Web Masters

Ted Adler’s digital tour de force

by Heleigh Bostwick

unionstr0112“You sell what you build” is a motto that has guided Ted Adler, the founder and president of Union Street Media in Burlington, since he launched a website for his fellow students at Middlebury College.

Back in 2002, Union Street Media made a big shift in focus that propelled its game strategy from building websites for everyone to focusing on specific niches.

“It was a really big shift for us,” says Ted Adler, the founder and president, who had launched the company in 2001. “We went to membership organizations like the Vermont Bar Association, the Lodging and Restaurant Association, and the Vermont Association of Realtors. The idea was that we would build their websites, and then they would promote us to their members.”

“You sell what you build” is a motto that has guided Ted Adler, the founder and president of Union Street Media in Burlington, since he launched a website for his fellow students at Middlebury College.

In the fall of ’02, the company designed a website for its real estate client Brian French of Century 21 Advantage. The design took advantage of the Internet data exchange (IDX) that had been established by the national Multiple Listing Service (MLS).

“MLSs started putting out the data to the Web development community, who then build websites for Realtors showing all the listings available in each MLS. We were one of the first Web developers in Vermont to get use of that data and build IDX websites for Realtors,” says Adler.

“Only 5 percent of the Realtors in Vermont had an IDX when we started,” he continues. “It was a huge opportunity for us.”

Founding Union Street Media — working from a condo in Red Rocks for four months before moving to the former Adams School on South Union Street in Burlington — was a natural progression from Adler’s days at Middlebury College where, as a senior majoring in international politics and economics, he launched Middkid.com, an online directory geared toward college life.

“When I graduated at 23, I was already in the dot-com business working out of my dorm room,” he says. “I took the concept of Middkid.com and went around to other schools like Colby, UVM, and Dartmouth — started up similar websites at about 10 other schools.

“The Middkid.com model didn’t work well for all of the schools,” he recalls, “but I was able to raise money from a small venture capital group in 2000. From there I built up a network of more than 20 schools.” Middkid.com and UVM’s site, www.groovyuv.com, are still live.

At the same time, he had begun developing websites for some of the small businesses listed in various directories and quickly realized that he had ventured down the road of website development.

Adler remembers thinking, “Why don’t we just sell websites in Burlington?” By the end of 2001, that’s just what he was doing.

Adler is a Vermonter by choice. He grew up in Greenwich, Conn., the oldest of six siblings. His connection with Vermont goes back to the days when, as a youth, he accompanied his family to Okemo every other weekend.

“They would throw the three — then four, then five, then six — of us in the back of the old Ford Crown Vic wagon with fake wood siding, and my ‘Clark Griswold’ father and mother would drive us up while we slept in the car,” he says. It seemed natural, then, to opt for Middlebury when it came time to head to college.

All but one of his siblings also attended Middlebury. The youngest, R.J., is a senior there this year. Their sister, Emily, lives and works in San Francisco. The four eldest work for Vermont-based businesses.

Benjy is the owner and operator of The Skinny Pancake and Robbie is the director of business development and strategic partnerships at Brighter Planet. Jon is a partner at Union Street Media, which he joined right after graduation from Davidson College in Charlotte, N.C.

He is also a part-owner at The Skinny Pancake, which he helped Benjy start. As director of account strategy, says Adler, “his main role is to make sure clients are happy.”

The company has been voted Best Web Developer by readers of Seven Days three years in a row and, in 2008, received the A. Wayne Roberts Entrepreneurial Spirit Award from the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce.

At Union Street, one of Adler’s primary responsibilities “is to make sure people are happy to come to work here — to enjoy being part of the team.”

So far it’s worked. Employee retention has been very good, considering that the company’s employee demographic is that of 20- and 30-somethings, a group not known for staying in one place for long.

Client retention is also a real source of pride for the company, says Adler, who calls it “retention through attention.”

“Union Street Media has a 95 percent client retention rate, which is unheard of in the sector,” says David Bradbury, president and CEO of the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies in Burlington and Middlebury. “That speaks volumes about Ted and his team.”

Bradbury is on the company’s board of directors and has been an adviser to the company since its inception.

In 2010, realizing that the real estate side has different needs in terms of resources, staffing, and marketing, and recognizing the need for a product development team, the 26 employees at Union Street Media were divided into two teams: real estate and interactive.

Adler, his brother Jon, and Andy Vota, vice president of product development, oversee the entire operation.

Mike McCarney, interactive director, works with the 200-plus interactive clients. “Mike joined the company in November 2010, when we acquired Legitify, his company, which had been a local developer in Burlington since 2002,” says Adler.

Todd Cummings, creative director, handles design and development. Elissa Giroux is director of Internet marketing.

Although the two teams continue to share resources, it was a major transition for the company, says Adler. “We changed the org chart and established different leadership teams with different visions,” he says, adding that the two groups even occupy different spaces within the office.

In the United States, there are 900 Multiple Listing Services. Union Street focuses on those in the Northeast. “Maine has its own MLS; Vermont and New Hampshire share one MLS, the NNEREN (Northern New England Real Estate Network); and Massachusetts has several depending on geographic region — Cape Cod, Berkshires, Greater Boston, Nantucket, and so on,” Adler says.

On the interactive side of the business, the company builds custom websites for clients within and outside the state. Websites are built on a content management system that clients can update themselves.

“We make sites easy enough so that even my mother can do it!” Adler exclaims, then quickly adds that his mother was the webmaster for the Brunswick School website from 2003 to 2010. Union Street Media built it for the Greenwich, Conn., day school.

Adler’s main role revolves around looking at the big picture. “My job is to first and foremost make sure the company is profitable and growing,” he says. “I do a lot of business development and networking and serve on a number of boards like Vermont Public Radio, Spectrum Youth & Family Services, and the Greater Burlington Industrial Development Corp. I’m also on the board of the Vermont Business Roundtable.”

When Adler isn’t networking, overseeing company business, or making sure people are happy to come to work every day, he can probably be found out on the mountain or riding his bike through Burlington.

“What attracted me to Vermont and to Middlebury College is the outdoor lifestyle,” he says. “I’m a passionate skier and avid swimmer. I like to hike, run, and ride my bike all summer.”

He calls his work-play ethic “I-live-here-moments” — days when he works hard all day at the office and then goes for a hike on Camel’s Hump. He considers it fortunate that he can do this. “The career I have wasn’t possible for my father’s generation. With the advent of the Internet I can do the work anywhere — something my father could never do.”

He also spends a fair amount of time in Boston, where his girlfriend, Abigail Woodhead, is a medical resident at Massachusetts General Hospital. While he’s there, he takes the opportunity to drum up more business for the interactive team.

“Union Street Media is one of the leading Internet companies supplying technology services to the real estate industry,” says Bradbury. “It’s a great company that continues to put out a really great product, and it’s a great fit for Vermont.”

Being located in Vermont can accrue savings for clients from outside the state. One recent client is the nonprofit organization Boston Rising, which deals with generational poverty issues in Boston.

“Not only is it a good cause, but because we’re in Vermont, we can do the website for less money,” says Adler, pointing out that out-of-state clients bring money into Vermont, cycling it into the local economy and creating jobs.

“People living in Vermont have a unique sense of identity. There’s a reason they live here,” he says. “And there are incredible opportunities to be involved in the community and truly make a difference.” •