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For this episode of E-coffee with Experts, Ranmay Rath interviewed Steve Horton, Owner and President at 828 Marketing and Web Design, located in Lynchburg. From the early internet days to modern success, Steve shares his experiences working with notable organizations, the challenges of the early web, and the excitement of helping businesses thrive in the digital age. Join us for a captivating conversation that unveils the digital transformation and the secrets to success in the ever-changing world of the internet.
Watch the episode now!
The website definitely makes a difference, but it’s all about mixing it with other digital marketing channels.
Hey, hi everyone. Welcome to your show, E-Coffee with Experts. This is Ranmay, your host for the show tonight. Today we have Steve Horton, who is the owner and president of the 828 Marketing and Web Design. Welcome, Steve, to our show.
Thanks, Ranmay. I appreciate it, buddy. Good morning.
Great. Steve, before we move forward and talk about your journey, why don’t you throw some light in terms of how your career has been and what 828 marketing and web design is all about what you guys offer, we’ll take it forward from there.
The journey has been interesting as this is my fifth business. I’m spinning off our sixth one now in 2024. It’s my third seven-figure business and in two different industries. I haven’t all been tech businesses. I don’t know if you knew that, but I owned a couple of health clubs. I was the owner of a 25,000-foot world gym in Northern Virginia. I’ve always been a big fan of health and fitness, and I’ve owned two health clubs. One burned down, literally burned down, and didn’t rebuild it because the insurance was tough. What they do is they rotate everything. If something burns down and says you need 10 grand to buy equipment, as soon as you buy it, it’s only valued at, say, 5 grand. If you get 5 grand, building it back up is almost like starting over. That was a pretty interesting experience to go through. But the others, yeah, I sold the others, and then this one is built for my kids, so I won’t be selling this one. I’m giving it to my kids who all work for me. A2A Marketing is a lead generation agency. We focus on building lead-generation frameworks.
We’re more or less a bolt-on agency for small business owners. We come in and build lead funnels and manage and nurture the leads for them. We work completely on return on investment. We’re always ROI-based with everything we do. We build strong partnerships with our clients, and then once we’re in, we don’t do competitors. That way we can go all in and invest in them completely.
Lovely. Steve, given your experience in building and selling multiple businesses, what role has a strong online presence played in the overall valuation of the business and attractiveness of these businesses to potential buyers?
I’ll tell you that the website itself used to be the whole train. Now it’s just the engine on the train. The website definitely makes a difference. But as people are starting to find out more and more, they turn on these pretty looking websites and it’s like sticking a beautiful, multi-million-dollar home up in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains, not hiring a realtor, and not putting a sign-up front, just hoping somebody drives by and notices it, but it’s near impossible. The website itself plays a role when you mix it in with the other digital marketing channels and implement proper lead gen strategies. The biggest thing is that intellectual property is the most important thing in building and selling companies. It’s building up a unique value proposition that has an intellectual property that they can take. They’re usually one of my companies sold because of the intellectual property and the clients, and another one sold because of the people. That’s always the trick in the first place. If you want to build a good company, surround yourself with really smart people and empower them to do what they’re good at. It’s not much more secret than that.
Build positions around people. Don’t build people into the positions.
Yeah, absolutely. Diving deep into your journey, which started with your first business in 1998, before that, you also worked on projects with notable organizations like Nike, Black & Decker, and the American Red Cross. How did his experience help you through your journey?
Everything is built up from the beginning. When I was 19 years old, I was working at the Navy Federal Credit Union, and I had the night shift where I worked 11:00 PM to 7:00 AM the next morning. I was in facility operations, which meant all I had to do was check the units. If the alarms went off, call somebody. There was a security issue, call somebody. It was more or less just monitoring all these systems. But I was a type A. I sat and taught myself programming. I started automating a lot of their systems. It wasn’t long before I got moved into the development department. Then they heard about this web thing, and they said, I wonder if this Worldwide Web can be used for business. That was the big challenge back then. Everybody wanted to know if this Web going to be a useful tool for business, or is it just going to be a fad? We started an R&D lab and they said, hey, go stick the kid in there because he’s a kind of an aggressive guy. We ended up doing the first online banking, which at the time was just checking your balance from a web browser, which was the coolest thing in the world back in the early 90s.
But from there, I got to go into other companies and started to go into consulting and everybody had client-server systems, all databases tied to Windows-based visual editors. The big thing was how do we get onto this web? How do we integrate our databases with web front ends? There were new technologies, there was trying to retrain people, and each step of the way it was growing more and more. Then we built a fedcentre.com, which was one of the biggest projects I ever worked on. It was the first-ever federal government commerce site. All procurement had to be done through the site. It was their way of initiating the Internet into business. They were trying to set themselves as the front runner to say, we’ll use it. The DOD will use it and we’ll show the world how to use it. We got to build the first side, but it was all generals, officers, high-level presidents. I’m telling you; the funniest thing was I got this kid in here leading this big team of Ivy League people, no high school or no college education, and my top developer used to work through the night.
He walks into the meeting one day in front of generals and colonels in his socks. He spent the night in there. He ended up putting on Bunny Slippers on his way and walks in the room with his shirt out, these Bunny Slippers on, and we’re just freaking out thinking, what is he about to do? Anyway, he did this presentation and they loved it. They ate it up. It was all about producing. It was all about finding the value in each situation. It was no different. Then I moved on to the crosswalk.com, which became the biggest Christian portal in the world at the time. It may still be, I don’t even know anymore, but same thing. Everybody was going after, how can we utilize this web to expand our reach, to streamline business? At that time, that was more big business, but it became the great equalizer for small businesses because everybody online was on equal ground. You can put a nice site together, have a nice presence, get your messaging straight, and who knows the difference, right? It could be a brand; it could be Nike. Who knows? Nike might be a bad example, but that one was very interesting.
I used some of those to springboard it to my own company. I used a big project to launch off. American Red Cross and the Statue of Liberty, they weren’t done before. They were done after I started my business. They were a big part of how I sold it. The Statue of Liberty in particular was a big deal.
Yeah, absolutely. Talking about digital marketing, you have been helping companies harness the power of the internet since 1995, which is quite early in the internet’s commercial history, let’s say. Can you take us back to that time and share some of the unique challenges and opportunities that businesses faced in the early days of the web?
Yeah, it was even earlier than that. It was in the ’93 range when this stuff started coming out. The biggest thing was nobody knew how to adopt it. In fact, Even From a programming language standpoint, people started to realize that the Internet could be used for business. That was the first thing, was how can we use this? At Navy Federal, we found out we could do some online banking, which major convenience for people who did not have to go to an ATM to look up their balance, right? Then we did the first-ever integration with a wireless. It was BlackBerry’s back at the time, and there was a company called Emtel, which bought a company called Skytel. And just sending messages to the device was a big deal. Again, another efficiency, another convenience of sorts. All the businesses, as they started to look to pull this web into their business, came to be, how do I integrate with it and how do I utilize it to streamline what we do? And primarily at that time, it was less about streamlining operations than it was about expanding their reach. This is the opportunity for me to reach everybody worldwide with messages, with my services, with my whatever. The companies like those were looking at technologies that didn’t exist. ASP was what Microsoft put out way back then, and it was a new thing.
It’s now called. Dotnet and is expanded over here. Then there was something called Cold Fusion. These were two brand-new technologies in the early to mid-nineties that people had to train on because they were the only things that could do web-to-database integration. You had a lot of different things going on. You had to train people on brand-new technologies that, by the way, were in beta. You had to work with new databases so that they could be integrated with the web. You had to work in business. You had to look for opportunities to utilize the web. The best example was the Statue of Liberty, because unfortunately, after 9/11 happened, the National Park Service closed all the monuments around the country, and they were stuck. They didn’t open for I think we didn’t open until 2003. They were trying to figure out how to avoid on-the-ground ticketing because that allows anybody to just come right up into big mass groups. They hired us to build an advanced ticketing system where people could start making online reservations in advance. This was probably the most fun project I’ve ever worked on. It was just our little company, our startup company, two years in, and we’re getting to work on the Statue of Liberty, so it was cool.
But we launched with multiple servers, and the night we launched it all crashed. There were so many people waiting to start looking to get trips back because it had been closed for 18 months too. So, everybody wants to get back to the statue. You have to do advanced ticketing now where you can’t go walk up. And even then, we ended up doing the walk-up so they could scan. But that was all new back then. All this was so new and it was all about figuring out how to adopt those technologies and respond. The statue figure, National Parks have figured out how to use it with advanced ticketing, changed everything for how that worked. Everybody else put it to use in different ways too. Nike was all about, let’s get the world to know, just do it. Branding and getting their products out. All of them were just looking to do the same thing as how they could use that to expand the reach of whatever it was, they were doing. Does that make sense?
Absolutely. Then lastly, Steve, considering your extensive experience, what till today motivates and excites you about continuing to work in the field of internet-based business? What keeps you passionate about helping companies to succeed in the digital age?
It’s funny you say that. I was interviewed by The Washington Post back in, I don’t know, 2000 or something. They were talking to me, right? I had just launched that company. It was called Nuvizion. Back then you had to have these cool names. Everything was a dot com and you had to have cool Zs. My vision was N-U-V-I-Z-I-O-N because it had to be cool like that back then. Our idea was that we could use… We had a new vision for how the Web could be used to help nonprofits and ministries expand their reach. I had just launched and they interviewed me and they were saying, you were working on Black and Decker and Dominion Power, and you’ve got to work on all these Fortune 100 companies. What’s the deal? What’s the excitement in switching? I said, the biggest thing was it was these millions of dollars of projects. I thought, one, we could do them for hundreds of thousands in some cases. They were billing us pretty high, but they had the money. But it just wasn’t so much fulfilling. It was, yeah, I’m helping them bottle on go up 10, 20, 30 million, whatever a year.
But when you work with small business owners, you can help them make a break, in that business. You can take someone. I’ve worked with three to five different businesses just in the past few years that have all made the inked $5,000 fastest-growing list. I love being a part of that. Now we’re having an impact with this. We’re not just creating efficiencies and putting money hand over fist, but we’re helping businesses streamline operations, get leads coming in on regular, on repeat, so they can go run their business because the biggest thing is too hard to keep up with, and they don’t even want to if they could. It helps its needs. I do have businesses that are 3, 4, or 500 million. I have a $5 billion client out of Sweden that’s trying to make a big presence in the US. It’s not that I don’t do them anymore. It’s just that I do get a kick out of taking the Web and streamlining lead generation so that they can generate a return. That return tends to impact the business a little bit more with most of the ones we work with.
Lovely. Yeah, absolutely. Thanks a lot for doing this with us. But before we let you go; I would like to play a quick rapid-fire with you. I hope your game for it. Okay. All right. You last Google search.
You can check if this is open Book. Good. Good work. No worry.
It’s always clients. You know what? I’ve been using ChatGPT a lot more lately. Probably I’m not alone in that. You know what? I’d say if it was personal, it’s going to be for back stuff. I’ve been looking up some issues related to my back.
All right. Yeah, we hope that you recover soon from that. Moving on, let’s say if we were to make a movie on you, what genre would it be?
Sometimes it felt like a horror story, but it would certainly be a drama.
Any business owner is going to tell you there’s been ups and downs, and I’ve had my share in the past 30 years.
Great. Your favourite book?
All right. The last one will not thrill you anymore. What did you do with your first pay check?
You mean way back when, huh?
30 years, if not more?
Yeah, that was probably… I worked at a health club through the end right after high school. I was big into lifting and eating. I probably spent it all on food.
All right, lovely and honest answer. Great answer, Steve. It was lovely hosting you, Steve. I’m sure our audiences would have benefited a lot from the insights that you shared about your journey and the digital industry at large. Thank you so much for taking out time and doing this with us.
Love talking to you, Ranmay. Appreciate it, buddy.
Thank you, now.
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