In September 2014, the Tom Tom Founders Festival launched the Founding Cville project which highlights local artists, civic leaders and entrepreneurs “whose groundbreaking and original work has impacted Charlottesville and the world.” Charlottesville Tomorrow is republishing the eighteen profiles of each of the inaugural Founders.
Alan Rimm-Kaufman, Founder of the Rimm-Kaufman Group (in memoriam)
When you search for “designer shoes” on Google, it is likely the ads that appear in the side bar do so at the suggestion of Charlottesville’s Rimm-Kaufman Group. In 2013, RKG’s proprietary technology placed nearly $240,000,000 of ads on behalf of clients such as Urban Outfitters and Express. A decade prior to that, Alan Rimm-Kaufman had looked at a small Southern town and a handful of inexperienced recent graduates, and saw the perfect ingredients for a company that could compete in a rapidly changing, globally competitive industry. In 2014, RKG announced its acquisition by global marketing firm, Merkle, but is keeping the headquarters, and the 175+ employees in Charlottesville. Alan died of luekemia in 2009.
The responses below are provided by George Michie, Cofounder of RKG and Sara Rimm-Kaufman, Alan’s widow.
What is RKG and what was the inspiration?
The Rimm-Kaufman Group (RKG) is a search and digital marketing agency whose proprietary software has enabled it to become a leader in the paid search optimization field. RKG drives business to retail clients by maximizing a full range of opportunities including paid search, SEO, product listing ads, social media, display advertising and comparison shopping engine management services.
Alan came up with the basic premise for Rimm-Kaufman Group in December 2002 based on his experiences leading the marketing group at Crutchfield. Alan perceived a need for agencies to play an intermediate role between retailers and search engines. In particular, Alan was passionate about leveraging cutting-edge technology and data analytics to produce the very best results for web-based retailers. Initially, he was particularly focused on helping small companies, “the little guys,” get a strong start on selling their products on the web.
Alan received a lymphoma diagnosis in 1995 while he was still a doctoral student at MIT. In Alan’s journal in December, 2002, roughly 18 months after a bone marrow transplant and during a period of perfect health, Alan wrote, “If my time is limited, I would certainly like to try building a business, not just work for a paycheck my whole life.”
Alan was well-supported from the start by the people closest to him in work and in life. The day Alan announced that he was leaving Crutchfield to start his own company, Alan received a call from George Michie, cofounder, who said, “Alan, I don’t know what you’re doing or what you’re founding, but count me in.” Alan and his wife rented a farm house for years and invested money saved toward home ownership to start RKG.
What was the biggest challenge?
RKG jumped into a rapidly evolving industry against competitors with deep pockets from financial backers. Although RKG had great ideas for technology, the technology had not yet been built and so Alan, George and the other early employees at RKG had to scramble to deliver great results efficiently. In some ways, the struggle associated with having too little time and resources forced RKG to think carefully about how to prioritize. As a turns out, that prioritization led to innovations that served the company well down the road.
Starting and sustaining a company involves a lot of guts. Bringing on people as employees means that in some way, as president and founder, you’re taking on responsibility for people’s livelihood. There is a tremendous amount of uncertainty involved in all stages of this process. As Alan described in his journal while attending a conference at Google (in 2006): “I feel like a small cork on a big sea.”
What did success look like?
In mid-2006, RKG started turning profits month after month. Also, RKG began to build training systems to get people up to speed and adding value to the company much faster, which in turn, led to important efficiencies.
What has been the biggest positive impact you have observed?
RKG developed thought leadership in the industry in the earliest days of RKG. Now, the thought leadership has been sustained effectively for over a decade. In many ways, RKG helped raise the bar for the whole industry, forcing competitors to improve to compete and even providing information that helped explain how they could do so.
Upon reflection, Alan would be most proud of watching the incredible professional development of people we hired at entry level positions who now discharge tremendous responsibilities with extraordinary professionalism.
How did Alan define Founding?
Alan would probably define Founding as involving a few components. First, you develop a core idea, then you gather the people around you who are willing to support you no matter what, and then, you take a leap of faith and work like crazy toward taking your vision and making it a reality. Alan would also say that it’s good to have smart friends who are willing to be critical of your ideas—that type of critique makes the ideas sharper and stronger. Finally, Alan would say that Founding requires founders to take time to identify the core values of the company. In the case of RKG, Alan and George organized RKG around the core values of integrity, high quality products, and high quality relationships with employees, clients, and the Charlottesville community.
Alan died in 2009 at age 41. Despite Alan’s untimely depth, George Michie and others led RKG forward successfully. RKG continues to grow here in Charlottesville and elsewhere. RKG continues to be highly regarded for its thought leadership, high quality service, and integrity.
In June of 2014, RKG was acquired by Merkle, a world leading CRM, data analytics and digital marketing firm. Merkle is committed to continuing RKG’s growth in the Charlottesville community, putting millions into new office renovations. With Merkle, job and career development opportunities will continue to expand for current and future Charlottesville staff. The future is very bright indeed.
RKG and the Charlottesville Community
Sara Rimm-Kaufman: Alan would be very proud of RKG’s contribution to Charlottesville and the degree to which RKG has brought high quality, interesting, family-friendly jobs to Charlottesville. Right from the start, Alan with cofounder, George Michie, started efforts to donate employee time and funds to local Charlottesville causes. Now, RKG participates in community volunteer days, offers matches for donations, and organizes regular fundraising efforts.
Founding Cville culminated in an award ceremony at Tom Tom’s Fall Block Party
with over 6,000 in attendance | Credit: Tom Daly Photography