Just Managing: ClickZ Kicks Out the Jams
Don't get confused by the fact that both CMGI and ClickZ call
the small town of Andover, Mass., home. CMGI, the holding company
that has produced billions of Internet dollars, and ClickZ, a small-but-spirited
online marketing information Web site, are pretty easy to tell apart.
CMGI is public, and ClickZ is privately held. CMGI is run by high-visibility
visionary David Wetherell, and ClickZ is helmed by low-profile partners
Ann Handley and Andy Bourland.
If you're still confused, here's another simple way to tell them
apart: ClickZ is profitable.
It seems kind of quaint today, but founder/owners Handley and
Bourland actually make money on their company - right now, this
month, this year. Starting with an investment of nothing more than
time, the pair saw profitability in their third month of operation.
Today, they are riding a cash express. In their first year, they
hit $500,000 in sales; last year, they exceeded $2 million. For
2000, they project sales of $8 million to $10 million, with more
than half dropping to the bottom line.
Wait, there's more. They are expanding the business, and they
are actually financing their growth out of their own cash flow.
Radical, I know. Late this month, ClickZ will hold its first conference,
the "eMail Marketing Conference," at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge,
Mass. More than 200 participants have signed up at $1,495 per person,
and more than 300 are expected. Handley and Bourland proudly say
the conference will be profitable from the get-go. Their first publication,
a 200-page guide to online marketing that comprises 100 pages of
content pulled from the site along with a 100 page index of services,
marks another cash-flow positive extension.
The business model for ClickZ isn't radical. The firm makes money
by selling advertising and sponsorships to businesses that want
to connect with the ClickZ community. For $15,000 to $20,000 per
month, depending on the length of your commitment, you can sponsor
an area of content. For lesser amounts, you can buy ad space throughout
the site or on their daily newsletter.
Bourland and Handley, who own 100 percent of the company (a 60-40
split, respectively), launched the site without planning to change
the world. Bourland was motivated to start the company out of a
pressing short-term need. In May 1997, he was flat broke, had a
big tax bill to pay and needed a quick way to make some cash. While
working as VP of business development for Andover.net, Bourland
couldn't find any useful information about online marketing on the
Web, and he suspected that filling this need would offer value to
Bourland called his friend Ann Handley, a freelance journalist
who had a 3-month-old baby and needed a moonlighting gig. Together,
they conceived ClickZ, envisioning the site as a community in which
people in the trenches of online marketing would share what they
know. Bourland designed the site; Handley took on the editorial
responsibility. Rather than asking journalists or pundits to pen
articles, they invited people in the business to contribute.
The site's early days were relatively modest. "When we started,
it was a single article every day on how to get more clicks on your
banner," says Handley. (Today, the content is increasingly granular
and covers areas such as e-mail marketing and one-to-one marketing.
At least five or six new pieces run daily. Most writers are still
paid with the "queen-for-a-day" treatment: The scribe's photo runs
with the article, giving them play that might lead to greater opportunities.)
Handley and Bourland built the company by bootstrapping, pulling
themselves up by their own available resources: hustle, ingenuity
and free cash flow. This might sound counterintuitive to a generation
of business people who automatically seek outside venture capital,
yet it remains the predominant method of growth for healthy companies
Handley and Bourland didn't have cash to put into the operation
in those early days, so their first deals were barter-based. They
negotiated a deal, for example, with Web hosting company SimpleNet
to host ClickZ's site for the first month in return for banner advertising.
During the third month, the company got its first paying customer
in DoubleClick, which bought a series of banner ads. (The
company remains a client today,)
In the first six months, the two focused on growing the community,
building the brand and what Handley calls "working the market."
Neither gave up their day jobs. Only on January 1 of the new year
did they take the leap: Bourland left his "real" job for ClickZ,
and Handley gave up other assignments to work exclusively on their
business. The two began to travel to conferences, make new contacts
and continue to grow the site.
In May 1998, ClickZ hired its first employee. Yet the company
remained "virtual," with Bourland and Handley continuing to work
out of spare bedrooms in their respective homes. Only in the spring
of 1999 did they open their first office, a 600-square-foot space
located above the Andover Anxiety Clinic ("which was perfect for
us," says Bourland). By then, they had to take the space - their
six employees needed a place to work.
ClickZ continued to grow profitably. Last October, it moved to
a new 3,000-square-foot office, enough to house their growing staff.
(They are up to 16 employees and plan to grow to 20 soon.) They
just opened a Los Angeles office and have been approached by an
increasing number of suitors hoping to invest in them or buy them
outright. So far, they have refused.
To get a little perspective on ClickZ, I spoke with Brad Garlinghouse,
a general partner at CMGI AtVentures. Garlinghouse is a likable,
smart guy who previously worked as head of business development
for AtHome. Garlinghouse says CMGI AtVentures funds offer seed-stage
capital to great people with great ideas. "Venture capitalists go
for big ideas and big opportunities and swing for the fences," he
I ask Garlinghouse how many of the companies in which AtVentures
has invested have been profitable at the time of funding. He laughs
and says, "Oh my God!" The answer is none. He's been involved with
about a dozen deals, while AtVentures has funded perhaps 60 in the
past two years. And the closest to profitability he can come up
with is FindLaw.com, a law and government information portal whose
"revenue stream was parallel to its cost structure" at the time
AtVentures ponied up some cash. Since the investment, the company
has been spending a great deal more to scale up. "Based on our encouragement,
they have gone into a cash-flow negative position, and they are
spending our capital to do that," Garlinghouse says.
Venture capital works for a select breed of company. Garlinghouse's
group helps companies that need to scale up quickly in order to
take advantage of big, competitive, dynamic market spaces. On the
other hand, he concedes that this model might have suffered from
recent excesses. "It's harder for us to understand today how some
of the companies we have invested in will be cash flow positive
- how they will scale to create a business that will cover the fixed
costs," he says.
Now, don't get me wrong. VCs play a crucial role in launching
some of the most dynamic businesses fueling our economy. There's
little argument about their profound value. They just aren't for
everybody. Chasing (and securing) venture money forces a great deal
of choices on a company: how fast you are going to grow, how much
you are going to spend and how much you are going to lose. Small
businesses that land venture capital take on smart and experienced
investors who, in turn, exercise their expertise.
The fact is, many entrepreneurs are far better served spending
their time "working the market" - listening to customers, evolving
their offer and reinforcing their brand - than they are selling
their idea to a bunch of über-bankers. The rewards of such a path
can transcend a fat bottom line: Some people find it rewarding to
use the Web's distinctive features to build solid, self-sustaining
"People's default mode is that they have to get funding in order
to grow, to exist," Bourland says. "And I don't think that enough
entrepreneurs have taken the time to examine their assumptions and
ask if they can get by for less initial startup investments. They
assume that they have to start up with all the computers and the
fancy desks and the employees."
Bourland and Handley have no moral objections to venture capital.
It just doesn't match their business needs, and they aren't wasting
their time chasing after that validation. They say they have a solid,
sustainable business and don't want to get too distracted. "Andy
and I have very complementary skills and understand each other very
well," Handley says. "We have been able to execute a lot of things
quickly and efficiently because we are backing each other up. The
idea of inviting someone else in who doesn't necessarily have the
same goals and aspirations as us is scary."
Naturally, Handley and Bourland think about an exit strategy.
"Neither of us is planning to add '& Sons' to the title," says
Handley. They think about going public. They would consider being
acquired. One day, they might even consider venture capital. But
they're in no rush. They can afford, literally, to wait.
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