In eighth grade, at the age where most kids are skateboarding or going on Mountain Dew-benders, Steve Ashley was already punching the clock—figuratively, anyway. The year was 1992 and the company was Market America, a marketing and product-brokerage company headquartered in Greensboro, North Carolina, and founded that same year by JR Ridinger. There were eight people, including Ashley, working for Market America in its infancy, and now, over 20 years later, the company employs nearly 750 people worldwide, with total assets around $146.1 million and an annual revenue more than double that. Ashley has been at the company the whole time—even through the busiest phases of his high school and college years—and currently serves as its vice president of social and mobile products.
For Ashley, person-to-person relationships, especially in social networking and mobility, demand an adaptable method that leaves room for growth.
1. Find Your Passion
Though obviously not an option for all budding entrepreneurs and business professionals, that Ashley was able to start when both he and Market America were still in their youth allowed Ashley to not only grow with the business but to also understand the full dynamics of its operations. “I started working part time, helping to pack boxes and orders,” Ashley explains. “I then made my way through the ranks, doing anything from customer service to accounting. I was able to learn all of the aspects of the business to figure out where my passion in the company would be.”
It didn’t hurt that Ashley’s sister and brother-in-law were also key founders of Market America, thus also providing Ashley a comfortable and challenging environment in which to grow.
2. Do What Makes the Most Sense
In high school, Ashley was an avid baseball player and active on the school’s baseball team, and as work at Market America continued to pick up, Ashley saw he had a decision to make. “There was one way of looking at it, that work was the thing distracting me from playing baseball,” Ashley says. “But I also really enjoyed learning from the entrepreneurial zeal that JR and my family had, and learned as I went that there was a future here for me.”
It might have been a difficult decision for a high school student to make, but by looking beyond the end of his high school career, Ashley realized that sticking with the business would provide him an environment for continued professional growth and economic stability. When Market America went online in 1998, sticking with the company was a foregone conclusion.
3. Go Where the Buyers Are
Market America is a product-brokerage company, marketing over 5,000 Market America-exclusive products in everything from health to nutrition to household items, along with 45 million partner-store products (from stores like Walmart and Best Buy). The company uses both a one-to-one direct-marketing system, which levies the power of Market America’s 180,000 customer managers, and a network of distributors that sell products directly to their own clients.
Even though the Internet was utilized throughout the mid-1990s, it wasn’t until the late 1990s, as more buyers began directing their purchases through online avenues, that Market America moved to the Internet. “Once people started realizing that buying products online was a much easier and efficient process, Market America really began migrating over to the Internet,” Ashley says. “The new challenge, on the technological level, is staying ahead of the curve.”
4. Build an e-Storefront
Though Market America has been online since the late 1990s, it primarily relied on its customer managers to oversee product sales and one-to-one marketing efforts. Then, in 2010, Market America acquired the Shop.com URL, utilizing the sites extant data structure to create a direct-to-customer interface, with individual “Shop” pages directly linked to the company’s customer manager accounts.
Major moves such as this have, for Market America, served as an impetus for company growth. There were only six employees when Ashley started; when the company went online, the staff grew to 150. “When we really pushed forward, around 2003, trying to become more Internet-based, we also had a huge ramp up for HR, development, project management, and user experience, so we went from having four or five programmers to the 200 programmers we have now,” Ashley says.
5. Stay in the Game
“You’re either in the mobile game, or you’re not,” Ashley says. “And if you’re not in the game, you’re not going to last. You need to go where your people are, and you need to be connected to them as much as possible.”
Staying versatile is a fundamental aspect of the direct-marketing system, so ensuring that Market America is on the same platform and communicating the same way as its customer managers and their clientele is fundamental to the vitality of its direct-marketing mechanisms.
Additionally, mobile technology is an analog for mobility in business. Insofar as mobile technology is merely one step along technology’s evolutionary cycle, the ability to adapt to mobile technology, and then whatever is next, is also essential for staying in the game.
For Ashley, sociability is a two-pronged business strategy. On one side, in addition to aspects of mobile technology, social media and social networking have also emerged as the norm in consumer culture. For a company like Market America, which utilizes the same conceptual framework as a digital social network for its business model, social media is an obvious marketing tool. On the other side, social media, as a tool, opens up new aspects of socialization previously unavailable to the company during its formative and early Internet years. “I trust my friends more than I trust a company; I always have,” Ashley says. “So when my friends like a product, I want to try it.”
And speaking to the future of social media, Ashley adds, “The new analytical products and apps released by sites like Facebook and Twitter in the coming years will only enhance our business, because they will help us qualify our consumers, and even find those consumers we don’t yet know about.”