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Switching gears Featured

8:39am EDT December 27, 2005
Many people change careers, but making the switch from a professional racecar driver to CEO of a marketing company is quite a leap. However, that is exactly what Zak Brown did when he left racecar driving to start Just Marketing in 1994.

“There are actually a lot of similarities,” says Brown. “You always have to be pushing the envelope and trying to go faster every day, whether you are in a racecar or with a growing business. The mentality to me has been fairly similar.”

It doesn’t hurt that Just Marketing focuses on serving the motorsports industry, something Brown knows a lot about, and that decision has helped him succeed. Just Marketing has experienced an 849 percent growth rate over the past three years, and Brown is finding that more and more clients are seeking him out, rather than vice versa.

Smart Business spoke with Brown about the challenges of starting his own business and the public scrutiny his company faces as it grows.

How did you make the switch from racecar driver to CEO of Just Marketing?
I started the company out of my right pocket, which I didn’t have much in at the time. Getting something off the ground without any investors is a challenge. I never had any investors or partners.

Also, in the early days, you lack credibility, so the combination of the two makes it very difficult to get started. Those first two years were difficult, but probably no more difficult than anyone else starting a company who has a vision who doesn’t really have the resources to start the company.

I started the company as a one-man band out of my house and just kind of plowed away at it. Now we are up to 60 people and are building our own building and have definitely turned the corner. We don’t have any cash problems and don’t have any credibility problems.

Life is still not as easy as I would like it to be, but those two particular start-up issues are no longer issues.

How has focusing on the niche of motorsports helped you grow?
It’s a fairly big industry, so even though we are a niche agency, we are a niche agency in probably the most successful commercial sport. We are playing in the right sandbox, which helps because we are only going to be as successful as the industry as a whole.

Fortunately, the industry has been very sound for the last 10 years and appears to still be sound for the next five years.

How have you managed to grow so quickly in the last three years?
In general, we’ve been focused, we remain focused and we remain very hungry. Our successes have brought on other success. People have definitely taken notice of us. What makes us grow is our success and focus, and hopefully that will continue.

We have never lost an account, which is critical. As we get bigger, we are put up on a pedestal, which means people are gunning for us.

You could make a mistake under the radar 10 years ago and no one would notice because no one really noticed you in the first place. Now everyone is looking, and the competitors would love to see us make some mistakes.

We have to be more critical of ourselves because we are evaluated and scrutinized in a heavier way.

How are you safeguarding against making mistakes?
I’ve hired an executive team over the last couple years. I have brought in some more executive management. We’ve put a lot more checks and balances in place.

Now we kind of have big-company syndrome in that we have to play by all the big-company rules, which takes a little bit of the fun out of it because we began to get involved with some red tape. I want to try to keep our nimble and fun-loving atmosphere of 60 people and not turn into big corporate mentality.

I want to continue to grow. I am very happy where we are at but am pretty motivated and always looking for the next challenge. I am not going to put any limits on how big or small it can get. There are definitely days when I would love for it to be five people because the management of 60 can be a challenge.

I don’t think I want to artificially say, ‘This is how big I want to get it.’ I would like it to be more profitable, but that will come.

HOW TO REACH: Just Marketing, (317) 870-9922 or www.justmarketing.com