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        From roadside billboards to online advertising: Scott Bell's journey reveals lessons for entrepreneurial success

        March 5, 2020

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        Scott Bell on entrepreneurial success

        Editor's note: The Harbert College of Business is committed to developing a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem for students, faculty, industry, and alumni that will fuel new venture creation. The story that follows is one of eight in a series entitled, "Inspired Entrepreneurship." Showcasing the experience and expertise of Harbert alums who have created successful business enterprises of their own will help equip our students for entrepreneurial success.

        “ Go out, get some experience, try to figure out what type of business you want to start and then go and do it, because once you hit 28 years old, 35 years old, and you have a family with kids, it makes it very, very challenging."”

        Scott Bell, founder and CEO of Bell Media, traces the origins of his successful digital advertising agency to well before he enrolled in the Harbert College of Business’ Entrepreneurial Program back in his junior year at Auburn.

        “I was raised in an entrepreneurial family,” said Bell, who received his B.S. in Business Administration, Entrepreneurship in 2007. “My father was a golf pro who took the opportunity to purchase an underperforming golf course in Montgomery and over 10 to 15 years turned it into a successful, profitable business. And my mother was an entrepreneur as well, although not in the stereotypical sense. She built her own private practice in marriage and family therapy, and then transformed that into the only child therapy practice in the area. I saw the entrepreneurial spirit – and all the crazy hours of work it took to make them successful - at work from a very young age.”

        The Harbert College of Business sat down with Scott as part of its Harbert Entrepreneur Spotlight initiative to hear his story and glean some valuable insight for aspiring student entrepreneurs.

        HCOB: You started Bell Media right after graduating from Harbert – can you tell us about that decision and how you got your business off the ground?

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        After Scott Bell graduated from the Harbert College
        of Business, he and his brother, Neil, started Bell
        Media to focus on the underserved need for digital
        billboards in the south. 

        Bell: Beginning in my junior year at Auburn, I went to the entrepreneurship program, where we had to start working on business plans and the whole strategic planning processes. And I was really interested in digital billboards – I began seeing the digital roadside billboards pop up around 2006, 2007 for the first time. My brother, Neil, who graduated from Auburn in 2001, was in the billboard business, working for one of the largest companies in the industry as well as building some of his own billboards, so I already knew a little about that market.

        As I started looking into it, I realized that from a governmental perspective, you could not build billboards in the Auburn area, but they were allowed in Columbus, Georgia. So, I started learning about the legal aspect of the billboard business there, asking a lot of questions – how do I lease property and how do I permit a billboard, etc. And I started traveling my senior year over to Columbus to begin leasing property and permitting property to build billboards, relying on my brother to help guide some of those initial transactions.

        HCOB: So, you were already “in the business” before starting Bell Media – when did you form the company and what was your process?

        Bell: Yes, that’s right. After I graduated, my brother and I started Bell Media in 2008 with the focus on digital billboards. It was obvious to me that Columbus was an underserved market and that the main competitor, a nationwide company, was not investing in digital billboards. I assessed that there may be a two- or three-year window of opportunity where we could get in and establish a digital billboard network around the city – build and own something that would create value and continue to generate recurring revenue using tangible, hard assets. And over the next seven years we expanded our footprint to other markets in surrounding areas.

        HCOB: How did you fund your initial operations – where did you get the money to lease these properties, purchase the permits and build the billboards themselves?

        Bell: The year before we started the company, I had secured some lease agreements and some permits to build billboards, some of which I came to realize weren’t in very good locations. So, I sold those for $7,000 apiece, which gave me enough to live off for the first six months. I held onto a handful of other leases and permits I felt were more promising. With those in hand, we investigated funding sources, and settled on a mezzanine financing lender that offered us a one hundred percent financing structure because we were creating an asset-based business. It was, in effect, a secured loan at 12% or 13% interest, which gave us enough funding to build a few billboards where we already had the leases and permits in place and start generating revenue. From there we were off and running.

        HCOB: Can you tell us a little about what you had to do to secure that financing – did you develop and submit a comprehensive business plan?

        Bell: Not really, we didn't have a comprehensive business plan, per se, but we had a strategic plan which painted a picture of who we were, what market we wanted to tackle, the economics behind the business and a go-to-market playbook for how we wanted to acquire customers. But we didn't go through the whole process of developing that 30-page business plan.

        bell award

        Scott Bell, right, sold the outdoor profile of the Bell Media business to
        Link Media, keeping the indoor advertising portion as they moved into
        the online advertising space.

        HCOB: Fast forward seven years to the sale of a portion of your company to Link Media – what did you sell and why?

        Bell: We sold the outdoor portfolio of business to Link Media, keeping the indoor advertising portion as we decided to move into the online advertising space. At that time, we had built a customer base of some 200 small to medium sized businesses, and we were starting to get questions from these customers about foundational aspects of digital marketing, such as how does pay-per-click work? Do I need to invest in paid search? What is SEO? And that was really the light bulb moment for us as we were selling the billboard company – this is going to be the next stage of our business.

        HCOB: You started a digital advertising agency when that market was well-established, with major players devoting tremendous resources to this space – what made you think you could succeed there, particularly without much in the way of online experience?

        Bell: I think it's important to note that we operated in markets that, from a digital perspective and a technology perspective, were probably five to 10 years behind more progressive markets in major metropolitan areas. What we saw in these markets was that people were curious and when people are curious, it shows that maybe there's a potential need. So that's how we got interested in the digital space.

        To address this opportunity, I went to work hiring experts in the field, including several team members with many years of experience at major digital media outlets.  We soon found that the big digital agencies were selling their product a certain way that we didn't really agree with – that didn’t fit the needs of our customers. We felt that the approach they were using – selling pre-determined packages of services – sets an incorrect expectation from the client's perspective, one that results in a churned customer. So, we started selling digital advertising in a different way, and I think that is what helped us gain traction over the last four years.

        HCOB: Looking back to your time at Auburn, were there any mentors or faculty that you can point to that stood out to you as being in any way transformative in your thinking and entrepreneurial process?

        bells

        Scott Bell's time at Harbert forced him to become comfortable
        with verbally expressing the nuts and bolts of his thinking. "When
        I came out of Harbert, I had already made close to a hundred
        speeches, and that experience has shaped how I lead meetings
        and discussions to this day. That was probably the biggest 
        impact of the entrepreneurship program at Harbert for me."

        Bell: I would say in the beginning, the best resource I had was my brother, Neil, because he had already been in the billboard business for three or four years and he was always there to help. As for Harbert, I would point to Dr. Michael Kincaid – everything we did in his classes was in a speech format. He told us, “You're not in here to read books. You're in here to experience getting in front of people and talking about your business and pitching it.” When I walked into his class, I was afraid of speaking in public. But he said that everything that you do is going to be in a presentation format. It forced me to become comfortable with verbally expressing the nuts and bolts of my thinking. When I came out of Harbert, I had already made close to a hundred speeches, and that experience has shaped how I lead meetings and discussions to this day. That was probably the biggest impact of the entrepreneurship program at Harbert for me.

        HCOB: One final question – what advice would you give to students considering an entrepreneurial career path? Would you recommend they jump right into starting their own business as you did right out of college?

        Bell: I wish I had the definitive answer. On the one hand, there’s a lot of value in going to work in a normal work environment where you can experience personal and professional growth, a good manager that can show you the best method for how to lead, mentor, train and coach. That is something that you simply cannot get if you step out your first day out of college and begin running your own business. So, if you decide to go in that route, you're going to have to find other ways to develop your leadership and management abilities outside of the work environment – which is what I did.

        As for the optimal time frame? For me, the ideal time is two or three, maybe four years after graduation, depending on the industry. That said, there may not be the perfect time for everyone. My best advice is to go out, get some experience, try to figure out what type of business you want to start and then go and do it, because once you hit 28 years old, 35 years old, and you have a family with kids, it makes it very, very challenging.

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