On Friday, I was fortunate enough to speak with Michael Rolph, CEO and Founder of Wheel Media, an agency that specializes in delivering web design, social media and SEO services to small businesses, with a focus on non-profits.
In the late 90’s, Michael skipped out on a career in mortgage banking to go back to school to get a Master’s in Education, with the goal of working with kids and to ‘do some good in the world.’ Below is a record of our conversation that details his early observations of the internet, his favorite clients, 5 words that describe Wheel Media and the development of Wheel Media during the last 13+ years.
Roll up your sleeves and get ready to be inspired.
Tell me more about your career and how your initial experience in education served as a platform for founding Wheel Media over 13 years ago.
I was in graduate school when I was working on the campus of University California Davis running a program in career development. Originally, my career began in finance, in mortgage banking, but I have always had an interest in working with those who didn’t have the opportunities that many of us had. I did a lot of mentoring and working with youth. I figured I would go back to graduate school and instead of getting an MBA I decided to get a Master’s of Education and work with kids and do some good in the world.
There I was at this program at UC Davis doing career development for undergraduates there when this new web directory called Yahoo started to get popular. It was still 1-page with about a dozen topics on the homepage. You could click to read more about something. It was brand new.
Being on a college campus, it was pretty fascinating because there was a lot more buzz about the promise of the internet. It was extremely exciting. I thought this could really level the playing field and allow people to have access who didn’t have upward mobility.
Eager to be a part of the new internet economy, I left UC Davis and took a position with an interactive agency. I quickly moved to the SaaS startup CampusEngine to direct product marketing, and then to VP Marketing at an another digital agency before founding Wheel Media. I started the firm to provide 360-degree marketing services to smaller businesses and nonprofit organizations, and later startups.
Tell me a little bit more about the niche that Wheel Media and specifically what kinds of clients do you seek work with and which clients do you enjoy working with?
What I saw was that interactive and digital agencies have really avoided small to medium enterprise primarily due to budget. By one count there are 45 million small businesses across the country.
There was a huge market opportunity to try to find a way to deliver a true agency service, which is strategy and discovery and full service – from design to message to development. There seemed like there was a huge chance to go in and move quickly but we’re going to offer a truly strategic solution.
Tell me more about how Wheel Media has evolved over the last 13 years. You alluded to this in the beginning, but how have you built a model where you are servicing these different markets in Detroit, Sacramento, Charlotte and San Francisco.
We began working with primarily small businesses, primarily with non-profits. First time entrepreneurs…I had a client – he worked for the military and worked in secret operations. He came to me with this business idea about helping service people connect with their spouses when they are overseas.
I helped him define the strategy, do the messaging, and there was a visual design component and a development component. A lot of first time entrepreneurs have an idea that they start themselves. The idea behind Wheel Media is if your business really starts to grow, and it goes from a side project to a full-time project, I fully expect some of these businesses to outgrow us and they will move-on to bigger, larger agencies that can really support a very, very sophisticated marketing and advertising strategy.
We always work with non-profit organization that have small budgets and wonderful missions. It continues to be inspiring for me. As the startup world has started booming in the last several years, being based in the San Francisco Bay area, we are in the position to do a lot of work with angel investors.
[pullquote]The national strategy is part of a plan for me to realize how we can move beyond a consultancy and move more into a media organization. It’s kind of similar to to the online content network that you’re building there.[/pullquote]
Our focus is really in understanding that small businesses look local first. There isn’t really any comprehensive, locally-based marketing information source. Business journals aren’t filling the void that a small businessperson needs to understand how to market their business in 2014 and moving forward.
Our clients often ask: what is search engine optimization? I keep hearing about it. How do you set up an email marketing campaign? How can my website actually drive business or reduce operating costs? A lot of small business owners that have been successful for 10-20+ years – these aren’t answers they have and they don’t know where to get them.
Creating Wheel Media in Sacramento, Detroit and Charlotte was my first foray into regional markets where we can provide local services to a team of account representatives who can then create a series of local marketing blogs that can simplify and educate and inspire business owners and entrepreneurs and directors of non-profits. Here’s information that can help you move your organization into the future of digital marketing. We can help you make sense of the web.
Are you focusing on those four markets or is there anything coming down the pipe where you have your eyes on other markets?
From a market-side perspective, Sacramento and Charlotte are a size that is a good fit for us. Using Google as a way to drive traffic for a blog is a big part of the strategy. They’re kind of test markets – just trying to assess interests and refine the message a little bit. Understanding although we work with clients all over the world through the course of our history, we understand that people in the Bay Area have a greater awareness of digital technology and the web.
I have always found that the Bay Area is more appreciative and values the digital world a little bit more. How do folks value our work in Charlotte and Detroit? We can grow fairly easily with this regional strategy.
I just love Detroit. I love everything about it. I love the American history. I love the rebirth from the economic downturn. I see a creative community and resilience of the city. It’s just near and dear to my heart. I think it’s a wonderful story. I want to be a part of the revitalization of a great American city.
It’s kind of letting these regional offices percolate and grow organically. Then I can feed them more time and resources as they start to grow.
Who’s the most interesting client you have worked with in the last 13 years? What have you learned from this client?
It’s hard to choose. The Bwindi Community Hospital in Uganda was remarkably inspiring. I helped this hospital understand the value of the internet and helped them fundraise from the United States and the UK to keep the organization growing. This was actually a very smart business model. We did a website re-design. We enjoyed the cross-cultural communication process and getting to know each other.
Everything about their organization and their population was extremely different than in the west. It was a really inspiring story, as I learned about how they delivered services. It’s been six or seven years. They have always stuck with me during this time…it’s a story I have told many times.
They are literally just a hospital but a huge percentage of their work is done on motorcycles driving out to villages to do education out-reach. Getting to the hospital is very, very difficult. Serving their population doesn’t just focus on them telling their population that they are there. They would create a series of instructional methods and their employees would go on motorcycles to different villages and teach them dental care.
They are the hospital that teaches people what vegetables grow the best in this climate. It was great to just observe this. They felt like a startup that was pivoting and responding to market conditions. They looked at their customer. This is what we need to do to keep people healthy. I got an email a couple of years after we launched their website that said they were launching a fundraiser to get motorcycles. There’s a lot to learn about how this hospital conducted their work.
If I were to ask 5 Wheel Media employees to describe Wheel Media how would they describe the company in 1 word? You can provide me 5 words and a reason why.
The below answers are from five different Wheel Media employees.
Innovative – When we create a new marketing strategy or website we hear this word quite a bit. We aim to innovate in technology as well as message and our process.
Ambitious – We set high goals for our work, and enjoy helping our clients reach goals they didn’t think were possible.
Inspirational – Our taglines, websites and brochures inspire people to take action. That’s when we know we’ve hit the target.
Easy – Easy as in, easy to work-with. Easy to understand. And easy to afford.
Generous – Michael, the CEO, is wildly generous with his time and knowledge. He’s always sharing his knowledge with other entrepreneurs and nonprofits that are searching for a way forward. That generosity is contagious here at Wheel Media
What’s next for Michael Rolph?
I have a project/startup that we are developing in-house with another partner of mine. It’s an e-commerce company in the arts. It’s still in the development stages. It’s really exciting to be working in the arts — it’s a project I am working on with my sister. It’s even more fun and exciting to be working with her. It’s taking advantage of the maker and craft movement. It’s an exciting business to play with in the first half of 2015.
I’m making a transition with the agency in trying to pursue organizations in the social enterprise. Do more work with organizations that are doing good in the world. There are more resources available to social good organizations and it puts us in a position to help them put their message out and serve their populations. This is what I’m aiming for in the coming year.