NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- Ryan Allis, 27, is CEO of iContact, a Raleigh-Durham, N.C., email marketing software that claims 600,000 users worldwide. Allis, who's been an entrepreneur since starting Allis Computing at a precocious 11, is on the board of several nonprofits and is working to bridge entrepreneurship with social causes -- including with an iContact spinoff called iConnect that focuses on helping companies and causes succeed with email and social marketing.
Launched in 2003, iContact reports having 300 employees, 70,000 corporate customers and $50 million in annual sales. But Allis' youth makes him a good CEO to ask about how college-age workers should approach a tough economy and world of rapidly changing technology.
What can students these days do to prepare themselves for a successful job search?
Allis: The most important skill in finding and doing a great job in today's world is to learn how to communicate and build relationships. Find mentors who are already doing what you want to do and connect with them through Twitter, Facebook and email and start to build a relationship with them. Don't "friend" them, but send them a message asking for advice -- and, as you build your relationship, try to meet them in person. Pretend you'll be in certain geographies and then ask people if they'll have lunch with you. The best way to get a job is through relationships with successful people.
What is your advice for an inexperienced student still in school looking to gain experience?
Allis: While in college do internships and build up relationships with mentors who can hire you after you graduate. Students should be spending at least 20% of their time in college building relationships with companies they're passionate about so that when they graduate they can hit the ground running. I can't stress enough the importance of relationships. I'd rather hire someone with a 3.5 GPA that I know well than someone with a 3.8 I've never met. Some of what is causing the overproduction of degrees today is that people think more education is the answer when they can't get the job they want out of college, when it is really relationships and experience that are important.
What are the qualities you look for in a potential employee?
Allis: I'm looking to hire someone who communicates well and really knows the company and can even make recommendations for improving the company before starting. I look for people who are creative, hardworking and smart. In short, people that take action and communicate effectively.
Speaking of employees, how have you learned to manage people effectively?
Allis: What I try to do is hire people who are smarter and more experienced than I am. I've really had to learn not to micromanage. It's hard but crucial. To grow a company, you need to hire smarter, more experienced people, give them clear metrics for success and the resources to carry out their tasks and then get out of the way and let those people get the job done.
As a social media expert, what's your advice to someone looking to launch a message campaign?
Allis: Instead of looking at the latest fads, focus on doing the obvious -- Facebook, website, Twitter, YouTube -- really well. There is no primer or set of rules for best social media practices as far as I know. You have to figure out how to do it yourself through practice.