Editor’s Note: I ran into the founders of Array Digital, Erik Olson and Kevin Daisey, at a recent Marketers Anonymous meetup. During the event, they informed me that their company was in the process of opening an office in Orlando. Curious as to their motivations, I asked if they’d be willing to share some of that story with their StartWheel community.
Diversifying the region’s economy and encouraging other companies to think strategically about ways to export their products or services is important to the long-term vitality of Hampton Roads.
Along with the article, Erik sent the following words:
It’s not a rah-rah endorsement of our region, but it’s the truth. Anyone that thinks the local economy is crushing it is living without facts. The truth led us to action.
—Erik J. Olson
We loudly applaud Erik and Kevin’s boldness and their ambition to reach for growth beyond the borders of our region. There’s no shortage of resources here to help your company do the same. Not sure who to reach out to first? Come out to any of the myriad events around town and you’re sure to meet other entrepreneurs willing to give personal referrals to great resources that’ve helped them along the way.
By Erik J. Olson, Co-founder of Array Digital
This past fall, Farmers Bank invited us to a financial briefing on the state of the local economy. Professors from Old Dominion University were presenting their State of the Region research which compares the local economy to that of the state of Virginia and of the entire United States.
I had heard about the report for a long time. I’ve lived here for 25 years and have been involved in the local business industry for many of those years. I knew that this report came out annually, but this past year was the first time I had been exposed to the actual data.
Author’s Note: I will be referring to our region as Norfolk. You may prefer Hampton Roads, Tidewater, Coastal Virginia, or you may invent another name for the region. But I prefer to call it by a name that’s familiar to people outside of the area, a place you can find on the map, and a landmark that’s referenced on highway and flight departure signs hundreds of miles away. The fact that I have to define a name for the region is an indicator of a much bigger problem!
The State of the Region
What I realized from the presentation and the data is that Norfolk’s economy, frankly, sucks.
The US economy has been booming for the past 10 years. These are the good times.
But in Norfolk? Negative. Literally. Look at the below chart. For the past 10 years, as the rest of the country has been booming following the Great Recession of 2008, Norfolk has been literally stagnant and below 0. In the chart, 100 is the baseline so anything less than 100 is what I’m calling “below 0”.
The title of the 2018 annual report was, “Is it morning again in Hampton Roads?” Two strange things about this title stood out to me:
- Morning, meaning a renewal. We’ve been stagnant for 12 years. Crossing from below 0 to slightly above 0 – for me – doesn’t exactly qualify as a revival.
- The fact that the title was in the format of a question and not a statement meant that the authors were hedging their bets. They weren’t sure if it was truly morning, or maybe just a blip. Either way, it wasn’t exactly a strong endorsement of roaring good times finally coming to Norfolk.
The Norfolk economy is inexorably dependent on DoD activity, so anything that affects DoD or government funding directly and immediately affects the economy. With sequestration and continuing resolutions commonplace, DoD funding and the economy locally have been on life support for years.
Ok. So What?
Coming out of that presentation I thought, ‘If the local economy sucks then why are we doing business here?’ And really the only answer that I have is, well, because we live here.
I love this region. I think it’s beautiful. We’ve got beaches; we’ve got a lot of nature. I fell in love here, got married here, and am raising a family here. This is home. If I didn’t happen to live here then it’d be a different story. But I do live here and that’s not going to change anytime soon.
So we’re staying, but the business is at a disadvantage.
That realization led to many questions: Do we want to continue to work exclusively in this region? Do we just have to settle with the fact that the economy here is unfavorable? Is our fate in lockstep with the region’s economy?
Or do we want to try to establish our business elsewhere?
The Remote Network Theory
I have a theory that where you live can be separated from your network. Since I live and work in Norfolk, I go to networking events and do business in Norfolk, and thus my network is in Norfolk. Work naturally materializes from that network.
But the reality is that I may not see the same person for months or even years between networking opportunities. When I do finally see them again, the relationship is rekindled and fortified and made that much stronger with online activities such as interacting with each other’s content.
Could we experience the same networking and relationship building effects in a region – in a more favorable region economically – if we don’t live there? The theory predicts that we can. If we establish a network in another region, then work will naturally materialize from that new network, the same way that it materializes from our local network
So, if we start hanging out somewhere else, even if we don’t live there, if we go to networking events and meet the right people on a regular basis then we’ll get to know them. We can further cultivate those relationships through email, phone calls, social media, etc. We’ll continue to embrace those relationships by visiting once or twice a month.
With the idea that we need to expand our network beyond Norfolk, and the theory that work will come from our expanded network where we don’t live, then the next question was, Where should we expand to?
It didn’t take us long to decide.
Orlando, Florida. And here’s why:
First – we have an employee down there already. He’s a loyal, long-term employee and we don’t see him enough. So we want to go down there and visit him more often.
Second – we already have a client in Orlando. We’ll be able to visit them more often, strengthen that relationship, and they’ll be thrilled that we’ve established a physical presence there.
Third – it’s very easy to get to Orlando from our airport. We can take a direct two-hour flight and be there in time for a mid-morning meeting. Worst case scenario – we could do a round trip in one day if we really had to.
Fourth – it’s a bigger market. Orlando has a population of 2.5 million compared to the 1.7 scattered throughout Norfolk. They have bigger companies. There are more conventions there. There are more opportunities there.
So although there are probably bigger and even more advantageous places to establish ourselves in the United States such as Austin, San Francisco, LA, New York, or Boston, there are better reasons for us to go to Orlando. After we dominate digital marketing in Orlando then we’ll set our sights on those bigger markets. But for now, it just makes sense to go to Orlando.
We’ve committed to visiting at least once a month. We’ve already started holding in-person meetups for marketers (we implemented the concept of Marketers Anonymous, which we started in Norfolk). That gets us in touch with other marketers who work at large companies and could use our services. We will also execute our annual nonprofit giveaway where we’ll give away a website to a deserving Orlando nonprofit, as we have in Norfolk for the past two years.
We’ve rented a coworking space in downtown Orlando. That not only gives us space to work, but it also gives us a physical address that we can use to verify our location to Google, which means we can start building SEO value for our services in Orlando.
Our experiment is working out well so far. We’ve hired a second employee there and already picked up Orlando client #2. Each time we visit, we bump into people we’ve met before. Our new friends in Orlando are tagging us on social media and we’re starting to unravel the who’s who of that market.
And, of course, each time we visit, we field a new lead. And that’s the most important metric of them all.
About the Author
Erik J. Olson is a digital marketer & entrepreneur. Founder & CEO of Array Digital. Host of the Journey to $100 Million Flash Briefing and daily podcast. Organizer of the Marketers Anonymous podcast and monthly meetups in multiple cities.
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