03/11/2014 11:47 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

American Dream Machine

Eleven years ago, Michael D'Alessio did what everyone dreams about. He quit his job and started his own company. Promoguys based in Red Bank, NJ is celebrating its anniversary in a big way, having cornered a significant portion of the comic book convention market with big name clients like Marvel Entertainment and 2K Games, and announcing the launch of the first annual Atlantic City Boardwalk Con in summer 2015. Getting into the comic convention market business might seem like a no brainer these days, but D'Alessio got into the game before what can arguably be called the Geek Spring that IS most entertainment. I talked to D'Alessio about how he started and where he's going next.

What do the Promoguys do?

Promoguys is a marketing agency that focuses primarily on events and promotions. While we work in all fields of business, we've really made a name for ourselves in entertainment, video gaming, comics and movies. Essentially, we create programs that allow the brand to deliver their marketing message on a one-to-one or one-to-many basis. We create everything from conventions, to experiential events, to ARG (alternate reality games) to flash mobs. Our flash mob for the film Magic Mike had us working with Channing Tatum to become the first ever flash mob on the Today Show -- complete with 50 strippers and dancers dancing with Channing to "It's Raining Men." What a blast!

How did you get started?

Watching Bewitched as a kid, then watching Who's the Boss? In middle school, I fell in love with the idea of the characters Darren and Angela's careers in advertising. They seemed glamorous and exciting, creating campaigns with catchy taglines and great imagery. Then when Melrose Place came on while I was in college, I really resonated with the characters of Amanda and Billy who worked at the advertising agency. So, I pretty much knew that's what I wanted to do. Then, when I discovered that promotions was a niche of advertising that allowed you to get really intimate with the audience, I said, "That's for me." I've spent my entire career in nothing but promotion marketing.

In 2003 I had become fed up working with a company in N.Y.C. that was a start up (remember when those were cool and everyone was doing them?) and quit. I didn't like the way they serviced their clients, and it was all about the bottom line. So I went home, had some dinner, and said, "I can do this on my own." I had $7,000 in my account, because I had lived off of my savings for the last year while at the start up. No clients. No office. Nothing. But -- I said I'm going to try this. So I did. And Promoguys was born March 5, 2003. Granted, with Bush going to war shortly after, no one wanted to do promotion, guerrilla or event marketing. Budgets were slashed. Getting ANY clients was impossible. Thankfully, I had always worked at a few gyms as a trainer, so that helped carry me through the very lean times. My parents offered me advice, but never money. They wanted me to do this on my own. Still, to this day, I have never taken a loan or a line of credit for the company. I'm proud of that fact (though, mostly it's because it is virtually impossible to get a small business loan in the last decade, even when you're profitable every quarter).

I started having meetings with potential clients. I was turned down a few times because I was a new company and I couldn't talk about my past 11 years as parts of other companies. But eventually, I landed three clients that allowed me to keep this going: Godiva Chocolate, Sheetz and The Container Store. Those three got me through 2003, and from there, I've been going ever since.

Getting Marvel as a client was the biggest thrill. We've worked with them since 2007, and hands down, they're one of the best groups of people in the industry today. They believe in being innovative, but always wanting to create events with the fans in mind. It's refreshing to work with such dedicated teams.

You're into cosplay. How did that start and what's been your most thrilling experience?

Working with clients like Marvel and 2K Games, we've been exposed to a lot of cosplay at comic cons and PAX conventions. Typically, I'm on stage hosting the contests or working behind stage to help get everything ready. I rarely get to go to a convention where I'm not working. Finally, in 2013, I had time off to go to DragonCon in Atlanta. I grabbed two of my buddies and we met there. They both have cosplayed numerous times, but I never had. The first night of the event was crazy. My friends hadn't gotten down there yet, and I was staying about five blocks from the main cosplay show floor. It was themed to be an underwear superhero party. I took the boots, gauntlets, utility belt and batarangs from my Batman Begins UD Replicas outfit, added an amazing velvet cape, and pair of black boxer briefs, glued a rubber Batman logo to my chest and walked by myself to the event. The second I stepped outside of the hotel onto the streets of Atlanta, camera phones started clicking away and asking to pose for photos. It was a blast! It took me over an hour to get to the event! Here I was, nervous that people would be making fun of me, etc., (everyone is insecure their first time costuming) and instead, I was being asked to pose and be NAKED BATMAN. I loved it. From there, I've been hooked. I cosplayed a few more characters at that show, and then am working on a new one to be unveiled at DragonCon this year.

What advice would you give to someone starting in the business?

I get asked this question when I visit colleges and high schools to talk about marketing and events. I always respond in the same two-part answer.

1. Pay your dues. Don't think because you have a great idea, or you have the next big thing brewing in your head, that you're going to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. Go and work for companies. Find mentors in those companies. Make sure you keep your mouth shut when you're witnessing senior level people bringing together an idea or talking about execution. Open your mouth when you've thought about what you're going to say first. Learn on their dime. Make progress and mistakes while working for other companies. Ask questions of everyone. Volunteer often for work outside of your job description, and don't worry about your salary. THEN, after you have maybe 10 to 12 years in the business, go on your own. You'll be thankful for that wealth of experience, and you'll pull from it. I still pull out presentations from 1994! I just had a meeting with a new client and someone in the room was a gentleman who was my client in 1996. You never know who you'll run into.

2. Don't be cocky. Know what you know, know what you don't know. It's okay to look at a client and say, "That's not my expertise, but I can do some research and recommend someone to you." We never try to be everything to our clients. We know promotional marketing exceptionally well. But if they wanted me to do a media buy, I would recommend them to a media agency. Can I do it? Sure. Is it my expertise? No. So why try to be something you're not. Clients will respect you for that.

How did Atlantic City Boardwalk Con come about?

As part of Promoguys, I've been involved in the comic/gaming conventions for the last nine years. I have what I believe is a unique perspective on the conventions, because I work with exhibitors, show management, the unions, as well as the PR agencies and major studios. I'm also a fan, and I get to interact with fans en masse at these shows because I'm often hosting a booth for a client or working with them on experiential programs. So, I took this combination of experiences and said, "if I could create a fan-centric comic, cosplay and geek convention, what would I do to stand out?" So, I did it. I came up with my point of differentiation, and created A.C. Boardwalk Con, which launches May of 2015 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. It's a destination location with the beaches, casinos, shopping, etc. It hits 40 percent of the U.S. population in a six hour drive radius. It has one of the most gorgeous convention centers I've ever been in. And I'm a Jersey guy... so it made sense.

I knew from the start there were key things that HAD to be a part of the show. Mentorship programs had to be there. Training for emerging creators is so crucial, and being able to have even 15 minutes with an industry professional is key for someone who is honing their craft. Making opportunities for exhibitors and vendors to extend beyond their allotted floor space was also key. So we created pop-up spotlight stages that are free for the exhibitor to use in 20 minute intervals, and are spread throughout the show floor. They can do a demo, they can do a signing, etc. It's all to extend their reach to the fans. And we wanted cosplay to be not just fun, but informative as well. We're bringing in top Broadway and Hollywood costumers who will do workshops all day to talk directly about how to make costumes and props.

I assembled a team that are all firmly marketing execs who have a solid love of the industry, as well as experience in conventions like Comic-Con International in San Diego and New York Comic Con. We're looking at this from a fan's perspective, but with the mindset of marketing for exhibitors.

Where do you dream being in the next 11 years?

I never thought I'd get to 11 years! I hope in another 11 years that A.C. Boardwalk Con, and our two other convention extensions (one in America, one, well, "outside" of America) will be successful and ongoing. I think Promoguys will always be my first love, and I hope we'll continue being a great source for innovative concepts and exceptional execution.

Mostly, I hope my team will be happy and successful, and that my clients will always be open and engaging. I've been so lucky to work with the best clients. I don't take that for granted any day. I'm beyond thankful to them. I hope they're all still with me 11 years from now!