Ryan is the co-founder and CEO of iContact, a provider of e-mail marketing software.. iContact currently has 300 employees, 700,000 users, and $50 million in annual revenues. Ryan has been an entrepreneur since he started Allis Computing at age 11 in 1995. He is an active angel investor through the Humanity Fund, which invests in socially responsible high-growth businesses in the U.S. and East Africa. Ryan is also the founder and chairman of Virante, Inc., a 15-employee Web marketing consulting firm based Raleigh, North Carolina, and the author of the book Zero to One Million, published by McGraw-Hill, which reached #2 overall on Amazon.com and the Wall Street Journal Bestseller list. On the nonprofit side, Ryan is currently the board Chairman for Nourish International, which has chapters at 22 colleges across the United States. In 2009, he received recognition as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Americans by the U.S. Junior Chamber. Ryan attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was an economics major and a Blanchard Scholar. Ryan is currently enrolled in the EO/MIT Entrepreneurial Masters Program (EMP).
Sramana: Ryan, let’s start at the beginning of your story. Where do you come from? What is at the root of your aggressive entrepreneurialism?
Ryan Allis: I grew up as the son of an Episcopalian Minister and a social worker from England. I was born in Pittsburg in 1984. I lived in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and then Florida. The first entrepreneurial event in my life came about after I received a Macintosh computer from my uncle, Steve. He ran a company called Stratus Computers. I learned everything I could about that computer. In 1995 I started doing computer help for senior citizens for $5 an hour. I lived on an island off of the coast of Florida with my parents. I put up flyers at the laundromat and city hall telling about the tutoring services from a responsible 11-year-old. That was my entry into this world.
Sramana: Did you get good business?
Ryan Allis: I did. It was slow at first. My first call came two weeks later. I had my own landline, which was a big deal for an 11-year-old. When I picked up the phone, the gentleman asked to speak with my mother. I got her and she talked with him. She came in the room 60 seconds later and told me that it was the postmaster general, who was yelling at her for allowing me to put flyers in the local mailboxes without the 29-cent stamp. That was my first lesson as an entrepreneur: sometimes you have to act first and ask permission second.
Sramana: Were you generating business by that point?
Ryan Allis: No, but I finally got a real call three days later. I rode my bike over to his house and helped him with his computer for an hour. He gave me $10. He then went to the bingo hall the following week and started telling his friends. That is when I learned that word-of-mouth marketing is the best type of marketing you can get. I ended up making $400 that summer.
Sramana: That is great for an 11-year-old. What happened to you after that?
Ryan Allis: I grew up and started doing more and more computer help. One of my clients named Louis was a flight attendant for Northwest Airlines. She started bringing back necklaces and rings from her international flights in China. She would sell them to her friends. I was helping her fix her laptop when she asked me if I could do a website for her.
I set up her website to help her sell pearls in 1998. We had not discovered eBay yet. We sold directly to the end customer. Through that I learned how to set up a shopping cart, how to do website design and several other lessons through trial and error. After about nine months of running that business she got overwhelmed with the amount of fulfillment and customer service responsibilities. Instead of hiring somebody, she decided to shut down the business. This was in early 1999, and she was doing $5,000 a month in sales. If she had kept going she could have built that into a lot more. I learned the importance of scaling yourself at a very young age.