CULLMAN, Ala. (AP) — Mike and Joe Ragsdale are separated by only the familiar highways that connect north Alabama to the Florida Panhandle, but the Cullman-born brothers maintain a lifestyle that reflects the American dream for many people.
Mike calls it an accident. Joe doesn’t disagree.
Turning the pages of their lives back to 1994, Mike remembers being homesick for the simple days of life at Cullman High School. He graduated Alabama with an education degree and enrolled in graduate studies, all the time looking for a job while writing and illustrating some children’s books after borrowing $5,000 to buy a Mac computer. Joe was just starting at Alabama.
Mike’s new computer came with a disk with 10 free hours of internet. This was before Yahoo, Google, MSN or anything that is so familiar today. AOL at the time was rising up in the dial-up world of online.
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“I was fascinated by it, and that’s when I made a blind business proposal to AOL with what became Hecklers Online,” Mike said. “In a couple of months I heard back from AOL and we were invited to a meeting to discuss the proposal. We bought cheap suits from J.C. Penney so we would look like business people and drove to Virginia.”
Upon arriving at AOL headquarters, the well-dressed young men from Cullman met a top executive in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts who poked fun at them for wearing suits, Mike recalled.
That moment settled in his mind. Mike saw in time that the old ways of doing business in board rooms choked with suits and ties was coming to an end.
“Every year Mike emails his goals to me,” Joe said. “This year he’s determined never to have a business meeting in an office. He will meet at the beach or in a restaurant or coffee house, but not in an office to talk business.”
That determination and lifestyle began to come in focus in the AOL office. After some more work on the business plan, Heckler Online came to life with a $150,000 startup loan from AOL.
For the online world at that time, Hecklers Online was a hit. Hecklers became a groundbreaking comedy room for people to share humor and drew a massive audience.
“It actually became the first interactive comedy site,” Mike said. “AOL was looking for a type of ‘Saturday Night Live’ online and they liked the plan. It allowed people to engage from all over and it had a good run of success. I accidentally became an entrepreneur.”
Advances in internet connectivity eventually saw AOL falter as dial-ups went away with the speed of broadband. That meant Hecklers would become historical, but no longer the power it had once been.
Mike had made a good living in a short time with Hecklers and eventually moved to Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. Joe, with a strong financial background ended up in Las Vegas in a top financial job for Hilton.
Longing to return to writing, Mike began writing about the small beach community he now called home, and went exploring along the two-lane rural areas of 30A. After two years, he was asked what it would cost to advertise on the website he had created.
30A, without intending anything more than capturing life in small beach communities, is now a major branding vehicle. Mike went seven years before hiring a staff, but the move has paid off as the company’s brands like 30A Beach Blonde Ale, a selection of wines, and plenty of clothing and gear to identify with sunny beach trail that meanders along the Panhandle and northern Florida.
“With Hecklers we were just making it up as we went, but 30A was more methodical,” Mike said. “Once you have an audience, you can make money. I found that my job was not to bring people to the beach; my job is to make people happy. Our brand is small-town at the beach.”
Three years ago, Joe found a similar calling to get out of traditional work and wanted to move back to Cullman to be near his family. With his financial skill, he partnered into Rock N Roll Sushi, a growing franchise of restaurants that are springing up from Huntsville to Houston.
“The whole concept of Rock N Roll Sushi was brought on by my partner. Sushi is a staple to young people. Our approach was to make it accessible and fun,” Joe said. “The menus are old record albums, which makes it a lot of fun when people sit down to order.”
Realizing that sushi has been a staple for diners on the east and west coasts, Joe said the success of Rock N Roll Sushi has been largely in southern states that had not been exposed as widely to this type of food.
“We have 14 open and 39 in the planning,” Joe said. “Our focus is sushi, but we offer a few other things for those who want a little more choice. We’re more of a family restaurant so we choose carefully the locations.”