Aaron Perlut: How A St. Louis Transplant Became The City’s Biggest ChampionBY: Kathryn Hough | October 10, 2012
Meet Aaron Perlut, the co-founder of Elasticity and Rally St. Louis.
Perlut lived in many cities across the U.S. before he settled in St. Louis. What seemed like just another few year stint in a new place evolved into love affair with the city that he and his family now call home. Perlut decided to lay down his roots in St. Louis. He co-founded digital media and marketing agency Elasticity with Brian Cross and Dan Callahan, and now he is championing a new initiative that asks the residents of St. Louis to come together to market their city to newcomers just like Perlut was not so long ago. Here’s how he got his start in digital marketing, and why he loves the city of St. Louis:
On His Early Career
In high school my dream was to be a sportscaster. In college I studied journalism and I got a job at a television station in Richmond, VA. Very soon I realized that it was not the job for me. I was working until 11:30pm every night, and it was hard because I knew I wanted to have a family at some point. After two years in tv, I left. I had no idea what to do.
I kind of fell into PR. I understood what media did and the constraints that the media works under. I did some internships on Capitol Hill and at (PR firm) Fleishman-Hillard. After that, I took job at an agency in Miami where I learned how to write in a professional manner. I enjoyed it. My wife and I moved around for 12 years, and I had the opportunity to do wide variety of PR work from the agency side to the corporate side.
The Big Move To St. Louis
In 2005 I was recruited by a large firm in St. Louis. When my wife and I moved here, we had no idea what to make of it. We were worried it would be like Raleigh – not a good fit. My wife said that we can leave in a few years if we didn’t like it. We thought that this might just be another stop, but we immediately liked it a lot.
The Social Media Revolution
In 2007, I saw a dramatic shift. A lot of other people were seeing it too. There was a shift in what it took to be successful in doing my job. At the time, Facebook was not what it is now. We were just starting to realize the value of the blogosphere. These tools were not the beasts of communication that they are today.
My reporter friends were being let go for two reasons: technology and changing media consumption habits. Craigslist killed the newspaper industry. Marketers moved their ad spend from traditional forms to new media. This was a massive cultural shift.
In 2007 I created the American Mustache Institute as a joke. It was a parody of the third party political sites that PR agencies set up for clients. It evolved into a living and breathing community targeting men about facial hair, but it became a model for community building. The site became a way to grab attention and engage reporters in interesting stories. The success of the site had dramatic impact on the way I approached communicating.
Entrepreneurship – The Big Leap
In 2009, we created Elasticity. The company was built on premises that I learned from the American Mustache Institute. We leverage traditional marketing, social media, and search. In 2009, many digital marketers did not consider search a key part of their offerings.
It was difficult to get started here (when founding Elasticity) because we were talking about a new age of marketing that was not fully appreciated yet. I had a meeting in Chicago with a huge company, and someone said, “isn’t Facebook just a fad that is going to die soon?”. I also met with the brand manager of an enormous company in Arkansas, and they told me that the company didn’t believe in engaging with customers online.
I have never been a small business owner. I came from a middle class upbringing, and I had no experience in building a business except watching my mother work at her interior design business. I’ve aways worked for agencies or on the corporate side. This was new and scary as hell. I am the sole provider for family of four. It was terrifying, and we’ve had to work extremely hard.
Today we are proud to say we build Elasticity into a staff of 15 full-time employees and 4 contractors. We are continuing to grow quickly. We have a strange group of clients, ranging from well-funded startups to SunEdison, Monsanto, and the NFL.
The St. Louis Startup Scene
Rally St. Louis is a nonprofit the we created to add value to our home city as a company. We want to make an impact on the way that St. Louis is perceived.
I love the startup scene here, but it is still undefined. That’s a good thing. We have the opportunity to grow and build an infrastructure that is nurturing for future startups. We (in St. Louis) have spent a lot of time over the last 20 years going whale hunting to find the next big company. Now, the region’s leadership is understanding the value of the startup.
Roadblocks are here are well. We are all watching it grow up together, and we are seeing more venture capital creep into the market. Existing money in the city has been unwilling to loosen the purse strings, but now they are more willing to invest. There is a historic conservatism here, but business leaders are starting to see the light of startups.
Jim Gallagher, formerly of Charter Communications believed in what we were saying. We managed social media for them, developing social media customer service programs, and we added revenue online. We drove sales through online channels by promoting products like video on demand. Jim played a high factor in our growth.
Chief Executive Officer of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association Joe Reagan is also a huge champion of ours. Sam Fiorello, the Chief Operating Officer The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center has been huge advocate of ours as well. There are a lot of people who have cheered us on.
The New Economy of St. Louis
The reality of this town is that it was built on manufacturing. Those jobs are gone and they are not coming back. Wrapping their heads around that is a huge challenge for people who grew up here. Being from the outside, it’s easy for me to see. We are in the infancy of developing a startup ecosystem. We are starting to hit the ground running. There is tremendous opportunity for growth that has begun in the past two years. If this were a nine inning ball game, we are only in the second inning. We have a long way to go.
Rally St. Louis will play a role in this. There has never been an organized means for an entire region to play a role in how it is marketed. We hope that Rally is a tool for the city of St. Louis to demonstrate its chops – artistic chops, design chose, and business chops – so that people outside the region can see what St. Louis is all about.
The Thing I Love About St. Louis The Most Is . . .
The one thing that struck me about St. Louis is the diversity of what it offers. It’s not boring. We have culture, business, and lifestyle opportunities. That’s what makes St. Louis a balanced place to live for entrepreneurs.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly omitted Dan Callahan as a founder of Elasticity and stated that Andrew Barnett was a founder. Barnett was not a founder but joined 18 months later. Techli regrets the error.