Partnerships: Never Say Never
MWI, my SEO firm, has been through a few iterations. I started it in December 1999 after quitting my job as a web designer at MyComputer.com, which then turned into Omniture and was then acquired by Adobe. My company was called DonLoper.com at the time, for lack of a better name and because I owned this domain. Around September 2000, I brought on two partners and we changed the name to Mindwire Interactive. One of those partners was with us just a short time, the other was my partner until we sold Mindwire in January of 2003. My partner went to work for the company to which Mindwire was sold, and I started over again with a clean slate under the name MWI, because I owned the domain name mwi.com. Up until 2004 we just did web design and programming, but in 2004 we got into SEO and that became our primary focus. That’s the history of MWI in a nutshell.
My partners at Mindwire weren’t bad guys, by any stretch. They’re great guys. Just the same, I brought them on when I was a college student with virtually no experience running a business, and between my mismanagement and perhaps some personality mismatches it left me with a bad taste in my mouth regarding having partners in my business. I take full responsibility for that, but nonetheless, for the past 10 or so years my immediate reaction to anyone suggesting I bring a partner on at MWI has been “No way. Never.”
That started to change about two years ago. At that time I was starting a side business, and lacking the resources to fund it, I talked to one of my programmers about becoming a partner with me on it. He agreed. Then we got involved in another side project together. The financially remunerative aspects of these partnerships is still pending, but the experience has left me more open to the idea of having business partners generally. And thus I was prepared for the suggestion when it was made to me three weeks ago by one of my best friends, Mark.
Mark and I were driving…that is, I was driving and Mark was holding on for dear life, on the BR-364 in Rondonia, Brazil. I was driving a Chevy Celta, which is not so much a car as a rickshaw made to have the appearance of a car. I was going about 120 kph on a road full of large potholes, any one of which could take a wheel off our car or send us into a ditch or lake off the side of the road. And it was night time and the road isn’t lit. It’s also a two-lane highway with lots of bus and large truck traffic. And people are crazy about passing each other with the smallest of openings. And my Lasik surgery means headlights flare out at night, so when I was trying to pass cars I couldn’t tell how far away oncoming cars were. Somehow this made for good conversation about MWI, and it was under these circumstances I was discussing my #1 concern for MWI with Mark.
That concern was/is this: MWI has been in the SEO business for 8-9 years, but we continually get stuck at a ceiling in our growth and it doesn’t seem as though there is a clear reason. We’re not stuck in any particular niche. We work with a handful of clients ranging from small businesses with 2-5 employees to billion-dollar enterprises. We have good customer satisfaction and client retention. Most of our clients stick with us for at least 2-3 years. Some have been with us for almost the entire time we’ve been providing SEO services. When clients do leave, they never cite dissatisfaction with the service (ok, one did, but I think that client was mostly dissatisfied that we weren’t willing to work with him and no one else). They leave because their business changes, they get acquired, they go out of business (for reasons not due to a lack of SEO success :), regulatory changes (thank you, FDA), etc.
A curious trend has been to observe that we always have one client that is larger than all the others by quite a margin, but we only have one such client at a time. But we always have at least one. If we lose our “big client” then we’ll pick up another within 1-2 months. If we get a second big client, we’ll lose the other within 1-2 months. I’ve often asked myself “It’s obvious we can land and retain these larger clients, at least for a few years, so why can’t we land two, three, or 20 of these at once?”
I’m pretty sure we don’t have a fulfillment problem because our clients are generally quite happy with the service they receive. The conclusion I came to a few years ago was that I’m not a very good salesman. Most of the clients we get fall into our lap through word of mouth or because they find us on a search for “utah seo”. It’s not that I’m anti-social, per se, but if you can think of that guy you know who walks into a room and suddenly is friends with everyone, well, I’m just not that guy. In short–I think MWI has a sales/marketing problem. I’ve tried to solve this problem in various ways over the years, but to no avail. I’ve looked at hiring sales people, developing partnerships, and finding new channels to find clients, but they’ve all fallen short.
As I was driving along with Mark and discussing this matter with him, he told me he thought I needed to find a partner who could be the face of MWI. Someone more personable than I am. And that clicked for me in a way it likely wouldn’t have 2-3 years ago. Maybe ego was part of what was holding me back, but I’m over that. I’m ok with someone else coming in, taking over sales and marketing, making MWI 10 times as successful, and getting all the credit for it. Not a problem. Control was certainly an issue, but today I just want to know that I won’t be taken advantage of or ripped off. And because I’ve had a positive experience with my other partner over the past few years, today I have the hope that perhaps I can find a partner to help me with MWI, and it can be a positive experience. I think it can work. I think it might be the best way to help MWI grow. I can see how it will give me the resources and freedom to do a lot of the other things I want to do in life. There’s just one problem–I have no idea who the person is.
I discussed this with Mark on our drive. What kind of person would I be willing to take on as a partner? Under what circumstances? It would have to be someone who is 100% honest, that’s a given. And yes, I want someone who is good with sales and marketing, a bit of a hussler, you could say, not in the sense that he/she is able to sell people things they don’t really need, but in the sense that he is proactive, outgoing, on top of things, driven, friendly, persistent, tenacious, etc. It has to be someone who is looking out for me more than they’re looking out for themselves, which allows me to look out for them more than I’m looking out for myself. There has to be that trust. And of course they have to be able to produce results.
I figure there are two ways I can find this person; 1) I can hire someone, and over time figure out that they’re that person, or 2) they’re going to come through a personal introduction from a trusted source. This isn’t the type of position I’m going to fill by taking resumes or posting a job on craigslist. We’re talking about giving a large portion of control of MWI to someone and most likely a large chunk of equity in the company.
And if I find that right person, what is my hope for what they can do with MWI? At a minimum, just make it bigger. 5-10 times larger in terms of total revenues, while maintaining or increasing profit margins. Just go out and bring back more of the same types of clients as we have. I know they’re out there, MWI just needs someone better than me at doing the outreach. Beyond that, I’m open. There have been multiple opportunities to take MWI in various directions over the years, and I’m still open to those kinds of ideas.
Why would the type of person I need be interested in this, rather than a better opportunity? They wouldn’t, not if they think they have a better opportunity elsewhere. But for someone, the opportunity here is going to be greater than what can be found anywhere else. MWI is a solid company that has been around for over 10 years. We have a great name, great reputation, great foundation, and all the pieces in place to grow except for that sales/marketing component. The right person could take this and run with it, and it wouldn’t just be a job, they’d have ownership in it without having had to do the hard work of getting the thing started and all the operational pieces in place. And when it comes to compensation, I’m not looking for an equal partner, or a minority partner, I’m looking for someone to be the highest-paid, most well-compensated employee in the company. I’m fine with this partner making 2, 3, or 10 times as much as I make–as long as their compensation is largely tied to performance.
Does this person need to know the SEO market? Not necessarily, although that would certainly be a plus. Do they need to be experienced? Again, not necessarily. The right person might have 10 years experience, or just be graduating from college. Integrity and personality are the larger factors.
And no, I’m not looking to make a decision quickly. It took me 2-3 years just to become open to this idea, and it might take me that long to find the right person, and if so, that’s fine. On the other hand, if I find someone and am able to satisfy myself that they’re the right fit in a month or two, so be it.
So now it’s just a matter of finding the right person. If you know me, and you think you know a person who might be the right fit to work with me, let’s talk.