Boy Meets School: Business Prodigy Finds Entrepreneurial Environment
December 05, 2018
Aleric Heck was already a successful entrepreneur in 2015 when he began looking into business schools. As a child in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, his parents let him play with a Sony Handycam and he started making videos, teaching himself to edit on Adobe Premiere when he was just eight-years-old. While other kids his age were playing T-ball, he was posting his videos on a new website called YouTube. In 2009, Heck uploaded a video review of games you could play on the new iPod touch, and watched with delight as the views mounted. “And the crazy thing is, it wasn’t just friends and family watching,” he recalls. “Other people were watching these videos and listening to what I had to say. I was hooked.”
Before long he had built a YouTube channel called Appfind, where his homespun video reviews of mobile apps were getting as many as a thousand views. When the iPhone 4 came out, his video roundup of apps for that device got several hundred thousand views, and Heck was accepted into the YouTube partner program. Now he was getting paid for those views.
He was 14-years-old.
“Before influencer was even a word, people started approaching me to be an influencer for mobile apps, because I became the largest app review channel on YouTube,” says Heck, whose AppFind channel now has more than 350,000 subscribers. He continued to grow his business all through high school. Revenue was coming in from YouTube, from sponsored content he would create for clients, and from partnership deals he would strike with mobile app companies. “It was a very good amount of money,” he notes. In his spare time, he helped run his high school’s business club, won first place in a state business services marketing contest, and earned the rank of Eagle Scout. By any measure, he was a strong applicant for business school.
And so, on a tour of one of his top college picks, Heck was surprised by the response he got to his story of entrepreneurial success. “I was telling them about all the things I had done to this point, and I remember them saying, ‘Okay, that was great to get you here, but now you are going to be focusing on school work. This will look great on your resume when you go to get a job.’ And I was like, wait a second, I don’t want to get a job. I want to keep doing this.”
Then he visited UMass.
The presence of the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship, launched at the Isenberg School the previous year, impressed him, but it was the philosophy underlying the school’s programs that sealed the deal. “I remember speaking with people and they said, ‘We want to champion you. We want you to grow your business here, and we are creating the environment for that to happen.’ That’s what I saw at Isenberg that made me really excited.”
It would be the beginning of what Heck would call a win-win relationship. In his time at UMass, which ends with his early graduation this December, Heck has provided an entrepreneurial spark to a number of Isenberg programs, serving as marketing director and president of the student Entrepreneurship Club, partnering on programming with the Berthiaume Center, developing the ULaunch at UMass weekend startup event, participating in the inaugural Summer Accelerator program, and mentoring the next generation of young entrepreneurs.
In return, Isenberg has provided him with a supportive environment characterized by student-focused instruction, accomplished mentors from the business world, and a community of like-minded peers, all of which helped guide him as he conceived and built a second business, Ad Outreach, which offers marketing and consultant services to YouTube advertisers. As he prepares for post-college life, Heck leaves UMass with his marketing degree, but also as the founder of two thriving companies with diverse rosters of clients, four employees, and steady revenue streams.
Looking at how Aleric Heck got to where he is offers an instructive case study in the effectiveness of Isenberg’s hands-on approach to business education, and the strength of its growing entrepreneurship offerings. As Heck puts it, “The great thing about entrepreneurship at UMass is that what’s being built out is actually what people need right now.”
Connecting on Campus
Even before he had moved into his dorm freshman year, Heck made a connection that would profoundly affect his experience at UMass. On the Facebook page of the then two-year-old UMass Entrepreneurship Club, he responded to a posting for the open job of marketing director. Then, at UFest, the orientation event for new students, he sought out the club’s booth and introduced himself to its founder and president, Dakota Morse. “A lot of people are intimidated by social interaction,” notes Morse, who now works for Amazon doing digital marketing. “So I was impressed that he came up to us, shook our hands, and said, ‘Hey, I’m Aleric.’ Then he gave us a mini pitch on the spot, which showed some hustle. It seemed like a good fit, even though he was a freshman and typically we would reserve those positions for people who are more tenured in the group.”
At the time, the club had only a dozen or so members, and Morse was eager to broaden its base. Heck got the position.
“I said, I know how to run social media. We can get a lot of people to come to this club,” Heck recalls. “So we ran Facebook, we ran Twitter, we even ran Facebook ads with some of the funds the club had to get people to come in, and soon enough we had over 100 registered members. It used to be only a handful attending, and now there were 50 people filling up the room in the club. It was incredible.” Newly energized, the club brought in high-powered alumni speakers and hosted talks about entrepreneurship. Morse, who was graduating that spring, appreciated the dedication he saw in Heck, and suggested he run for president. That January, Heck ran and won.
And he promptly got down to business. Heck had heard about an entrepreneurial event run by Google called Startup Weekend, where people gather for a weekend to develop ideas into businesses. Other schools were hosting similar events and Heck sensed it could be big at UMass. After reaching out to the Berthiaume Center for support and securing sponsorship from Bueno y Sano founder and UMass instructor Bob Lowry, the club hosted its first ULaunch at UMass in the fall of 2016, bringing together students from all across the campus for a weekend of entrepreneurial creativity. The concept was simple: anybody can pitch an idea for a business, the room votes for its favorites, teams are formed, and folks get down to work. At the end of the weekend, judges award funding to the most promising ideas.
“Somebody built an actual prototype of an electric skateboard,” Heck recalls of that first ULaunch. “Somebody made custom artisan soap and they actually sold some of it. There were people who made a mobile app that helped people track their to-do lists. They made real businesses.”
ULaunch at UMass has been held every semester since. “Every semester a dozen new businesses get formed,” Heck notes. “Not all of them last, but the biggest thing people get out of it is they realize what they can accomplish in one weekend. The business is kind of irrelevant, because what they realize is, if I just put my mind to it, and I decide I want to make a business, I can do it in a weekend.”
Supporting young entrepreneurs
The success of the ULaunch at UMass event underscores a belief that is central to Heck’s approach to business and explains his appreciation for the Berthiaume Center: The best time to be an entrepreneur, he maintains, is when you are young. “My goal was to help people who are in college actually start something,” he says. “Because it’s the best time to do it. Once people get a job and start building families, it’s a lot harder to go out and start ventures. So one of the things we wanted to do – myself and the other people who were running the club with me, and also the team at UMass and Berthiaume – was to really foster that environment for people to actually start things.”
Heck, of course, knew all about starting things. While at school, he had been continuing to run his AppFind business, and by the end of his freshman year, he was itching to take on something new. The inspiration came when a social media influencer agency hired him to make a promotional video for a client with a social networking app. The video was a hit, and the agency asked Heck if he could find a way to get it in front of more people. Heck had a crazy idea: run the video as an ad on YouTube. “Nobody was running YouTube video ads at this time except Geico and Ford, the big companies, basically TV ads,” he recalls. “And so they were like, why would you run a YouTube video as an ad?”
When the $500 ad generated 11,000 users, earning the agency $1 per user, the answer was clear. And Heck had a new business: AppOutreach, a marketing company that promotes mobile apps with YouTube ads. He also had a tempting job offer from the influencer agency to quit school and go work for them, but he turned it down. “I wanted to get my degree here,” he explains. “And the other thing is, I wanted to be the entrepreneur. I wanted to run things.”
Heck’s confidence was encouraged in part by the entrepreneurial environment he was surrounded by at Isenberg and Berthiaume. A particularly formative class was Introduction to Entrepreneurship, taught by Bob Lowry. A UMass alum himself, Lowry brought fellow entrepreneurs and alumni into the classroom to tell their stories. He also assigned Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, which had a powerful impact on Heck. After class, Lowry and students would often gather at a downtown restaurant to continue the conversations. “That really speaks to Bob’s helping foster that environment, too,” says Heck. Another mentor was Birton Cowden, then the Berthiaume Center’s Director of New Ventures, who taught a business accelerator course that Heck took twice.
Encouragement also came through Heck’s participation in the Berthiaume Center’s Innovation Challenge, a competition where students pitch their business ideas to a panel of judges drawn from the business community. Heck presented AppOutreach his sophomore year, and while he did not win any seed money, he found the experience valuable. “What the judges are looking for at the Innovation Challenge is more of a groundbreaking thing, not necessarily something that’s a business right now,” he says. “That’s something I knew going in, but I still had a lot of fun.”
Meanwhile, Heck’s AppOutreach business was starting to gain traction, although he was feeling the limits of working solely with mobile app developers. He needed to broaden his customer base but didn’t quite know how. He turned to Cowden and asked if there was some way that he could work on the project over the summer. As it happens, the Berthiaume Center was launching its first Summer Accelerator, an eight-week program for new ventures that provides work space, mentorship, networking opportunities, and tailored educational programming, all focused on turning student ideas into viable businesses. The program would be a turning point for Heck and AppOutreach.
Summer Accelerator breakthrough
By now, Heck had brought on fellow Isenberg marketing student Davis McVay and found an online consulting firm to help him attract clients from beyond the mobile app world. With the resources of the Summer Accelerator program, he began developing what would eventually become his breakthrough marketing tool: an online sales funnel. He created a website (adoutreach.com/webinar) that offers a free webinar on YouTube marketing, then invites interested customers to set up a consultation call with him so he can further explain his company’s services.
Rather than pursuing new customers through emails or networking, as he once did, Heck now has potential clients coming to him – dozens view the webinar every day. AdOutreach then offers two levels of service: either video workshops to train businesses in doing their own video marketing or a more comprehensive service where Heck’s company does the work for them. The venture was one of seven finalists the 2018 Innovation Challenge, and while it did not win funding in that competition, Heck is optimistic about the company’s prospects. As he told the judges, YouTube has become an increasingly influential platform. “Sixty-eight percent of people make purchase decisions based off YouTube, but only nine percent of businesses use YouTube ads,” he notes. “If you want to get in front of people with a good advertisement, YouTube is huge, and that’s what we help people set up.”
Heck is finishing his last semester of classes and schoolwork while already firmly in the working world. AdOutreach, he says, “is fulltime. I work at least 50 or 60 hours a week during the school year, all day Saturday and usually past midnight on most days. But I love it.” And as busy as he is, he says, he’ll be continuing to support the community of entrepreneurs at UMass, helping further the creative environment that helped get him where he is today.