Over the past six months a marketing startup has been gaining traction by introducing trending marketing strategies in Erie, Pa. Zak Stahlsmith founded ApexDrop in 2015. He introduced influence marketing to the Erie scene by connecting it to the fashion industry. ApexDrop is an influence marketing agency, connecting fashion influencers with brands they love. Influencers gain access to products and can earn cash by utilizing their social media connections while brands gain access to influential consumers. In just a little over a year, ApexDrop has developed an impressive list of industry partners including GiGi, Fossil, and NY&C.

ApexDrop’s latest successful funding round took the team across the street to the Erie Technology Incubator (ETI), housed on 900 State Street and supported by Gannon University, to further develop their brand. Before moving, Zak sat down to tell us what coworking has meant for ApexDrop and what it’s like to launch a global business from Erie. He further explains how to tap into community resources using the talents of a coworking space.

Radius: ApexDrop has an impressive list of industry partners and one of the hippest teams in Erie. What is ApexDrop up to?!

Zak: Doing big things in Erie! If you haven’t heard about us, ApexDrop is a social media and influence marketing agency. We’re home to a group of fashion influencers who promote products for brands. Influencers have emerged as trusted content creators who have large followings online and offline. When they speak, their followers listen.

Influence marketing is basically word-of-mouth marketing on steroids. The internet, cell phone, and social media all paved the way for influence marketing. A Nielson study revealed that 15 percent of people will believe what a brand has to say, but over 90 percent will believe and trust the word of a friend, peer or family member. Remember the last time you checked the feedback of a seller on eBay or Amazon? People tend to trust complete strangers more than the brand. It’s this type of shift in shopping behavior that made influencer marketing a crucial part of any company’s digital marketing strategy.

Our network of influencers has grown to one thousand popular trendsetting, millennial women who promote brands they truly love and our reach extends across 12 million followers. Our goal is to help advertisers and agencies grow by connecting them with the most compatible brand ambassadors in our network.

These influencers support brands during new product launches and can play an integral part in the product feedback loop. For fashion brands, having authentic relationships with influencers is crucial. It is also important for influencers that these relationships are organic, long-term, and meaningful. ApexDrop negotiates these relationships as an influence marketing agency.

We purposely remain a small company by industry standards so our clients can leverage the 16-years of digital marketing experience I have acquired. By focusing on helping fashion companies grow, we stand out against other agencies. Most agencies offer a wide assortment of advertising services, so we work in a very small niche to stay competitive.

Radius: What were you up to before ApexDrop and why launch in Erie?

Zak Stahlsmith - Apex Drop Influence MarketingZak: I started my career in marketing in 1998 at the ripe age of 18. While attending college, I had an insight in the video game industry that seems commonplace now … people would pay real money for digital products. As an early adopter, I was able to dominate this space for several years using affiliate marketing. I used the business skills I learned and my marketing degree to foster a career in marketing consulting for several companies. Back in 2008, I was one of the first marketers at Honda to start using artificial intelligence to communicate and engage with customers. I also used data mining processes back in 2012 to perform, what is now called, influencer marketing campaigns. With social media emerging as the biggest thing to happen to advertising since email, I was inspired to develop my own modern marketing firm.

I first had the idea for ApexDrop in October 2014. I left a well-paying marketing job because I couldn’t get the idea of influence marketing out of my head. I finally asked myself, “what would be more rewarding and enjoyable than to grow a successful business out of my own ideas?”

Trying to build a company focused on fashion influence marketing in Erie is a little intimidating at first. Fashion isn’t a flourishing industry in a small city comparable to Erie. But ApexDrop is primarily online which gains the company access to the entire world. Armored with that knowledge, launching ApexDrop in Erie allowed me to learn cutting edge processes and technologies that make this firm competitive from anywhere.

Launching a business in downtown Erie shouldn’t hold anyone back from exploring their dreams. Often times, people have great ideas but don’t pursue them because they think, “Who am I? What can I do? How am I supposed to do this out of Erie?” In reality, the business resources, employee talent, and experienced mentors exist in abundance in Erie and by utilizing small town networking they are easier to access than in a metropolitan city.

Radius: What were the challenges you faced working from home prior to joining Radius?

Zak: I chose to join Radius for a number of reasons. My team was expanding and I needed a better location where I could coordinate with team members. It is extremely awkward to think of bringing a college intern into your kitchen to work. I also wanted to increase my creative and productive energy because living and working alone in my home all day simply didn’t produce results.

One day I called a freelancer friend of mine and asked him how he maintained his creative energy working from home. He said he regularly works away from the home office and suggested I visit Radius. After my initial drop-in I realized that the supportive community within Radius could provide the energy I needed. Plus I enjoyed the work day more than working from home. I know my intern and sales manager preferred it, too.

The collaborative nature of Radius offered something special. I asked designers for input on my logo. I asked marketing experts for input on my messaging. I could ask for almost any professional reference and someone knew the right talent. However a pleasant surprise not commonly found in a traditional office setting or from working at home was the camaraderie of like-minded professionals. When you were exhausted, people you respected and enjoyed were there to have coffee or a beer with you. I just felt good at Radius, and that’s a strength you can’t put a monetary value on when you’re tackling a challenge.

Radius: How has the ecosystem of support resources available in Erie helped your startup?

Zak: The support resources are part of my team. I received support from Gannon University’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC). I began ApexDrop by learning from SBDC’s First Step Seminar, which I highly recommend. I’ve also received support from the Accelerator Program at the ETI, and funding through Ben Franklin Technology Partners. I met one of my most trusted advisers, Roy Campbell, Director of Business Development at Ben Franklin, through a chance meeting during ETI’s Accelerator program. Roy saw the potential in ApexDrop and pushed me to go further. Now he is a close mentor.

I’ve made many other great connections in the technology community through Sean Fedorko, Radius CoWork co-founder, which include Raul Montejo, a full stack software developer; Mel Pangborn an AdWords specialist; Chris Schroeder a graphic artist; Innovation Collaborative and the list goes on. These are connections who I’ve not only built professional partnerships with but who I consider close friends. That’s important because it keeps me level amid the stress.

Radius: What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs launching their startup?

Zak: Be authentic and be focused. The internet has made it easy for anyone to give their opinion online, regardless of their level of expertise, so it can be difficult to know which opinions you can trust. It is important to connect with original content creators and avoid anyone that contributes to the online noise through unauthentic messaging. Cutting through the noise is exactly what we do at ApexDrop; connecting brands to their authentic messengers.

Radius: Thanks for the empowering perspective for the Erie community. Thanks for your time Zak! 

Zak: Hey, thank you guys.

Zak’s team got their first desks at Radius, joining as members in early 2016. As a Coworking space, Radius offers an affordable gateway into the downtown community for startups and small businesses. Radius also provides the early stages of a support network that includes institutional funders like Ben Franklin Technology Partners, formal mentors available at Erie Technology Incubator, and dozens of professional peers that work with you every day and combined know most everyone in the city.

Zak has published extensively about authentic influence marketing. You can view ApexDrop’s Influencer Guide by clicking here.