Catch and release

Serial entrepreneur’s lifelong business pursuits lead him to bigger and better projects

Marc Lewis works in his home office, where he oversees the design of social media applications through his company, Social Media 180.

Marc Lewis works in his home office, where he oversees the design of social media applications through his company, Social Media 180.

Photo by Melanie MacTavish

For Marc Lewis of Chico, each new business venture has served as a stepping stone for something greater. His struggling T-shirt company unexpectedly led him into the realm of social media, and now a mobile application of his design is on the verge of a national launch.

But it’s unlikely many locals know anything about the self-described serial entrepreneur. That’s partly because his company, Social Media 180, generally operates on a national level—catering to Fortune 500 companies, celebrities and athletes—but also because, until recently, it was based out of his bedroom.

Lewis, 34, developed an entrepreneurial spirit early on. As an 8-year-old, he devoted weekends to washing cars, at times earning $100 or more. At age 13, after inventing a short snowboard leash to connect boots to bindings, he recruited his parents’ help in attempting to file a patent, but someone beat him to it by about six months.

“I knew I was going somewhere,” he said. “Entrepreneurship has always been in my blood.”

That’s not to say his path was clear-cut. He worked in a forensics lab after earning a bachelor’s degree in physical anthropology from Chico State, but “burned out” after several months.

“Working on dead bodies every day,” he said, “just wasn’t something I wanted to do my whole life.”

And so Lewis ventured into business with a wholesale-to-retail clothing company that sold T-shirts at mixed martial arts (MMA) events. It never quite got off the ground. A breaking point came during an event in which he spent thousands of dollars on shirts and failed to recover the investment.

“It was like, ‘OK, I’m done with this,’” he said with a laugh.

Opportunity came knocking that same day. Lewis got a call from three friends who wanted his help opening an MMA gym; he would oversee business matters while his friends would coach fighters and compete in events themselves. Lewis agreed, and in 2006 the partners opened StandAlone Mixed Martial Arts Academy on the corner of Ninth and Cherry streets.

Lewis began marketing for the gym using Google AdWords—those paid listings at the top and side of Google search results—using the coding experience he had begun accruing as an ambitious 12-year-old.

“All these local businesses started hitting me up and asking, ‘How are you always at the top of the Google search page?’” he said.

Lewis started taking on side work directing search-engine traffic to local businesses, with one referral leading to another. His services eventually were enlisted by Devotion Vodka, a company out of Red Bank, N.J., looking to expand its social media following. Lewis did so in short order, building the company’s Facebook likes from just a handful to more than 40,000 in a few months.

Musician and film producer Rob Zombie enlisted Social Media 180 to design this application, which directed fans to a contest in which the prize was appearing in Zombie’s latest film.

Image courtesy of Mark Lewis

The vodka gig led to a referral at Advanced Micro Devices, a Fortune 500 company based in Sunnyvale that develops computer processors. Around that time, Lewis sensed that his side project had taken off.

“It got to the point where it was too much; StandAlone became a weight,” he said. “So I sold back my ownership. Everything’s amicable and we’re all friends, but I just had to continue on with this company.”

That company, the aforementioned Social Media 180, which officially launched in 2007, demanded Lewis’ full focus in the years to follow. For months on end, he worked out of his bedroom in front of multiple computer screens, sometimes for 12- or 14-hour stretches.

In doing so, he carved out a niche.

Lewis used an application he developed for musician and film producer Rob Zombie to explain his business model. Zombie had recently offered fans the chance to appear in his latest movie, The Lords of Salem, through a contest that Social Media 180 designed and embedded into Facebook. Nearly 40,000 people signed up for the contest, all of whom perhaps unwittingly turned their profile information over by clicking on the “sign up through Facebook” button.

“People don’t usually know that if you connect with the Facebook button, and you don’t read the terms of service, you’re giving someone else all of that information,” Lewis said. “And that information is invaluable [to the company] because they’ll be able to take that data and do very targeted marketing.”

When a company has a specific product they want to sell, Social Media 180 tracks exactly who went from the contest page to the company’s website and completed a purchase, thereby demonstrating return on investment. “Our model has proven you can use social media to generate income for dirt cheap,” he said.

Lewis briefly opened an office in downtown Chico, but has since cut costs by outsourcing the work to two teams of 10 people in India and a two-person team in Sacramento, allowing him to “rotate the work around the world.” Since referrals have continued generating new deals, he’s never needed a sales team.

With Social Media 180 on cruise control, Lewis recently launched yet another company, Sochule Inc., which is currently in the process of developing a mobile application called HelloTel.

The concept: Users check into a hotel, load the app and join a highly localized social network. From there, they’re presented with a main feed similar to that of Facebook or Twitter, allowing them to interact with others staying at the hotel—those who’ve also downloaded the app. Though Lewis designed a business-networking aspect into the application, he conceded it will mostly be used for other, less-professional purposes.

“I do know people are going to use it on the hook-up side,” he said, “but I definitely came at it from that business angle so you can network with all kinds of people.”

Lewis said the contacts he developed through Social Media 180 will allow him to launch a national marketing campaign to correspond with the app’s release in a few weeks. One aspect of the campaign will specifically target mobile users who are currently traveling; from there, he hopes the app will “go viral.”

Lewis’ hard work has already paid off. About a year ago, he bought a house on 2 acres in north Chico and moved out of his apartment. (Now, his office and bedroom are separate spaces.) And if HelloTel is as successful as he hopes, he may not need to work at all.

That doesn’t mean he won’t keep an eye out for the next potential opportunity.

“A lot of people start a business and then that’s what they do; they’re married to it,” he said. “I like starting companies, making them profitable, selling them, and then moving on to the next idea.”