Justin Belleme: From Go-Kart Go-Getter to Digital Marketer

| By Kathleen McCafferty |

As an eight-year-old, Justin Belleme got his first taste of entrepreneurism when he had a burning desire to get a go-kart. He could be found scouring the classified ads each week looking for models for sale. At the time, an entry level kart cost between $200 and $400 – a lot of money for a kid who made a couple bucks a week in allowance. Convinced that he could somehow earn enough cash to buy one, Justin hatched a plan.

He launched his first venture selling pieces of mistletoe tied with ribbon at the Saluda Hometown Christmas community open house. Justin sold the holiday decor with the charm of an eight-year-old and sold out within a few hours. Weeks later, after pooling his earnings and savings, he bought his very own go-kart.

Today, Justin is owner and founder of JB Media Group and co-founder of the JB Media Institute in West Asheville. Entrepreneurship comes naturally to him, and you could even say it’s in his blood. Powerful role models, his parents John and Jan Belleme have been involved in launching and running several businesses. Born in 1982, Justin was Jan and John’s first child, back when the family made their home in Rutherfordton, NC. Around Justin’s fifth birthday, they moved to Saluda, NC, where Justin grew up and was homeschooled until the fifth grade.

But First, Snakes

Justin & his first snake. Photo: John Belleme

As a kid, Justin loved nature. His favorite books explored the world of reptiles, amphibians, and trees, and featured color photographs with facts and stats. Justin devoured these books and spent his time outdoors, trying to find the nature he’d been studying in his own backyard. Most of all, he was fascinated by snakes.

Even before his mistletoe business (which he eventually passed off to his younger brother Mike), Justin started a free community service called Saluda Snake Catchers to save and relocate snakes when he was six. Justin recruited his father, a fellow snake enthusiast with a long history of rescuing snakes, to help.

The service was in direct response to the number of harmless snakes that were being killed around Saluda. People discovered the unwelcome creatures in their yards – in rock walls, tall grass, and brush piles – and perceived them as a threat. Justin was a sensitive child and wanted to help educate people about snakes and put an end to the killing. He posted flyers for the Saluda Snake Catchers, and soon people were calling Justin to remove the snakes they found on their property. Sometimes working alone, and other times with his dad, Justin would catch the snakes using pillowcases and release them back into the wild.

Education & Employment

As a high school student, Justin was a high achiever and editor of the yearbook, president of the Science and Environmental club, member of the Technology Students Association, and a student government representative. Tall, lanky, and good at sports, Justin was also the captain of the track team and placed in the high jump at state, with a personal best jump of 6’4”. His first job working under someone else was washing dishes at the Orchard Inn in Saluda, which he did for four years.

In college at UNC Asheville, Justin majored in Computer Science with a Business Systems focus and a minor in Economics. As an undergrad, he played intramural sports, including basketball, flag football, and volleyball. He was in the honors program and worked on two technology projects – one for the local Legal Bar Association, and one internal project for NEMAC, a climate science modeling organization with an office on campus. To make money in college, Justin did website work on the side and sold sodas at the Saluda Skate Park in the summer. He also launched a website: Asheville.Now.com, an online guide to the City of Asheville and Western North Carolina, which is still live today.

JB Media Group & the JB Media Institute

After college, Justin worked as a consultant for the City of Asheville, Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, and small area businesses. In 2011, at age 28, Justin decided to start his own marketing agency, JB Media Group. Early clients included The Omni Grove Park Inn, AdvantageWest Economic Development Group, Asheville Independent Restaurants, and the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area.

In 2013, Justin created a new arm of his business, which he cofounded with Sarah Benoit: the JB Media Institute, a training program for online marketing, which offers in-person and online classes. The following year, Justin was honored as Entrepreneur of the Year by The Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and Venture Asheville. JB Media Group has grown to include 14 full-time staff members. Justin and his team have worked with over a hundred clients since the beginning. The Institute, which runs four times a year for both online and in-person classes, has graduated about 250 students.

“We specialize in helping mission-driven companies and organizations tell their story, reach new audiences, and achieve their goals,” says Justin.

The Right Time

Jill and Justin

In 2014, Justin met Jill Cunningham. He was on a work trip aboard the Holistic Holiday at Sea vegan cruise, one of his earliest digital marketing clients. Jill was traveling alone from Massachusetts. They met on the opening night of the cruise and, with a shared love for dancing and hip-hop, instantly hit it off. In Old San Juan, Justin took Jill to a place known as Cat Alley, an alleyway that’s home to hundreds of feral cats.

“We saw one cat jump in midair and almost catch a bird,” Jill recollects.

Heading back toward the boat, the two found a pretty garden area. “He was really fascinated with these lizards walking around,” says Jill. “He’s good at spotting those things.”

The two watched the lizards and Justin pointed out which ones were male, and which ones were female. “There was a moment where I thought he was going to kiss me. I said, ‘What’s the male lizard trying to do? What’s he waiting for?’ And Justin said, ‘Sometimes you have to wait for the right moment,’” Jill says with a laugh.

That moment would later come at the right time. Justin and Jill developed a long distance relationship, and in December 2014, Jill moved to Asheville to be closer to Justin. Last March, Justin proposed to Jill atop the Lover’s Leap trail in Hot Springs, NC. She said yes.

The Future

Newly engaged and with two growing businesses to run, things aren’t slowing down anytime soon for Justin. This month, Justin turns 35 and has a lot of reasons to celebrate. Looking ahead, his ambitions include continuing to support other businesses with marketing and training, and someday he hopes to invest in other startups.

“Asheville and the community here has opened up a lot of opportunities for me, and it’s important to me to stay grateful and give back in any way that I can,” says Justin.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker