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Red Ventures fuses marketing, selling

By Kirsten Valle
kvalle@charlotteobserver.com

Red Ventures' office looks like a stock trading floor: an airy space full of electronic tickers monitoring the day's sales, Internet traffic and competitor bids.

On a recent afternoon in the Ballantyne-area headquarters, employees dressed in jeans toted laptops to glass-walled meeting rooms or the back patio. Scoreboards and charts on the walls tracked employee sales and showed where they stood among their co-workers.

The Charlotte-based Internet marketing company has grown exponentially recently, despite the slumping economy. Its revenues have increased nearly 60-fold in the last three years, and the staff has grown to 500 in six offices worldwide, executives say.

The company has flown under the radar in Charlotte, getting most of its business through word of mouth. It's gotten national attention, though: Inc. Magazine ranked Red Ventures the 17th fastest-growing private company in America on a list released Wednesday.

Red Ventures officials attribute the growth, in part, to the economy, which has forced companies to seek different ways to attract customers – and has resulted in a windfall for some marketers.

They also credit their fast-paced corporate culture and the increasing importance of high-tech marketing. Experts say more and more marketing companies are turning to online campaigns and, like Red Ventures, are using sophisticated technology to track successes and failures.

“Consumers enjoy and desire to be engaged and interactive,” said Brett McCoy of the American Marketing Association's Charlotte chapter. “One of the other things to interactive is that it's more easily trackable. You can adapt your message.”

Red Ventures' leaders are careful to distinguish the company from an ad agency or consulting firm.

A traditional agency is paid up front to develop and manage a company's marketing strategy. Red Ventures, though, takes that concept a step further: It also makes the sales, getting paid only if it delivers customers.

When Red Ventures takes on a client – employees call them “partners” – it markets the brand in various ways, attempting to reach customers at the right time and drive them to the Internet or the phone.

For example, a customer could visit a site Red Ventures created for a product, and then call Red Ventures' sales center to purchase it. The company tracks every aspect of the process, from where and when the customer clicks to when the sale is complete.

“We own the entire process,” said Ric Elias, Red Ventures' co-founder and chief executive. “It's kind of a new-age marketing service, propelled by the Internet.”

The company has about 10 clients in industries from home services to automotive in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico, including DirecTV, Sirius Satellite Radio and ADT Security Services.

Reshaping the concept

Elias and co-founder Dan Feldstein, the company's chief marketing officer, met after business school – Harvard and Wharton, respectively – at Cendant, a marketing holding company.

They decided to start their own company and moved to Charlotte in September 1999. Feldstein's wife is from the area; the others saw the city as a growing market perfect for a startup.

Elias and Feldstein started Red F, Red Ventures' precursor, in 2000. The original concept was to use print media to help online brands market themselves. The pair raised the capital and hired a sales force – and then realized the dot-com boom was ending.

Red F evolved into a marketing company and, in a few years, had more than 30 employees and big-name clients such as LendingTree, Bank of America and Duke Energy. But Elias and Feldstein didn't want to run an agency.

Their next idea came to them at a dinner meeting with a potential client, DirecTV, who suggested they become a dealer for the company, rather than simply market it. The next day, Elias and Feldstein began shifting the business to its current shape. They sold Red F and became Red Ventures.

The company opened its 20,000-square-foot headquarters in 2007 and has offices in New York, Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and Guatemala.

Its revenues last year, according to Inc. Magazine, were nearly $104 million, and company officials say it's on track to hit $250 million by 2010. Red Ventures executives declined to disclose the company's profits.

It hasn't always been an easy sell.

While some companies, like DirecTV, were open to Red Ventures' concept, others took more convincing. Still, it's often an easy decision for executives because they don't have to pay up front, Elias said.

“It's a no-brainer,” he said. “It's like buying insurance for their own marketing.”

There have been other challenges. For one, officials have worried that the company would grow too fast and lose its entrepreneurial culture.

They've avoided that, so far, by forming smaller, autonomous divisions based on Red Ventures' industries and marketing channels, they said. In addition, Elias and Feldstein assembled a leadership team of Ivy League business school graduates who knew early on that Red Ventures was poised to grow rapidly.

Another issue was that, at first, the company's business hinged on one or two clients. Now, Red Ventures has added partners in a variety of industries and polished its process so it can adapt more easily, officials said.

iContact, an e-mail marketing company based in Durham, hired Red Ventures a few months ago to convince customers who sign up for a free trial to take on a full subscription, said Brandon Milford, iContact's vice president of marketing.

Red Ventures has added 500 or so subscribers a month, bringing iContact's total to about 3,000, he said.

“I think it comes from their work ethic and really working closely with their partners,” Milford said. “They come here and meet with us and take strides to understand how we operate.”

Red Ventures' goals include becoming a billion-dollar company while preserving the ideals they started with. There are no plans to go public in the near future, but officials say it's a long-term possibility.

“Our goal early on was to build a company we want to work for,” Elias said. “Many of us have a thirst. We think our organization can be a platform for our employees to achieve that.”

Kirsten Valle: 704-358-5248

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