Journalism alumnus and high-tech PR executive creates online computer leasing company
Reflecting on his 18-year career in high-tech public relations and thinking about his parents' furniture and appliance leasing store, Jon Weisblatt (B.J. '92) dreamed up a way to bridge the high-tech and consumer leasing industries. In the fall of 2011, he founded Upgrade Sales & Leasing LLC, which operates as UpgradeUSA – a computer leasing service that helps people who need to build better credit.
Based in Austin, UpgradeUSA helps students, immigrants and people who have recently gone through bankruptcy or who otherwise cannot afford to pay full price for a computer.
The company has three employees in Austin and provides computer leasing services to four states – California, Texas, New York and Florida. Weisblatt said the company is expanding to more states soon.
To lease a computer, people fill out an application at upgradeusa.com and submit to a credit check. UpgradeUSA does not refuse people if they have bad credit scores, but looks for people who have a general history of making payments. People can choose from a variety of laptops or tablets at a variety of price points, ranging from $55/month to $144/month. After making payments for about 17 months, leases end and customers own their computers. If a customer fails to make payments, the company can remotely activate locking software on that customer's computer.
Weisblatt offers the following four pieces of advice for aspiring communications professionals:
Read a variety of business publications.
Because he constantly read business publications that focused beyond his industry – high-tech public relations – Weisblatt said that he was able to see how his company could become a reality. In fact, his number one piece of advice for all aspiring communications professionals is to read and understand how their industries relate to the broader business world.
"Read, read, read and when you feel like you've read enough, read," said Weisblatt, who has led a 20-year career in high-tech, much of that time developing and executing public relations programs. "Don't just read publications that are specific to your industry. Read the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times business section and The Economist, and really understand the bigger picture and how discussions in the business world tie back to your specific product or industry."
Send customized pitches.
Weisblatt's second piece of advice is to send customized pitches to reporters.
When he worked as an account executive at Weber Shandwick in Washington, D.C. during the early-1990s, Weisblatt designed and implemented communications plans for telecommunications, consumer products and the U.S. Mint.
Before sending pitches, he would take the time to understand the reporters' writing angle and style. Rather than sending a blanket news release to several reporters, Weisblatt said he sometimes suggested follow-up stories for reporters.
"In Washington, we were working around hundreds of organizations all trying to pitch the same four reporters, and we had to be really sharp in how to craft that pitch," Weisblatt said. "It takes more time to do, but it's more likely to be effective."
After leaving Washington, Weisblatt moved to Silicon Valley at the dawn of the dot-com boom, where he worked for a mid-sized high-tech PR agency that was later incorporated into Porter-Novelli. Weisblatt made a name for himself by helping to drive Hewlett-Packard's business desktop and graphics workstation business to No. 1 in market share.
Dell recruited Weisblatt to Austin in 1998, and he worked there for more than 10 years in a variety of roles, most recently as a senior marketing manager. At one point he reported directly to the company's founder, Michael Dell.
Reflecting on his experience, Weisblatt decided to break out and create his own marketing company. In April 2008, he founded Austin-based WhiteLeaf Marketing LLC, which helps high-tech organizations create and execute messaging, strategy and outbound marketing programs.
After running WhiteLeaf Marketing for about three years, Weisblatt learned about an entrepreneurship course that world-renowned entrepreneur Gary Hoover was teaching.
"I was part of the initial group of students and really got into the whole concept of entrepreneurship and methodology," Weisblatt said. "It really got me thinking. It got wheels turning about other opportunities, and it’s what led me to start UpgradeUSA."
"I loved taking his classes on PR and journalism," Weisblatt said. "Ron Anderson was very practical and down-to-earth, friendly, approachable and funny. He taught me that communication is what you make of it."
Through a campaigns class, Weisblatt found this piece of advice to hold true.
Weisblatt was part of a four-member team charged with creating a campaign for Haystack Labs, an Austin Technology Incubator company.
"I don't believe they had a lot of faith that this group of PR students would deliver much," Weisblatt said. "But we worked day and night for weeks to understand the market, competitors, ways to market and our target message. We had two business experts, one design expert and one strategic expert, and we combined our strengths and created a really compelling campaign."
A couple years ago, Weisblatt ran into Steve Smaha, Haystack Labs’ founder. Weisblatt introduced himself, saying he was not sure if Smaha would remember his campaign.
"He told me, 'I absolutely remember that. We were really impressed with you guys and the level of engagement you delivered.'"
Weisblatt also made the most of his college experience by serving as president of the College of Communication's Public Relations Student Society and completing an internship with The Richards Group in Dallas.
Laura Byerley, (512) 471-2182