Waterford - James Nicholas didn't know much about the Internet when he started cold-calling businesses in southeastern Connecticut 15 years ago trying to peddle his nonexistent website-building services.
Nicholas said he called 250 numbers before finally reaching one business - Northern Light Gems, then in Mystic and now relocated to New London - willing to speak with him.
Only one problem.
"I couldn't drive," Nicholas said. "I was just 15."
So Nicholas' mother, Jane, drove him to Mystic. And she waited for two hours as Nicholas made his pitch.
"When I came out," he said, "I had a check for a website."
He also had the beginnings of what would become Jimmy Marketing, a website-design and video-production company that now boasts 10 employees, 500 clients and a host of innovative ways to boost small to medium-size businesses. Nicholas, who earlier this month was named Marketer of the Year by the marketing-tactics firm Glazer-Kennedy Insider's Circle, just opened a new office on Boston Post Road and his book, "Small Business Marketing: Your Ultimate Guide," briefly hit No. 1 on the Amazon Best Seller List last month for direct-marketing and small-business-marketing books.
Now only 30, Nicholas said he always wanted to be an entrepreneur. As a young man, he was up in the worst weather ready to shovel sidewalks and mow lawns, and he enjoyed dealing baseball cards as well.
"I always had the drive to make a buck," he said.
After starting his web-design and web-hosting business while in high school, he continued juggling clients and schoolwork at Bryant College, where he was named New England Collegiate Entrepreneur of the Year.
His website-design business, EasyWebSolutions.com, has since evolved into a full-fledged marketing firm with its own video studio at an 1,800-square-foot office festooned with some of Nicholas' "core values," such as "We Have A Can Do Attitude."
Nicholas said that when it comes to marketing, persistence pays off. And it's messages delivered in an unusual way that cut through the clutter.
For example, a long-time client in Old Saybrook who had resisted for years redesigning his website couldn't ignore "Jimmy's Silver Platter One-Time Offer," which included a personalized video of Nicholas sipping the construction-company president's favorite beer, Miller Lite, while exhorting him to take advantage of a pre-designed site at his rock-bottom rate.
"He sent a check within a week," Nicholas said.
Nicholas goes to great lengths to reach out to potential clients, including his "message in a bottle" campaign that fishes for business people interested in developing video content for their websites by placing a handwritten note in a plastic bottle. He also is known to send out video "books" - cardboard devices that, when opened up, instantly begin a personalized video pitch for Jimmy Marketing.
"Business people are so busy and immune to advertising, you have to stand out," he said. "We don't just want to sit back and wait for people to come in."
Campaigns for clients have included sending out a Rubik's Cube with a note saying that the business owner was puzzled why a customer had not been in touch to buy mulch for the season.
"A lot of times today, simpler is better," he said. "Nobody is doing this stuff."
Nicholas said the "sweet spot" for his marketing company is small to medium-size businesses that do between $750,000 and $20 million a year in sales. Most of his clients are local, but more and more are coming distances to seek out his advice, especially since his book hit the Amazon bestseller list.
"That gave me instant credibility," he said.
Nicholas said the past two years have been particularly exciting for him, thanks to hooking up with Glazer-Kennedy Insider's Circle, a Florida-based organization that has helped him focus his messaging and increase profitability.
Much of his focus is on the Internet, but Nicholas doesn't sneer at the old media, including the Yellow Pages, which he said is still paying dividends if ads are placed correctly and perhaps in multiple areas. Nicholas said reputational placements are also often overlooked by businesses, so he runs a program that provides a form of "triage" for negative reviews of certain professional firms, such as dentists.
"People don't trust ads as much as they trust reviews," Nicholas said. "And bad news travels faster than good news."
Nicholas said everyone needs a website these days, but business people sometimes overlook the importance of videos and mobile devices, which are becoming important selling tools. Clients are also coming to him to supply blogs, which increase a website's placement on search engines, as well as helping out with social media campaigns.
Nicholas said he has experts on staff, including graphic designers, marketing specialist, copywriters, public-relations professionals and paid-advertising specialists. Any marketing service he doesn't provide in-house is coordinated with a variety of strategic partners, he said.
Clients spend anywhere from $50 to more than $5,000 a month for his company's services, Nicholas said. A private consultation with Nicholas himself costs $500 for an hour, with a money-back guarantee if a client does not find the session useful.
"I've never had anyone ask for his money back," he said.
Despite his recent success, which has put him in demand for webcasts and speaking engagements worldwide, Nicholas said he intends to keep his focus local. He has an office in East Haven and meets with clients by appointment in Glastonbury, but his main focus continues to be his hometown of Waterford and the surrounding community.
"I love what I've built here, and I love helping local businesses," he said.