by Jamie Carter-Logan, Bryan Roche and Peter Anania
When a friend first introduced him to email, Rich Brooks remembers thinking how stupid it was.
“Why wouldn’t you just pick up the phone and call the person?”
That was in the early ‘90s, and Brooks’ opinion of the internet changed as quickly as the technology itself. Now, Brooks finds himself at the helm of flyte new media, a well-known web design and internet marketing agency based out of downtown Portland.
He’s also a nationally-recognized name in the industry and sought after for speaking engagements. The annual Agents of Change conference, put on by Brooks and the team at flyte, brings major players in the digital marketing world to Portland. And, he’s ensuring a solid future for the profession with his “flyte school,” which gives others in the industry the opportunity to learn from his team’s expertise.
Today, he continues to use his love technology to empower others — from creating solutions for his clients to inspiring audiences during speaking engagements.
But to get to that point, Brooks had to hone his own digital marketing skills, teaching himself every step of the way.
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A graduate of Skidmore College in New York, Brooks had an English degree and not much experience with the internet. In fact, his only formal experience with computers was a typing class that led to a job at a medical supplies company.
That job, however, gave Brooks the stepping stone he needed to launch flyte new media. Brooks was in a data entry role when he was offered the chance to head out on sales calls with the company’s owner. A quick learner and a self-starter, Brooks soon found himself excelling in the position.
The turning point for him, he says, was learning that when people say no, it’s not about you, and you can’t take it personally. That growth in confidence and the accompanying education about sales have been invaluable to Brooks in growing his own company.
But it’s a step he took on his own that made all the difference for his future. When Brooks went home one weekend, he decided to take a shot at building a website for the company.
Now, this was in the mid-90s. There was no WordPress, no SquareSpace. He just had the skills he’d taught himself using his Mac Performa and an HTML textbook.
Brooks built the website, went in the next week and showed his boss. The company was so impressed they took Brooks off of his sales route and put him in the marketing department. While interested in marketing, the job wasn’t exactly what Brooks wanted. When the company was going to relocate, Brooks knew it was time for him to make a change.
Instead of looking for a new job, though, he decided to take the time to drive across the country. It was a chance to have an adventure, but also to show off some of his web design skills.
Well before blogs, Twitter and Facebook, Brooks decided to document his travels online. The website, roadtrip97.com, is still active and is a time capsule of the early internet. It even includes copy on the homepage that recommends visitors view the page using Netscape.
When Brooks returned from the trip, he knew where he wanted his career to head. He wanted to be a web designer, and now was the time to do it. Young, single and with savings, it wasn’t hard for him to make the leap. At first, he had a part-time job while he built websites on the side, but eventually he realized that if he didn’t put his all into it, he never would. So he quit his job, and became fully dependent on his own venture.
“I was young and stupid, what’s the worst that could happen?” Brooks remembers thinking.
But he admits he had some lucky breaks along the way. For one, his father hired him to build a website for his psychology practice and speaking engagements, which gave him some much-needed exposure. Brooks also had a friend who was working in California for a special effects software company, and he hired Brooks to build the company’s website.
Even with these lucky breaks, Brooks still had to build viable, impressive websites to show what he could do. He kept teaching himself more, sometimes staying up for 48 hours at a time. He would jump from the Java website to his project, experimenting with programming languages and trying out new tactics. Brooks’ work impressed his clients, and attracted new ones.
But as much as he wanted to keep doing everything himself, he simply couldn’t. Brooks had reached the point where he realized he needed an employee.
From that first employee forward, Brooks’ hiring philosophy has always been to find people who are better than him at certain tasks.
“I just keep hiring people so I can push off the jobs to people who are better than me,” he explains. “Being a boss is continual delegation.”
As flyte has expanded, Brooks puts his talents to work for client generation and client management. Brooks’ nationwide speaking engagements have become a major source of client generation for the company, and have also helped him to hone his own skills. From presentations to webinars, Brooks says that having to explain concepts is the best way to learn.
“The teaching process clarifies the learning process,” he says.
Brooks got his first speaking gig thanks to his involvement with a blog called “Business Blog Consulting.” He spoke at “Blogworld,” though he admits the presentation he gave wasn’t great. He wasn’t inspired by the topic, so he asked if he could present on the topic of “Going Global New Media.”
Recognizing how much he enjoyed putting together presentations and teaching, as well as recognizing the benefit for his business, Brooks started looking at ways to expand flyte’s role in influencer events and conferences.
Now, Brooks and the company present podcasts and put on the “Agents of Change” conference each year in Portland, bringing together “the best minds in search, social and mobile marketing.”
For seven years, Brooks has made Portland a gathering place for some of the top minds in the digital marketing world. He’s built a company whose mission is to help other businesses grow, and even as flyte new media has grown, he’s kept its brand and focus Maine-centric. Brooks emphasizes a team mentality at flyte, recognizing the power of encouraging and utilizing people’s unique talents, and attracting tech talent to live and work in Maine.
That’s why Rich Brooks is a Maine Icon.