His speech is peppered with “awesome” and “ready to rock and roll,” as if he were fresh out of high school. He’s only 32 but he feels luck has a lot to do with his good fortune. He took what was basically an idea to sell jam and turned it into a successful online marketing company.
But we’re jumping ahead. Jones is a small-town fellow. He grew up around the quiet northeastern Scranton, Pa., region – in towns with quaint names like Forty Fort and Wilkes-Barre. He still lives in basically the same area where he was raised and headquarters his business not far from those same stomping grounds.
He knew early on that he wanted to be in public service – drawn to the tantalizing returns of politics. After graduating high school in 1994, he got a full scholarship to Villanova University to study experimental psychology in 1998 after graduating from Penn State, but questioned whether he really wanted to be a clinical psychologist.
During that period, his brother Rick called and asked, “What do you think about selling grandma’s Mississippi mud over the Internet?” Jones says while he was the resident computer guru in school and was sitting on a lot of school and credit card debt, he was pretty committed to going to law school. He decided he would finish out his law degree and start this gourmet food business.
Grandma’s Mississippi mud was actually a kind of jelly he had eaten as a kid. He calls it a kind of gourmet dip. He typed the ingredients into the Web and out came the popular Northeast dip called pepper jelly. But Jones didn’t want to sell just another pepper jelly. In the end – and after consulting a friend in the food business – they decided on “Grandma Jones’ Originals Pepper Jam.”
It Started With the Jam
That, Jones says, was when his entrepreneurial spirit came out. He could point to other adventures in his business past – the lawn business he had in school and the 1-900 psychic service he started, even day trading – but they never really made any money.
The pepper jam, on the other hand, had legs. Through contacts in the gourmet food business, it started to get some traction. The business was started in 1999. “My brother was the creative side and he had all these flavors he wanted to do,” Jones says. “It all happened pretty quickly. I was going to do all the marketing. I drove the branding and launched the website called pepperjam.com. We personalized it with pictures and stories.”
Soon they realized in order to get traffic and sales, they needed to rank higher in the search engines. The most obvious way at the time was to cycle in fresh content. So, they then came up with the idea to interview famous chefs and put those up on the site. In the end, they posted interviews with the likes of Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse and Jorge Bruce, to name just a few.
Bruce sampled the product and loved it. At the time Bruce was looking to hire a consultant to get his brand and other chefs online, Jones said. “I will try to cook with this product,” he told Jones. “He may have thought we had offices when we were really operating out of a kitchen,” said Jones. Bruce suggested QVC. “I went into shock,” says Jones, “and had to put the phone on the bed and take a breath a minute. At the time, he was the highest-grossing chef on QVC.”
The chef interviews were getting a lot of traffic now and the question of how to monetize it all became important. That’s when Jones joined LinkShare and started adding affiliate links (his first check from ValueClick was for something like $37). He was just about to leave for law school and was trying to make money through affiliate marketing when in early 2000, he says he began his marketing journey in earnest. “I still own 50 percent of the gourmet food business,” he said. His brother told him to take the marketing business and he’d handle the product. “I knew that the Net marketing side of this requires work. I just started to build out websites – build out content based on a theme. My first was cookware.”
Also in 2000, he adds, Google came out with AdWords. “I was generating close to $100,000 per month in affiliate profits,” he said. He was doing this while doing his consulting work and serving as law school class president two years in a row.
“Once I had money, I wanted to do something with it,” he says. He put all the cash he had been earning while in school into this single idea – to turn his super-affiliate status into a new kind of marketing business – pepperjam.com. “We got an office. I hired my best friend as COO. We knew we could hire smart, young professionals and could help these businesses that were coming online and had no clue what affiliate marketing was,” Jones says.
Getting Into the Affiliate Game
2003 was the breakout year. Jones didn’t realize the impact his company was having until he went to his first LinkShare symposium (they got invited through Overstock.com). “We went to this event not knowing anybody and thought no one knew who we were,” he says. “My attitude was, ‘I’m a super-affiliate, let me manage your affiliate program.’ We were blown away.” When a merchant rep found out who he was, she hugged him. “You’ve been making us so much money,” she told him and introduced him to a whole bunch of merchants. “We were very well received,” he says.
With that boost in his pocket, Jones parlayed that excitement into a new small office and started to hire employees. From 2003 to 2005 he built his client list. From 2005 on, he says, it took on a life of its own. In 2006, the company was about 28 employees. Then pepperjam made Inc. magazine’s list of the 500 fastest-growing companies in the U.S. It was the only affiliate marketing company on the list. “As a search engine marketing agency, we were one of three with iCrossing and MoreVisibility.” All he could say was, “It was just a big party. We’re pepperjam, we’re in the black and we’re an Inc. 500 company.”
While still nurturing a desire to serve in a public way, he was invited to speak at a conference for the first time in 2004. He’s been hooked ever since and speaks quite often all over the country. It kind of feels like he’s class president all over again.
Somewhere amid all this work, he did manage to get married – to someone who works for the company. He said while his wife, Robyn, and he did attend the same high school, they weren’t pals. One night when home from school for a spell, his COO and he went out for a drink and spied her. They remembered her from high school. Jones sat back and watched his COO walk over and try to flirt with her. Finally, Jones joined them and he said they hit it off right away.
“She kind of asked me out after 60 seconds,” he says, “and here she was talking to my friend for the last 15 minutes; but we’ve pretty much been together ever since.” She wasn’t happy at her other job and Jones asked her to work for Pepperjam.
“I know you don’t want to work for your boyfriend, but I’ll have you work from home and write an employee manual or something. We can have you write out some client case studies,” he remembers telling her. After about a month, she began to come into the office and has been with the company for two years.
Jones says there has been a lot of interest to be acquired and from venture capital money. Last year, with about 50 employees “we had to think about crossroads – and decided to focus on our own technology,” he says. The company decided communication in this industry was the problem. “It is difficult to get in touch with your affiliates to admonish or to praise them,” he says. There was a lack of affiliate transparency. “We said, ‘We will tell you who are the key affiliates and can protect your brand.'”
This led to the notion of launching a Pepperjam network. Jones worked and consulted with hundreds of affiliates and merchants to preview the network – robust players such as Affiliate Classroom’s Anik Singal, and super-affiliates Lee Dodd and Jeremy Schoemaker, to name a few.
In January 2008, he launched pepperjamNETWORK. This essentially turns Pepperjam.com into a technology company with exclusive merchants such as luxury brand Judith Leiber, clothier Ben Sherman and Jelly Belly. Jones sees this as a super-transparent network that can be an alternative to the big three – LinkShare, Commission Junction and Performics – as well as an alternative to ShareASale. “We are not going up against the big three networks,” he added. “They are much better financed than us and bigger. There is still only one investor in pepperjam and that is me.”
Jones proudly says pepperjam.com now has about 105 employees in a 13,000 square foot floor of a building in Wilkes-Barre. He has five executives and 15 senior-management-level people. He has divisions now – online media planning and buying, search engine marketing, pepperjamNETWORK and full-time salespeople – their first. In the next 18 months, he predicts 300 employees. But he thinks of everyone as family. His wife is director of affiliate marketing; his bulldog is in the office every day. He doesn’t want it to be a corporate environment – there’s Free-Pizza Fridays, ping pong and “Guitar Hero” on the floor. In early 2007, they launched a corporate blog where a randomly chosen employee is given less than 30 seconds’ advance notice to come up with a presentation to be videoed and then posted to the site (some can be found on YouTube; some featuring Roxy the bulldog).
Amid all this success, Jones was approached in the early summer of 2007 by publisher Wiley to write a book on SEO and search marketing. “Search Engine Optimization: Your Visual Blueprintâ„¢ to Effective Internet Marketing” will be published this spring. “In fact,” he said, “I had always dreamed of writing a book in college. I always thought, how can you make a difference? I can join the clergy, be a great father or write a book.”
If that isn’t enough on his plate, Jones and his wife are expecting their first child in August. That’s not going to slow him down. “We are very focused on building out what we are creating,” he says. “We have a bunch of families now; we’re not just a small family anymore. I’ve always been the kind of person that believes that my time hasn’t come yet. I want to focus on being a great father, and from a business standpoint we want to become a great affiliate network. I want to see where we take it.”
While the future seems like a busy one, Jones notes that “pepperjam has just started.”