Value Added: A Christmas tale about a new business

Thomas Heath
Reporter November 27, 2011

I decided to write about Matt Carson when I found out he was a Christmas nut like myself. His two-year quest to write and self-publish a Christmas book called “The Attic” is an instructive tale of a resourceful entrepreneur.

The Christmas book odyssey eventually would lead the 36-year-old Fauquier County businessman to start a pair of Web development businesses, one of which is an ambitious enterprise called BigTeams.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade. View Archive

But he had me at the Christmas book.

Carson said he was inspired to write after seeing Santa Claus fall off a roof and die in Tim Allen’s 1994 hit movie, “The Santa Claus.” In the movie, Tim Allen puts on a Santa suit and eventually morphs into the big guy himself.

He thought the movie demeaned St. Nick.

“I thought, ‘Any idiot cannot put on a Santa suit and become Santa,’ ” said Carson, who credits his aunt’s Christmas gift shop in Prince William County with instilling in him a love for the holiday.

So he set out to write a story to put Santa in a better light, hammering out a 104-page book in 1997 in just a few days while he was a student at West Virginia University. The story is about a kid who goes into his parents’ attic, finds a journal about his grandfather’s trip to the North Pole and learns how grandpa gets rescued by Santa Claus.

After writing “The Attic,” Carson set out to learn how to sell the book. He went to the local library and read up on how to start a small business. He then called Barnes & Noble to find out how to get his book on its shelves. The folks there told him his first step should be to get an ISBN number (International Standard Book Number), which is required if you are going to sell a book.

He also was directed to a book distributor, which is a middleman that buys books from publishers and sells them to stores. The distributor gave him idiot-proof instructions, such as making sure pages had numbers and the title was on the spine. He also received tips such as how to lobby retailers so they will sell his book and give it good display. In other words, salesmanship.

Next he went to the Fauquier County courthouse and registered a publishing company in the name of Carson’s Pub. He drew a beer mug and used it as the company logo.

To prepare the book for sale, a painter friend of his aunt’s drew a picture of Santa Claus for the cover. He used his middle name to invent a new name for the author — Matt Amick — because he thought the name Carson as both author and publisher would look cheesy.

Carson started calling printing companies, asking how many copies he could get printed for $5,000, which was all he had in his bank account. (He had saved the money while working basic jobs at Oasis Wineries in Hume, which was owned by the father of Tareq Salahi, the notorious White House gatecrasher.)

He eventually found a Charlottesville printing company that produced 12,000 copies. He asked Amazon to carry the book. The answer was yes, but Carson had to have a Web site.

Carson couldn’t afford to build one professionally, so he offered to fix the transmission on a buddy’s 1988 Saab. In return, the Web-savvy friend built a Web site for “The Attic.”

The aha moment — which eventually led to his current businesses — occurred when he had to update the book’s online site. Carson bought a Dummies guide and taught himself how to get the job done. The Town Duck, a Warrenton gift shop, heard about his talent and asked him to build one for the store, too. Others came calling.

He paid $24 for the SiteWhirks.com domain from Networks Solutions. Because his $695 per Web site fee was a fraction of what others charged, he had 50 clients faster that you could say “download.”

He paid $1,400 for a two-month ad in Washington Flyer magazine with a photo of a cow’s backside that said, “Does your Web site look like the south end of a northbound cow.”

The ads drew prominent clients such as the Virginia Gold Cup, Nextel and a Tysons Corner company called Project Solutions Group, which works with Fortune 500 companies and brought in even more clients.

“That’s when we had to start hiring real, real programmers,” Carson said.

SiteWhirks will gross $840,000 in 2011, throwing off about $200,000 in profit.

Carson and a high school chum who had joined him in the business, Steve Sutherland, were trying to expand the SiteWhirks brand about 2002 when they discovered another opportunity.

They had approached Fauquier High School, which they had both attended, and proposed donating a Web site for their sports teams. The goal was to get a news story about donating a sports site, which could lead to even more clients.

What it led to were requests from 16 Northern Virginia high schools who wanted sports Web sites of their own to post scores, schedules, team rosters and photos. Carson and Sutherland eventually saw a potential business there.

“It took a few beatings over the head before the light bulb went off,” Carson said. “We finally said hey, this is a cool product that we can spin off into its own brand.”

When their friend Jeff Gilbert — a marketing major from James Madison University — returned from a Peace Corps assignment in Thailand, they organized a separate company, BigTeams. They gave a third of the company to Gilbert in exchange for managing and expanding BigTeams.

BigTeams now builds and runs Web sites for 470 high school sports programs in 30 states, including all of Virginia’s public high schools. It charges each school a monthly fee of $50, which is a recurring revenue model that is the altar at which all businesses worship.

BigTeams has five employees and expects to gross about $390,000 this year, which includes $282,000 for subscriptions and the rest in advertising.

The four-year-old company has an uphill battle to get a portion of the 12,000 high schools in the United States as clients. Carson said he has his eye on the 9,000 or so schools that have more than 300 students. A recent partnership with a company that schedules high school sports games, called rSchoolToday, could bring in an additional 2,500 dues-paying clients.

One potential problem is getting schools to update the sites, especially if a coach has a poor-performing team. Carson is counting on parents to pressure the schools.

“The trick is providing a destination that appeals to both parents and to 18-year-old athletes, and is easy to manage for coaches,” Carson said.

And to think, it all started with “The Attic,” which sold all 12,000 copies at $12.95 each. Carson made $5 on each copy, netting him $60,000.

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