Innkeeping and computer science might not seem to go hand in hand, but a Colorado Springs couple has made it their business to merge the two.
In 2002, Mark and Lisa Kolb were working as software developers for tech companies in Colorado Springs while running a bed and breakfast near Colorado College. For years the couple had talked about running their own inn, but it was a passion that demanded they also work full-time jobs.
So they decided to combine their love of bed and breakfasts with their computer science skills to create Acorn Internet Services.
With innkeepers in mind, the Kolbs built their business model around a concept they feel is a crucial but overlooked aspect of the hospitality business: marketing.
Mark, a tech guy from Florida, and Lisa, a design gal from Pennsylvania, met while working as software developers in Atlanta in the early 1990s.
They eventually married and began looking for opportunities to own a bed and breakfast, but the Atlanta market didn’t feel like the right fit.
One summer, while on a Colorado camping trip, Mark and Lisa stopped into Colorado Springs — and fell in love. They decided the city’s high-altitude environment, colleges and attractions would create an ideal setting to launch their enterprise.
“We liked it, and it worked out really well because we wanted to stay in the technology sector,” Mark said. “We didn’t want to completely shift from technology to small business owners.”
So they bought the Lennox House Bed and Breakfast at 1339 N. Nevada Ave. in 1996 and acquired software development jobs in local tech market.
They started Acorn in 2002 and left the inn and their jobs behind in 2005 to focus on a business that was budding faster than expected.
At the end of Acorn’s first year, the company had only a handful of employees. Since then it has expanded to 25 workers and 600 clients, including a handful in Canada, Mexico and Italy.
Since dropping from the tree, Acorn has enabled the Kolbs to do what they love by helping others do the same.
The company offers full Internet services to proprietors of small and medium-sized inns, many of whom love to savor the trade but may not understand the value of marketing.
That’s where Acorn really takes root.
“If someone has a business degree, it’s easy to explain marketing,” Lisa said. “But if someone didn’t go to college or [they] are younger and haven’t had a chance to get into the industry, it’s more of a challenge.
“It’s hard work, but you either have to do it yourself or pay someone else to do it for you.”
Because many bed and breakfasts are seasonal, the Kolbs encourage businesses to work on marketing and targeting different demographics during the off-season.
“Knowing how inns struggle when they go into that off-season is part of what we used to say, ‘Hey, you need to use this time on marketing,’ ” Mark said.
Depending on a client’s needs and budget, Acorn can build a 12-page site starting at $2,750, host it for $20 or $30 a month, and even develop and implement a full marketing plan from a couple hundred dollars each year to a few thousand every month.
“That’s the thing about Internet marketing: There is no one thing; there are a hundred little things that you just have to try and see what works out,” he said.
The couple said their business is, like any other, subject to mitigating economic factors. When the market is slow and inn owners shrink their marketing budgets, Lisa said Acorn focuses on investing in research and development, which birthed the Acorn University.
“That really forced us to get into the whole educational side of the business in 2008,” Mark said.
Last year, in an effort to further their education outreach, the Kolbs started Acorn University.
“It’s kind of like going to college,” Lisa said. “Give me an aspiring innkeeper and I will tell them all they need to know before they sign on the dotted line.”
Lisa and a few other staff members teach courses on technology and marketing, featuring occasional guest lectures by industry experts. In the spirit of the Kolbs’ business model, all of the classes are virtual and available through the company’s website.
“You can watch it on your iPhone, your iPad … it’s recorded, so you can do it whenever you have time,” she said.
Looking toward the future of this new venture, the firm also has partnered with local competitor White Stone Marketing to host the Hospitality Marketing Summit in Denver from Nov. 17-20.
“We really wanted to do a conference, and one of our competitors wanted to do a conference, so we said, ‘Hey, let’s pool our resources and do it this year,’ ” she said.
The Kolbs agreed that the educational portion of their business has become one of the most gratifying services Acorn offers, because they get to help people like themselves conquer problems they experienced when they were innkeepers.
“We’re very proud of our Acorn University students,” Mark said. “We’ve had some clients who were really struggling — and we turn it around for them and they are really grateful.”
Years in business: 12