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Hey everyone. I’m Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. And today’s guest is Brant Bukowsky. He bootstrapped an online ticket broker called ShowMeTickets, launched it from his dorm room. And here’s a quote that I found in a five-year-old issue of Ink magazine. “We will dominate any industry we choose,” is what he said. Well, his bootstrapped company reached 22 million dollars in sales, and he sold it to TicketsNow.
Brant went on to launch LakeRentals.com, which he sold to The Weather Channel. Then, PlusOne media, which was an Ink 100 company last year with its 3.2 million dollars in sales. Today, in addition to being the cofounder of VAMortgageCenter.com, he’s working on Growth Partner, which invests capital and marketing expertise in start-ups to help them grow.
I invited Brant here to Mixergy to hear the stories of how he built all those businesses, because I’m really inspired by other people’s successes, and I think we learn a lot from hearing them. And I wanted him to teach us what he learned about online marketing since everything that I read about Brant has said that online marketing is what got him there. So, welcome to Mixergy.
Brant: Yeah. Appreciate the invitation. Thanks.
Andrew: By the way, Brant, that’s a long intro, and it’s only because there’s so much in there. I had to write this all down exactly to make sure that I get all the details right. That’s a lot of company’s you’ve been involved with.
Brant: We’ve tried a lot of things. You missed a few that have failed pretty miserably, but we’ve had some successes.
Andrew: I was wondering about that. I’m glad you’re open about it. I say, you know what I realize about doing these interviews? It’s really easy to find the successes when you do a Google search, because everyone talks about them. There’s not that much written about, not that much blogged about the failures. I’m going to write a note here to ask you specifically about the failures, and we’ll get open about those. But let me ask you this as a first question. I’m seeing a million dollars here, 22 million there, just so much to wrap people’s heads around. Can you go smaller and maybe start us off by describing when you saw that first million? Do you remember that day?
Brant: No. I mean, we just have always tried to grow the business as much as possible, and obviously we’re always looking at the PNL, but it’s just a matter of just trying to grow and get better every day, and didn’t pay attention to those numbers too much necessarily.
Andrew: So there was no day when you looked at your bank account and said, ‘Holy mackerel. I just see a million dollars in here. Let me call up City Bank again and make sure that’s really there.’ Nothing like that?
Brant: Well, we actually reinvest a lot of our stuff. So, we get some money coming in, we’ll put it back into something else, whether it’s reinvesting in an existing business or trying to start something new, or starting to diversify, buying some real estate or whatever it might be.
Andrew: I see. What about then, when you sold to TicketsNow. Can you describe what that was like to see that transaction go through?
Brant: Sure. I guess the story behind that is, we were in the event ticket industry. So we’d sell tickets for sporting events and concerts, and saw the trend coming where the nature of the Internet was basically taking out the middle man. And that’s what we were. We were basically just a middle man. And so what we wanted to do is try to create a marketplace for tickets. So you have a critical mass of buyers and a critical mass of sellers, and you create this huge marketplace.
We figured at our size, we couldn’t do that on our own, so we were looking to merge with someone. Talked to a variety of people in the industry and didn’t find too many people that are interested in that merger. But in those conversations, we found a few companies that had some interest in just acquiring us. And since we thought we couldn’t pull that off on our own and we had the mortgage company going, we thought that we’d be willing to go ahead and sell, exit out of that business and take our current resources, all of our team and just start putting them on the mortgage company. That’s what we ended up doing.
Andrew: All right. Let’s talk about how… Actually, can you say what you sold for?
Brant: No, we can’t.
Andrew: Can you give us a sense of what it was? Was it more than one year’s sales.
Brant: It was… No, no, no. It was less multiple than 1x on revenues.
Andrew: OK. I want to find out why, but let’s see how you got here.
Andrew: So, from what I read, you launched it with your brother in your dorm room. Can you describe why you launched it and what it looked like when you launched?
Brant: Well, we’d always been pretty entrepreneurial. When we were growing up, we tried a variety of things. While we were in high school, we put on baseball card shows and some things like that. When we got to college, had that same mentality. We wanted to start some businesses. So we tried a variety of different things. Right when I turned 18, I got licensed to sell health and life insurance, because that was the minimum age. So, we did that one summer. It actually went OK. And then we just tried a variety of other things. A carpet cleaning business, a bunch of other small time, college type businesses that all failed miserably. I mean, most of them didn’t have any revenue in them.
But one day, my brother was a Math TA. He was getting his Masters in Math, and he went to his office hours, and there was a ticket sitting on his desk for a Mizzou football game. We were at the University of Missouri. And he didn’t know how it got there, so he started asking around, and it turns out he had bought a soda the day before. And he had thrown it away, but one of the other people in the office saw there was a sticker on that soda can. It turns out Coke was giving away tickets to some football games, and they do that by putting stickers on these soda cans. So, we both had season tickets and we took that ticket to the stadium. And being entrepreneurial, we said, ‘It only cost 75 cents for the soda.’ We sold it for 10 bucks. The question was, how many sodas on average would you need to buy in order to get a ticket?
So we literally took the $10 and reinvested it in soda and got three tickets, sold those tickets, got 30 bucks for them. And then by the end of that season, we were following the soda truck around. He’d load up the machine, we’d empty them out, take off the stickers and just leave the sodas there. So, that’s how we got started, and we found out about this ticket industry.
So we just researched it. Obviously, that wasn’t scalable, what we were doing at the time, but it showed us about this new industry. We researched it, found out what we needed to do to turn it into a business, and what was legal, what wasn’t legal. And from there, we just started growing by putting money on our credit cards. That first year, we put about 30,000 on our credit cards. Had some luck with it, and that’s where it started to take off.
Andrew: You were selling the tickets right outside of the stadium?
Andrew: You were. At what point did you go online with this business?
Brant: Well that was in ’97 when we first started doing that, and we went online in ’99.
Andrew: I see. OK. So, for two years, you were basically standing outside like a ticket scalper and selling tickets.
Brant: That was part of the business.
Andrew: Were they all tickets that you bought off of soda cans?
Brant: No, that’s just what got us into it. That promotion, it actually lasted for two years, but that was just during the football season. So, we started figuring out how to acquire tickets for other events, like season tickets and concert tickets, and then we’d sell those mostly through newspaper events. So we’d put ads in local papers, whatever. Garth Brooks was touring at the time, Backstreet Boys, a bunch of people. So, we just put ads in local papers and sell them over the phone out of our, by that time it was our apartment.
Andrew: Wow. OK. Do you have a sense of how much money you were making from that? Do you remember?
Brant: Well, by the time we graduated, I actually graduated in ’99, and we weren’t making a lot of money by any means. My degree was in elementary education, and it was about the same amount of money… Well, it was a little bit more money than I would have been making as a teacher. So, it kind of allowed us to justify keep doing that business and seeing what we could make out of it.
Andrew: That’s not saying much. We’re talking maybe 40,000 a year? A teacher would have earned, right?
Brant: Yeah. Yeah.
Andrew: What were you doing, by the way, going to school to be a teacher? The guy who was in the carpet cleaning business and who got his license as soon as he turned 18 to sell, what was that? Medical something or other. What were you doing being a teacher?
Brant: Well, my parents were both educators, and I have a passion for teaching. I student taught in second grade. It was a blast, and someday maybe I’ll go back and teach or some variation of that. Try and help.
Andrew: We’re going to do some teaching here, and I know that you do that also at Growth Partner.
Andrew: So, let me see. So, you’re buying tickets, you’re selling them. You’re doing this all, basically like a ticket scalper, right?
Brant: At the beginning, yeah, it was pretty close. We were ticket scalpers for the first part of it. Again, like I said, well, people call it ticket brokers, ticket scalpers. It’s just a matter of how you want to, what you want to call it.
Andrew: [laughs] All right. I get it. So let’s call it ticket brokers. Let’s keep it classy over here.
Andrew: So when you went online, how did you get online? What did it look like?
Brant: Well, we actually went online… We bought a computer repair business from this guy I knew. It was a small company. And we were always looking to diversify or expand into new things, so we bought this computer repair company. After we started going with that, found out it’s just going to be tough to scale. Computers were coming down in price, too, and you were pretty limited with how much you could make. But the guy that was doing the computer repairs could also program.
And again, this was actually ’98, late ’98, ’99. PalmPilots were kind of hot at the time, and so we came up with some software for the PalmOS. It was actually an education application called the Review Master that helps people study for quizzes and tests. And I was looking at trying to market that, and it was natural to do that online since it was software. So that’s when we started learning about search engine optimization and applying that to this software company that we had. And we took those same principles and started applying it to the ticket company. And once we did that…
This is again, ’99. Not many people were buying things online, but there also wasn’t that much competition, so it was easy to start getting traffic for that, and sales started coming in. So we saw quite a bit of potential there. So that’s when the majority of my time was just focused on trying to learn online marketing and how to market to companies.
Andrew: All right. I want to get to what you learned there, but I want to ask you a philosophical question. What’s separating you from a flake? I know that something is, but I can’t put my finger on it. I know there’s someone in the audience who’s thinking, ‘Maybe I should be starting a bunch of businesses.’ And if that person does, they might end up being flaky about it, where really they’ll have 10 failed businesses, and they’ll end up having to go get a job to find a way to pay their credit card debt from all those 10 failed businesses. For you it somehow worked. Why do you think it worked?
Brant: Well, without a doubt, I think there’s some luck involved. My brother has been a 50-50 partner on everything we’ve done, and it’s just been great having someone like that. We complement each other pretty well, and he’s really helped. He’s been a major reason for our success. From there, it really has been hiring some quality people. Every year, you learn more and more…
Andrew: But I mean, you’re working on so many different businesses. There’s not really much that ties them together except your willingness and your eagerness to make a successful business, and maybe even your eagerness to make some money at that point. Why did it all work out? Why do that?
Brant: Why diversify or…
Andrew: Yeah. Why diversify? In fact, it’s not even so much diversifying. Diversification is what you do when you have a lot of solid assets and you don’t want to lose a substantial amount of your money if one of them goes down. This is almost like tossing darts at a dartboard or taking a shot. Or maybe it’s like getting dressed at a clothing store and trying everything on until you find the right one. What was it like? Why would you do it?
Brant: I think we’re kind of maybe paranoid in that the competition is always going to get stronger, so we need to do the same. And so that’s why we’re always pushing to try and grow basically, and try and do what we can to provide the best product or service, whatever, for the customer. I think the differences between our successes and our failures are these… We’ve actually never made a business plan for any business we’ve started. We’ve just had this idea, and we’ve gone after it. Always looking for that unmet need or that niche that we could find. And every company that we’ve had success in is something different than what we started out doing.
The ticket industry, we had no idea about the online marketing. We found that online marketing, so that’s when we went 100% out after trying to market online. The mortgage company, we started in one direction and ended up in another. So, everything that we’ve done, we’re always looking for what it is that’s not being… That need is not being met. And the businesses that have failed, we usually have failed in finding that niche. We haven’t adapted enough or changed or found the thing that was going to help us be successful. So that was probably a primary reason, and the differences between the success and failures for us.
Andrew: OK. And where some people might sit back and do a little bit of research and figure out what’s the right niche, you would just start the business, see what works, see if it makes sense, and then grow up or dump it. So the time that other people would spend doing research, you’re spending just building the business and seeing how it works.
Brant: Well, just getting in there and doing it. You’re not going to find… Or we weren’t able to find those niches without getting into that business and learning it and doing as much research as you can. Not getting any feedback from customers, it’s going to be hard to find those unmet needs out there. So it’s just a matter, or we believe, just get in there and try stuff and see what’s working and what’s not. If it’s not working, try something else, and keep trying new things until we find something that does.
Andrew: OK. Let’s talk about then what you learned about online marketing back then. This was about 10 years ago. Usually, when I talk to entrepreneurs who made it back then, there’s a little bit of spam involved. How much… Including when I talked to the founder of Match.com, she admitted it, too. She said, back then, we spammed. How much of that went on with you guys.
Brant: We were fortunate. We’ve never looked at trying to get in and build a business and sell it, or get in and try and make a bunch of money as quickly as we can. Our focus, really, has always been on long term businesses. The companies that we did sell, we didn’t go into those thinking that we were just going to sell them. I think it was a lot like the way you started up. We wanted to build a company for the long term, and so that’s what we’re doing.
We knew some ways that… Or we knew people that were spamming, and we could have taken advantage of those same tactics, but it’s not a long term thing. A lot of the people that we knew who were doing that did make quite a bit of money, but it usually wasn’t a long term thing. And we’re always focused on trying to build up a solid business.
We got into affiliate stuff for a little bit back in 2001, 2002, we were doing sports jerseys and flowers and travel and a bunch of stuff. And started to realize, not having control of that back end business didn’t give you much flexibility. You don’t have any competitive advantages. And so, our focus was to build an entire business so we could control that back end, try to get some competitive advantages and just have a solid company.
Andrew: The references to the flower business and the other businesses and the affiliate programs is, you figures, you know how to do marketing. Why not sign up for affiliate programs where you get a share of the sales that you make and just start applying your marketing towards their businesses, and you realize, unless you have control of the back end, it doesn’t make sense. So then, what did you use in marketing? If it’s not spam, and I’ll cross that off my list here of questions to ask. What was it? What worked?
Brant: Basic SEO tactics. I know you had Rand on, what was that? Today or yesterday.
Andrew: Yep. Yesterday. Posted up on the website today.
Brant: I learned a lot from Rand as well, and there’s people back then that were a little different Greg Boser and some other online marketers. It’s providing that content. Getting in early was a benefit for SEO purposes. And just a matter of always trying to stay ahead of the curve and getting a great team on that’s continually pushing to learn new things and try new things. Back even in, we started PayPerClick in 2002. We were just trying to get into all these different types of online marketing as it’s evolving, and try and stay ahead of it. And I think that’s been our major benefit, or advantage.
Andrew: What was the most effective tactic?
Brant: Throughout any time?
Andrew: No, let’s talk about ShowMeTickets, the early days, from ’99 maybe to 2001, 2002.
Brant: We would just create some partnerships with people. Obviously, back then the links were the main factor in getting rankings. So, we’d produce some content and get it out there. People do that today. That’s one thing. That was a primary one, just making connections and trying to get some links. There was a lot of types of spam you could do to increase those links, but those were usually low quality links. And again, that’s something that generally doesn’t last very long.
Andrew: So what percentage of your business was coming from search engines?
Brant: Well, it evolved. ’98, it was 0%. By 2001, I’m just guessing, it would probably be about 50%. And by 2005, when we got acquired, it was probably 90%.
Andrew: I see. So you just got really good at working that one channel well, and that’s where a substantial amount of your orders were coming in.
Andrew: And where was your product coming from? You guys weren’t out there collecting cans after the first couple of years. And I imagine that at some point, you can’t buy enough tickets on your own on your credit card. What do you do?
Brant: That’s a great question, because there’s a couple companies that try to get databases of all the available tickets. So you have ticket brokers in Saint Louis, L.A., New York, Chicago, and they’ll have tickets for their local events. Well they would take these tickets and upload them to a database. And so, we could tap into that database and see. We didn’t actually own these Cubs tickets, but we could list those tickets on our site. So we’d have a huge inventory of tickets that we didn’t actually own, but we could sell. So you just mark them up a certain percent and then try to get people to your site and buy them. And if so, then we’d just buy them directly from that other ticket broker and have them ship directly to the customer.
Andrew: Interesting. So you didn’t even have to buy the inventory. You didn’t even have to master the software. You just have to figure out, how do we get people to come on here, and then we can sell them.
Andrew: I see. And links were working for you. Creating content was working for you. What else?
Brant: PayPerClick was pretty competitive. So that [interference], but it wasn’t that profitable. It was mostly the repeat customers. It really started to build up for us, because we really tried to deliver and provide great service, so that helped out quite a bit. And that’s just another way of getting… Sometimes we’d supply tickets to hopefully get someone to review us, whether it be a blog or whoever. And if they had a good experience, then hopefully they’d write something good about us, and that would help us from getting some direct traffic, but also hopefully some links.
Andrew I see. All right. We’ll take this as a story. But let’s jump ahead a little bit to something I was hoping to do only later in the interview, and see what works today. Because I imagine someone is listening and saying, ‘Andrew, I don’t want to go through this whole story and hear how this guy is doing great. Tell me what I can do right now.’
Andrew: So, search engine optimization, as you said, is a lot more competitive today. What works now?
Brant: It’s providing that great content out there. I would recommend…
Andrew: It’s still creating great content?
Brant: Yeah. I would recommend going to SEOmoz. Grasshopper, did you have the Grasshopper guys on?
Andrew: Yeah. I had them on as guests and then later as sponsors.
Brant: Yeah, they’re sponsors. So they’ve put out some great content, whether they’re infographics or a variety of other things. And those things do a great job of generating links to them. And it’s similar type stuff for us. Some of the businesses we’re in are a little more boring, like mortgages, and so it’s not as easy to put out exciting content that may go viral. But it really is, it’s get in into other things besides SEO. SEO at this point is less than, I don’t know, maybe it’s 30% of our business or even less.
We do a lot of PayPerClick. And the only way to survive on PayPerClick is you also got to have great conversation rates. If you’re paying eight, ten dollars a click to get someone on your site and you’re not converting them into a lead or a sale, you’re throwing away a lot of money there.
Same way on the back end. We need to be able to monetize them on the back end by creating some other add on services that we can offer or provide a great service so we will actually close that sale and then hopefully get some repeat business. If we weren’t getting repeat business or weren’t closing a high percent of the deals that are coming to us, we just couldn’t afford to do PayPerClick at all. So that’s a huge advantage for us. And then you start getting into… In the last couple years, we’ve done social media. Have some big clients for Facebook that we’ve been rolling out in the last couple months.
Andrew: Are you seeing anything significant from social media, any significant sales coming in, or just a lot of promise so far?
Brant: The one thing it has been helping with is branding. A lot of people are hesitant [interference].
Andrew: Sorry, it looks like we just lost… Sorry. We lost your audio for some reason. But you were saying, a lot of people are hesitant to do what?
Brant: Do business with an online company. That’s getting more acceptable every year, but getting some sort of engagement with them before they come to you to do business, it helps a great deal. So if we have some engagement with them, be it social media or whatever form that may be, it helps in that branding aspect of thing, and then hopefully later it gets their business whenever they’re ready to do whatever business it is that we’re selling at that point.
Andrew: OK. All right. So what I got is add on services, increased conversion, use social media. Anything else that works?
Brant: Email marketing. We do a lot of drip emails to either previous customers or customers that come to us but don’t actually close into a sale. So we’ve spent a significant amount of resources in building up our email marketing campaign to those people. We’re not buying listed email people up, btu just emailing people that came to our site, filled out a form, or whatever that didn’t convert into a sale.
Andrew: All right. Let’s go back to the ticket business, ShowMeTickets. I understand why you decided to sell. You guys did an asset sale I saw. Why? Why that specific way of selling the business?
Brant: You know, I don’t even know. That’s what the lawyer said, and I think that’s what they were interested in doing. We actually retained a small portion of the ticket company. We have some season tickets for a variety of sports teams, and we’ve actually retained a small portion of that. A couple of the guys that were working for us ended up just taking that on and running in, and we still actually have that company going.
Andrew: You’re still selling tickets?
Brant: Some of them. To be honest, I have no idea. I haven’t touched, I haven’t even seen an email about tickets, because these guys are running it. They’re probably just going to buy us out of our remaining equity here soon, because they’ve been doing a great job of running it. But yeah, we’ve had that going for the last five years.
Andrew: How do you do so much and not lose control of it all?
Brant: Well, I don’t have control of a lot of it. We get some solid people in there that run the company, and we trust them, and they’re the ones that… There’s no way we’d be able to… When I say we, it’s my brother and I. But a lot of the other people running aspects of the company are entirely new companies by themselves, give them a lot of freedom in what to do. We do that because, like, I said, we trust them, and we know they’re going to deliver on that.
Andrew: Why would somebody they do that for you. If you’re that good and you’re not that involved. You’re just training them. Why wouldn’t they just stay with you for a year and then go off and do it on their own?
Brant: Well they could. We generally try to… A lot of people have profit sharing or even some equity in the different companies that we have. So they have quite a bit of incentive. We have a lot of resources that we have, just a great online marketing team that we can take and apply to all these different businesses that they wouldn’t be able to take advantage of if they were on their own. And overall, it’s just a great team of people. We’re starting to build up a lot of experience in a lot of different things, and they know that as a group, working with our team and us, they have a lot higher chances for success than trying to do it on their own. Not that they couldn’t do it on their own, but…
Andrew: But what are you adding if you’re busy running your businesses, what can you do to help them with theirs, say the ticket guys for example.
Brant: Well, that was just a matter of we had built up these [interference]. You just couldn’t start that up overnight.
Andrew: I see. You actually had the tickets, and what they needed you for was the tickets that they were building the business on top of?
Brant: In that instance, that’s what we brought. Yeah.
Andrew: And when TicketsNow bought you guys. Is it TicketsNow? Yeah. When they bought you guys, they bought you basically for the traffic that you established to the site.
Brant: Yeah. Basically, the online marketing infrastructure that we built up with our websites. We had a variety of websites. We had a website called BuySellTix that was trying to create that marketplace that I had talked about where we’d let actual individual users come and list their own tickets. And the only other place you could do that online at the time was eBay.
And StubHub later came in and started doing that as well. They had quite a bit more resources than we did at the time. But we were actually in acquisition discussions with both StubHub and eBay when we were going through this process. So we had quite a bit of this online marketing infrastructure built up. We had a lot of users coming to the site, and we had a huge database of customers, so they were interested in all those things.
Andrew: I see. Do you remember, you got a check at least for the sale, right, or a wire transfer. Do you remember when that hit your account?
Brant: Yeah. I guess, yeah.
Andrew: Can you describe that? What was that like?
Brant: Well, it was nice. It was definitely nice. But like I say, we didn’t have that much incentive to sell for cashing out necessarily. We did, and we got some cash, and we got to keep part of the ticket company, so we’ve been able to continue profiting on that. But our motivation at the time was to build up some of these other companies, like the mortgage company. So that’s what we were looking at going forward, and that’s what we were excited about. It was a little disappointing, actually, to have been doing this for eight years and dedicate however many hours to it, build it up, and it was a fun business. So, it was a little disappointing to see that go away. It was nice to get some cash in the banks just for long-term security, for sure, and give us some more freedom on what we could do. It was great. I’m not going to say it wasn’t.
Andrew: Okay. All right. The next company was LakeRentals.com. What was LakeRentals.com?
Brant: It was a site that allowed people who owned vacation properties, whether they’re homes or condominiums, they could list their property on our website. We would get people to the site and fill out inquiries. So, you know, if they’re looking to travel to Lake Tahoe, some people have houses there, some people who were traveling to Tahoe and wanted to rent a house could go there for an inquiry and hopefully rent the house from these people.
Andrew: Why lake rentals? Why wasn’t it home rentals or vacation rentals or something else?
Brant: Well, we had some vacation properties at a local lake here in Missouri and we were generating rentals from doing online marketing on there. That’s kind of what we had been thinking of, is the lake rental stuff. Also, just because we got that domain. We saw that . . . Well, it wasn’t available, it was an existing site and we bought that out. It was a great domain. Having that niche was a little bit better. If we were going to call up, many of these people that had these properties listed on multiple sites, VRBO is a popular one out there and nearly everyone that has a vacation rental property lists on there. They’ll usually list on multiple sites, but there are many sites out there doing that type of thing. By going after this niche, if they have a lake house, they’d be more interested in listing with us as opposed to some other site out there. It was that niche. We also bought a few other sites. We had CoastRentals.com that did properties on the coast, and a ski one for skiing vacations.
Andrew: Okay. So, I understand that you know how to market and get renters to come to the website, but once they come to your site, you need to have a database of properties. How did you get a significant database of properties for them?
Brant: Well, that was the tough part. One way is people would come to the site from the search engines that had properties. So, they would come and list in that way. Otherwise, it was just marketing. Wed put advertising, do some banner ads, and that was a part, that’s one reason, that was a big hurdle in being successful, is getting that inventory of properties. We found it more difficult than we thought because even though we were getting, people as I said are listing on a few sites, but some of these sites are pretty old. Like VRBO, for example, had been around for a long, long time and people just get on there, stay on there, and they just assume stick with that, even if we could bring more inquiries they were just reluctant to come out from the bus and try it out. That was a big hurdle for us that we were always fighting against.
Andrew: Did you call up . . . That website that you’re talking about is Vacation Rental By Owner. Did you call up the property owners on that site and say, ‘Come list with us, too.’ Is that where you got some?
Brant: We tried that, for sure.
Andrew: How did that work out for you?
Brant: It was, it had some success for sure. I don’t know. I don’t even know what percent of our listings we got from that method but we definitely got some of them. It wasn’t just that site. We contacted a few different sites, people from there; let them know about our site.
Andrew: Okay. So that’s one way. Another way is you said you advertised. The third way is the marketing you did with search engines. What else did you do? Because when you have a marketplace like that it’s really hard to get buyers and sellers together and you need first, the listings, and then you’re going to end up getting the renters. I want to know how you solved this so that other people can solve it, too.
Brant: Well, that was our struggle. That’s one reason why we decided to sell. We, again, getting back to the ticket thing, we wanted to create this marketplace. A critical mass of both the listing or the inventory and the people coming to whether it was buy tickets or rent a vacation house. Again, with LakeRentals we were getting a lot of inquiries and always struggling on the inventory part. We were having a real tough time getting that critical mass of inventory of properties. Again, we went out and tried to talk to some people to see if they were interested in merging or what options there were. At that point, we decided we would consider selling it in order to take the same online marketing team and pursue something else.
Brant: That’s how we got there. So, the answer is, we didn’t achieve that.
Andrew: That was the big struggle. Okay.
Andrew: You sold it within two years of launching. How did that success compare to ShowMe Tickets?
Brant: It wasn’t anywhere near as big. We sold it to The Weather Channel. They had just started getting into this industry a little bit and definitely had interest in it. It worked out well, but it wasn’t the cash that was the best thing for us, it was freeing up our resources on this company that didn’t seem to have huge potential to us at that point after two years. We could free up those resources and put them on some other business. And we did. We took many of those resources, Nathaniel Broughton is, he actually was running LakeRentals, and now he’s our CMO of our mortgage company and he is running Growth Partner, which you had mentioned earlier. We got him freed up off working on that into some things that had a lot bigger potential.
Andrew: You know, can I tell you something, that I think that these big brand companies could probably go out there and buy tons of companies on the cheap and aggregate all their assets into something significant, but buy them super, super cheap because a lot of us entrepreneurs would sell to a high profile company just to add that to our resume. If I could take one of my side business that has a little bit of traffic, has a little bit of profit, and sell it to Fox or CNBC or someone else, I’d have that on my resume. I’d be able to go out there and raise money or get credibility or hire people for my next business based on that. What do you think?
Brant: Well, it’s probably true. Fortunately, we’ve never had to raise money. My brother and I own everything 50/50 for the most part except for some of these newer companies where some of our team was given equity in them. We’ve never really had to try to press anyone else. We’ve never really done big PR pushes on things. A big name, it is nice because people will pay attention to it more. For example, if I hadn’t sold something to The Weather Channel, maybe you wouldn’t have had me on here.
Andrew: I would have had you on because I established, because of Growth Partner, because we have a friend in common. I have to tell you, I look at people’s bio quickly and decide, ‘Do I want to do an interview or not?’ The quick indicator like The Weather Channel or Priceline or some other big name always gets my attention and let’s me say, ‘Okay. Somebody’s vetted him. We’re dealing with someone legitimate. Unless he’s faking it completely, and then I’ll find out by the interview and I can bring it up.’ At least I see there’s a brand name there.
Andrew: Okay. You said, next is, I think, Plus1 Media from 2006 to 2009. What was that?
Brant: It was an online marketing firm where we just did, we did actually do a little bit of consulting for some companies, lead generation-type stuff. Again, we were trying to look at our strengths and maximize those strengths whatever way possible. Online marketing was a big thing for us, so we decided to go after that and see what we could do. It was definitely, I mean, it was successful, and that eventually morphed into what Growth Partner is now still, online marketing services, but instead of doing it for consulting, where you are paid hourly we’re only doing it in exchange for equity in companies.
Andrew: Okay. So, basically, it seems like at that point you said, ‘We’re really good at marketing. We’re going to create a marketing company and focus on it.’ You said you did a little bit of consulting though. Where else would the revenue come from?
Brant: Well, part of it was from the mortgage company. We did the marketing for our main mortgage company and we generate a lot of mortgage leads that we sold to other places. So, we’d generate leads and then sell them out. The same way, online marketing, SEO, pay per click, and whatever ways we’ve done it in every other business.
Andrew: When people land on your page from pay per click, what would they see? What was it about this site that converted them?
Brant: Well, this is multiple sites and it’s different for almost every one, too, it’s just a matter of doing the testing.
Andrew: Give me an idea of some of the things that worked out. Because if it’s just an ordinary lead-gen than its not competitive and it’s not exciting and we’re not seeing enough of why you guys did so well.
Andrew: Tell me, what was it that made you not ordinary.
Brant: Well, our first thing is we’re probably one of the best online marketing teams in the country, at least in my opinion. So, we were great at getting traffic to our site. Secondly, we did give it a lot of credibility. We were included in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, LA Times, so you get that credibility and you try to push that on your site. You put those badges on your site. That seemed to really help out. Otherwise, it’s just getting a bunch of A/B test stuff, once you’re converting well. We’ve done a significant amount of that in the past four or five years and that’s been a huge help for us.
Andrew: Tell me more. I see getting press is great because it let’s you put the logos on your website and helps convert. Tell me more. And I know SEO. But I want more details. I want to understand more. I’m writing down notes here, and I see that my jots say things like, ‘We were one of the best online marketing companies.’ But I don’t see why. I want to understand why and how you did it.
Brant: Well, probably if you talked to all the guys running all the different department and asking them for specifics. We have a pay per click guy that just is killer. He spends, basically, 100% of his time doing pay per clicking. Our competitors out there, maybe the owner would spend, you know, ten hours setting it up and doesn’t really check on it that often. We just dedicate a significant amount of resources to it. We test all kinds of different ad copy on these pay per click ads, see which ones have a high click-through rate, and we start using those. We relate that, go to a new landing page. Specifics, just trying a bunch of different stuff. I may have to go through the website and look at some examples to show you. It’s provide some content, helping to establish a credibility with the by letting people know that you are experts in whatever it is, and mortgage history. We say, ‘Here’s why you should use us as opposed to other people,’ or why this site delivers extra value. We tested different color buttons. That’s going to make a difference and get more leads, one color versus another color. The size. What you have on your forms. It’s just a matter of, we’ve been pushing it hard for a long-time and tried so many things that we just start figuring out what’s working. I’m trying to think of some specific examples for you, I guess, you know, well, I think the badges are definitely a huge help for us. The buttons. There’s so many different factors. Whether you have the first sentence bold or not bold. Decrease the bounce rate. There’s just so many things it’s hard to touch on all of them
Andrew: I see. Okay. In the chat room, TheRiseToTheTop is saying, ‘Andrew, Brant built a bad-ass team. He is a leader and also amazing at spotting talent.’ That’s what I hear a lot about you, that you’re just good at finding the right people. I always want to understand even more. I want to understand not how you found the right people, but how you knew they were the right people, how do you keep the right people there, especially in a business like this. You teach them what to do. You teach them how to spend a whole day working on pay per click, you teach them how to change the buttons, and they go off on their own. They create their own button system. What do they need you for? Even if they make half as much, it’s their own business and they have a potential to make way more.
Brant: Well, I think they do. I think it’s pretty exciting to be a part of something big and we have some big things going on. They think that working with this great team of people that we have they’re able to do more collectively then they could individually really. I think that’s a primary reason. I think their chances for success with working with our team are greater than them on their own. It’s fun working with this team. That’s something I love about what I do is working with great people. I think they feel the same way. Like I said, I hope we compensate, they are compensated fairly, because many times it is based on how well the company does or how well what they are in charge of does. There’s a lot of motivation as well.
Andrew: Okay. Let’s talk just a little bit about VA Mortgages. VAMortgageCenter.com. You went in the home loan business. How did you get into that?
Brant: This was, it was 2002 and we had our ticket company. We were just looking to try to get into something else. We had a list of all kinds of things we could look at, but we knew we wanted to pick one that would allow us to take advantage of these online marketing strategies that we had and that we were good at. We actually just knew some guys from high school that were making money in the mortgage industry, so we said, ‘Well, let’s give this a shot. See if we can generate some leads from it.’ We tried it. We struggled through about two years, where we lost money. We were funding that company with the profits form the ticket company, that’s how that company was able to survive in those early years. Then just kept evolving it from there and tried to build up competitive advantages on the back-end with building this great team, building proprietary software giving us the advantage, building this email software, and a variety of things.
Andrew: And your business was just getting the leads and selling them? Or it was also servicing the mortgage?
Brant: No, we actually, our entire focus was to get the leads and work them ourselves. Close the loans on our own. The reason we ended up getting into the lead selling business is we couldn’t handle that many leads.
Andrew: I see. So, you brought many people in, were working the phones, calling the leads, and converting?
Brant: Yeah. That was our goal from the beginning. Build a mortgage company. Not just a lead company.
Andrew: So, you’re still around. How did you survive the mortgage bust?
Brant: We stuck with purchases, since we were getting so many leads, we could choose. We didn’t have to try to work some of these sub-prime leads. There’s many exotic mortgages in there that were going on in 2005 and 2006. Those are the things that killed all those mortgage companies. We were fortunate not to get into those things. Partly because, again, we didn’t see those as a long-term option and everything we’re doing we’re looking to build it long-term and have a solid company. Those type of things, there was a lot of money that we passed up during those years, for sure, but its’ worked out well that we didn’t go after them.
Andrew: Did you have to lay people off afterwards?
Brant: And . . .
Andrew: And what?
Brant: And the industry has gone through so much turmoil. Many companies have gone out of business. Therefore, that helped a little bit. Now the competitions back up pretty intensively at this point.
Andrew: Okay. You said earlier that you had to get good at conversions. We talked about that. You also said add-on services help. What kind of add-on services do you have in the mortgage business?
Brant: Well, we started a realty company where we actually have realtors working for us in different cities and we pay them a salary. Then they’ll get some commission but we get the listing revenue or the real estate agent revenue on some of the things that come through. We started an insurance company so that we could provide homeowner insurance. We started a service that, we get many people that come to us that just don’t qualify for a loan. We have a system set up that helps them repair their credit. We don’t charge for it. It’s just an add-on service that we offer them that they can take advantage of in hopes of that when they do get their credit fixed that they’ll come back to us for their loan because they appreciate what we did. That’s going great. You know, talking about a great team. That division I just talked about, it’s credit repair basically, but again we don’t charge for it. That one struggled for a while. It seemed like a natural fit for us, it struggled, and changed leadership on there and it’s made a huge difference. I mean, probably, this year we’ll probably make five times the profits compared to what we did last year just because of this new leadership that we have on.
Andrew: Credit repair, even though you don’t charge the person who is in debt for it, you still make money, right? Because you’re working with creditors and they’re giving you a piece.
Brant: No, no, no, no. We make money because they, we’re hoping that once they, they want to get their credit repaired so that they can buy a home. Before they weren’t eligible for a loan. So, we just give them all this education on what they can do to improve their credit, hopefully that will improve their credit, and then they can get to a point where they qualify for a home. Like I said, it’s kind of like saving a lead. We got this lead, couldn’t close because they weren’t eligible, and instead of just letting them go on we try to educate them. It gets back to some content type stuff. Educate them so they can repair their credit. Not everyone comes back to us. Some of them will go to another local bank or mortgage company to close their loan, but a significant portion of those people come back to us because they’re so appreciative of what we’ve offered to them. So, we’ll actually get a loan closed out of them. Essentially, that’s a free lead for us. We already had that lead and it would have been gone if we hadn’t taken any action on it so all we had to do was provide this little bit of education and we end up getting a closed sale on it.
Andrew: Let’s see what the people in the audience are saying. I see Less Allan from Less Accounting my favorite accounting program is in the audience. Thanks, Less. AndrewSG is asking, ‘How much traffic do you get from pay per click?’
Brant: At this point, it’s about 60% of our traffic.
Andrew: Wow. So how many thousands of hits do you get a month?
Brant: We have a variety of different websites and it depends, but we spend hundreds of thousands on pay per click marketing every month. More than $300, 000.
Andrew: You put all that on your American Express card to get the miles?
Brant: Yeah, we do.
Andrew: You can fly all over the place.
Brant: Yeah, we’re going to Hawaii in January. We booked my family, my brother’s family, parents; we got a whole bunch of us going on AmEx miles.
Andrew: That’s awesome. American Express is great that way. Bryan is saying, ‘Brant’s that man.’ Brandon in the audience agrees with him. You have many fans apparently.
Brant: Well, those guys are from the office next door, I think. They’re the ones that I think they are.
Andrew: The guys in the office next door to you, what do they do for you? I guess they’re with Growth Partner.
Brant: Well, Brandon’s part owner of Growth Partner. He actually started working for us part-time when he was a freshman. He was a Cal student. He graduated and he’s a really entrepreneur-type and wanted to start up something so we, him, Nathaniel, and another guy, those two were running the Growth Partner deal. Bryan, he does out pay per click stuff. He does conversion rate optimization and a variety of other things.
Andrew: So, Bryan Helmig, he’s the guy who’s spending all day on pay per click that you were telling me about?
Brant: Oh, Helmig? No, he actually, he is an entrepreneur. He actually did work for us part-time and now he is doing some stuff on his own. He has some cool things going on. You should check him out.
Andrew: Bryan, send me an Email, I’d love to find out what you’re up to. All right. So, let’s talk about Growth Partner. I gave a quick summary of what it is. Put some flesh on it. What is Growth Partner?
Brant: I guess, we tried to focus on our strengths. Its online marketing. Looked at the affiliate stuff, like I said, and consulting stuff, and it just didn’t have as much potential as we liked. We actually did a deal a couple of years ago, it was the first one, where we invested some capital and we ended up getting about 30% of the company in equity. They didn’t have to give, they actually got some capital to help the growth, and they didn’t have to spend any money on these online marketing services because we did all of it. It actually worked out really well. The reason we like it is because it’s tough to start up new companies. We’re not that, our mortgage company is really strong in operations because we have a great CEO, CFO, COO. However, starting a completely new company from the ground up is just tough. You have to figure out all these operations. Therefore, we would spend 80% of our time on things we weren’t that great at and 20% of our time on marketing. We’re trying to figure out, ‘What can we do so that we can spend 100% of our time on these things that we feel we’re great at?’ That’s’ were this Growth partner evolved out of the Plus1 Media where we’ll find companies that have a great, we only want to work with companies that have this great backend. If they don’t have a great backend, it’s going to be hard to see a significant amount of success, even if we do great online marketing for them. Find companies that have a solid backend and we just go in there and try to increase their traffic from the marketing. Increase traffic, sales, and everything else. We want to do it when they’re significant upsides. If we come in and we don’t produce any results then we don’t get anything and they don’t have to give up anything, but if we do, we want to see part of that upside as well.
Andrew: I see. So, if you help, I see. You invest money in them, too. You get a share of the business based on that. Plus a bigger share based on how it works out.
Brant: Every deal is going to, is just going to be different. Some companies don’t need the capital. Some do. Some just aren’t willing to give up that much in equity. Others are able to give up more as long as the profits increase quite a bit. Every deal is different.
Andrew: What kind of deals have you done so far? I know it’s pretty young; it’s actually just a few months old isn’t it?
Brant: well, it is. As part of Plus1 Media, we did a Growth Partner type deal with this soccer company called Soccer Pro. We increased their traffic by about 800% over 18 months. That let us know that we were onto the right idea. We actually didn’t start pushing to get deals for this until Brandon graduated in May. He started doing a little before he graduated. We actually have many deals in the pipeline right now. They’re closing some. I don’t even know every deal. I get some updates from them by email and try to help out when possible. There’s quite a few deals they got going through. I don’t even know which ones we can talk about.
Andrew: So, it’s Brandon’s job to go out there and find younger companies that need help marketing, partner up with you, you guys help them grow, and in exchange, you take a share of the business. That’s the basic idea.
Andrew: Okay. It looks like by the way, if it sounds sometimes like we’re stepping on each other or waiting a little bit too long after one of us has finished our sentence before we talk, it’s because the lag apparently on Skype has grown longer and longer as we’re doing this interview. It’s not that we’re getting more and more upset with each other and talking over each other. It is what it is. That’s what Skype is. Let’s see, what kind of companies are you looking for? Maybe we can help you find some in the audience.
Brant: The deals they’ve got going, they’re in all kinds of different industries. There’s service ones. There’s retail. Anything from kids toys to, what else is there, there’s, I think, a solar company. It’s all kinds of stuff. It’s anyone, any company that has a huge potential for growth online that has a good business. We’ve seen many deals come through that we look at them and we turn down. Literally, we’ve probably had 150 deals come through and maybe we’re going to close on six or seven of those just because not everything’s going to be a fit. Maybe we’ll help them in their online marketing. If we can’t, kind of our parameters we have set up is we want to be able to triple their business within two years. If we don’t think that we can do that then there’s probably just not enough potential for us to work with them.
Andrew: I see. And you want them to be able to handle everything else. You don’t want to deal with the website going down. You don’t want to deal with conversions not working properly. Actually, conversions you’re interested in. But you want to know that they’ve got the product down, that they just need the audience for it and the marketing for it.
Brant: Well, we hope we can help in some other areas. Like I said, we’re not the experts in operations or things like that. We are starting to get some experience behind us and experience in a variety of different industries. Hopefully, we can provide some minor, C level type help in other areas, but it’s primarily online marketing. It’s not just generating traffic. It’s also those conversion rates, increasing conversion rates like I talked about. Its email marketing to increase sales based on the traffic you’re already getting. Hopefully, even increase, if it’s a lead generation company, for example, we’ve gotten very good at knowing how to contact people, when to contact them, and how to follow up. So, hopefully, we can bring some value on that side of things as well.
Andrew: Casey Allen in the audience is wondering if there is any kind of industry or space that you’re especially excited about?
Brant: There’s so many opportunities out there. It is tough to pick. There’s many opportunities. You know, Brandon and Nathaniel . . .
Andrew: Talk to Brandon. Brandon and Nathaniel. They need to just propose their idea to Brandon and Nathaniel and they can figure it out. They’re good guys from what I’ve seen.
Andrew: So, what’s a good way to have people contact you, or Brandon and Nathaniel? How can they contact you?
Brant: Just got o GrowthPartner.com and find some information out about us. There’s a contact form on there.
Andrew: All right. Cool. I have a note here to come back and ask you about your failures. You want to talk a little bit about that?
Andrew: What was the biggest one?
Brant: You know, I talked about the palm programming software company that we had. That was exiting because we saw, what we realized there as apposed to doing this hourly service type consulting with computer repair we can develop the software and sell it hundreds or thousands of times, hopefully, and you don’t really have to do much else. You have that code. However, even though we were getting some traffic for it at the time we just didn’t produce much revenue on it. I mean, there was some potential with it. Every day we’d get a couple sales. But this is $9.95 software or something. So it wasn’t anything significant. You know, I would consider that a failure. LakeRentals, we had hopes for that doing significantly more than it ended up doing. I think we had some success with it without a doubt. Nevertheless, you know, it never lived up to what we’d hoped it would be. Like I said, when we were in college we tried a variety of stuff and it just failed miserably. You know, it was good stuff, we learned, and fortunately, we were doing it on the cheap. We didn’t loss money doing these things because it was just a matter of our time. I’d have to go through a list on all those failure. They were little things, but they didn’t make any money that’s for sure.
Andrew: Do you ever get so down that you say, ‘What am I doing? I’m just not a good entrepreneur. I’m not a good businessman. I can’t make this work.’
Brant: If you’re an entrepreneur, yeah, there are always some ups and downs.
Andrew: Can you describe one of those down moments for you? Because all I’m seeing is a lot of positive energy coming from you.
Brant: Yeah, I mean, you know, we, in our ticket business there were six months that our sales were down. We were actually losing money every month. I’d sit in the shower and try to think, ‘What are we going to do today to try to change things around?’ It was a struggle, but we came out of it and things work. It was even that much better when we got out of it.
Andrew: How did you get out of it?
Brant: We just kept pushing. Our online marketing is fairly well written. Nathaniel, we’ve talked about him, he started working more. He was actually still a student at the time, but he was able to work more. We ended up coming out of that. Not one specific thing. If there was, it was just a matter of happening anyway, it just didn’t happen overnight when we came back either. It was just a six-month process.
Andrew: All right. Finally, what’s next? Where do you hope to go?
Brant: We’re, mortgage companies is something I spend a lot of my time on because we’re looking at doing some really big things and we’ve just got such a great team of people. We have over 300 people working for the company now. It’s just an awesome group. It’s fun to work with them. The marketing team is who I share my offices with. It’s just fun coming in to work with those guys every day. Brandon and Nathaniel who are doing Growth Partner have a couple of other ideas we’re looking at starting up. My time is seeing what we can do with this mortgage thing into growing into something really big.
Andrew: I have to ask you one other question. I see some of these, I can imagine someone is out there listening to us right now. They’re inspired by your story. They want to do more than they’re doing now, but they don’t know where to go after this interview. What’s one thing that you think they should do as entrepreneurs or as business people in general based on your experience?
Brant: I see many people that are entrepreneur-types that I would consider more of the dreamer-type as opposed to the doer-type. That’s the big difference I see in those people that actually do achieve something. We have these entrepreneur meet-ups every six weeks or so. You get many people there and you start seeing who has been achieving some successes and who hasn’t and it’s because the people are actually trying something. Many times, they’re going to try stuff and fail, or probably do it multiple times like we did. But at least you’re trying. You learn from that. There’s many people that just sit there and come up with a business plan. They want to work on their business plan for six months and think about things and dram about them, but it’s that action that they’ve never taken. That’s the one thing without a doubt I think that separates people that actually so achieve success.
Andrew: All right. Well, that’s a great place to leave it. Thank you for doing the interview. Thanks for coming on here.
Brant: Yeah, I appreciate the invitation.
Andrew: Cool. Guys, thank you all for watching. Go check out GrowthPartner.com if you want more information. I think I spent maybe eight minutes on that topic, but there’s definitely more than eight minutes there, so go check out the website.
One more thing, on iTunes, go sign up on iTunes. I have all the old, I think it’s all the old interviews. I don’t know how many actually. I’ve got a bunch of them not all of them. As many as we could get on there on iTunes. So, go sign up and you’ll get all the future ones in your podcast or iPhone. Apparently, I’m not doing a good enough job letting people know that they could sign up on iTunes. I get many complaints, ‘Why aren’t you on iTunes?’ I’m on iTunes, people. Go sign up.
All right. Thank you all for watching. See you. Bye. Cool. Thanks, man. I’ll send this over to Joe for editing. It should be up on the website this week.
Brant: Cool. I appreciate it. Thanks a lot.
Andrew: It was great to meet you. I hope to see you in person.
Brant: Yeah, for sure.
Andrew: Cool. Bye.
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