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Finally, do you need a lawyer that actually understands the startup world that you and I live in? Go to walkercorporatelaw.com. I’ve known Scott Edward Walker for years. Tell him you’re a friend of mine, and he’ll take good care of you. Here’s the program.
Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I am the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart and the place where you come to hear entrepreneurs tell the stories of how they built their businesses.
In this interview I’m going to find out how does a teenager, who puts up tons of business ideas finally find his big, hit company? Well in 1998, after searching for their business idea, Joe Griffin and his father hit on an idea that they called Submit a Website.
It allowed businesses to submit their sites to many different search engines all at once. He sold that company to web.com a few years later. I invited him to talk about how he did it and I want to find out a little bit about his current company, iAcquire, which is a marketing and reputation management firm. Joe, welcome.
Joe: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Andrew: How much did you sell the business for?
Joe: The Submit a Website business sold for about $3 million.
Andrew: Three million dollars, who were the owners?
Joe: The company that acquired it was Website Pros, which also acquired web.com, and has since acquired register.com, and Network Solutions and a lot of other companies. It’s a really well run organization by some great people, which is the main thing that attracted us to sell our company to them and also to work with them.
Andrew: How much of the business did you and your dad own?
Joe: We owned 100% of the company.
Andrew: Wow. Impressive. How did you know that the Internet was where you wanted to play together?
Joe: I was kind of a tech geek kid. It was definitely the right timing. When I was a young guy, obviously the Internet . . . at the time I was a teenager, that’s when the Internet launched. I was able to really utilize my computer skills, my Internet skills, and my dad has always been an entrepreneur. He’s built other businesses before, brick and mortar companies and, clearly, he had some years on me, and quite a bit of experience and saw the opportunity in the Web.
He said, “Hey, son,” essentially, “You’ve got the technical mind, I’ve got the entrepreneurial experience, let’s combine forces. Let’s start a company here.” Obviously he became very technically savvy as well very quickly. He had some tech savvy as well leading into that.
It just made sense. It was that dot com era. We wanted to throw our hat into the ring and see what we could do.
Andrew: You didn’t know what the business would be. You just knew it needed to be a business together, and you knew it needed to be online.
Joe: Yeah, exactly. We had no idea yet. We tried a few different ideas. Most of them were very small in scale.
Andrew: For example.
Joe: One of them was, I don’t think we had any huge ambitions for making our millions with this idea, but essentially we did a site called Letters to Santa. What we would do is we would attract parents online that were looking to offer a unique Christmas experience for their children.
They would give us some tips about what their kids wanted for Christmas and we would write a custom letter from Santa Clause on Santa stationary, package it up, send it out to them in them mail, then the kids would get the Santa letter. We charged like $10.
We didn’t make a whole lot of money. It was more of a pet project, but it was one of our ideas. Another one was, we created a little business called Arizona Unclaimed Gold Kits. This was targeted towards people that were looking for adventure goods, or they were specifically looking for gold or just stuff to do in Arizona. It was kind of gimmicky, but it was kind of an Arizona map, a shovel, a little sifter pan, a little kit for like $89.
Really what that taught us was, we had to learn how to get traffic to these websites. This is in the mid to late ’90s, so we’re thinking, “How do we do this?” We had to learn, where does the traffic originate from on the internet. Back then, in a lot of ways it’s the same as it is today, search engines and directories. Obviously, this is a pre-Google era, and also a pre-smart algorithm era, a time when Yahoo and Alta Vista were sophisticated directories. We had to learn to master those directories. We really became interested in that and that started to lead toward the idea of submit a web site.
Andrew: Now, you say that the idea wasn’t to get rich off a letter from Santa, but you guys also wanted to build a business. It doesn’t seem like it was an intentional, “Let’s launch letters from Santa, that will teach us about the internet, and then we’ll find our business.” How was it? I’m so curious about how company ideas are discovered. Why would you launch a site that you didn’t think was going to make you millions? What was the thought process?
Joe: I think that people who are entrepreneurs and probably everyone for that matter, but entrepreneurs in particular, are a little bit less risk averse by nature. I think that trying different projects and starting different companies, even when it’s not the million dollar idea, maybe it’s a small idea, but I feel like when you take those risks and you start those companies, and you start to go through that process, and that creative process, and even the legal and finance process that you have to go through, to start a company and manage a company, those things, even in small doses, teach you a lot of tools you need to be able to do that at larger scales. I think, for us, we might not have gone out with the mindset that would lead to a larger business, but I think when you start to take those types of risks, you find yourself being open to new opportunities and new ideas, and you kind of put yourself out there in a way that allows you to capitalize on those opportunities when you see them and when they come by.
Andrew: What was Traveling Painter? What was that site?
Joe: So, that’s another site. We basically, my dad had a contracting background, he had a contracting business, and he and I both wanted to do a lot of travel. I was just about to get out of high school. It’s just a silly web site we put out. We thought maybe we can find someone somewhere, in Italy or somewhere, that wants Venetian plaster done and we’ll come out there and work for table scraps just to get some free travel in. Just a fun idea to get some travel in.
Andrew: So, you were just throwing up websites. What did it cost you to put up a website?
Joe: Back then, that’s a good question. Our first website, actually our first couple of websites, resided on Geocities, which is a shame that Yahoo shut Geocities down, but Geocities was a really great place to start back then, and was absolutely the leader in D.I.Y. website building. I think we had a free service with Geocities and eventually might have upgraded. I believe we potentially hosted our site with Geocities or may have moved it somewhere, but back then, I want to say, and I may be wrong, but I believe domain names were quite a bit more expensive. I want to say they were at least $50, they might have been $100 at the time. I recall that we had to be very selective when we bought domain names, because you couldn’t just buy a bunch of them like you do now.
In fact, the name Submit a Website, we had other names for ideas too. But, we didn’t have the luxury to buy ten names and settle into one. So, the costs were a little bit more in some areas, but one of the most complicating things back then, A. was the complete lack of information on the internet. The internet as a resource was nothing like it is today. So doing anything was a lot harder. Even a lot of the simple things were uncannily difficult; setting up a shopping cart was a nightmare. Getting a merchant account, not only was getting a merchant account hard to do, and not anyone could just do it like you can now, but actually integrating a merchant account into a website was a nightmare. A lot of the components today that make that flow work were separated, and you had to go and get those different components and put them together yourself. It was a pain in the butt.
Andrew: You were living, in your middle school years, on a ranch that had cows. Where do you, in that place, get the inspiration to build an internet company?
Joe: A great question. My mother and I lived on a ranch that was about a 25 acre plot of land. We spent a lot of time tending to animals. Like you said, we had cows, we had horses, we bred dogs. I think the value that I got in that is more just the work ethic. The internet side was something I did even, literally, on the ranch. I had computer and I was a tech geek. That stems back from earlier years and my grandma putting me in computer camp. We can talk about that if you want, but yeah, I think the ranch experience was on that just taught me a lot about, literally and figuratively, getting your hands dirty, staying in the ditches, working hard. That’s the experience I learned from. . .
Andrew: There wasn’t like a Forbes magazine that would get delivered to your doorstep, to your barn. There weren’t stories of friends whose friends were getting rich. It was nothing like that.
Joe: Oh, no. It was a lot more of — I kind of hate to admit it — but a lot more hanging out in the [where’s] channels on IRC and just downloading software programs that I shouldn’t have been downloading probably. Those things, though, I had a lot of time, and I would just sit there and learn software programs.
Andrew: I see.
Joe: Learn Photoshop and learn, you know, this is pre-Dreamweaver, so some of the HTML editors like Hotdog Pro and some of the ones that no one’s ever heard of that were editors back then, so just kind of. . . You know, my time was divided between working physically, laborious, and just my free time, just go upstairs and play around on the internet and play around online.
Andrew: And where today somebody who’s a teenager might be listening to you and saying, “Oh, look at what’s possible,” and then go out and start a business, for you it was your dad who said, “Check out what’s possible in the internet tech boom. Look at all these stories of people who are succeeding.” That’s why you partnered up with him.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. I think having a mentor is just critical. You can be a really brilliant person and have a lot of really great ideas and be successful, but when you have the opportunity to have a mentor in your life that can help you out a little bit, especially in those early years, it’s just really valuable. I experienced that throughout my life on multiple occasions. I think it’s character building and it’s something that’s going to separate you.
Andrew: I remember buying software back in the day that would allow me to submit my site to hundreds of different search engines and directories. Then I charged people to use that software. I mean, they didn’t know they were using the software. I charged to submit them to the services, and then that software would give me a printout that I could give them to say, “Here, look. This is where you are submitted.” Is that essentially what you did?
Joe: That’s exactly what we did.
Andrew: Except you built a much bigger business on top of it.
Joe: Right, right. Our business was, and this goes back to, in fact, the program we used was called Trellian, and it was Submitwolf Pro — Trellian was the company, and Trellian’s still around and two brothers own the company and they’re great guys. We bought their software program. I want to say it was probably $300 back then. We used their software program initially to help promote our own websites. Then we started to understand, “Well, what makes this software program work?”
Then we started to integrate some of our own tools and software on the Submit a Website. People would actually go to Submit a Website because we had some free tools that would automatically submit your website right from our site, so it was kind of. . . The top 10 or 15 you could just do for free on submit a website, and it would just do that for you automatically, and it would do if for you right there on the spot, and give you a confirmation email.
That’s what drew in hundreds, and eventually thousands of people that would submit their website to Submit a Website. Then we would essentially take. . . We started to elevate those orders. “Hey, if you want to submit to 500 search engines, that’s $20, or $100. We would use software programs like Submitwolf Pro, which started to get more. Then we started to become, obviously, more and more sophisticated over time, as we became more mature and started to understand the space more.
Andrew: How did you come up with the name?
Joe: The name came up from, actually I believe it was HotBot. It may have been Alta Vista, I think it was HotBot. Back then, obviously, search engines did not do a very good job of coming and finding your site through links. Back then you had to tell them you existed, and so, at the bottom of the sites, there would typically be some sort of link. It would say register your site, or submit your site. HotBot’s said submit a website as the link, and we said, “Let’s just keep this simple and use the same terminology that the search engines are using.” Yeah, so it’s a simple name and simple beginnings that ultimately got a little more sophisticated.
Andrew: Were you able to buy submitawebsite.com for $75? Did you even own submitawebsite.com?
Joe: Yeah, we were able to register it. It was available.
Joe: We were able to register. I think we registered about a year after we actually started the business. We actually were on Geocities for about the first year.
Andrew: Your first site. . . I mean, the first version of Submit a Website was a Geocities page, where people would come in and give you their website. You’d submit it to 10 or so search engines. and then you’d up sell them on more for more money.
Joe: Right. Yeah, and we had no merchant account hooked up. We had an address and send us your check, so this was all check transactions. In fact, that’s what deterred me from going to ASU. I never went to college. I had registered with a local community college when I was in high school. I was going to high school and going to the local community college, and then looking to join ASU. While in high school, we started this thing, and we started getting checks in the mail. Of course, that first check, it’s like excited, exciting. Then you get that second and third check, and we started to get a couple checks a day. Once that started happening, it became pretty evident that we can do something. We can make some money with this thing. So, put the college plans on hold and just dove straight in.
Andrew: What was the most you ever got in there, do you remember? Not the number, then the image of it?
Joe: Yeah, I want to say nine or ten checks at a time, before we got to that point where we moved over to the merchant account. I think we were charging $99 at one point. Yeah, $900 or $1,000 …
Andrew: Suddenly, you start to see ten checks come in all at once?
Andrew: Life is good.
Andrew: At that point, do you start to visualize yourself getting really rich?
Joe: That’s a good question. I don’t think that … You know, we didn’t set out to become rich. That wasn’t what our intentions were. I think we wanted to build a lifestyle business, something that was fun. We didn’t have huge ambitions financially. I think, clearly, we wanted to be millionaires, like everybody, but we looked at it as an opportunity for us to enjoy our life, have fun, kind of play and circles that we wanted to play in, in terms of the people that we were hanging out with, and the types of conferences that we would go to. So, it was for fun and money. At a certain point though, obviously, we started to realize that there’s a real opportunity to build something that can make us a lot of money.
Andrew: By the way, can I call, can I ask [??] who usually writes the headlines, to use this headline for our interview? I launched a $3 million business with one Geocities webpage?
Joe: Oh, yeah, let’s do that.
Andrew: That is an outrageous story. When I saw that in your notes from your conversations with Jeremy, our producer, I go, “Really? On Geocities, he got customers?”
Joe: I know.
Andrew: That ugly Geocities that was shut down that most of us are laughing at, you used that as a platform for building your career, your future?
Andrew: Unreal. So, now you go up to the next stages, getting a merchant account. How tough was it? What was the process back then?
Joe: The process was ridiculous. First of all, there was a major waiting period. Today, you can get a merchant account, as an example, through PayPal within 24 to 48 hours. It’s a pretty simple process.
Andrew: [??] gave me one, actually, as soon as I typed in my email address that was it, I had an account. Then later on they asked me for everything else that they needed, like my tax id number.
Joe: That’s insane.
Andrew: Did you have to have a salesman come in, an account manager, come into your home and talk to you?
Joe: Depending on the different type of account you have, yes, you would. There was an account that we were able to get originally that did not require that, and then we did have to do that. That was an experience in itself. I think I was maybe 17, or 18 and I recall that in particular being one of those where my dad kind of pushed me off a ledge bit, maybe give me some wings, and said, “Hey, set this thing up.” Obviously, he was involved, but he said, “Call them yourself. Call them on the phone. Get a hold of them. Find out all the details.” That’s an intimidating thing to do too, when you’re young. You’re not used to calling adults on the phone and asking them for services, and questioning them, and following up, and so that’s an intimidating thing.
That’s something I would also give just for advice. Whether it’s to younger people, whether they’re middle school, high school, in college, don’t ever be afraid to speak up and talk to people, and show your opinions. You really have to have some confidence. That’s an important thing.
Yeah, the merchant account was just a pain in the butt. It probably took a couple weeks; lots of different pieces. Back then, authorize.net and ACH, all those things were not connected in any way, shape, or form. Some of the gateway processors and things were just not connected. So, yeah. it’s a pain.
Andrew: Then you told Jeremy, that you’d take, what’s this car insurance thing that you guys got into? It wasn’t that you got into car insurance, but were you building websites for car insurance companies? Let’s see, “We would take small business and get them on the first page,” I guess of search engines for [??] like car insurance. What would you do?
Joe: Back in the day, the way we started to get sales on the website was that we ranked like number one in Alta Vista and number two Yahoo, for just a super basic keyword, like search engines. If you typed in search engines, we were right at the top. The reason why I bring that up was, at this point in time, ranking for a keyword, like car insurance, was not like it is today. You can’t build a website and build a bunch of links and rank for car insurance, you just can’t do that anymore. You’ve got to build brands and if you want to go after big head keywords like that. Back then we had clients ranking for car insurance, credit cards, just the biggest keywords and this wasn’t Geico ranking for car insurance this was like, Joe’s Car Insurance.com just some random people so a lot of people benefit back then when it was easy to get results and people didn’t know how to optimize websites at all. If you knew how to put a title and a meta-description and some content on your page, if you even understood the philosophy of keyword analysis at all you were ahead of the game.
Andrew: Were you building these websites for yourselves and then selling leads or building them for clients that you were starting to do consulting service for?
Joe: It started to evolve into some website development. Search engine optimization became a terminology. At the time when we started the company the term search engine optimization was absolutely not publicly used. There were a lot of other keywords that were used – search engine registration, search engine placement, search engine submission, and search engine optimization did not become a popular acronym until much later. In some circles it was being used in the late 90’s, ’98, ’99 but it wasn’t a common phrase.
Andrew: Why did you get into consulting? I would have said, hey you know we have a product. Product scale, products are easy to manage, products can be handed out to other people. Consulting doesn’t scale as easily, consulting is dependent on who’s doing it and all these other issues. Why go from product to consulting instead of what often happens, which is the other way?
Joe: I think, in fact my dad was a big advocate for that product, selling a product. We actually did sell a product. We sold product and we sold a consulting service as well. When I say a product I mean a packaged service essentially. Hey for $499 were going to do A, B, C, D, and E and that’s it. And we did that. We had a $499 service, a $799 and a $1499 service and you would get certain components. So we considered those products. We did scale those but I think what we found is that there were always customers that wanted to do more than what was included in those packages. We were a small company, didn’t have any venture backing or any means to get it at that point in time. We probably didn’t have the knowledge of even how to do that. If we had a client that said, hey I want to do this, then we would look at each other and say, “Hey can we, you think we can do that? Yeah I think we can do that, how much do we charge? I don’t know, charge $5000. OK cool.” So I think that’s where the consulting started is we started to look at the almighty dollar as an opportunity when those opportunities arose we took advantage of them.
Andrew: You and your dad butted heads about this, right? Father, son, don’t…
Joe: A little bit yeah. A little bit.
Andrew: Tell me about that. How do you guys argue?
Joe: [laughs] I think we have a very healthy father/son relationship but absolutely a lot of the typically things you’ll encounter. Especially with a father and son working together and it wasn’t like some of the shows you see on TV where it’s absolutely over the top but yeah, we butt heads a little bit. I think for him, I think he really enjoys, and now he’s actually branched out and is doing almost exclusively consulting. He does a lot less product. But I think there’s a great business, like you said, there’s a great business in scaling a product-based business. That’s the business he wanted to go down. I was a little bit more interested in the consulting side and I think I probably had more interest in that area because I was younger and had a much thirstier drive for knowledge in the space. Not that he didn’t, but that was the thing I really wanted. Knowledge was important to me and in fact led me down a path of ultimately leaving Submit a Website and I kind of joined some other companies and did different things because of maybe some of those differences. And they weren’t [?] differences but they’re things that we had two different visions essentially.
Andrew: Two different visions and then you end up at another company for a few years. And you come back to Submit a Website but how did you even get the idea that you wanted to go off and take a job somewhere where you have this business that’s growing.
Joe: Submit a Website really started to grow. We had some plateaus and we had some peaks and at one point I think, I don’t know if it was the bloody heads or it may have just been me being a young guy wanting to do different things, maybe I was restless. But I definitely recall that we said, hey maybe we should sell Submit A Website let’s do something different, let’s sell Submit a Website. Let’s do something different. Let’s sell Submit a Website and then maybe we’ll go in different directions, whatever may happen. We had the idea, let’s sell the company. We actually approached a company at the time called Internet Crossing, which became International Crossing, which became Icrossing [SP].
Two of my mentors, two of my other mentors, in fact, the president and CEO of Icrossing, were the former president and CEO, we approached them and said, ‘Hey, we want to sell our company. This is what we do,’ and, ‘Are you interested?’ We got together with them, sat in a conference room and laid out the opportunity, and ultimately they said, “Hey, we don’t want to be in small business SEO, we want to service the enterprise and the “Fortune 500.”
It wasn’t a match, but it did say, “Hey, you know what? This kid here, Joe Griffin, Jr., is a smart kid, and we’d love to offer this guy a job.” That was a little bit out of left field, but my dad and I spoke and I said, “Hey, you know what? This is something I really want to do.” It was an opportunity, and he said, “Yeah. Go West, young man and spread your wings. Do what you want to do.”
I joined up with Icrossing in 2001. I was there for about two and half, three years. That was an amazing experience. It was a time when that company was in startup mode, they had about 35 employees. I got to work directly with the leadership and build a lot of really great things for them over that period of time.
Andrew: You dad kept running the business, Submit a Website. What size revenue was it doing back then?
Joe: I believe, when I left . . . I don’t recall the revenue. It was pretty small. When I left, he was able to continue building the company. He got the company, I don’t know the number, but I want to say he got up to around $50,000 a month or so. He might have even . . .
Andrew: Fifty thousand in sales a month?
Joe: Per month.
Andrew: Was he living off of this, or was he still doing his other work?
Joe: No, this was full time for him now. He’s got six or seven employees. He was doing well. It was that lifestyle business that we both wanted, and he was able to turn it into that for himself.
Andrew: The money just went to him as a salary, any profit? You were earning a salary somewhere else, but not getting any money from Submit a Website?
Joe: He ran it on his own. I still stayed involved. I still helped him, obviously, he was my dad, I would provide any consulting or advice that I could. I helped him set a couple of the offices up. I would help out physically.
Andrew: A couple of the offices? So he was growing it?
Joe: Yeah. He was taking it from small office to a little bit bigger, to a little bit bigger. I helped him scale, but he gets 99.9% of the credit, but I’ll take .01%.
Andrew: You still owned 50/50.
Joe: At the time, actually, the partnership we had, he was 100% owner. We had a gentlemen’s agreement that I was kind of 50% owner, and that became more concrete as we ultimately sold the company.
Andrew: Got you. OK. Can you tell people about that Old Town Scottsdale office that you had, and the issue that lead you to have to drive out to Gilbert, 30 miles.
Joe. That was rough. Again, back in the late ’90s, early 2000s one of the other problems was just Internet connectivity. High speed was hard to come by, if non-existent and even just having the phone lines themselves, being able to rely on them was difficult, and the ISPs, being able to rely on them was difficult.
One of the offices we got was in Old Town, Scottsdale, which was a pretty cool location. It was a small office, and we just couldn’t even keep the Internet up out there, just really struggled. I ended up finding another place to go move my headquarters. Me and a sales guy went to another location out in Gilbert, which is 30 miles away. We did what we had to do and made it work.
Andrew: What did you learn by leaving this entrepreneurial environment and going to work for a bigger and growing company?
Joe: I think the Icrossing experience was the second or third best experience I’ve had professionally. iAcquire, hands down, has been the most rewarding and I’ve gained the most knowledge at iAcquire, but the Icrossing experience was a great one.
Not only because I was able to work with the company’s owners who were really young, passionate guys. Jeff Pruitt, who I believe was 29 at the time when I joined, and then Jeff Herzog [SP], who I think was maybe 30 or 31 at the time. These were just good guys. These were guys that were my age that I am today, and I was a young kid. I was 19. They really gave me a lot of opportunity, a lot of tools. They started flying me all around the country at that age.
I recall going to see MGM. Going to see all these big brands, and it was just . . . It was a great opportunity being able to listen to them and learn. I just had a lot of technical knowledge I was able to contribute. So, I didn’t have any of the business couth, or etiquette, or polish that they had, but that’s where I learned it. That’s where I started to learn that type of polish …
Andrew: What do you mean by polish?
Joe: I think that’s something that every entrepreneur should consider is just how do you present yourself? What message are you giving off? What are your goals heading into a meeting; or when you’re setting up a business, what are you trying to achieve? So, I think the polish really takes the rough edges off of the process that you go through. Starting a business, and operating a business, and interacting with other people, and the way that you even do business and the etiquette that you use, so that’s where that polish comes in.
Andrew: I see. So, they would go into meetings saying, “We’re not just going to hang out. We know exactly what we want out of this meeting.”
Joe: Yeah, and they would not only help me to understand what was my role in those meetings and how would I interact, but also coach me post-meeting, “Hey, Joe, here’s what you did right and here’s what you did wrong.” I took a very humble approach as a 19 year old guy and said, “Hey, I don’t have all the answers here, that’s why I work for you guys, because you guys are a significant step up.” So, just learning from them, listening, being open to criticism and feedback, negative or positive, was super helpful.
Andrew: Why’d you leave?
Joe: I left after, again, maybe two and a half, maybe three years. I think that, I don’t know if it was that entrepreneurial drive, (??) had a lot of changes going on internally, good changes. Sometimes change can, good or bad change can, just affect people in a way that they either embrace it or they run from it. I think in that case and in that time in my life, and where they were going, the role they wanted me to play wasn’t something that I was that interested in.
On the other side of the coin, where my (??) Submit a Website had gone to at this point was it was a successful business now. So, my dad had taken it to that point. He and I communicated all the time and I would tell him, “Hey, I don’t like some of these things. I don’t like some of those things.” He would say, “Hey, I’ve got this great opportunity over here, we could do this and that.” We wanted to find a way to work together again, even though we knew we’d butt heads, and we were father son, and that’s what we do. But, we also thought there was a way we could work together in scale. I recall a meeting I had with my father. We sat down and I said, “Hey, dad, you know I’m not happy with where I’m at, at this time, or I want to do something else with my life. I’ve learned all these amazing things and I think that you and I can join forces again, keep doing what you’ve been doing and everything you’ve learned. I’ll bring in everything I’ve learned. Let’s put those things together and we’ll create a multi- million dollar business.”
Andrew: What had he been doing? What, at that stage, what did the company look like, after what he was doing, while you were away?
Joe: He had a couple sales guys. He had a couple account managers. He had a formal … the administration of his business was well run in terms of the entity management, the legal, the financial management. I think those things are really important, legal and financial are just critical. But, (??) he had it organized (??). He had a system where he was able to generate leads. He had people that would get on the phone, talk to those leads, sell those leads, and service those leads. So, he got the foundations of an operation that I could come in, especially at the time, with some of the things that I had learned it was a really good opportunity, because I had been in an environment where I had a similar infrastructure, a larger infrastructure. I had a lot of runway to learn how to scale, how to scale sales, how to scale service.
Andrew: So, he systemized everything that you guys had already been doing, and you said, “I can scale it based on what I’d learned.”
Andrew: Was he still in the business of submitting people’s websites to search engines, or by then was that business pretty much gone?
Joe: The search engine submission tool, the original free search engine submission tool, was still on the website. In fact, I believe it still is on the website and still being used today. He had absolutely expanded. He had created some of those different product lines. He also had what he called custom solutions where they would configure a custom solution for your site.
Andrew: That was consulting?
Joe: Yeah, he was doing the product and the consulting.
Andrew: What was the product that he was selling?
Joe: I always refer to products as the packages, the service packages. The (??) $499 (??), we’ll submit your site, we’ll give you … we’ll optimize your home page, we’ll submit you to the directories, and give you a rank report, $500, you know, $499.
Andrew: That’s, I guess, essentially what you guys were doing before. What he lost was the $19.99 product that would just submit you to massive search engines, and the reason for that is, is that because by then the business had changed so much that the other search engines didn’t matter?
Joe: Yeah, that’s true. It had gone from 15 search engines to five now. This is December of 2003 when I left [??] and joined submit a website. This was a time when the general populous and marketing managers were a lot more sophisticated. They kind of knew what they wanted, and SEO was out there. Search engine optimization was officially being sold. It was being serviced and that was the market. He expanded as the market expanded.
Andrew: Got you. All right, and so now it’s on you to take what he expanded and what he codified and make it bigger. What did you do?
Joe: I had a couple friends that was able to help bring in [??] to the organization. We ran a new business plan. We took a step back and said, “What technology infrastructure do we have to be able to do this at another level?” We actually had built some good technology. I did bring in a friend and help to redesign the technology that allowed us to scale a little bit more. We took a look at what are the price points, what are people getting for these prices, and how can we expand those offers. My interest was how do we have more diversity, higher price points, how can we also offer a better service, and just get out in front of more people? Not only did we increase some of our advertising spending, we would advertise on Overture at the time, which became Yahoo, maybe it had been GoTo [SP] at the time still. We advertised on some of the paid search channels, and then we started to build some kind of joint relationships, affiliate relationships if you will. So, we started to find other people out there who could bring business in to us. We started to just branch out.
Andrew: How much sales did you get to at that point?
Joe: I think we took in, let’s say 2004 to 2007, we went from $50,000 a month to $200,000 a month.
Andrew: By increasing sales, by getting more people at the top of the funnel, and by charging more, and by adding more to your services, of all of that, what was more powerful?
Joe: I still really enjoyed the larger surfaces [??]. For me, I think there’s a ton of value in helping the small businesses and I think there’s a ton of value in helping the large business. I was attracted to [??] in the first place, because of those larger businesses. We started to do more of that kind of work in submit a website when I came in. For me, that’s the greatest impact, just bringing in larger clients, people that needed more services, people that we could impact at a larger level. Ultimately, that’s where my heart has always been and still is, that’s why we ultimately founded iAcquire.
Andrew: What was the lowest point for the business before you sold?
Joe: I think we hit a couple plateaus. One thing that my dad taught me was how to build a business, how to bootstrap and build a business. We’ve never raised money to grow a business ever. We didn’t do it for Submit a Website, we didn’t do it for iAcquire. I think what he taught me was stay slim, stay tight, grow when you can. But, some of the disadvantages to that are that there would certainly be times when we would struggle, because we didn’t have the resources. We would have to find creative ways and do a lot of the work personally, even if that meant building your own websites personally, which we did, do what we had to do to get by.
Andrew: At one point you even had to downsize the company, right?
Joe: Yeah, we’ve had to downsize …
Joe: In certain cases, in fact, this was so … I believe the downsizing was before I joined [??].
Andrew: While he was running it?
Joe: In fact, it was in that experience while he was old town office and I was in Gilbert that we ultimately kind of all moved to Gilbert, and there were just a couple of us. So, we went through some downsizing periods, some expansion periods, but there weren’t too many cases where we thought we would lose the company. Most of that type of risk really occurred in the first couple of years. After the first couple of years, it started to really sail.
Andrew: So, why? Were you spending too much money on ads, no? You didn’t have a big ad budget back then.
Joe: I think it’s hard to get a business of the ground. I think that was really the greatest difficulty that we were facing.
Andrew: What do you mean, more specifically? “I think that it’s hard to get a business off the ground,” is a good thing to say to the New York Post, but here on Mixergy, we have to really understand the mechanics that were tough and that didn’t work.
Joe: Driving revenue is going to be one of the most difficult challenges.
Andrew: Doing what to revenue?
Andrew: Driving, okay.
Joe: Bringing in sales is … that’s a challenge. A, you have to have something that someone wants to buy. B, you have to be able to convince them to buy it. Typically, if you can generate the sales, then you’re going to be able to staff your back office and your operations, and do what you need to do. But, if you can’t drive the sales, that’s certainly the place where you start. So, that’s some of the areas where we struggled. It comes down to just being the early days in the internet. It was difficult to drive leads and, again, people had no idea, they didn’t understand what we did. SEO is still considered a black art to a lot of people, but back then people thought that we were just making stuff up. It was hard to get a business sometimes.
Andrew: You couldn’t generate sales, or you struggled for a period there, and at the same time you had the expenses of all the people who you hired, who were getting paid but didn’t have as much business, is that what was going on?
Joe: Yeah, so we had staff, had overhead. We eliminated a lot of our overhead. We were able to get a lot of our staff to work from home. We had some attrition, some staff maybe that [??] went out. I don’t recall if it was a force lay off, or resignation from the staffs perspective, but certainly the cast [??] was tight.
Andrew: What do you mean? That they left because of what? If they considered it a resignation, why would they have resigned?
Joe: I don’t recall if we were in a financial position where we said, “Hey, we can no longer afford to pay you,” or if they may have smelled the fear of the company dissolving.
Andrew: I see.
Joe: We had a couple people, but this was at a time, this is still pre- [??] so, we’re talking a three or four person staff.
Andrew: So, at the time it was still more than a hobby, but less than an empire that you were building? Your dad moved in with you though.
Joe: Yep. Yep.
Joe: We did it to save money.
Andrew: Because you guys were …
Joe: Yeah, I mean, we literally, we wanted the business to survive. It was more important to us that the business survive than we have comfortable accommodations, so we said, “Let’s live together again. Let’s do what we have to do.”
Andrew: What would you eat?
Joe: We would eat everything from just hot dogs and chicken, and I mean, it was a rough time. There was a Kentucky Fried Chicken down the street that would close at ten, and I’d drive over there about 9:55 and get about three pounds of chicken for $5. So we did what, I mean, yeah, we were poor. We were poor. We were poor when we started it. We had some ups, some peaks and some valleys during the early stages, the first year or two. When I left and went to [??] we had stabilized a little bit, we weren’t doing great. My dad was able to bring it back.
Andrew: Your parents are divorced?
Andrew: Did your mom ever get jealous that you and your dad had this great adventure together, with all these highs and all these lows, and celebrations, and even arguments?
Joe: I don’t know. I don’t think she was jealous. I think my mom, she wants me to be successful in life, whether that’s financially, or emotionally, or spiritually, or whatever that means to me. She’s looking out for my best interests. She and my father, their relationship, is good enough that I don’t think she takes it personally.
Andrew: She and your dad, you said?
Joe: Right. [??]
Joe: She’s happy, for sure.
Andrew: Why did you guys decide to sell the company?
Joe: I think we got to a point where we started, you know, we understood our value. We got to a point where both of us were looking to do different things again. I’d worked with my dad, off and on, for nine years. So, it’s hard to work with someone, anybody, for nine years. Especially, a lot of it comes back to me just being young, and having a lot of energy, and wanting to do different things all the time. I’ve had to rein myself in a little bit [??]. I’ve done that in the past and it’s worked out, but sometimes you shouldn’t take on too much.
Ultimately, I think, my dad wanted to try new things. We realized that it was a market opportunity to sell our business. It was the right timing in the market. This was pre-market crash, but that crash was kind of evident, real estate crash. We looked at it as, “Hey, you know what? They timing is now. If we’re going to do it, we do it now, or we wait for a couple more years.” So, we said, “Hey, let’s see if we can find the right type of buyer.” Cash was important, obviously. We wanted to find a valuation that we thought was fair, but we also realized there would be an earn out period, most likely, that we’d have to go through, so we wanted that culture fit. It worked out where my dad was able to essentially kind of do a little semi-retirement for a couple years, travel, spend time with friends and family. I was the one who signed up to go do the earn out.
Andrew: To do what? Oh, go do the earn out. I see, after the sale. How did you find a buyer?
Joe: We just literally cold called people we knew. We never hired an investment bank. Looking back, I don’t know that I would change that, but I would recommend businesses, when they get to the size of iAcquire, to hire an investment bank. We were able to just leverage some relationships and I believe I got a hold of. . . I got a hold of a guy named Darren Brannan, which is one of the advisors to iAcquire. He was actually the original founder of Website Pros. I think he also founded it back in the late ’90s as well. He was on the board of Website Pros, or an advisor to Website Pros at the time. I was able to reach him and said, “Hey, you know what? I love Website Pros. We’re looking to sell our company. Can you help get me in touch with the CEO, or the corporate development officer, whoever I need to talk to over at Website Pros about my company.
He put me in touch with David Brown who was the CEO of Website Pros, and now the CEO of Web.com. David Brown is a great guy. We hit it off. He really liked my father, he really liked me. I think he saw the value, not just in the website, but in what maybe we could help bring to the table for his customer base, which at the time, was somewhere in the 150,000 to 200,000 customer, you know, massive customers. I think from his perspective, it was a good value in the business. He liked us and he saw the value in bringing in some of the competencies that we had that we could leverage to affect that much larger base.
Andrew: But he wanted you guys to do some services for his customers to kind of upsell his customers on your work?
Andrew: And it was kind of. . . Part of it was [??] too, because he wanted you on the team.
Joe: Correct. Yeah.
Andrew: After the deal was done, your dad gave you something. What was it?
Joe: Yeah. About a week after we closed on the deal, it funded, you get cash.
Andrew: Stop for a second. Before we get to the rest of that, get cash in what way? Do you look at the bank and do you use. . . You don’t earn it all right away, but do you look at the bank afterwards and see, “Oh, my goodness. This is the most I’ve ever had.” I see the eyebrow raise.
Joe: Well, yeah. In our case, absolutely, that was the case. Different businesses obviously sell in different ways. I think you, I believe [??] a business, as well, so you’ve seen that experience. Typically, depending on the type of deal, it may be, generally, you want at least 50 percent of the deal in cash, preferably. It also depends on who’s buying you, but I would generally recommend to people to get 75 percent of the cash upfront.
Andrew: Did you get 50 percent upfront?
Joe: 75 percent.
Andrew: You got 75 upfront, so $2 million in the bank. So you do get the opportunity, like Barbara Corcoran, where she went to the bank and she saw, “Oh, this number’s bigger than I’ve ever seen before.” What was it like for you? When did it happen?
Joe: Yeah, so it happened after the deal funded. My dad and I shared in those dollars. My dollars were a little bit. . . Some of mine was tied to the earn out. That was part of the deal we had negotiated. My reward was good, wasn’t as good as his. I got my. . . You know, I was a little bit more tied to the back end, but, you know, at the end of the day, you look at it and you’re happy about it and you realize that you made a win. You got a win under your belt, and I think that’s what it’s all about, getting those wins.
Andrew: What’d your dad give you then?
Joe: We went out after it funded and he took me to Ocean Club, which is one of my favorite steak restaurants in Scottsdale, and opened up a box and, you know, new Rolex.
Andrew: The guy gives you a Rolex after the two of you had eaten Kentucky Fried Chicken at 9:55 p.m. to get the old chicken that they’re going to throw out. What a world of difference. What else changed in your life after that?
Joe: Not a lot changed. I mean, my perspective was, and still is, that if you’re a leader and you’re looking to inspire people, you don’t have to do that by buying mansions and fancy cars. I mean, I like cars like everybody else, but I’ve never been. . . My motivations have not been, “Let me see how I can extend myself and look cool.” I try to live a modest [??], so not a lot changed. I did buy a different house, you know, upgraded a little bit, but tried to remain, pretty much, for me, most of the money that I personally earned went into other businesses, investments. I made it. . . What changed for me wasn’t really my lifestyle, it was more I had the opportunity to invest in other businesses and try new things. I had a little bit more [??] in my bag, essentially.
Andrew: Let me do a quick plug, then I want to give the answer to the question. Jeremy, our producer, added this great question to the pre- interview which is: What question did I not ask you that’s important to address? You gave this great answer that made me kick myself for not having picked up on this throughout the process.
But let me quickly say this. Guys, if you like what you’re hearing here, we have at Mixergy premium, 800 interviews with proven entrepreneurs who tell you their stories. Now, you might think to yourself what I might have thought to myself, which is, “Hey, I go to the iTunes store and I see all these interviews with entrepreneurs.” Well, I’m a guy who loves listening to stories, too, so I started downloading these interviews and I started listening to them. I remember one time in the shower I got lost in a story and then I realized, “Oh, no. All he’s trying to do is up sell me in this story.” This guy is doing an interview with a friend of his who’s going to do a webinar that I’m going to have to go to, and then I’m going to have to buy this other guy’s product. They’re not telling stories with entrepreneurs who genuinely want to share the story. There’s an ulterior motive, and they’re pumping themselves up just so they could get you think, “Hey, if this guy did so great, then I could do so great. Let me go buy his product and do it.”
That’s not what it’s about here. 800 interviews with proven entrepreneurs who just tell you their stories. The founder of Pixar did not come here to tell you his story so that then you can go and buy, I don’t know what, “How to be the Next Pixar.” It’s people that really, genuinely care about this mission. I really appreciate them for doing it.
It’s all in there, and the reason that you listen to it is because it does something to you to be exposed to successful stories. It heightens your awareness of what’s possible in the world. Think about how Joe and his father saw that there was an opportunity in the internet when they started to see this explosion, this opportunity that other people were experiencing, and then they jumped in.
That’s one example of what happens to you when you listen to an interview like the one just listened to with Joe, and many of the other hundreds of interviews that we have on Mixergypremium.com.
The only reason that I’m talking about the interviews is because I used to talk about the courses. People would buy the premium program and they’d say, “Stop talking about the courses. I care about the interviews more than anything else. I load them up on my iPhone before I take a flight. I listen to them on my commute.” So there, guys. Thank you for signing up, and to anyone else who hasn’t, you’re hearing what other members are telling me is one of the best parts of being a member of Mixergypremium.com. Go and sign up right now. I guarantee you’ll love it.
Joe, the answer. Do you remember the answer to this question, what we should have asked you?
Joe: Yeah, I do. We’ve spoken a lot about my past and not a lot about my present. What I’m doing today gets me more excited than anything I’ve ever done, just the motivation, the passion. What I’m currently doing is just astronomical, and it’s our current business, called iAcquire. We’re a digital marketing agency.
Andrew: Let me, just before you read this, so people don’t think that you’re just doing a promotion for the business, I want them to understand why I’m kicking myself. This isn’t me just saying, “Hey, guys, I’ve got a clever hook for the guy who I’ve interviewed so that we can promote his business.”
The first sentence of that answer that Jeremy wrote, this isn’t Joe writing it. Jeremy kind of picks up on the essence of what you say so that I know in the interview where you’re going. He says, “My iAcquire experience dwarfs the other businesses I’ve founded.”
What the hell am I doing talking about the dwarf when I should be talking about the monster. Then I started researching here, and then I started looking online. I mean, here, meaning in the notes. Then, online, on your site. Then I said, “Maybe, we missed something.” I asked you before this interview started, “How much does. . . What’s iAcquire’s revenue?” and you give me the number and I go, “This is way bigger. What do we do?”
Then I asked you to do me a favor and stop this recording, which we’ll do soon, and come and do an interview about iAcquire. But I did promise at the top of this interview that I would talk a little bit about iAcquire, so I don’t want someone who’s listening to this to say, “Hey, this is all just a way to get me to listen to the next interview.”
What make iAcquire so big? What is iAcquire and what makes it so big?
Joe: iAcquire’s the digital marketing agency [??] specialized and focused around search and social, reputation management and content marketing, and we’ve just got amazing people. We’ve got great people, great technology. I think we’ve got a really clear path of where digital is going.
We’re helping large brands and medium sized companies to embrace search, embrace social, and just help them move along that digital age and help to transition from that traditional advertising and marketing approach to more of an inbound marketing approach through digital, and do that in an intelligent way. That’s what we do.
Andrew: I see here, on the homepage of iAcquire.com, there is a diagnosis tool where you guys partnered up with SEOMoz to diagnose my site. I see above that there’s something that will give me a free gift with link tips and next to that there is a newbie SEO thing. A PDF that I downloaded, I actually have it here on my sight, on my computer screen. So it’s newbie guide to link building. That’s the top of the funnel. That’s how you get me engaged and get my connection. What’s the bottom? What do you eventually sell me as I go through this that helps you earn the money that I see here I see here on your screen? I didn’t get permission to reveal it so I won’t say yet. So what’s the bottom of the funnel? Joe: Full service SEO.
Andrew: You do the SEO for me?
Joe: Correct. Andrew: And I say me I’m probably not your target. Who’s the target? Who do you go after?
Joe: Large brands, consumer brands, B2B. It could be anybody from a Disney to a Ford Motor Company. And what we do is help those companies have better awareness online through its search and social. And search is huge. Search is still where the majority of our business comes from. We’re passionate about search engine marketing. And so what we’ll do is take a look at a website’s architecture, help them to understand who their audience is on the internet, and make sure that their website is constructed in a way that way that is search engine friendly, and that their content is speaking to their audience in a way that is not only useful to their audience but useful to search engines so that they are targeting those right keywords.
Andrew: What does a Fortune 500 company pay you guys to do their SEO and manage their awareness online?
Joe: Depending on the level of complexity it can start anywhere from about $10,000.00 a month and exceed $100,000.00 a month depending on the complexity.
Andrew: All right. So we’re going to do a second interview where you talk about that idea and how you built up to the place where you can charge these guys tens of thousands of dollars an month you said? Recurring? Let me also say this, part of it is might fault. I should have noticed it ahead of time. I should have researched you maybe even stronger than we did. And we have research on you, but maybe even stronger. But I’ve got to say, also, part of it maybe is you could have done a better job because you didn’t tell me about iAcquire. We’re you the one who said, “Hey, I’m volunteering to talk about my company.”
Joe: That’s funny. So we actually have a PR director for iAcquire.
Andrew: Who did it?
Joe: Ally Freeland [sp] is awesome and I think she reached out and sent over my bio. I think the conversation just started out and they talked a little bit and ultimately I think there were maybe, two stories. Andrew: I see. Yes. I won’t even give her name. Actually yeah. There were two stories and we didn’t realize I guess, how big iAcquire was. It must be on us too. Alright, so we’re going to come back and we’re going, to do a second interview about how the idea for iAcquire came to be. How you got your first customers. How you build up and build up and so on. If you guys like this interview you’re going to love I hope, this second interview where we talk about the bigger of the two companies. For now what I’m going to say is if you got any value out of this, is there a way for people to? Joe, if they got any value out of this, is there a way for them to connect with you and say “Thanks. Got something out of this.”?
Joe: I’m on LinkedIn or twitter. Twitter.com/JoeGriffin.
Andrew: All right. I’m going to say it right now. Guys, find a way to connect with him. I’m going to say right now, thank you for doing this interview.
Joe: Thank you.
Andrew: Thank you all.