. So that, so the, the personal brand stuff really came around from that. And once I started doing more and more of that, I can't say really focus significantly on like, I don't wake up in the morning, like what can I do to improve my personal brand, right.
Alex: But, uh, um, I am very focused on thought leadership, which I think. That type of stuff is important on a lot of levels. Uh, on a personal level, just going to these conferences and speaking with them really helps me stay up to date with what everyone else is doing. Uh, meet some really, really cool people that, that are doing something similar.
Alex: Number two, definitely helps our company, uh, because more and more people know about it as they know about me, they know about their company. So I think there's a lot of, a lot of benefits and, and again, me personally, I just don't see it as much of personal brand development, uh, as much as focusing on thought leadership and personal development.
Alex: Right. Uh, but certainly I've had. Tons of companies reach out to me and they're like, wow, you have a good personal brand. You should work on it more. You could hire us to do PR and this and that. And all the stuff I've been in, like the Forbes list and everything else has been like, just them reaching out to me.
Alex: I've never, I've never actively, I guess, hired someone to work on my personal brand, but I have no issues with a lot of people who do. I think for everyone has, has, uh, different priorities, but yeah. And I, the book was actually [00:32:00] interestingly. So along with public speaking, writing was by far the, my worst subject in school.
Alex: Uh, so it was another one of those personal development things where I, I, um, I thought it would be really important to, uh, and by the way, this is not even staged. I have a conference in a couple of days, I'm getting these.
Chris Hill: It was, it was perfect. I thought it was intentional.
Alex: Yeah, it worked out. Yeah, comes out here.
Alex: Just leave it in frame, it's great. I got these ready for a conference I'm speaking at in a couple days, automotive conference. Um, so yeah, I spoke a lot, I speak a lot in the automotive space. I'm just a big automotive enthusiast, so I got more involved than that. Um, and I was like, it would be important to try to write a book.
Alex: And, you know, it's one of those things that, and the reason I'll share my story is because hopefully it's impactful for other people. It's one of those things that I know a lot of people want to do. And as I've done for others who have done public speaking, when I do public speaking and I talk to other successful public speakers, I ask them like, what helped with your [00:33:00] public speaking career?
Alex: It's always write a book. That's always like the number one thing. It's, it doesn't even have to be a good book. It's like literally like I wrote a book. Being a published author and then being a best selling published, best selling author are just very, very powerful things in the thought leadership space.
Alex: Um, so it was, it was definitely always on my mind. Um, but it, it, it took a while for, first of all, as, as a business owner, as any other business owner, I have so much on my plate that putting together time to write a book is, is very hard to. Because you need to like concentrate and, um, but finally what helped me is I started telling people I'm going to do it.
Alex: So I would, I would tell clients, I would tell, I would tell, uh, I would tell, uh, colleagues at, at conferences. I was like, I'm, I'm gonna, I'm finally gonna, I'm gonna write this book and I already have the title. And I think once you start telling people, you kind of hold yourself accountable to it. I think that's, that's for me was a very important step to finally push myself to do it.
Alex: And then I forget who, but. I think I spoke to a couple of [00:34:00] book publishers. I think it was one of the book publishers that reached out to me. And I think it was, to be honest, I think it was a automated spam email. It wasn't like a personal email, but it was, the email was like, uh, November, I said, November, I think it was, the email was like, November is, uh, write a book month or book authors month or something like that.
Alex: Um, and I remember looking at that email, like, I'm like, you're right, if there's ever a sign to do it, this is it. So I did it, I set aside one hour a day during the month of November, and I wrote it in I think like 30 hours. But I'm a quick typer, and you can hear I talk quick, I think quick, so. It wasn't, uh, the, the, actually a big struggle for me was actually going through publishing.
Alex: I, and, and again, this is just like public speaking. It's all like a learning experience for me. And like, I, I learned as I go along. So the book, uh, surprisingly getting it published took a lot more work and time than actually writing it. There's a lot of, uh, things that I, if you haven't written a book, you couldn't even.
Alex: Fab them the issues I had, like I had a screenshot of Google that a publishing company refused to use because they thought Google would sue them, like things like that. So it took a while, but yeah, I'm, and it's funny, the other big issue, obviously in writing books, especially in, in our space is everything's very fast moving, right?
Alex: I wrote it last November. So I wrote it almost a year ago. It got published in April. And I think like 20 percent of it now needs to be updated.
Chris Hill: Well, Hey, you got new revisions that can come out, new things to sell people, right? And
Alex: new, new things to learn. I actually reached out to our company. I I'm like, how do revisions even work?
Alex: So I'm waiting to hear back, but, um, I think it's super important for people, even if you're going to self publish or whatever it is, uh, maybe even make sense before doing, but like for me, I did public speaking first. But, uh, what, what really, uh, what can I say, what, what, uh, the big benefits I got out of writing this before even publishing it, um, it helped me put together my thoughts, which really helped, uh, for public speaking.
Alex: Um, it helped [00:36:00] me really, uh, give extra thought to, uh, the services we offer because a lot of this describes the way we do business. So, as I'm physically writing it down in a 200 page book. It really gives me an opportunity to be like, this is what we do and then I'm like Why are we doing it this way, right?
Alex: Maybe there's opportunities to do it differently, do it better. Um, it let me do, it gave me the opportunity to do a lot of research about how other people are doing things because as, as I'm writing how we're doing it, I'm like, is this the best way to do it? Or are people doing it different ways? Because the book itself is very neutral.
Alex: It doesn't sell anything. It's really like a neutral perspective to SEO and pay per click. So I think it was super, super useful. I think for people who don't, don't even want to publish it, just writing your thoughts down in a book like this is super helpful. I'd encourage other people to do it as well.
Alex: My idea was to do it for every industry because we work literally in every industry, but the publishing process was so drawn out and stressful for me that [00:37:00] I took a
Chris Hill: break. Well, and on top of that, now you're realizing, hey, I've got to update 20 percent of this already. If I had to do that for every industry, that'd be my full time job.
Alex: Yeah, yeah. Which may not be a bad thing. Yeah, that's what it becomes and if you actually look at a lot of authors who have multiple books out that do revisions, it's mostly ghost written. They have a company doing it because obviously it becomes a full time job. But no, it was a very good experience. Um, has it helped with my public speaking?
Alex: Probably not as much as I thought. The conferences that are asking me to speak at are the ones I've spoken at. I'm sure it helps a little bit. Uh, but the whole process was super, super helpful and I, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it for everyone. Uh, if you don't self publish, if you go through a publishing company, uh, they either collect royalties or costs, I think like 15, 20 grand.
Alex: So it's, it's, uh, money, but it's not like huge amounts of money. If you work with a professional publisher, there's also packages where they make you a bestselling author. There's a lot of. Tips and tricks, like, like anything else in life, there's a lot of, [00:38:00] there's a lot of shortcuts I've, I've discovered that was not familiar to me at the time, and there's a lot of these silly things that I knew happened in the publishing industry, but until I did it, I, it didn't make sense, like, a lot of times there's like a new book coming out, and And it says like bestselling author already on it.
Alex: Like, have you noticed that like, or, or for example, there's a lot of bestselling off, right? There's more, more than you would think there should be suspiciously. So suspicious and like, like 50 percent of the books coming out says bestselling author. And so to be bestselling, uh, it depends where, right.
Alex: Bestselling Amazon, bestselling USA Today and bestselling New York times. are the three tiers. They all require selling a certain amount of books in one week. So that's usually the marker, how many books you sell in a one week period. I think for New York Times, it's something like 6, 000, depending on the week.
Alex: So if it's a week where there's a lot of other big releases, it might be more, but let's, let's say 6, 000. What you're able to do First of all, there's, there's ways to prevent that, but in theory, you could buy 6,000 of your own [00:39:00] books, right? They, they tried. Now they, they've, there's a better way to prevent that.
Alex: But let, let's say that's not an option. The other big trick that, that, that that's used in the industry is pre-sales. So if you see book pre-sales, that's why there are so many of them. Because, uh, the pre sale all counts towards week one. And you could have a pre sale for as long as you want. So you could actually put on your cover a best selling author, knowing that you're gonna have the pre sale for as long as it takes to hit the best selling author status.
Alex: So there's, uh, there's, and the book publishers, of course, have a whole network of people that could buy your book, could leave you a review that they, they lean on. Um, so it's, it's, yeah, it's, like, like with anything else, it's been a, it's been a learning experience.
Chris Hill: It's its own form of SEO in a sense. Like you're, you're optimizing for the industry.
Chris Hill: You're optimizing for credibility in a sense. And you're trying to, trying to boost that.
Alex: Very good word. So I think for, yeah, for credibility and brand building, I think it's super, super
Chris Hill: important. Absolutely. And I've seen that with other folks that we've worked with and other folks that I know. I mean, um, I don't know if you Schaefer is, but he's.
Chris Hill: A Knoxville native, which is where I live, and he started here writing his own book, self publishing his own book. And I remember when I was like, who is this guy? What is this book he's written? And today he's like a best selling author, done all this other stuff. And, you know, he's, he's well known in the marketing community.
Chris Hill: So it's, it's interesting to see, you know, how other folks approach it and how it helps them grow their own personal brand. And ultimately it helps your business too. I mean, getting back to smart sites, like. This book is very focused on an industry that you all serve. So I would imagine that this also drives business to you just as a result of having written
Alex: the book.
Alex: I'm sure it does. Has there been much that I've directly tracked? Probably not, but the book's only been out six months. I think it's one of those things that people read it, keep us in mind, and then when they need us, they'll reach out. I [00:41:00] started out with Automotive, just because I'm very familiar in the space and I speak at all the automotive conferences.
Alex: Uh, but if you think about it, automotive is a very, very small, I don't want to say small industry, but people who, who, who would be reading this book is a, is a very small data set. So what I mean by that is, uh, I don't know, there's 16, 000, 13, 000 to 16, 000 franchise dealerships in the U S let's say there's one person in each.
Alex: Be interested in this, um, at some point in their lives. It's not even like in, like, right, they're not all interested in it right now. But let's say in general, so my market's, I don't know, 16,000 people, let's say. Uh, then you look at other industries, I don't know. Let's say, look, look, look at, uh, lawyers. Um, I think there's a million law firms in the U S something like that.
Alex: Let's say four partners per law firm. That's 4 million right off the bat versus the 16, 000 on the, on the Carthage. So yeah, it's, it's not, um, but I purposely started with this because that's where I had the most expertise and just speaking at [00:42:00] conferences, uh, and speaking to automotive clients on a almost day to day, um, I was very familiar with their pain points.
Alex: So that's, that's, that, that I felt the most comfortable writing about it. And, and at the same time, I didn't want to go too general. And I'm sure you, you've seen how many SEO books exist. And I just like, just as a general SEO book, I didn't want to be like one of the 10, 000 SEO books. Um, and, and by the way, my, that's my suggestion to others as well.
Alex: If anyone wants to write a book, I would, I would start off with as focused as
Chris Hill: possible. I was about to say, yeah, that's, that's kind of a blue ocean strategy of getting into that space where. Nobody else has written a book and there's probably people searching, searching for that keyword, searching for that term, searching for that subject and there's nothing on it.
Chris Hill: So man, it's, it's been great talking to you. Last question we always ask, and it's always a little off topic, but I love hearing, um, answers to it is what brand do you admire the most right now?
Alex: What brand do I admire the most right now? Uh, I, I'm sure Apple comes up always as a very popular one, just for all their branding and [00:43:00] marketing.
Alex: I just, uh, even though I'm not an Apple person, I don't use, uh, Android, Samsung, I don't have a single Apple product that I use, but I think they're always very good in terms of not necessarily being first to market, but being correct to market. They bring the correct product to the correct market with the correct marketing and the correct pricing almost every single time without fail.
Alex: So being, uh, someone who does something like that for a lot of our clients. Um, I, I always think that's great that they're able to do that. Elon Musk, I, I, I follow, I think he's doing a lot of really, really cool things, even though he gets a lot of that press about a lot of them. And, uh, that's, I know he's not a brand, but the, whatever brands he starts, uh, that he's personally overseeing, I think, uh, ultimately are always doing something at the very least he's doing something innovative.
Alex: And he's taking risks. Um, so I would say that Elon brands for, for the risk taking, like even what [00:44:00] he's doing with Twitter, right? I'm a big user of Twitter, big fan of Twitter. Uh, I know Jack Dorsey from back in the day, who was the co founder of Twitter. Uh, he's doing a lot of crazy stuff with Twitter. I think getting rid of the name itself was crazy, but he's taking risks.
Alex: Right. And I really, you really can't. Uh, take that for granted. Uh, I think he's taking a lot of risks that no one else would. Uh, if he didn't buy Twitter, there's no way Twitter would ever rebrand. Like, even if they slowly lost customers and went out of business in 10 years, they would ride that sinking ship all the way down with never changing their name.
Alex: Yeah, so not, not, not a direct answer to, for you, but I, I, I, to summarize that, I would, I would say Apple for, for the way they're able to correctly market and create and time their products. And, uh, Elon Musk and Company for, for really taking risks that no one else
Chris Hill: does. Yeah, I think those are good answers.
Chris Hill: Um, I was curious being a car guy, if you would have like a, a car branded answer. I guess Tesla kind of does it. Oh, I'm, I'm
Alex: a big Porsche person. I have an electric Oh, really? I have, I have an electric Porsche that looks like this. Oh
Chris Hill: man. Oh man. Is that the Panama or what, what is their electric version of that?
Chris Hill: Ty can Ty. Oh, the Ty can.
Alex: Oh wow. That's awesome. Yeah, and I, and I have it in this exact bright green. Oh man. Is that why you got that? Yes. Uh, one of my, one of my clients sent this to me actually, but Oh, nice. Now, now I can't get rid of it because I have, I have the mini version of it. You're committed.
Chris Hill: That's awesome. That's really cool. Yeah. Yeah. I like, um, yeah, I was just curious. I'm, I, I like cars too, so I, I tend to nerd out on that stuff, so. Yeah. Yeah. No, I don't have a tie.
Alex: Can, but , you get one, they're great. I drive at, I drive so little now we close our office, so it's all. I enjoy it when I can, but it's mostly like taking the kids to school.
Alex: And my daughter hates it, but my younger daughter makes me like, drop her off like further away from school. She's like, why can't you have a white car like mom? She doesn't like the bright green car. Yeah, she's like so embarrassing.
Chris Hill: My kids have the opposite reaction because I drive, um, this isn't anything crazy, but [00:46:00] I drive an Acura TL Type S.
Chris Hill: So, and it's in that really nice blue from, it's the 07 model. It's in that really nice blue. Probably, in my opinion, one of the best colors Acura has ever made. Um, but my daughter loves it and she's, she's only like two granted, but every time
Alex: we're taking them to school, she's too young to be embarrassed by it.
Alex: Give it a couple more years.
Chris Hill: Guaranteed. I don't doubt it. Um, but they, she begs to be in my car. She's like blue car, blue car, blue car. Every time we go. So I
Alex: had, I had, uh, I think same, same, when my kids were saying me and my, my kids are now nine and 10, but when they were the same age. Uh, I had a blue Audi S6, uh, seapaint blue, which is very similar to the Acura color, and the kids also liked it, but now, now it's embarrassing.
Chris Hill: It's part, part of being a parent. You're just going to embarrass them no matter what you do, even if you're the coolest dad in the world. So yeah.
Alex: Yeah. White car.
Chris Hill: Right. Well, Alex, thank you so much for coming on. Last, last question before we go, um, where [00:47:00] can people connect with you? How can people find you?
Chris Hill: How can people find more about smart sites? Yeah.
Alex: Great question. So, uh, smart sites, if you, if you Google it, you'll, you'll, you'll, you'll, you'll get there. You'll find that, uh, for me personally, it's alexmelon. com A L E X. M E L E N dot com, or you could Google it and it'll come up as well. I have all my contact information there, so LinkedIn I'm probably the most active on, followed by Twitter, but I'm on all those social networks, so definitely feel free to connect with me.
Alex: If anyone has any questions about public speaking, writing books, starting companies, more than happy to chat about
Chris Hill: it. Absolutely. Well, Alex, thank you so much. Thank you. Have a
Alex: good one. Thanks, you too.