By Paula Burkes
Copyright © 2013, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
It was November 2008 and single mother and entrepreneur Ashley Amend and her then 5-year-old daughter, Alexia, were excited about moving to their very own home. They’d already moved all their stuff from their apartment to storage, and were waiting to close on their house.
Then, Amend noticed new purchase orders for her product — a customizable interactive software application for kiosk touch screens — started falling. What’s more, customers began pushing back existing orders to the next month and then the next.
Amend canceled her house closing and, with the blessings of her investors, bought one-way tickets for her and Alexia to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.
“I needed time to think, and always had fantasized about living on an island,” Amend said.
Little did she know that she not only would relax, but also learn the computer skills that would lead to her new digital marketing business, Rank Monsters. Today, the firm employs five and has annual revenues of roughly $500,000.
From the second-story space she leases at 700½ W Sheridan, Amend, 30, sat down with The Oklahoman to talk about her professional and personal life. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Tell us about your roots.
A: I grew up in Surrey Hills in Yukon, and was raised by a single mom. My parents, who’d both been married before and had older kids, divorced when I was 8.
After they split up, my mom worked as an office manager for my uncle at Nikz at the Top restaurant, but later bought a tanning salon. Today, she does airbrush tanning. My dad, who worked as a computer engineer in Memphis, is retired and recently remarried and moved to Arkansas.
Q: What were the highlights of your school days?
A: A teacher once told me what I lacked in ability, I more than made up for in ambition. And I think that follows me to this day. I have a knack for learning things my own way. In junior high, I was a cheerleader and good student, but then I turned a little rebellious around age 16. I didn’t like school and wasn’t going. I went to live with my dad in Tennessee, and attended school there my junior and senior years.
Actually, I quit and moved home the middle of my senior year, which in retrospect was stupid. But I wasn’t motivated to pay attention or to learn. I’ve always found it easier to teach myself. Most everyone who meets me in my profession assumes I went to college, much less graduated high school.
Q: How did you, with no formal training, break into the tech industry?
A: I was 20, my daughter was a baby and I was ready for something new, besides working as a hostess at Nikz. My ex-husband — whom I met through our grandfathers who fought in World War II together — was a successful entrepreneur. He had a UPS store, still does; a storage business and others. The idea for my first business — a digital signage networking company — was his. But he never did anything with it. So I asked him if I could, and he said sure. I started with $1,000.
Best Buy sold me flat screens at cost, in return for free video and other PowerPoint advertising I made to display on the screens, which we placed at Henry Hudson’s Pubs, Red Carpet Car Wash places, Bricktown Brewery and other locations with high traffic. At the Oklahoma City Zoo Amphitheater, we had large screens on the stage and VIP decks, where we showed live footage during the shows, and did other concerts and festivals. Toward the end, I sold off the retail places and focused solely on the zoo. I was pretty much a one-woman operation, though I hired contractors to pull off the live footage.
Q: How did you swing it as a single mom?
A: I could work from home, and it actually made for a flexible day for me. Most of the concerts were on the weekends, and Alexia already was in bed when I got home, often after midnight.
My mom helped out a lot. Plus, my ex-husband, with whom I’m still good friends, always has been a 50-50 parent. Today, I take her to school and he picks her up, so that I can work until 6:30 p.m., which I often do because it gives me time to work alone.
Q: And from flat screens, you moved to touch screens?
A: Yes, in 2007. Large touch screens were just hitting the market, and digital concierges, like what you see in hotels and airports, weren’t super crazy yet. My business, Digitouch, was unique, because then there were no other out-of-the-box applications where you could use a website template, customize software to your needs and push it out to different screens. I started with a couple hundred thousand.
My investors included American Fidelity Corp., who gave me incubator space; i2E/OCAST and Trailblazer Capital. And I had a contracted team of local developers to meet the needs of five large clients. Then the economic downturn came, and the technology I offered was ‘nice to have’ versus ‘got to have.’
Q: So tell us about your renaissance in the Virgin Islands.
A: I wasn’t planning anything work-wise on St. Thomas; just wanted time to think. Two companies had offered to buy us out, but we couldn’t agree on terms. I knew I had to raise more money, or shut down. We had no clear focus on how to fix things, and didn’t even have a sales team. Alexia and I stayed our first night on St. Thomas in a spare bedroom of an American lawyer I met through couchsurfing.org, and on whom I’d checked references. He had a big beautiful villa overlooking the water. The next day, we found a place to rent with another American, whose business coincidentally centered on search engine optimization. He taught me the skill so that I could try and save my business, and pay back my investors, by having Digitouch come up higher in Google and other search results when users entered “digital signage” or other key words.
Q: How long did you stay on St. Thomas?
A: Seven months. Alexia attended a private school there and I did SEO contract work for boat charters and local Realtors. We made great friends, and have been back twice. The Virgin Islands are close, so it’s easy to go from St. Thomas to St. John and the others. But because it’s an island and everything has to be flown in, it’s expensive. It was hard to find fresh produce, clothes, place mats or anything else you wanted and could just go to Target for here. Plus, someday I want to remarry, maybe have another child. It wasn’t the place to be, unless you were retired and had no more personal or professional aspirations.
Q: How did Rank Monsters take shape?
A: We didn’t officially form until September 2011 and I recruited my business partner, Justin Boeckman, in October 2012. Prior to that, I did contract work, beginning with offering to help Digitouch investor David Matthews of Trailblazer Capital, who’s now an investor with Rank Monsters along with an angel investor in Tulsa and Mike Whitaker of Idea Gateway. I got one of David’s investments — an unranked company that offered remote access to video gaming — to rank No. 1 in Internet searches. It later sold to Game Stop. That was my “aha” moment.
I realized Digitouch was dead, had been left behind by competitors, and that Internet marketing had real traction and required very little capital. I saw the fruits of my labor — when you do this, you can change that. It was tangible and a got-to-have business that can increase companies’ bottom lines and secure my position.
Q: What’s it like being a young woman professional in a male-dominated industry?
A: I was so happy when I turned 30; I think it will help me tremendously with respect. Imagine being a 24-year-old trying to build a business. I keep my private life private, and am very clear about my business objectives.
My past businesses were my college education, bought and paid for. There’s no better business school than that.