In this week’s “From the Ground Up” interview, we sit down with Michael Melen, co-founder and COO of SmartSites, an UpCity Certified Premium Partner and one of the top advertising agencies in the United States. Below we discuss how Michael found his passion for digital, why he and his brother decide to risk it all and start a company of their own, and more!
Q: Well Michael, thank you for sitting down with me today. Let’s kick things off with a bit of a history lesson. Tell us about how SmartSites got started.
A: I have always been fond of web development; I created my first website in middle school and had dozens by high school. For me, it was comparable to building with legos. I would spend day and night, as much as my parents allowed, on the computer hacking away at my idea-of-the-week. Just as quickly, I would get bored with it and move on to the next.
At this point, I did not think my ‘hobby’ would turn into a business. My family immigrated from the former USSR when I was a kid. My parents didn’t have the fondest opinions of entrepreneurship, to put it lightly. For college, I went to the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University. Here I met kids with an enormous passion for the hospitality industry. I did not share their passion and ironically, it forced me to introspect and find that my passion is, and always has been, in digital.
I didn’t have it in me to drop out but I worked tirelessly and managed to start an online business between my studies and graduate a year early. I called up my brother Alex who had a six-figure media job in NYC at the time. To my parents’ dismay, Alex quit his job and the day after I walked in graduation, we opened offices in Little Ferry, NJ.
We set out on a mission to help small businesses compete with large brands online. The service offerings were quickly defined to include web design/development, SEO, and pay per click. Fast forward eight years, we now have a team of nearly 100 dedicated employees and have been one of America’s fastest-growing companies for the past three years.
Q: Interesting. We’ve interviewed plenty of agencies who have multiple co-founders, and they’ve all mentioned the potential advantages and disadvantages that that brings. What was it like starting a business with your brother?
A: Well, our parents weren’t too fond of it, I can tell you that! The worst possible outcome for them was that we would both fail or that we would get into some business argument that would ruin our relationship. Luckily, that hasn’t happened, and I expect never will!
Our skills complement each other and we have a strong trust. Alex is the finance guy (he was doing our parents’ taxes at 13), he’s an introvert, the genius behind the scenes. I’m completely the opposite; I’m an extrovert, a people person. We’re a good yin and yang and I think that’s why it works.
Q: So what would you say has been your biggest challenge as you’ve grown SmartSites with your brother?
A: The biggest challenge was in the initial stages of growth. Alex and I built out fantastic operations and systems, but it required project managers to run. We were the first project managers in a way. We touched every client and were able to ensure satisfaction, but then as we grew and were unable to give every client individual attention, we needed others to not only have the proper technical knowledge but also extend the same care as we did.
At the end of the day though, this was more of a mental block than anything else. Our team has cumulatively delivered beyond what Alex and I were able to alone. And they have the facts to prove it: we now boast over 150 5-star reviews online.
Q: What part of that process was the hardest for you? Was it finding the right people that you could trust? Or was it having the courage to know that somebody else could do as good or better than you could? I think for a lot of business owners the hardest part is letting go of control.
A: The process of letting go of control was slow, it wasn’t a pull off the bandaid type thing. It’s not just about finding the right person and then stepping back, we had to make sure that each project manager understood our processes, the quality of service our clients expect, and more. It was a slow process, but now our project managers are much better than my brother or I have ever been at servicing our clients.
There was a time when I thought that no one would be able to do it as well as me, but that was false thinking.
Q: And what was your approach to finding the right people to build out your team and take over those responsibilities from you and your brother? How did you ensure that you were bringing on the right people to scale your business intelligently?
A: That’s a really important question. The quantity of applicants we receive helps us greatly in that regard; we regularly received a hundred or even more applicants for open positions, then we widdle those down to 30 or 40 of the most qualified. We have a first interview, a second interview, and by that point, we really understand whether someone is going to be the right fit for our team. We’ve been lucky in that respect.
Our team is young: the average age is between 25 and 35. The biggest thing for us is culture fit because you’re always going to be able to find someone with the right skills. What matters most is that you find someone with the right skills that will work well with your team. We’ve always kept an eye out for people who like to come in and work hard, they have grit, they have determination. They like to get things done and do it right.
My brother and I have always stuck to the old saying, “Hire people that are smarter than you.” That’s paid off in dividends.
Q: Judging from your reviews, it seems that type of can-do attitude has allowed you to deliver exceptional client service at scale. Has review generation and your online reputation been at the forefront of your minds as you’ve grown your agency or is your success in those areas simply a byproduct of the quality of service you provide?
A: It’s both of those things. We’ve built this company in the age of online reputation. Online reviews are more important now than ever and we’ve known that from the get-go. Our team provides excellent service and we ask for reviews along the way.
Reviews are a KPI for our teams. Of course, each department also has its own KPIs, but there’s no reason that every member of the team shouldn’t be contributing to our review generation strategy! This also allows us to gauge which products or service offerings are creating the happiest customers. We can adjust our offerings as needed to satisfy as many of our clients as possible.
Q: That’s a great point! Companies have used NAP scores for years to understand how they’re doing, but online reviews are another great way of determining whether a product or service is satisfying your customer base. How has UpCity played into your reputation management strategy? Can you tell us a bit about how the partnership between SmartSites and UpCity began?
A: It started with competitive research. We’re very much in tune with what the competition is doing and we noticed that some of our competitors were on your Marketplace. We saw how you ranked your lists based on reviews and credibility, saw the engagement you were driving, and decided to see what it was all about.
It was hard going back to clients at first and asking them to leave us another review. We have more than 100 reviews on Google and around 50 also left us reviews on our UpCity profile. At the end of the day, we invested to try to get reviews on the Marketplace so we could outrank our competitors. If we were going to invest, we wanted to get the most out of it that we could. We ultimately saw enough ROI that we’ve decided to continue and we’ve been partners for almost a year now!
Q: We can’t wait to see what else we can do to help SmartSites grow in 2020! Thanks so much for sitting down with us today, Michael.
A: My pleasure!
Michael Melen has 10+ years of experience in digital media. As a young entrepreneur, Michael sold his first internet company at 19 years old. As COO of SmartSites, he has led the company from inception to 80+ employees. Michael is a graduate of Cornell University. He has been featured in Forbes, Empact Top 100, and Barack Obama’s Entrepreneurship Initiative.