Phillip D'Orazio: PDMG Found Success by Making The Pivot

Katie Hopewell  /  Charleston Digital Corridor

When Phillip D'Orazio started Palmetto Digital Marketing Group in the spare bedroom of his condo, he hardly imagined his idea reaching the heights it has, and in just five years. With a background in generalized ecommerce, D'Orazio saw that carrying his skillset away from the corporate world would require more than a little overhaul. He did not, however, anticipate the jarring shift he would have to make to acclimate himself to all the nuances of Amazon selling, as a globally centralized entity for ecommerce.

D'Orazio did not allow these hurdles to hinder his drive and his continued persistence has resulted in PDMG's unquestionable success. What began with an idea has manifested into a sustained 50 clients with their agency who receive full support through selling account setup and support, advertising, inventory oversight and SEO polishing for products. Through telling his story, D'Orazio expresses the dire need for flexibility, endurance and sufficient enthusiasm when nurturing one's business.

This series is brought to you by Charleston County Economic Development.

Would you like to tell me a little bit about your background? Where you grew up, went to college, what you studied, any memorable first jobs?

I grew up in upstate New York, came down to North Carolina to attend the University of North Carolina in Asheville. After that, I briefly moved to Utah before relocating to Boston where I spent much of my professional career. There, I spent most of my time in ecommerce, which is how I got the idea to formulate my agency.

How did you end up in Charleston?

A lot of things brought me to Charleston: we used to vacation in Pawleys Island, so I was familiar with the Lowcountry and wanted to try and get back down here. We narrowed it down to two locations: Austin or Charleston, and we chose Charleston.

I know that you began in ecommerce; what drew you to Amazon in particular?

Typically, my focus on ecommerce was directing consumer websites; so, managing on the corporate side. I sort of stumbled into Amazon by accident. We moved down here and I had started the agency just to focus on digital [commerce] and that turned out to be a little harder than I expected. The pivot to Amazon and the focus on Amazon was basically a point of sink or swim - so I had to figure it out. So, I attended a big conference; I walked the whole conference trying to solicit some business on the digital side. A majority of the people I spoke with said that they didn't need help with digital, but they needed help with Amazon - and that's when the lightbulb turned on. That's when I knew I sort of had to recalibrate and shift my focus to Amazon and marketplaces, versus digital marketing.

How was that shift for you? What difficulties accompanied it?

This was about five and a half years ago, there weren't many Amazon-focused agencies at the time, and it was much easier to get business then, than it is now. It was an enormous learning curve. I spent most of my time on the phone with Amazon Support, trying to figure things out.

To be as transparent as possible, I've always been one of those who subscribes to the 'fake it 'til you make it' [mindset].

I started with one client; it was a retained client over six months that gave me enough of a timeline to gather more clients. Now we're at a point where we have about forty-five to fifty managed clients, and the business started off in a second bedroom in a small, small condo. Now we're here at the Charleston Tech Center, so it's been quite a ride for five years.

Did you ever imagine reaching this level of success?

You really can't imagine it, until you discover what it's like to be successful. Five years ago, I didn't even think this was possible. Once you get a taste of success, you just want to continue to hone in, fine-tune your craft, grow your business and still learn, and that's what we continue to do at PDMG.

What would you say was your biggest obstacle as you were building this?

It's always [human] resources. I can land clients, we can service clients, it's really finding people with [the ideal] skill sets, which is very hard because not many people know much about Amazon. Also, the learning curve for new employees; it is quite dramatic, it typically takes months - not weeks - to become fluent in Amazon terminology.

Where do you see this going in the future?

I'd like to get to a point where I can scale further; I think a perfect place would be a hundred managed clients. The anticipation is that I can potentially sell the agency or find a very strong executive to run the agency for me, and I can step aside.

Do your clients have varying levels of management?

Our primary focus is full service. It's typically a 360° engagement. We manage every component of their business. We do have a handful of clients for whom we do à la carte services. Additionally, there are clients that engage us who don't need full service one-time reboots, optimization or creative assets development, so those are typically one-off engagements.

We saw the impacts of COVID-19 on all businesses, including Amazon; how has your agency been impacted?

We certainly saw a bump in our revenues just because of the move to ecommerce. As soon as COVID hit, Amazon basically shut down, they just went to selling only essential items. I think our biggest challenge post-COVID is navigating all the changes that Amazon has implemented. Our biggest challenge now is warehouse space. What that means is: with everyone moving to ecommerce and Amazon, they have run out of warehouses [to hold inventory]. In an effort to make sure they can continue to operate, they have limited what people can send and that has affected our clients. Whereas before COVID, you could send what you wanted.

I would assume that it takes years to build a warehouse, and COVID just started a year and a half ago. I'm sure that before the pandemic, they had warehouses planned as part of their development plans; but they need probably another forty or fifty more to handle all the inventory and COVID threw a wrench in that expansion. That's been a huge hurdle that Amazon has had to navigate.

What has it been like building your team in Charleston?

Most of our competition outsources their work, and many of our competing agencies have a majority of their staff working remote; this is most likely because it's hard to find people who have the skills set, so workers will be hired whether they can be physically present or not. At PDMG, we are very team-oriented, so I prefer to have most of the staff working here so we can better collaborate. Additionally, I like to mentor my staff. It's more difficult to do that when team members are working remote. I've always told my team that I grew up playing team sports, so I try to bring that same team focus to my business.

What are your thoughts on how Charleston's technical landscape has grown?

It's interesting; I see more jobs posted on local job boards and pages that are more heavily focused on technology; what we've seen with the CDC is that they're very busy and there's a lot more interest in tech. I see it only growing further, especially with the migration of people from the North or higher-cost cities in the west to Charleston; they're looking for different locations, high-livability and a better cost-of-living. Charleston definitely fits that bill.

Do you see that 'migration' helping your agency at all?

I'm not sure. What helps our business is more manufacturers. Our clients are manufacturers, so more technology doesn't really help us; but more entrepreneurs coming here does: more people who are starting ecommerce businesses, more manufacturing businesses, lifestyle/wellness brands - that's where we're really going to see growth come to our agency.

A majority of our clients are out of state, a handful of local and a few international. Rather than any demographic concentrations, we have a criteria for selecting our clients: we won't work with any seller, we want the product to be strong - if it doesn't have four or four and a half star reviews, we won't take the client. It's also very expensive to sell on Amazon, so if a client doesn't have the financial backing that we think is needed to be successful on Amazon, we wouldn't take on that client. So, we don't have a particular discipline or niche among our clients, but we do really like products that fit what we're looking for. Another criteria is whether the manufacturer offers a unique product, where there's not a lot of competition but has a high practicality demand.

What level of engagement do you have with Charleston's tech community?

Well, the reason why we participate with the Digital Corridor is to stay connected with Charleston's tech community. We've been with Ernest for years, at multiple locations. We sort of followed him to this building, which has been a good steppingstone for our business to jump from that early startup with a smaller space into this later-stage startup presence with a larger office.

The CDC has been very helpful to us: we've received PR exposure; we've given back by hosting a workshop about selling on Amazon and we've participated in some of the new CDCu classes. Plus, we've been able to mingle with other entrepreneurs and tech startups and we've been encouraged to share information and that's always good for learning. I'm still sort of faking it as I make it - I don't have all the answers about entrepreneurship, so I get to learn from other people in the industry and others in the community.

What were your misconceptions about being an entrepreneur?

It's hard. It's a lot of work. Going from the corporate environment, where there are specialists in every area available, was a major adjustment. As an entrepreneur, everyone in this office has at least two hats; I wear many more than two hats. But I don't think I was mentally prepared for how difficult it would be or the different roles I had to play.

What do you look for in people you hire?

I don't look for skill sets, I look for a mindset. I'm looking for people with the right attitude, I'm looking for people for whom average is not good enough, I look for people who have innate problem-solving skills - because that's what we typically do here, is solve problems. While hard skill sets are certainly important, it's really that mindset and team collaboration skills or ability to function as part of a larger group that I look for.

At the end of the day, if I could be surrounded by overachievers, then I would feel that I was in a good spot. That's really what I look for when I hire: who's the overachiever versus the average person or the underachiever.

What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs or new graduates seeking to work in the tech industry?

Don't give up. It's hard and inconvenient things can happen quickly, but success can happen quickly, too. For me, it was right around the corner, and I didn't know it. Secondly, not everyone is meant to work a nine-to-five job. Working has never been as fulfilling to me as it is now that I've shifted my focus away from corporate environments - I feel like I don't have a job.

What keeps you busy outside of work?

I like to keep active, whether that's at work or around the house. I do yard work, I play tennis, I ski, I run. If I'm not working, then I'm being active, or I'm with my wife on the porch.

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