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Business Owners

How One Fast-Growing Company Is Approaching M&A


Marketing agency Rise Interactive is no stranger to bootstrapping. Rise was founded in 2004, when CEO Jon Morris was an MBA student at the University of Chicago. He had an idea he entered into the university’s annual business plan competition. The original concept, teaching traditional marketers how to manage digital marketing programs, landed him second place and $10,000, which he used to bring his plan into reality.

But Morris quickly found that marketers didn’t want someone to teach them how to manage their digital campaigns — they wanted someone to do it for them.

A Data-Driven Approach

Rise shifted its business plan to become a full-service digital marketing agency, specializing in media and advanced analytics. Today, the agency helps marketing leaders from brands like Ulta Beauty, Atkins Nutritionals, and Sports Authority.

Rise’s operating philosophy, which it calls Interactive Investment Management (IIM), “takes an unbiased approach to investing marketing dollars into the channels delivering the greatest returns for our clients,” says Morris. “This philosophy helps marketers better understand their customers, deliver more relevant experiences, and allocate marketing dollars effectively.”

Rise modeled IIM after the financial sector, in which established systems make it seamless to gather and analyze information to inform investment. Rise didn’t see why the same opportunities shouldn’t be available to marketers looking to evaluate campaign performance and move quickly.

“Data has always been our edge,” Morris says. “It influences the type of people we hire, the way we make decisions, and how we manage marketing campaigns.”

Fast-Tracking Growth

For six years running (2010 – 2015), Rise has been named to Inc.’s list of the 5000 fastest growing companies. Morris credits Rise’s growth to both their data-driven approach and a “razor-sharp focus on client performance.” The company has consistently reinvested profits back into the business, maintaining a strong emphasis on innovation and infrastructure. “We’ve done a great job growing the company organically,” says Morris.

Now Rise is looking to scale faster. “I want to compliment our organic growth by exploring M&A opportunities as well,” Morris says. Rise is looking to acquire companies in the analytics, media, web development, and marketing consulting fields that can help drive revenue and broaden their service offerings. The company joined Axial to begin to take a more proactive approach to acquisitions.

Finding a Cultural Fit

Synergy, diversification, and more rapid growth are among the most common goals for would-be acquirers. In the media and marketing industry particularly, strategic acquisitions accounted for a large percentage of total transactions in the first three quarters of 2015. Berkery Noyes Investment Bankers reports that strategic acquisitions comprised 88 percent of the total transaction volume in the media industry and 75 percent of the total value.

Rise recognizes the risks as well as the opportunities of acquiring new businesses. “We take our culture very seriously and have spent a tremendous amount of time working to maintain our culture at a single location in Chicago,” says Morris. Finding a good cultural fit “is crucial to the success of any acquisition.” The company has specific attributes that it looks for in a potential “Riser,” including responsiveness, accountability, a can-do attitude, and humility. Future employees must prove themselves to be team players, demand excellence, and always put the customer first.

Rise currently has over 170 employees. “When you hit 50 or 100 people, it’s a major inflection point. Through this type of growth, you can’t help but encounter obstacles within your operational infrastructure,” Morris says. He credits overcoming those obstacles to “developing the people, processes, and technology to serve the growing needs of the business at those different points of inflection.” With the company undergoing expansions every six to 12 months, creating an operational plan and process is crucial to limit distractions and interruptions for both team members and clients.

Developing and honing those processes will continue to be important as Rise begins to target acquisitions, and begins to prepare for the integration process. According to Jeremy Swan, a principal at CohnReznick LLP, “somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of acquisitions fail because they’re not properly integrated.”

“We want to continue to do what we do well,” says Morris. “One thing that has stayed constant with us is the ability to always provide ROI for Rise’s clients. If we are constantly making decisions to help our client’s business perform better, and use that as our north star, then we will always be making the right decisions.”

About Jon Morris, Founder and CEO of Axial Member Rise Interactive

jon_headshot_10.16.14 (1)Jon Morris is the Founder and CEO of Rise Interactive. Morris started Rise as a self-funded company with $10,000, transforming the agency into a multi-million dollar business in eight years. Under Morris’ leadership, Rise has experienced tremendous growth, receiving recognition from the City of Chicago, Inc. 500|5000 fastest growing companies (six-time winner), Deloitte Technology Fast 500 (two-time winner), Built in Chicago’s Digital Agency of the Year (three-time winner), and Fortune Magazine. Morris has been personally recognized as a leader in technology and innovation on the Techweek100 list and to Online Marketing Institute’s Top 40 Digital Strategists in Marketing. 

As an emerging leader in the digital marketing industry, Morris regularly shares his expertise as a guest speaker. He has presented on main stages and at workshops and webinars for organizations such as Search Marketing Expo, Search Engine Strategies, American Marketing Association, The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Online Marketing Summit, iStrategy, and Vistage.  He is also a contributor for and uses his column, Rise Above it, to share his thought leadership on business and digital marketing topics. 

Morris earned an MBA with high honors from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and a bachelor’s degree from Kenyon College.

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