Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Alumni Entrepreneurs Dish on Carolina Experience

New Media Campaigns founders Kris Jordan, Joel Sutherland, and Clay Schossow
Joel Sutherland '07 and Clay Schossow '08 are proud UNC grads and half of the founding members of New Media Campaigns (NMC), a web design and digital marketing start-up in Carrboro, NC. Joel and Clay have helped grow NMC into an award-winning company with clients all over the world. Their work has been profiled in Inc. magazine, and the founders were named on Bloomberg Businessweek’s list of America’s top 25 young entrepreneurs in 2010. The pair recently met with me to discuss the origin of NMC, the Entrepreneurship minor, the support of the UNC community, and what brought them to Carolina in the first place.

Joel and Clay are both Midwestern natives, from Nebraska and Ohio respectively, but were quickly charmed by Chapel Hill. After a summer visit Clay decided to apply Early Action (admittedly for the weather) while Joel was lured by the Morehead Scholarship and the University’s academic profile. Joel, a computer science major, was a part of the first class of the entrepreneurship minor and marvels at how the program has grown in the past few years. “Look at the course Chancellor Thorp is teaching, they have some heavy hitting speakers, I would definitely be in that lecture hall if I was a student” (full list of speakers for Intro to Entrepreneurship here).

While Joel was the sole E-minor of NMC’s founders, his partners found the program accessible as well. Clay, an advertising and political science major, described the E-minor as a supportive community of professionals and academics alike. “Professors were willing to meet with us in the early stages so we all felt included in the business development process.” Clay suggests students “talk to professors about something other than grades. Most professors relish the idea of talking about something that has real world implications as opposed to ‘Can you move my 89% from a B+ to an A-?’”

After working together loosely during a political campaign in 2005, Joel and Clay teamed up for the Carolina Challenge, a yearly business competition that awards substantial prize money to help winners launch their ventures. “Back then it seemed all a candidate had to do was ‘check the website box’--content development and user experience were not high on the priorities list,” Clay explained. “Even so, we saw campaigns pouring tens of thousands into web development, which likely wouldn’t be possible for lesser known candidates.” So they focused their Carolina Challenge idea on creating websites for small political campaigns. Clay continues: “During the 2004 campaign, you really saw the power of the internet as a fundraising tool. People were willing to give $5 to Howard Dean’s campaign for posting a picture of him eating a turkey sandwich in front of his laptop the same night Vice President Cheney hosted a $2,000 a plate fundraiser.” Turns out those small donations helped the presidential candidate raise $500,000 over 3 days, far exceeding the total from the pricey fundraiser. While their idea won the 2006 Carolina Challenge and was the precursor to NMC, their venture was not without missteps.

One of the first decisions they made was to try and partner with another web development group, which resulted in a $15,000 loss. “That was a tough lesson to learn,” Clay joked, “for a student $15,000 is a lot of Bojangles.” However, Joel, Clay and the rest of NMC recovered. Clay’s advice: “Go for it. What’s the worst that can happen? Your idea won’t work out? Big deal, you’re 21. Even if you decide not to continue as an entrepreneur you’ll be infinitely more marketable because of your experience. Just do what you do well."