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Taking Over Internet Marketing

Jon Morris, ’05, wants to make his company, Rise Interactive, the world’s largest internet marketing agency. The career goal is simple, ambitious, and, he admits, “a little crazy.” Since Morris founded the company in 2004, it has averaged triple-digit growth each year, and was ranked on Inc. magazine’s 2010 list of the nation’s 500 fastest-growing companies.

Jean-Pierre Dubé, Sigmund E. Edelstone Professor of Marketing, interviewed Morris, a graduate of the Evening MBA Program, about his personal path and business strategies for putting his company on that trajectory during an intimate lunch at Gleacher Center on April 2. More than 60 students attended the luncheon, hosted by the Office of Alumni Affairs and Development.

Morris said his approach to growing his company matches his approach to marathon training. “For a lot of people, 26.2 miles sounds like a really long distance, but if I think of my ultimate goal of being the world’s largest interactive agency as 26.2 miles, it’s generally an 18-week training program, starting with only six miles the first week. I look at my business the same way. I don’t need to get to $500 million or a billion right away. I just need take my company from where it is today and make it slightly bigger tomorrow.” When Morris first founded Rise Interactive, he had no revenue, no employees, and was working out of his Lakeview apartment. The company has since ballooned to five divisions, employing more than 40 people at its office in Chicago’s River North. Clients today include Ulta Beauty, Lexmark, Abt Electronics, and other national brands.

Morris enrolled at Booth to switch careers from internet marketing to finance. His previous online marketing startup lost all of its revenue in one month after the internet bubble burst, and finance looked appealing. That is, until he got an internship at a hedge fund.

“No offense to anyone in that field, but I was bored out of my mind,” Morris said. “It wasn’t the right fit for me. When I was interviewing all these CEOs to figure out where to invest, I felt jealous of the people I was interviewing. I wanted their job, not mine.”

In 2004, Morris entered a business plan for Rise Interactive, then called the Internet Marketing Institute, into Booth’s New Venture Challenge competition and tied for second place. His exposure to finance and the lessons learned from NVC have shaped how he runs his company. For example, he has passed the presentation skills he acquired during the competition along to his employees at Rise Interactive, and the exposure to finance has led him to rely on a quantitative approach to his clients’ challenges.

“The great thing about internet marketing is that everything is measurable,” Morris said. “My company helps generate traffic to websites. I use my quantitative background from Booth to analyze if it was the right traffic and if that traffic turned into customers.”

Hence, his first pieces of advice to students: “Statistics is a huge recommendation,” and “take the word ‘testing’ and paste it on your forehead.”

Rapid growth — sometimes called “hockey stick” growth —presents many challenges.  For example, Morris often chooses employees outside of the typical “agency” or online marketing space.  In fact, many of Rise’s successful employees have finance backgrounds.  While this has been a great strategy, he often juggles getting new hires up to speed on internet marketing, even as more prospects come knocking.

Morris also advised students to think about what kind of executive they want to be. Morris bootstrapped his company, meaning he started Rise Interactive with his own resources, no investors. “That’s one of the hardest aspects of being CEO, with no outside backers,” he said. “It’s long hours, low pay, and the probability of success might be low. But, it also can be the most rewarding.”

Evening MBA Program student Sophia Kozaeva noted how innovatively he approached internet marketing last year while working at a recruiting agency seeking to offer services to Rise Interactive. “He’s a young entrepreneur, defying the big, old ad agencies.”

His advice was right on time for Kozaeva, who had taken her first class just two days before Morris’s luncheon. Her concentration is marketing and entrepreneurship, but she said, “I’ll definitely be taking more statistics courses now.”

Kadesha Thomas