Jon West on why it’s OK to not be a “unicorn”

Jon West knows a thing or two about running a business. He is on his second one in a decade and he’s barely over 30. His current business, AddShoppers, is one of the fastest-growing companies in Charlotte. The software company brings in seven figures in revenue, having tripled growth last year with plans to do the same this year. West and his team have brought in hundreds of clients, including big names like Hanes and The Economist and they recently signed the largest retailer in Brazil.

Like many startups, AddShoppers was born out of the need to fix a problem. In 2011, while going through a website redesign at his first company, 3tailer, an online retail business he and a friend started back in 2005 while they were seniors at Appalachian State University, West realized that there was no way to track his sales that came through social media shares on 3tailer’s product pages.

“If you’re a retailer, you know that some of the most valuable real estate on your site is your product pages,” he said. “We talked to some retailer friends about the problem of social revenue attribution and they were facing the same thing. That was the genesis of AddShoppers. We went looking for answers – analytics to track sharing to sales. We couldn’t find anything, so we made our own.”

“The first thing we did was track shares to sales, and it’s really snowballed and evolved to a complete engagement, conversion optimization, and marketing automation platform for ecommerce,” he said.

In the eight years 3tailer was in business it had grown into the fourth fastest-growing retail company in the U.S. and the second fastest-growing company in Charlotte. And that’s all while working out of an 800 sq-foot office above a Subway restaurant in Brevard Court.

“No one really knew we existed until we got the Fast 50 (Charlotte Business Journal Fast 50 Award),” West said. “We were kind of on an island.” 3tailer came in second in 2010. The award recognizes fast-growing companies in the Charlotte region every year.

They sold the 3tailer business in 2012 and have been focusing on AddShoppers ever since. The 3tailer provided runway for AddShoppers, allowing West and his team to spend less time on fundraising and more on product development and client relations. The fundraising efforts they have gathered have been mostly from local, Charlotte-based investors, with roughly 30% from outside the area, from mostly New York-based investors.

The process of bringing on investors to a software company is much different in Charlotte than in a larger metropolis with a more established tech industry, West said. In New York, he can get funds from a phone call or two. Here, that process is slower and requires more relationship-building, but West believes it is worth it to be a part of the growing community here.

“I wanted to raise money here,” West said. “I wanted local people to have some skin in the game and for Charlotte to get a win.”

It’s this kind of perseverance that built AddShoppers and informs their current growth rate.

“People talk about unicorns and all that, but I think we’re more like a cockroach,” West said. “We just don’t die. We’re good at not dying and we keep growing. In this game you just have to stay alive.

Today, AddShoppers has a lot more space to grow than they once did; in 2015 West relocated his now 25-person team to the 16th floor of the Charlotte Plaza building, where they have 5,200 square feet of office space subleased from Chobani Greek yogurt, who occupied the space until they closed their Charlotte offices in 2014. West told the Charlotte Business Journal that he hopes to outgrow this space as well.

New space, old space, there’s no typical day for West and his team.

West and his cofounder Chad Ledford divided their roles in the company from the get-go – West oversees operations, product development and client success while Ledford focuses on sales and marketing. Their team meets every Friday for a “town hall” style meeting (and happy hour) so everyone can give an update to everyone at the company so they all stay connected and in the loop, a strategy West believes improves his team’s performance.

“People like working with us,” he said. “You can copy someone’s technology – people do it all the time – but it’s really hard to copy peoples’ personalities, the effort you’ve put forth, and how you care about your clients.”