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Knowland Group became one of the fastest-growing companies by taking photos of signs

Robby Hill, Lisa Barone and Hannah Karaszkiewicz review the output of telephone researchers at the Knowland Event Booking Center in Salisbury, Md.
Robby Hill, Lisa Barone and Hannah Karaszkiewicz review the output of telephone researchers at the Knowland Event Booking Center in Salisbury, Md. (Carolyn Watson/knowland Group)
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McKean started a consulting company in 1998, doing Web development for nonprofits, associations and small government contracting firms from his apartment in Arlington. After a two-year stop in New York, McKean's company ended up in a brownstone on Massachusetts Avenue in the District.

A San Francisco-based company in the hotel readerboard business contacted him in 2004 and asked him to write a plan on how the company could expand its offerings. In particular, it wanted to offer the readerboard information to hotels but also supply those hotels with the contact information for the meeting planners.

"We were brought in as a consultant to help make this company a better readerboard business. We did this for three months, trying to create better ways for them to run their business. Then they took our proposal and blew us off."

McKean decided to take the information and jump into the business himself.

"We looked at ourselves and said, 'Let's just do this.' "

So in August 2004, McKean and his older brother David put on suits and - usually one at a time - began walking into Washington area hotels and asking to meet with the hotel's director of group sales. The first client came a month later, when the Holiday Inn in Arlington hired them to collect readerboard information from competitors. Then another Holiday Inn signed on.

McKean picked "Knowland Group" as a name because it was a play on "knowledge," and "group" made the company sound bigger than it was.

By December 2005, they had more than 100 customers.

It wasn't all smooth. Their first hire didn't work out, mostly because the employee couldn't sell over the telephone.

Knowland now requires every prospective employee to spend time on the telephone for two days at its Salisbury, Md., call center so the McKeans can decide whether the person can work the phone.

"We look for salespeople who are unafraid to use the phone and able to make lots of phone calls," McKean said. "It's not rocket science."

Revenue has grown like mad: $106,000 in 2005, $670,000 in 2006, $1.6 million in 2007; $3.6 million in 2008 and $6.2 million last year.

Knowland's competitive advantage - its secret sauce - is its ability to find and recruit hundreds of reliable researchers who visit the hotels every day. McKean would not discuss how he finds his spies.

"The hardest part is managing the field researchers," said McKean, who has a team in Salisbury that works with a group of researchers that manages their hotel routes and checks for accuracy. "We have technology that checks their photos for dozens of different types of fraud and mistakes. . . . I want to make sure our clients are getting accurate data."

The company is now broken down into four businesses, with the readerboards identification bringing in about 60 percent of revenue. In addition to the readerboard service, the company has an event booking center based in Salisbury, with about 50 employees. Knowland also has a search engine called Insight that costs clients $500 a month to help find business leads. The fourth division, called Target Net, creates software that helps hotels manage their salespeople.

As with any small-business owners, the McKeans work endless hours, frequently logging up to 80 or more hours a week. They do well, taking healthy salaries and a piece of the profits, but they roll most of the money back into the business for expansion.

Beats bartending.

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