Diane Mastrull: Stroll sprints to keep its marketing machine growing

From his dorm room at the University of Maryland, Dan Roitman started Stroll in 2000, an e-commerce company specializing in educational projects. Then he managed to convince Simon & Schuster to license him the rights to The Pimsleur Approach, a language learning tool that was little known and is now second only to Rosetta Stone. And Stroll, now at $40 million in revenue, is on a growth mission to hit $1 billion in sales by 2020. How did a little guy get so big so fast? Dan Roitman, Chief Executive Office of the Stroll, is chatting with his employees Rich Bosler (left) and Colin Murray at his office in Center City Philly on April 23, 2012. ( AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer )
From his dorm room at the University of Maryland, Dan Roitman started Stroll in 2000, an e-commerce company specializing in educational projects. Then he managed to convince Simon & Schuster to license him the rights to The Pimsleur Approach, a language learning tool that was little known and is now second only to Rosetta Stone. And Stroll, now at $40 million in revenue, is on a growth mission to hit $1 billion in sales by 2020. How did a little guy get so big so fast? Dan Roitman, Chief Executive Office of the Stroll, is chatting with his employees Rich Bosler (left) and Colin Murray at his office in Center City Philly on April 23, 2012. ( AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer )
Posted: May 08, 2012

Dan Roitman’s company is called Stroll, a most ill-fitting name. From a growth perspective at least, Stroll’s evolution has been anything but a leisurely pace.

Born 12 years ago in a Maryland dorm room, the Center City company is an impressive display of the potential of any small business, though perhaps in the extreme.

In just the last year, its revenue has exploded from $17 million to $40 million, with another doubling expected by the end of 2012. Profit growth was 400 percent last year, Roitman said. Hiring has been at a frenetic pace too, with 80 employees added last year and five new hires made almost weekly this year.

Stroll’s workforce of more than 160 occupies 22,000 square feet of call-center and corporate space three stories above JFK Boulevard, and another 18,000 square feet in Northeast Philadelphia, from which product is shipped.

The product is an audio-based language-learning tool that enables users to be conversational in 10 days and at a work proficiency within 90 days, Roitman said. Stroll licenses the Pimsleur Approach from Simon & Schuster Inc. and accounts for 90 percent of the consumer sales of that product line, Roitman said. Pimsleur is second in sales only to the more familiar Rosetta Stone, he added.

But Stroll’s success in hawking an educational product is almost beside the point.

“We could sell anything,” said Roitman, who has a reputation for being bright and inquisitive, but not an exaggerator. “This is a marketing machine.”

The guts of that machine is not flashy advertising but a decidedly low-key — some might suggest boring — method: analytics.

“We’re kind of fanatic about it,” Roitman said. “It’s part of our DNA.”

By analytics, he means “not just haphazardly going about your work.”

At Stroll, systems are set up to measure return on advertising, and to analyze customers — “knowing how much our customers are worth, how much we can spend to afford a customer,” said Roitman, chief executive officer.

That optimization focus has allowed “gain on top of gain on top of gain,” Roitman said, calling it and the analytics “the secret sauce in the business.”

In 2002, the first year Stroll started selling Pimsleur products, revenue was $200,000. By the end of 2003, it was $2 million.

Marketing adjustments are made accordingly. Because the advertising Stroll does on Pimsleur is all online, those tweaks largely involve what is said in e-mail subject lines or in the headline of advertisements. It also involves keeping the website landing page simple and focused on one product and/or message.

On Pimsleur, that has meant the learning program’s conversational focus — there’s no lessons on reading, writing and grammar rules — and its use-almost-anywhere ease, be it the car or the kitchen. Pimsleur just requires listening.

“I just don’t believe you need to make it so complex,” Roitman said of his marketing philosophy.

It is honed from devouring marketing books and collecting input from many experts whom Roitman, 33, now calls his mentors. Among them is Bryan Eisenberg, a New York-based professional speaker on marketing, and coauthor of best-sellers Call to Action, Waiting For Your Cat to Bark? and Always Be Testing.

Roitman first reached out to Eisenberg to help him build a website to sell a Swedish-made pen-like device, C-Pen, that scanned the printed page for download into a computer. It was the first incarnation of Stroll and Roitman was a senior at the University of Maryland, where he graduated in 2000 with degrees in international business and German. He spent nine years of his childhood living in Germany.

“Right away, we were able to tell that he was good at getting things done,” Eisenberg recalled of his initial impression of Roitman.

He had started college on a full music scholarship playing jazz guitar until he determined that “the music was killing my creativity. It was becoming too mechanical.”

Entrepreneurial ever since he was a kid shoveling snow, Roitman made what he considered a logical transition to a business major. While in college, he worked 20 hours a week doing German technical translation for a software company, which enabled Roitman to graduate with $100,000 in available credit, which he tapped heavily to launch the Pimsleur business.

His transition from the C-Pen to a language-learning product would again impress Eisenberg: “He did something that few entrepreneurs do, which is pivot his business. That ability to not overly fall in love with your idea is so critical.”

Roitman then demonstrated another rare skill, Eisenberg said: “He developed his business to take advantage of both creativity and data analysis, leveraging both the right and left side of the brain.”

Said Roy H. Williams, one of Eisenberg’s consulting partners and chancellor of Wizard Academy, a business school in Austin, Texas: “He’s not a follower. He grabs a concept and even though not road-tested, he launches and bets the farm. So many people want somebody else to pioneer, work out the kinks.”

Why Roitman chose a language-learning CD upon which to build a company was, in part, a matter of opportunity. Language learning is at least a $2 billion market in the United States, Roitman said. The recession has helped, prompting consumers to pursue personal development in an effort to gain an advantage over others in the devastated job market, said Michael DiPiano, managing partner at NewSpring Capital. The Radnor investment firm passed on an opportunity to invest in Stroll, largely because Roitman was looking for well below Newspring’s $5 million minimum, DiPiano said.

With capital on hand and additional financing sources lined up, Stroll is now developing a mergers-and-acquisitions plan with the goal of becoming a $1 billion company by 2020.

“For me, it’s all about the excitement and fun of building something big,” Roitman said.

Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com or follow @mastrud on Twitter.

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