VIA Was In On the Start of the Internet Age

VIA Internet Studio is celebrating its 15th anniversary with a party tomorrow at Actors Theatre. And being 15 years old in the Internet business makes the company started by Kelly McKnight the senior statesman among companies doing innovative things on the ‘Net. In 1996, I was a reporter at Business First, and can remember lobbying the bosses there for this newfangled email thing and access to the Internet. Kind of hard to imagine life without it, isn’t it?

Kelly, a good friend, wrote this piece about the anniversary, which I think is worth sharing, about VIA’s journey. – Rick

Before Google. Before Facebook. Before blogs and texting, back in the day when even downloading an image online was a 2-hour ordeal and everyone was using dial up for access, Louisville’s first Internet Marketing company opened its doors.

Today, VIA Studio has soldiered through two dot-com demises, a couple of recessions, many-many changes and today it is thriving.

“We’ve had five years of continual growth,” said founder and CEO Kelly McKnight.  Today, VIA has a strong roster of accounts including Stock Yards Bank, Actor’s Theatre, Floyd Memorial Hospital, Bunton Seed, Purnell’s Sausage, Jefferson and Boone Counties Property Valuation Administrations, Whip Mix and a lot more. VIA employs 9 people and is growing. They are averaging around 20% growth a year over the last 5 years with earnings to match.

It all started back in 1995 when McKnight went to a conference in Phoenix. He went there to listen to a Coke marketing guy talk about how he got the brand to move from their rigid advertising format to featuring the polar bears.  Instead, the speaker talked about the Internet and how it was going to change everything.

McKnight listened and had an epiphany.  He went back to his marketing communications company that he was a partner in and convinced them to get involved in the Internet. “It just wasn’t the technology that was changing but the whole way we communicate,” McKnight said. “Mass marketing was soon to be replaced by one-to-one communication…and this is even more true today. For 25 years, I was in the persuasion business, now I’m in the information delivery business.”

Before he came to Louisville, McKnight worked at two of the world’s largest advertising agencies Bozell Worldwide and D’Arcy-MacManus Masius on accounts like Anheuser-Busch, American Airlines, Greyhound, AT&T/Bell Telephone, Proctor & Gamble , Wendy’s and a whole lot more.  As a creative director, he primarily wrote and managed a team that produced TV, radio, print and outdoor advertising.

What got him so excited about the Internet?  “Two things: it’s interactive so for the first time we could communicate directly with the target audience and second, it was the first truly measurable advertising,” he said.  “For the first time, advertising was accountable.”

While at his old company, he assembled a team and the first website they built was for Cummins Engine Company. It started out at 7 pages and by the time the project was finished, it was up to 700 pages.  “We thought it was a pretty good website and then I got a call from the Wall Street Journal asking me to describethe site and McKnight asked why? Because they and Netscape had chosen it as one of the best five business-to-business websites on the Internet.

“I knew we were on the right road,” McKnight said.

McKnight sold his interest and left his old company because he knew to keep on top of the Internet, he had to devote himself to it and in July, 1996, he started VIA Studio.

Business took off kept and soon VIA had 15 people on staff.  Clients included Sties & Harbison, Thomas Industries, Food Service Associates, Norton Hospital, LG&E, Fort Knox and a host of others. Then, disaster struck.

The first and second dot-com demises took place and business plummeted.  “It was tough, we couldn’t give business away. Clients went in-house and we had a project that went south so suddenly, we were deep in dept.” McKnight said. “Tough times teach tough lessons, I discovered a couple of things about myself. While I was very good at marketing and advertising, I wasn’t good at project management and websites were becoming larger and more intricate projects.”

Enter Jason Clark

“Jason literally came in and saved the company,” McKnight said, “We were down to 2 people and heavily in debt. He is a unique array of talents: he is a designer, programmer, but most important of all, Jason is an excellent manager.”  Originally Jason worked on a project-by-project basis but soon was working fulltime. Within a year, he was a partner.

McKnight describes it this way: “Today, it takes more than one person to build a comprehensive website. It takes someone with marketing skills to understand the branding; it needs a graphic designer to make the website pleasing to the eye and provide smooth navigation and information flow; a programmer networks all the pieces together and adds the database element so information is gatherable and measurable; and finally, a team member needs to be skilled in Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Social Media so the website can rank high in the search engines.”

Over the years, so many tools have been added: ecommerce, content management, email marketing, link development, the growth of PR, social media and blogging and now, mobile media.  ”If you are building websites for a living, you had better have all these skill sets covered or you are not getting your money’s worth,” said McKnight. “At VIA, we offer them all and we keep almost all the work in-house and done by our own staff.”

“Jason’s strength is he understands how the process works and he has built a team to deliver it,” said McKnight.  “VIA is very service oriented—we even answer our phones. Since the web is constantly changing, we meet with our clients on a regular basis to analyze site traffic, blog results and to discuss ongoing marketing and SEO campaigns and results.”

Today, VIA is prepared to take on the next big thing which is mobile media.  They already have several successful projects under their belt and a bunch more in the planning stage.

As for McKnight?  “I’m ready to step aside. Jason is now President and taking over the company which is a process we started several years ago. I will stick around and consult and help where I can like on traditional media projects and pitching new clients.”

Why has VIA been able to survive and thrive? “We have stuck to same mantra since the beginning: the Internet is a media and it takes people who understand media to make it work. Jason & I are both media people, we’ve worked in TV, radio, print, direct mail, outdoor, point-of-sale, public relations before we jumped into the Internet.  The Internet takes all of these into account and then makes them interactive,” said McKnight.

Any last words?  “If you can’t measure it you can’t manage it….and if your website isn’t making you money, give VIA a call.”