As an immigrant entrepreneur, who founded a successful digital marketing agency, Alexander Kesler gives back many ways
One way is to uplift his 25 Romanian employees who are on rotation to work with his 25 Boston employees at his digital marketing agency – They say that their lives are changed forever.
Regular listeners know that this podcast seeks to “encourage entrepreneurship in emerging markets”. I regularly ask guests for their input on how to accomplish that. A pragmatic answer I receive is: ‘Yes, in developing countries, there is corruption and red tape, but what can be done right now is to focus on teaching people how to practice business better. Alexander Kesler, my guest today, has been doing exactly that for over 3 years. His family emigrated from Russia, right after high school, to avoid persecution and to find better opportunities here. He attended college at Babson, in Massachusetts, His current company InSegment, and Inc. 5000 Company, provides the full suite of digital marketing services, enjoys a large roster of impressive clients.
I’m excited through this interview to discover how others can learn from his unique perspective and business success.
For example: At InSegment they serve customers faster and more creatively, by having his employees in the same room. They can quickly resolve the issues for multiple clients, rather than relying on Skype or virtual calls. Plus, they like the camaraderie of working in a team, with all its help and support. “At the end of the day”, Alexander says: “we are human beings.”
Alexander grew up in Moscow, with wonderful memories of attending plays there every week, a tradition he tries to keep, until today. After he graduated from a physics and mathematics high school in Russia, at the age of 16, his family came to America. He credits his upbringing in Moscow for giving him his extreme work ethic. He learned mathematics from his father, an engineer, and the love of arts from his mom. From his grandparents he learned, what was good and what was not good, they could answer all of the questions that a young boy has.
Alexander puts a strong emphasis on ethics for his company, which services a large number of impressive clients in New England.
How does he work with clients: “Clients want to know what’s going on, how to fix a problem? We’re look at everything all the tracking, cost per lead, cost per conversion, cost per sale, and cost per opportunity. Then we come back and say: “okay here is what is going on “and here is how to fix it. Here is how to implement it, and here’s what you can expect once it’s implemented. Then we have another client for many years?”
“With ourselves and with our clients, we always stay with the truth. If they ask us to use a metric that would misrepresent their performance, we tell them ‘No, we don’t live in a made-up world!’”
I asked Alexander, if you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?
“I want to give talented people who don’t have access to resources help to realize their potential. I would provide them with high quality distance learning and a marketplace for businesses to connect to talent – to meet individuals that would typically be beyond their geographic or socio-economic reach.”
I assure you that the people that are working with us in Romania are forever changed. We spread our culture, our work ethic, our principles, our rules and best practices right into all of the elements of their work.
Alexander Kesler founded a digital marketing agency, inSegment, in Boston 9 years ago. The agency is growing because Alexander’s 50 employees insist on majoring how their work benefits their customers. Both customers and employees speak of Alexander as someone who truly cares about technology, about being a good partner and about them. He was born and raised in Moscow, Russia and moved into England when he was seventeen. In this interview, Alexander shares in detail how he learns, how he teaches his employees to contribute and why his customers stay with his agency so many years. Ok, let’s go to the interview.
[1:33] Welcome, Alex, to the Immigrant Entrepreneur.
[1:36] Kent, I appreciate you having me. It’s a pleasure.
[1:40] Tell us a little bit about your background.
[1:42] Sure. I grew up in Moscow, Russia, went to school there and I graduated from high school there. My high school was a specialized math and physics school so I really focused on the math and the engineering type studies while I was in Moscow. When I was 17 I moved to Boston with my family; my parents and grandparents moved here over to Boston and therein started our life here. 20 years later I’m still here in Boston and consider myself more of an American than Russian. I am, of course an American citizen, loving it here. That was my background before I moved.
[2:49] How old are the kids when they graduate from high school in Moscow?
[2:54] 16, usually.
[2:56] 16? Ok.
[2:57] So, I graduated and then ended up going into a local university there for one semester and then, around March time, came to Boston.
[3:08] What’s a great memory you have about your hometown? Big city, but still a hometown.
[3:13] Sure. Well, great memories are really the cultural life, the rich cultural life that’s available. Theatre, I’m a big fan of plays and theatre so I used to go to different plays almost every weekend for many years. I’m a big fan of classical literature.
[3:40] Like Pushkin or… Dostoyevsky; his weren’t plays. Who are some of the playwrights that you enjoy? Modern playwrights?
[3:51] A lot of modern play writers but also a lot of classics playwrights: Pushkin of course and Chekov and Dostoyevsky. In fact, there are a lot of brilliant plays that are even coming to New York and even sometimes make their way to Boston as well from Moscow. They bring them over and they provide translation through this kind of monitor. So it’s our little subculture and a lot of people that love theater and I’ve always loved theater. I went to Babson College here in Boston, which is a local, relatively small but well known for its entrepreneurial program school, and one of he classes I took was English stage and it involved us going to London for three weeks and going to theater everyday. It was great, I absolutely loved it.
[5:00] So was there a motive coming from your parents then, to immigrate?
[5:05] I think the motive was to avoid prosecution back in Russia. That potentially could have happened and they’d experienced it growing up. That’s probably the first motivation. The second motivation was based around trying to avoid me having to go to the armed services of Russia, having to go to the army for two years. Also the third reason is of course seeking better opportunities and a better life. I think those were the motivations in the order of preference.
[5:53] Right. What did you learn from your parents?
[6:00] I’ve learned everything from my parents. My dad is an engineer and my mom is a teacher, a professor in college in Russia. In here she does private tutoring and she taught French in Russia and a number of other subjects. So I think I have kind of both sides o my personality, which is the mathematical, engineering side as well as the more soft and liberal arts side as well. That’s what I’ve learned from my family as well as the core values and principles of what we do and what we don’t do. Those were definitely the lessons of being brought up in Moscow. I also had significant influence from my grandparents as well; were a big part of my life.
[7:09] What kind of story do you remember that was a kind of lesson from your grandparents?
[7:17] I spent a lot of time with my grandparents during the summers, during school vacations. So it was a lot on the more value side, what was good, what’s not good. I did all the questions that kids ask, that are eager to explore; a lot of those answers came from my grandparents.
[7:47] Talk about your company inSegment. What kind of services do you provide? And I did cruise the website, it’s actually a lot of services.
[8:00] Yeah. We’re a full service company; we’re a full service social agency. We provide everything that any company would need in terms of digital marketing. However, we do focus on three vertical markets that we work in. One, and our biggest one is high tech and software companies. For these companies we focus on lead generation, search engine optimization and demand-gen services. For education vertical we do a lot of digital marketing to drive prospective students to the respective universities and colleges; again, it’s lead generation and digital marketing through programmatic through paid search, through organic search as well. And our third vertical that we work in is banking and financial services. In that sector we are just really a full service agency where we build website, we do Google campaigns and generate traffic and drive our clients’ brands to success in their service areas.
[9:28] And that’s different software for different organizations. Is that like Ruby on rails or… is that dipping software you use?
[9:39] When it comes to build-outs of lending pages, microsites and websites we primarily use open source technology. Probably, our number one choice often is Drupal. We also build on WordPress, Joomla as well as probably a dozen other platforms. What we find is Ruby is a preferred platform for high-tech companies and startups and we’ve done some work with Ruby and it’s a great language. In fact, we have an amazing client who is in the business of content management system for Ruby on Rails development.
[10:36] Is that Basecamp or…?
[10:38] No, it’s a company called Scrivito. Basically there are so many content management systems out there but when it comes to Ruby on Rails there haven’t been any good ones until Scrivito. And there’s so much interest in the CMS for Ruby; people just love it, the simplicity.
[11:03] I’m sorry, for my listeners, can you explain CMS?
[11:05] Content management system. It’s something that sits on the backhand of your website, it allows you to make changes to the website without calling your developer. So, you need to update some content, you need to create another page, you need to public some stuff in your blog, you need to change some data; that’s what you do using a content management system, a CMS, that lives behind your website.
[11:34] How many people do you think you have in your company?
[11:36] We have over 50 people at this point. Yeah, we have quite an operation here.
[11:46] Are they working in offices there, are they working virtually, across the world?
[11:53] We have two offices: one office is here in Boston, in a suburb of Boston called Newton; we’re about 10 minutes from downtown. We have 25 to 30 people here. And the rest of our team is in Romania; that’s where we’ve opened a development office and that’s where a lot of the design development, QA type of work is done. It’s been an operation for a couple of years, almost three years at this point; we’re happy with the team there and they have very smart capabilities, great smart team and great guys. We’re continuously expanding both of out teams, here in Boston and in Romania as well.
[12:56] You travel there sometimes?
[12:57] I do travel there sometimes. We have a rotation program; people actually coming here from Romania and some of our people going there so that we can work better as one integrated team. But one thing that we don’t really do is we don’t do a lot of virtual.
[13:14] That’s interesting. Some companies have made a decision to kind of work virtually and nobody has an office. Why did you make a decision to integrate people having lots of contact?
[13:29] As an agency, we work on multiple clients and many projects. We’re very busy, we’re doing a lot of work for our clients and being able to get into a quick meeting and getting into a quick call, being in the same room and resolving the issues for various clients is very effective. If you have to rely on Skype and conference calls and catching up, the efficiency goes down so much that it really doesn’t work very well for the agency business. We also like having a team, we like having a group of people that are at the same mindset, that are coming to work and that are enjoying being here and living that type of life. I think a lot of people get burned out from working from home or from temporary offices because they feel alone and not really part of a team and that’s really the experience people have. In fact, I’ve interviewed a number of people recently that told me exactly that; they said, ‘yeah, I kind of work from my home now, I really don’t like it, it’s so lonely and I don’t feel like I’m part of a professional team and a professional environment and I want to go back to the normal office environment where there’s comradely, there’s help, there’s support, there are relationships that you build’. I think it’s critical; at the end of the day we’re human beings. This is part of our setup: to be in teams and groups and work that way. I don’t think we’re made to work as lone wolfs from home that way. So that’s where we stand on that question.
[15:17] I read on your LinkedIn account, a number of people made quite positive recommendations about your character and their experience working with you. How do your values, coming from your grandparents and your parents, kind of informed you in being able to naturally guide and manage and grow you company? It’s impressive: 50 people.
[17:44] Yes. Thank you for noticing that and thank you for bringing it up. I do have a number of important values that I always practice, that I think help that. One of them: doing the right thing. So often in business we get into either competitive situations or situations with the team members where things get complicated and difficult. It always helps me to go back and say, ‘ok, what’s the right thing to do?’, and just say, ‘ok, we do the right thing’. We don’t react, we don’t go and prove something to somebody, we just do the right thing even if it’s not to our immediate advantage because it’s going to come back to us in a positive way somehow, if we do the right thing. And also, in other point, staying to the truth is another thing. So often we have clients that want something done because it’s better for them, we just look at the truth of, ‘is it really going to help them, is this the strategic thing to do and is what they want really something that should be done?’. And often times we just say, ‘we hear you and we understand what you want us to do but it makes no sense’. Just continuing to be truthful. Sometimes we have a situation where the client says, ‘look, I want for you to report for this specific marketing tactic, I want you to report on these metrics’. And it’s a very reasonable client request to say that they want to do it but often times we don’t; we just say, ‘no we cannot do it, we will not do that’. And they say ‘why?’, and we say, ‘well, that’s because that’s not the truth, that’s not what this specific marketing tactic’s supposed to do, that’s not what is there for; so by reporting on the metrics that you’re asking us, you’re asking us to position this tactic as if it’s something that it’s not and we have to stay to the truth of what it really is so that we’re all in the same page; if we start doing that then we’re not living in the real world anymore, we live in a made up world and we don’t want to do that’. So we end up having to say things like this very often and my team knows these things. They go, ‘ok, what’s really the truth here, what’s going on?, let’s stay true to what it really is and let’s not start stretching anything anywhere’.
[18:33] This is so important. One purpose or hope for this podcast and what I believe is that Immigrant Entrepreneurs are people who come here from emergent markets, developing countries, other cultures; they come to America and they have certain deep values and culture themselves. And then they also gain something in this country, either through education or the experience of developing their companies. And they’re in a unique position to influence the culture in America, and they do it, but also they can influence the culture back in the emerging markets. Right? And I think a lot of the time when economists or developing agencies study, ‘how can we alleviate poverty, how can we develop a country, how can we develop their economy there?’ they kind of leave culture behind from economic efforts; they look simply in terms of, ‘we can give this much money or this much aid’. So the question is, when you’re going back to Romania, or when Romanians come there, have you noticed people being surprised or being impressed or changing they’re own cultural values as well? Does that make sense?
[20:14] Absolutely, it makes a lot of sense. I assure you that the people that are working with us in Romania are forever changed. We spread our culture, our work ethic, our principles, our rules and best practices right into all of the elements of their work. Then they work with us a couple of years, some of them move on to other organizations or get recruited and I’m sure that they bring it right with them. Some of the best practices and some of the elements of doing work that I’ve been taught and at Babson, and that I’ve discovered work the best as I’ve been working here for the past 15 years or so, is something that we export right back to Romania. And vice versa, my work ethic, which some would argue is a little bit intense, is something that I brought here from my upbringing back in Moscow. So it’s definitely a melting pot that goes both ways.
[21:50] That’s right. These kind of value-based behaviors actually really make a difference in the long term market value of a company.
[22:01] Yeah. I mean, we’re very focused with all of our campaigns and all of our programs on the ROI. A lot of times with marketing, agencies and in general with marketing, you deal with this very undefined set of metrics. It’s like, ‘yeah, you know, we’re doing something, you’re getting in front of people I guess it’s working, some of it is not working, we really don’t know what, it’s going well but we really don’t know how well; we spent all this money, I’m not sure if we made it all back but I guess that’s how it goes’. That’s a lot of what we hear. Those are the type of feedback that we hear from companies out there. So, we go in and we say, ‘no, that’s not acceptable; we have to prove to you as an agency that every dollar that you spend with us, you get 3 dollars back’. So let’s set up systems and processes in a way that will allow us to track it, to measure it so that we can in fact prove to you that we’ve given you the ROI on your spend with us. And once we do prove it to you, then we want more budget and you’re not going anywhere because we’re proving to you that we’re making you money; where are you going to go? That is our approach. Sometimes it’s difficult for people to get their head wrapped around the concept of closed-loop reporting and tracking, making sure that everything is being measured. Sometimes it’s scary to implement those systems because then you might find out that something you thought was working is actually not working. But it’s liberating in a way because once you know it, then you can reinvest where it’s working and then you can be that much more efficient and continuously improve and continue to work better and better. And that’s what I like and that’s what I focus on and that’s what we bring into companies out there. And as we bring those type of systems in, we see companies… let’s say we work with VPO marketing in one organization and then they get recruited and leave and go to another company, they take us with them. That’s one of the ways in which we grow; because we get taken by employees from one company to the next and they know they can rely on us to be the extension of their team and to be on the same page with them and to give them straight answers, give them the truth, give them what’s really going on.
[24:52] You’re like part of their toolkit; like a dependable tool, specially if you can deliver that kind of clarity in terms of your ROI. It really helps them, it gives them confidence in a sense, as they’re moving into a new unpredictable situation.
[25:08] Exactly. And often times they don’t have any emotional connection to previous successes or failures because they’re just coming in; they just want to find out what’s going on, they want to get marketing audit done. And they want to find out where the money is being spent in a smart way and where it’s being spent not in such a smart way and why and how to fix it. And we come in as a part of their toolkit or sometimes as their whole toolkit when we’re going in and doing complete marketing audit. We look at all the tools, we look at all the systems being used, we look at all the tracking, we look at all the spend. Actually doing it and actually tracking everything is critical and it’s liberating; it guarantees success because if you’re not measuring something, you cannot change it to a positive. Cause per lead, cause per conversion, cause per sale, cause per opportunity; we just really slice and dice everything and then come back and say, ‘ok, here’s what’s really going on and here’s how to fix it, here’s how to implement it, here’s what you can expect once it’s implemented and then we get to do it’. And we get to have another client for many years, which is what we like in our business, that organic natural growth.
[26:21] How did your immigrant perspective helped you to see opportunities and overcome obstacles?
[26:28] I see the opportunities every day because things are changing so rapidly and change equals opportunity. The opportunities are just abundant out there. I’m so surprised when I hear from people or I read somewhere that people say, ‘its so competitive, there’s really no opportunity’. It is competitive for sure but opportunities are endless. You’re second part of the question as how the immigrant background allowed me to deal with challenges…
[27:04] Yeah, to perceive; it’s kind of like a different viewpoint. Like you said, you’re surprised when people say, ‘wow the economy is preventing me from doing something, there’s so much competition’.
[27:17] I see that there are a lot of people that I speak to are kind of spoiled, spoiled by wanting too much, by contributing too little. There are a lot of people I interview as we are recruiting and continuously looking for talent, I found people out there that really don’t want to give too much; they just want to give a little. But when it comes to how much they want to get back, it’s like they want everything, they want it now and they think they deserve it. When people tell me, ‘I deserve this much’, and I say, ‘look, we all deserve a million dollars, no question about it, and you definitely deserve a million dollars a year too but let’s look at the other side of the coin and the contribution’. That contribution can be in terms of sales or in terms of up-sales or in terms of work done or in terms of excellence of the work being done or in terms of bringing new systems and implementing new processes, new methodologies or in terms of creating raving fans from our clients. There are all of these different points where people can drive the value but it has to be driven, it can’t just be take, it has to be give-and-take. I just see it very differently: I always want to give more than I want to take because that’s how the lifetime relationships are built; it’s by giving more than taking. And giving more first and then the taking will come later because it’ll be natural. That’s the way I look at it.
[29:17] As you visit Romania, Russia and other emerging markets, perhaps reflecting, what changes can improve entrepreneurship in these markets?
[29:31] Romania is definitely and emerging market. I think what can improve entrepreneurship in those markets is less red tape but that’s probably nothing you haven’t heard of before. I think what really can change and drive entrepreneurship in the emerging markets is different education. The US, American education system, especially higher education, college and university education is what really drives entrepreneurship here and makes it flourish. What I find is that in the emerging markets, the higher education is more traditional, it hasn’t really changed in the past 10, 20, 30 years or it has changed very little and that’s a really big deal.
[30:36] Ho do you learn? Your company is embracing a wide swath of technology and offerings. And technology is an area that, as you said, is always changing, how do you learn? How do you stay abreast?
[30:56] I’m an avid learner or everything; I’m fascinated by learning. I don’t spend really any time watching TV, I’m not a big fan of another recreational type of activities, I don’t really watch a lot of sports or anything like that. I spend time by watching TED talks, by listening to podcasts, by reading articles and reading books that I’m interested in; so, I’m always learning. On some of the flights that I take I’m listening to podcasts, reading a new book or an eBook or listening to a book on tape the whole way throughout; as I walk into the airport, until I walk out in another country, I have the headsets in my ears and I’m in a parallel world over there. So I dedicate a lot of time to it and I love it. I guess I’m lucky in a way that I enjoy it and continuously do that.
[32:10] How can people contact or follow you or your company?
[32:13] The best way to contact me personally is to go to my website, which is kesler.net. It’s just one page, an old personal site with a contact form and email and everything. To look at my company, the best way is to go online and go to insegment.com and you can connect with me there as well and look at everything that we do and look at a lot of thought-leadership content we publish, that I personally write sometimes; a lot of whitepapers, studies, info-graphics. Reach out your question and we move this industry forward along with everyone else. That’s how it goes.
[33:03] Beautiful. I just came to you kesler.net. Under the articles tab there’s a number of articles going back to 2010; these are the ones that you’ve authored?
[33:14] 5 SEO insights pivotal to optimizing your website
[33:17] Yeah. That’s actually the article I wrote a month, month and a half ago; that’s for Conversion Sciences. I always write articles and I write for various publications: in the Search Engine Journal, different magazines and MOZ and so on in the space, as well as larger industry publications, Inc. Online and so on. I enjoy that for sure.
[33:44] This is great. What’s your Russian-Jewish secret sauce?
[33:53] I’d say that we just keep pushing the envelope, we don’t stop. We don’t settle on the status quo, we don’t settle on, ‘well it’s kind of working, it’s ok, we can relax and do something else’. We’re always saying, ‘how else can we push this client’s program to make it even more successful, what else can we do’. Even in a meeting that we had with a client, an annual meeting that we had with a client that’s been with us for 5 years, this is the 5th year and we just told them in a meeting that we drove their lead volume up with the same budget as the year before by 126%. We more than doubled their lead volume with the same budget. This is year 5 that we’ve been optimizing with them and the client said, ‘you guys really made it difficult for yourselves next year, right? look at the results you gave us this year’. We’re not about spoon-feeding the results; we drive it. We drive it, we drive the success of the client and then it’s a no-brainer for the client to continue working with us because they know we have their best interest in mind and we’ll continue to drive it. That relentless focus on continuing to push forward is one of the core values of the organization.
[35:31] Is there anything else that you’d like to talk about?
[35:33] I think we’ve covered a lot and I appreciate you bringing me on. It was a pleasure chatting about this and I’m happy to join back and have another chat anytime you’d like.
[35:45] Wonderful. Thank you so much Alex, for coming on the Immigrant Entrepreneur.
[35:49] Than you very much.