Fresh out of college, Ben Landers thought he had a job with Merrill Lynch in Chicago, where his girlfriend lived. Told the job actually would be in New York, he decided against moving east and found a position with a large bicycle store in Chicago.
There, he sold a bike to the head of sales for Hotjobs.com and soon became a senior account executive with the online job search business.
“You never know where one position or one sale will lead,” said Landers, the 37-year-old CEO of Blue Corona, a fast-growing Gaithersburg business that provides online marketing, web design, marketing analytics and other services.
Blue Corona recently made Inc. magazine’s annual list of the nation’s fastest-growing private businesses for the second consecutive year.
Last year, the company was the fastest-growing in Montgomery County, fourth-fastest in Maryland and 174th nationally. This year, it was 15th in Montgomery and 694th nationally, with a three-year revenue growth rate of 660 percent, up to about $3 million for 2012.
To grow fast, a company has to quantify its marketing data to build an effective system in which executives know what is working and what is not, Landers said. “You need a marketing system where you can turn the dial up to create demand for your services,” he said.
While vice president of sales and marketing for Gaithersburg bottled water company DrinkMore Water, Landers helped that company’s founder, Bob Perini, develop a system to accurately track and quantify advertising and marketing campaigns. They eliminated almost $150,000 in ineffective Yellow Page ads per year. Landers converted DrinkMore’s website from a “brochure” type of site to a “lead-generation machine” involving e-commerce.
“We took a technological and analytical approach to marketing,” said Perini, who earned an MBA from Harvard and had led DrinkMore onto the Inc. magazine list in 2002 and 2003, shortly before Landers joined the business.
Perini founded DrinkMore in 1993, when bottled water was not as popular as it is today. “We were a little bit ahead of the curve,” he said. “And with our data-driven approach to marketing, we were ahead of the curve there, too. Now you see almost every company taking a more data-oriented approach to advertising.”
Landers considers Perini, who co-founded Blue Corona with him, one of his key mentors. Perini had high praise for Landers, as well. “He has a fantastic level of energy and enthusiasm. He loves the business side of business,” Perini said. “He has entrepreneurial blood coursing through his veins and does whatever it takes to succeed.”
Landers grew up in Montgomery County and graduated from Wootton High School in Rockville. He wanted a fresh environment for college and chose Ohio University, earning a bachelor’s degree in communications and marketing.
After working for Hotjobs for two years, Landers joined WorldCom as a major account executive in the Chicago office in 2002, shortly after the former telecommunications giant filed for bankruptcy amid a financial scandal. While he considered his year there “great experience,” working conditions were tense, to say the least.
“It was a competitive, serious environment. Everyone wore suits and ties,” said Landers, who recalled sweating through the back of his suit before one nerve-wracking meeting. “No one seemed to even take off to eat lunch.”
He soon became regional sales manager at Windy City Sports and Gen-A and moved to Bethesda to manage the advertising agency’s mid-Atlantic region.
While marketing the business at an event, he met Perini and began a key relationship.
“He asked me where I saw myself in five years, and I said I wanted to either graduate from a top business school or run my own company,” Landers said. “He asked if I was interested in earning a practical, on-the-job MBA and starting a business together.”
Less than five years after joining DrinkMore, Landers and Perini co-founded Blue Corona, using the marketing analytics system and e-commerce for clients such as Coakley Realty and Payroll Network. The business set up in an office in the same building as DrinkMore and has grown to 36 employees, with a satellite office in Charlotte, N.C.
“This year, we are shooting for $5 million in revenue,” Landers said.
Landers sometimes takes off from operating his company to speak to students at Georgetown University and blog on sites, which he considers an important marketing vehicle as well. Blue Corona is a member of local chambers of commerce, and he’d like to eventually get more involved in those business organizations.
Perini, still an investor and adviser of Blue Corona, said the 60-employee DrinkMore, which has an on-site manufacturing and bottling plant, continues to see good sales increases.
“Our partnership works well,” Perini said of his relationship with Landers.