Techie Entrepreneurs – Chris Baggott
Far from Silicon Valley, in the third largest city of the Midwest, Chris Baggott ‘83, has established himself as a high-tech entrepreneur, an authority on online marketing and a voice for the Internet’s power to democratize the business world.
Baggott, who once made his living as a whitewater river guide, is a founding partner of two successful e-marketing companies headquartered in Indianapolis, Ind. His first, ExactTarget, a provider of email marketing software, ranked among the fastest growing companies of 2006 and was recently recognized by JupiterResearch, a top analyst firm, as a market leader in its industry. His most recent venture, Compendium Blogware, makes blogging software designed specifically for businesses, and has seen its bookings virtually double every quarter since it opened its doors last year.
Baggott launched ExactTarget in 2000—in the wake of the dot-com bust—with two associates and an initial investment of $200,000. Within six years, it blossomed into a $31.2 million enterprise. As chief marketing officer, Baggott was responsible for forging the company’s strategic direction, new business development and partnerships. But the real driver was the founders’ starting premise: Email is a marketer’s dream. When used properly, nothing is more personalized, interactive or easier to execute.
“All organizations are trying to develop better relationships with their constituents. It’s the holy grail,” says Baggott. “Beyond face-to-face encounters or the telephone, email is the only way to have a dialog, an actual one-to-one conversation in a medium that is almost universal. It gives companies of all sizes the ability to leverage data and deliver the right message to the right people at the right time. It puts sophisticated marketing tools in the hands of the marketers and cuts out the middlemen.”
ExactTarget’s basic proposition of leveraging technology to improve business-customer relationships quickly caught on. Its direct client base has risen to about 3,000 organizations, from small retailers and local businesses to such giants as The Home Depot, Expedia.com, and Liberty Mutual. In December, the firm—which employs nearly 300 people—announced plans to go public this year with a common share-offering price that could reach $86.3 million, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Fortune magazine responded by listing it as a “hot IPO of ’08.”
Now considered an expert on database and email marketing, Baggott often speaks about best practices at conferences, tradeshows, and regional business and marketing organizations. He has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Inc. and Adweek, and was approached by Wiley, a business-book publisher, to write a book. The result, Email Marketing By the Numbers: How to Use the World’s Greatest Marketing Tool to Take Any Organization to the Next Level, was released in April 2007.
A few months before the publication of his book, Baggott stepped aside from his day-to-day management role at ExactTarget (he remains on the board) to launch a new venture dedicated to organizational blogging. Compendium Blogware helps its business customers create and use blogs for search engine optimization—in other words, to push them higher in Google search results and boost their visibility—which ultimately helps them reach more customers and generate higher revenue. Fleshed out during Saturday meetings at a local Starbucks, the firm—which simplifies blogging with user-friendly tools designed specifically for businesses—is expanding rapidly.
“We started with two people. We’re now up to 25 and we’re growing by about seven employees per month,” says Baggott, who serves as Compendium’s CEO. “Our clients, which now number about 150, run the gamut from small mom and pops, to law firms, nonprofits, hospitals, publishers, pretty much any type of organization you can imagine—even universities.”
Baggott was an early occupant of the corporate blogging bandwagon, climbing aboard in early 2003 while he was helping to build ExactTarget. He started a company blog called “Email Marketing Best Practices.” It became a hit in the business world, garnering kudos from Forbes, which named it a “Best of the Web” site, and MarketingSherpa, whose readers voted it the “Best Online Marketing Blog.”
Baggott says the first thing that attracted him to the blogosphere was its humanizing effect. “Before blogs, nearly all corporate communication was sterile, institutionalized, safe—as if organizations weren’t made up of people, or that they weren’t talking to people. The very concept of a collective group called ‘consumer’ is insulting. Companies are people. And customers, prospects, members, they are all people, too.
“As I was studying and fooling around with blogging, I began to see its enormous potential as an effective and ethical business tool,” he says. He also saw that businesses had no access to dedicated blogging platforms like Movable Type, Blogger and Typepad, which give personal bloggers the tools to get started. “There was nothing designed specifically for the needs of organizations from a management or ROI [return on investment] standpoint. Recognizing that this could help both organizations and constituents as well—a win-win—I was compelled to start the company.”
Blog search engine Technorati currently tracks 112.8 million blogs and reports that 175,000 new ones are launched each day. But businesses have entered the fray more slowly than individuals. One estimate puts the number of Fortune 500 companies with blogs at 60—12 percent of the total. Given the medium’s power to build communities in the marketplace, Baggott believes organizations of every size and stripe will eventually make blogging a cornerstone of their marketing strategies.
When Baggott collected his diploma, the World Wide Web was still a decade away from its debut. Nevertheless, he was ready to seize the opportunities it later presented. “Evergreen helped prepare me by first putting a computer in my hands. I did all my homework on a computer.”
At one point in his life, Baggott nearly abandoned the idea of finishing college. He left the first school he attended after a year. “It didn’t work for me,” he says. He worked for a while as a river guide and on a ski patrol. Then he learned about Evergreen from an acquaintance and decided to give it a try.
After graduating, Baggott began his career in sales at Abbott Laboratories in Buffalo, N.Y., spending five years with the company’s diagnostics division. He then became a marketing manager for RR Donnelley’s catalog business in Chicago, where he honed his skills in database marketing.
From there, he and his wife Amy, who have four children, decided to move to her hometown outside Indianapolis, where her father was the town doctor and life was easier. Baggott got his first taste of entrepreneurship there, buying a local dry cleaning business that he eventually built into a chain with seven outlets. It grew, in part, because of the loyalty-enhancing email newsletters he created for his customers. These communications included useful information like fabric care advice and special offers and coupons. But when the “business casual” trend took hold in the 1990s, people stopped wearing suits. The business went bust.
Baggott took the lessons he learned from this failure—and his education at Evergreen—to his next startup, ExactTarget. “Evergreen changed my life,” he says. “It taught me about flexibility, responsibility, and collaboration. As a student, you’re well trained and treated with respect. I always felt at a competitive advantage because of my education.”
He speaks to many audiences about marketing democracy. “In the past, successful marketing has always been about how big your budget is,” he explains. “Today, with the Internet, the playing field is leveling and it’s actually an advantage to be more local. It speaks to sustainability and a trend towards focusing closer to home and human beings and away from gigantic institutions and a focus on brands. This is a very Evergreen thing.”