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Marketing investment moves growth needle for iDashboards

New economy entrepreneurs love to boast about fashionable things that make their startups growth hockey stick. How they built a kick-ass team, or perfected their technology first, or developed an innovative company culture focused on disruption are common refrains when it comes to explaining success.

There is no lack of success for iDashboards. It has consistent double-digit revenue growth, dozens of hires, and cool software more and more people want. The secret sauce to its success: marketing.

"Marketing is the driver of our company's growth," says Shadan Malik, president & CEO of iDashboards. "We do a lot of marketing."

That wasn't the case initially for the 12-year-old company. It spent its first few years working on its software, which is a digital dashboard for business. The interactive portal enables the user to analyze, track and organize data into easily useable parts that help streamline a company and enable it to grow faster. Some of its clients include big-name companies in healthcare, finance, and higher education, among other industries.

Those early years served as a time for the Troy-based firm to get its basics right, such as building a customer base. Then the economy crashed in 2008, which prompted iDashboards to keep plugging forward and filling out its clientele.

"You need to have a certain critical mass to have rapid growth," Malik says. "Once we got that critical mass we started to experience better visibility and better growth."

IDashboards' growth started to take off when the economy began to improve.

"2010 was a good year," Malik says. "Things were looking up for us. We decided to take action and up our marketing."

Which meant bumping up the iDashboards' marketing budget to seven figures, and refine it to better publicize the company. It worked. The firm grew an average of nearly 20 percent over each of the last four years. It now has a marketing budget of more than $2 million today, which isn't bad for a boot-strapped firm that built itself up to make a significant-yet-strategic gamble.

"That's the difference between a boot-strapped firm and venture-funded firm," Malik says. "Venture-funded firms have millions to spend right away."

And large staffs to execute on that spending. It took iDashboards a dozen years to build up its staff to 90 employees and a handful of interns. However, 30 of those hires took place over the last year. Many of those employees work on iDashboards’ marketing, which focuses mostly on casting a wide net in the digital world.

"We are constantly evolving," Malik says. "Our marketing message needs to be refined for several different verticals. One message doesn't apply for all verticals."

Malik immigrated to America in 1991 from India. His father was an entrepreneur working on everything from fabric exporting to construction management. Malik came to America to pursue similar dreams, first settling in Pittsburgh and then moving to Detroit where he co-founded WIT, a business intelligence consulting firm, before launching iDashboards.

"My passion was always to start a software company," Malik says.

Welcome to the Year of the Gazelle, an exploration of the fastest-growing startups in southeast Michigan by the Startup team and the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan (NEI). Not only will we identify the local gazelle companies that are perfecting innovative new products, creating jobs, and generating lots of revenue, we will give you a full accounting of each one. The stories behind the entrepreneurs that build these businesses. The investors that back them. The resources they leverage. How they have all worked together to build Metro Detroit's new economy, and how they plan to do it in the future. In return we will only ask you to do one thing: keep up.

- Written by Jon Zemke

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