About four years ago, OuterBox Solutions Inc. of Akron had one employee and operated out of its young founder’s apartment.
These days, the Web design/development company boasts 30— many of them in their 20s and early 30s — in offices that take up the third floor of the historic Kaiser building downtown.
OuterBox’s heady sales growth — from $236,359 in 2008 to $2.1 million in 2011 — has landed it a spot on Inc. magazine’s 2012 list of the 500 fastest-growing private companies in the nation. Sales soared by nearly 800 percent from 2008 to 2011, securing the company the No. 495 spot.
The company specializes in building e-commerce websites — where shoppers can buy products online — for enterprises all over the country.
OuterBox’s chief operating officer, Nick Nolan, 29, said the goal for next year is to rank even higher.
“Customers want a company who is successful to build a successful website,” Nolan said.
OuterBox is among five Northeast Ohio companies on this year’s Inc. 500 list, and the only business in Akron. Companies are ranked on the percentage growth of their annual revenue over the three-year period.
Company leaders say what sets their venture apart is their focus on search-engine optimization — using techniques to get websites to rank high in search results.
“We’re not just a logo design ideas company. What really has differentiated us, and allowed us to grow so fast, is e-commerce,” said Chief Marketing Officer Beau Miller, 27, who, like others at OuterBox, wears jeans and T-shirts at work.
Building the e-commerce sites, with search-engine optimization techniques, “is so technically intensive … it’s a lot more to handle than just designing a brochure website,” Miller said.
“You have to figure out how to make people buy,” he said. “As a small company it was important for us to figure out how to be strategic and win.”
OuterBox customers include such big names as Ace Hardware and Anchor Hocking.
Most of OuterBox’s e- commerce logo design, however, are for enterprises that sell products exclusively online. They include a Hudson manufacturer of bean bag-type chairs, Ultimate Sack, and Addatoos, a Los Angeles company that sells tattoos — decals featuring images of flowers, insects and other designs — for sneakers.
Eric Martin, co-owner of Ultimate Sack, is not surprised OuterBox landed on the Inc. 500 list.
He credits Ultimate Sack’s websites with playing a key role in the growth of his enterprise, which has expanded in several years from a basement operation to one housed in a 25,000-square-foot warehouse and factory. Ultimate Sack now has 24 workers, most of them part-timers.
Martin said OuterBox built Ultimate Sack’s first website, then the chair company made the mistake of ditching OuterBox in favor of another website builder. The other company offered a cheaper deal, Martin said.
After a few months — and stagnant sales — “we went right back with OuterBox,” Martin said. “Without [OuterBox founder and Chief Executive] Justin Smith and OuterBox, we wouldn’t be here.”
Other local OuterBox clients include Carter Lumber, the building materials company based in Kent, and Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy in Cuyahoga Falls, which hired OuterBox to create an informational site.
Nolan, the OuterBox chief operating officer, said parents applauded when they viewed the site at a recent school event.
Smith, a graduate of Hudson High School, founded the company when he was 19. He had a young child, needed to pay bills and dropped out of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, returning to the area to work at building websites. He got help from freelancers.
OuterBox got a big boost in 2008, when CNBC’s business/entrepreneurism show The Big Idea With Donny Deutsch found the company online.
The Big Idea asked Smith to design — for free — a website for a shoe designer that was appearing on the show.
The show generated a lot of press and calls from prospective clients. Soon the growing company needed space to house more designers and developers and moved into the old Selle Generator Works Building in downtown Akron.
Earlier this year, as employment continued to grow, the company relocated to the three-story Kaiser building on South Main Street. Like the Selle building, the 1880s red brick Kaiser building had been restored by area developer Tony Troppe. Nolan envisions OuterBox needing even more space in the next two to three years, with the payroll possibly growing to 60 employees. He gives no thought to moving out of the city.
“We wanted to be in the center of Akron. We believe in the city.”
For now, OuterBox’s staff, including Allison Kynion, Smith’s wife and vice president of online marketing, occupies the entire third floor of the Kaiser building. The 5,000-square-foot space features high ceilings, an elevated, glassed-in conference room and a game room with a pingpong/pool table — a gift from one of the company’s customers.
There are no partitions in the blue-walled main work area, allowing employees to easily scoot their chairs to confer with colleagues, Nolan said.
“We push out a lot of work here, and we are extremely busy,” he said. “At the same time, we wanted a place where people can do the best work of their careers.”