Marketing firm finds success in Portsmouth
Date: January 31, 2016 By: Joe Elder Category: Blog
Max Greenhood decided to paint his business’s walls mustard yellow so people wouldn’t mistake it for an antique shop.
In a juxtaposition of the old, the new and the empty, RocketBike sits on High Street in Olde Towne, amid the vintage shops and vacant storefronts.
The digital marketing firm, which joined the neighborhood in August 2014, has seen rapid growth since it moved in, even as the city has faced challenges.
RocketBike has a typical startup story. Greenhood, a graduate of James Madison University, began freelancing in his sister’s basement in Harrisonburg. After working abroad for a few months, he moved to Charlottesville, where his freelance career went “terribly,” he said.
So, in 2013, he moved to Portsmouth, where he has lifelong connections. Greenhood, 27, was born and raised in a house on Washington Street, and his father owned Brutti’s restaurant on Court Street before it closed in June.
Although he started using the RocketBike name in 2012, it wasn’t until the move back home that the company really took off.
“That was when the floodgates opened,” he said.
And where does the name come from?
“There’s the good answer, and then there’s the true answer,” he said.
The good: It matches the vision he has for his company, a marketing firm that’s sleek, fast and high-tech.
The true: Every other name that made sense had already been claimed.
Soon, he had more work than he could handle by himself, so he hired a developer. They worked out of Greenhood’s spare bedroom. Eventually, they decided, they needed a real office.
That led them to their current spot on High Street.
“As soon as I saw it, I was like, ‘Yes, this is it,’ ” Greenhood said.
Since then, their business has expanded rapidly. This time last year, there were two full-time employees and a part-timer, Greenhood said. Now, they’re a staff of eight – all full time.
They’ve got all the business they can handle, and then some, Greenhood said. A lot of it comes from word-of-mouth referrals, but they also have national and international clients.
One of the things Greenhood said he’s most proud of is being a third-generation business owner in Olde Towne. His grandfather opened a shoe store in the late 1930s about a block from where RocketBike sits today.
After he returned to Portsmouth, he recalled, he saw how little the city had grown since he left for college. He wants to change that.
“We are at the very beginning of the next boom time in Portsmouth,” he said. “I want to be a part of it.”
Luxury apartments being built nearby are one indicator of how different the city will look this time next year, Greenhood said.
The apartments are a “huge shot in the arm” for the downtown area, said Tony Goodwin, president of the Olde Towne Business Association.
“We’re losing a few businesses here and there,” he said. “Some will blame it on tolls; some will blame it on the loss of the courthouse; they’ll blame it on something. But I don’t think we want to dismiss the fact that there are cycles.”
Tolls on the Midtown and Downtown tunnels have hurt Portsmouth’s businesses as drivers stay away. The tolls have cost the city $14 million in taxable sales a year, an Old Dominion University economist estimated in May 2015, with tunnel closures costing an additional $10 million.
The tolls rose 25 cents Jan. 1.
In September 2012, Portsmouth circuit, general district, and juvenile and domestic relations district courts moved from Olde Towne on Crawford Street to a building south of Interstate 264, on Court Street.
Portsmouth also has the highest real estate tax in the region; it was raised 3 cents in May after a 17-cent hike was proposed. Higher property taxes can make it more difficult to buy buildings and grow, Greenhood said. Incentives, including ones for facade improvements and security, mitigate the tax’s effects in Olde Towne, Goodwin said.
“I have sleepless nights sometimes, waking up thinking, ‘Are we competitive in the Hampton Roads region?’ ” Goodwin said, “but overall, I think we’re in a good transition time right now.”
New businesses will be coming to the downtown area in the spring, he said, and, looking further ahead, he sees more development west of Effingham Street, the area he said has the highest vacancy rate downtown.
A member of the business association, Greenhood would like RocketBike to stay in Portsmouth unless there’s a compelling reason to leave. The company is already outgrowing its space, and he predicts there could be twice as many employees by next year, so he’s hunting for a new office.
He’s optimistic about what lies ahead, for both his business and the city:
“This is the only way it will get better – more people and more businesses.”
Max Greenhood, owner of RocketBike digital marketing firm
Emily Morman, 757-446-2290, firstname.lastname@example.org