One of my sister’s friends is a journalism major at UGA and needed to write a story on someone for a class. My sister suggested me and I was honored to oblige. Below is the piece she wrote and I’m both humbled and impressed. Typically I don’t publish things like this but it tells my story extremely well, better than I could have.
Also, I should point out that this is her writing and she picked and chose what parts of my story she wanted to write about. There are many people that helped this all happen. I won’t mention them all here, but Danny Davis was the 3rd partner and he was as instrumental in our success as Raj or myself. Donovan Panone and his wife Jenni were the 5th and 6th employees with us and they were amazingly influential in our success. And last but not least, Raghu Kakarala joined a few years later as the 4th and final partner, and I can’t say enough things about how much he helped us.
From Dorm Room to Sky Office in a Decade by Sarah Jackson
In a single morning this young entrepreneur’s day has already consisted of five tweets, two Deliciouses, multiple Friendfeeds and who knows how many Facebooks and blogs.
Considering this zealous Internet activity, it is safe to say that Jeff Hilimire was not exaggerating when he said he was “enamored with the web.” And who would deny a love affair with the Internet when it meant being the president of a multi-million dollar digital agency in Atlanta.
Well Hilimire sure could not, and he sealed the deal with Engauge, a multi-faceted marketing agency based in Ohio that bought his digital web design company for millions last year.
When he was only 31. Ah, young love.
The Path to Sweet Success
An apartment containing four college boys conjures images of keg stands, empty pizza boxes, and other questionable substances – hardly an environment conducive to a successful business, but Hilimire promised that is where it all began just about ten years ago.
Hilimire, born in Chicago but raised in Atlanta, started college in 1994 at Limestone College for two years and then transferred to UNC Charlotte for the next three. Although he majored in computer science, he had no intention to start his own business. In fact, he never even took business courses unless his major required it.
Things changed when a couple years into his schooling the web began to demand the world’s attention. Thus the infatuation began.
Despite being already consumed by his position on the UNC Charlotte tennis team, Hilimire said he took every other opportunity to explore this novelty. “It was my hobby, it was my passion. If I wasn’t in class or playing tennis I was working on websites,” he said.
He and his fellow college friend, Raj Choudhury, began building websites for free in 1998, and motivated by their excitement an idea was conceived: why not make a profit? “For no good reason, we said, let’s just start a company. It’s not like we had any good idea. We just kind of backed ourselves into it. We just loved websites.”
The reality was, making websites was not particularly lucrative for a couple of young 20-year-olds armed with a computer and a few credit cards, but they did not really care, Hilimire admitted.
Choudhury graduated a year before him and began a trip around the world as a gift from his parents, but their business venture still continued. His first stop was Canada, and with Hilimire still in Charlotte they began to make websites for local ski resorts and bus touring companies so he could ski for free. The dream lived on between the globetrotter and the college kid, an unlikely but more than dedicated business duo.
In 1999, fate struck in the form of New Zealand, Choudhury’s latest destination. He had begun to establish relationships and convinced a company to fly out Hilimire, who had graduated and was currently living with his mother. “Our biggest project up to that point was like a $1,200 dollar website,” said Hilimire, so when a contract worth more than five times that much was signed, the boys were more than thrilled.
Maybe it was time to move the company out of Mom’s basement.
Naturally, the next location for this growing company, originally called NBN Designs and later renamed Spunlogic, was LA Fitness. They even added a couple employees onboard. It appeared that from a dorm room to mom’s basement to New Zealand to a gym was the inevitable path to success, but they may have been too optimistic.
In January 2000, the New Zealand based company went out of business, leaving Hilimire and Spunlogic behind in the wake of its crash with no money.
“At the time it was the worst thing to happen,” Hilimire said. They had just signed a yearlong lease, added an employee, and Choudhury had ended his trip, but because of that it, “made us really go.”
Any hint of failure was vacant from his tone when Hilimire described the work that followed this letdown. For him the only option was to persist on, a testimony to his passion. “There was not ever a point where I wanted to give up, it never occurred to me. When you are an entrepreneur and you are young you just see the positive,” he said.
Quickly he assumed more of a project management position and allowed other people to specialize in each portion of the company. They began exhausting themselves to impress any client they had. Customer service was their main priority as they developed online advertising, e-mail marketing, and web designs for their clients.
“We would bend over backwards for them. We charged $2,000, and it took us $10,000 to do it,” he said.
Hilimire, who had just recently married his wife Emily in June of 2000, decided they should move back in with his mom and two sisters in 2001 to attempt to save money. “She was willing to let us move in to make the dream happen,” he said with gratitude.
Their resilience and sacrifice was rewarded and Spunlogic steadily began growing in 2001, and when they landed their first big account victory had never been so sweet.
They signed with Honey Baked Ham on the surface of their ping-pong table.
A ping pong table may have been symbolic of their youth, but Hilimire and his partners were proving they were more than mature enough in their abilities. Using one big account to get the next one, their business began to flourish with brands like Coke, Home Depot and UPS, and because of an acute attention to their client’s needs, they never lost them.
The sales exploded from $100,000 in sales in 2000 to $1 million dollars just two years later, said an article on CNNMoney.com.
“In ‘03, ‘04, ‘05, 06 we doubled every year in size, we were just growing like crazy,” Hilimire said but, “it didn’t dawn on me that it would work out probably until we had about 20 employees.”
They started being recognized for these accomplishments. They were named one of Atlanta’s 25 fastest growing companies in 2003 by the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Hilimire was named Catalyst magazine’s Top 25 Entrepreneurs for 2007.
When interviewed for one of his achievements he ironically said he could never see the prefix “mega” describing his company. Unless he considered 75 employees and a multi-million dollar deal small, then he was in for a big surprise.
Towards the end of 2006, Spunlogic was approached by a company that was interested in buying them. Although a deal was never made because they did not feel they were ready, it did trigger some anticipation.
They hired an advisory board that shared its knowledge with them each quarter. They concentrated on the South East in attempt to create a niche. They got an investment banker to initiate interviews and negotiations. Basically, they made one very attractive company.
Which probably helped them find “the one.”
Engauge was the model Hilimire was looking for. It allowed Spunlogic to maintain an office in Atlanta and the culture they had created, but it also gave them the opportunity to branch out to other cities. In May 2008 Engauge, a new agency model, bought Spunlogic and put Hilimire in charge of the digital portion.
“Our goal from the beginning was to be bought. We built a business plan around it,” said Hilimire, “but we never dreamed it would be this big.”
The Man Behind the Monitor
The office, home to his employees, is more reminiscent of a teenage boy’s room than a profitable company. Sprinkled with Spiderman paraphernalia and other eclectic decorations, the company has clearly not forgotten where it all started despite this whirlwind of success. In tribute to the company’s past they have named their conference rooms “The Dorm Room”, “The Basement” and “LA Fitness.”
Appreciation for his roots has been a consistent trait in Hilimire through the years, said his mom in a phone interview. Growing up as more of a father figure than a brother to his two much younger sisters, he was devastated when he had to leave them for college.
“College boys don’t usually have coloring book pictures on their walls,” she said adding that when he came back for breaks all he wanted to do was spend time with them.
“It is a big cliché,” he said, but he really is a family man. As testimony to that, he wanted to hold his new baby girl, Kaitlyn, during the interview. “My family is the most important thing,” he said simply.
As for the other two he has running around, Zac, 4, and Drew, 2, he admits he is not really concerned if they are future top 25 entrepreneurs just yet.
“I am more wondering if they’ll be athletes or not,” he said laughing.
For a person who has made millions before his first grey hair and is a good ten years younger than all of the other managers in his company, he is impressively grounded. He attributes his humble nature to his family, but according to his mom he has not needed much help.
“They are do-gooders. It hasn’t really changed them it has just broadened what they can do for the people they love,” she said about him and his wife.
To prove that, if taking his entire family on a cruise is not enough they also went to see last year’s NBA finals in LA, and his sense of personal obligation does not end with his family.
In January 2009, Hilimire hopped on board with Shotput Ventures, a “technology startup accelerator fund” in Atlanta.
“We have a lot of smart young people in this town and some great universities, so why do you have to be in Silicon Valley to get funding and get your idea off the ground?” Hilimire said in his Shotput Venture profile.
Rather than invest in the community, it is probably safe to say that the majority of 30-year-old men who accumulated immense wealth in such a short time would splurge on a Ferrari or something equally status driven, but not Hilimire, “I still drive my dinky little Jetta,” he said.
Well, that is not completely true. He did indulge on one thing: a new house, and a beautiful one at that, but in stride with his devoted character, he continued to remember his family.
He bought the beautiful house right around the corner from his mom’s.
Jeff Hilimire was not lying when he said all he really needs is his family and the Web, and based on the direction he is going, maybe the rest of us should take some notes.