A Tale From the Trenches: 14 Years in the Search Biz

First published October 28, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Maybe you’ve heard the news. I’ve got a new gig. This week, the Yellow Pages Group in Canada acquired the company I co-founded. As I said to my partner, Bill, as we walked out of the office Monday, “Today is the last day we worked for Enquiro.” Although we’ve been ear-lobe deep in the deal for the past several months, for some reason that’s when it hit us. Tuesday, we came to work for a new company: Mediative.

The deal is interesting in a number of ways: a traditional publisher with a strong digital foothold in a market where the consumers are light years ahead of the marketers in Internet savvy, all set on a stage right next to the springboard of the digital revolution. It may not be “The Social Network” (and I’m certainly not Aaron Sorkin) but there are at least a couple good columns there. However, that’s for the future.

Today, it’s all about me.

But, as I pondered this, I realized my story is also the story of this industry. I’ve been doing this since 1996. No one was really doing it before that, so we made it up as we went along. Eventually this Internet thing gained enough critical mass that I had to find other people to do the same thing I was doing. Before I knew it, we had a company. And, because the Internet was growing like a runaway express train, our company became one of the fastest growing companies in Canada. We ran hard, just to keep from being run over.

Somewhere along the line, in addition to inventing an industry on the fly, helping clients who are desperately trying to figure out what the hell just happened to marketing and doing the cha-cha with Google’s algorithm, we also had to figure out how to run a company. As I soon found out, it’s one thing to do something yourself to earn a buck. It’s an entirely different thing to get a bunch of people doing the same thing and somehow transform that into a company — preferably a company that makes money. There are no guidebooks on how to build a search agency. And the headaches you have with a search agency of six people are entirely different than the headaches you’ll get with 13 people, or 23 people, or 34 people. I’ve had them all at various points in the last 14 years.

Just when you think you’re getting the hang of it, throw in a year like 2000 or 2008. It’s one thing to run an Internet company when everyone’s scrambling to throw money at you. It’s an entirely different thing when everyone goes into lockdown mode and companies are disappearing faster than free beers at a search conference.

Speaking of search conferences, those turned out to be our group therapy sessions, but you really had to read between the lines to get to the truth. I saw my friends and colleagues go from wild-eyed enthusiasm to world weary yet dogged determination. We kept hearing stories of people getting rich in search, but it was tough to nail down the facts. By and large, we all just kept plugging away, making enough money to keep the lights on and knowing that working anywhere else, while undoubtedly more lucrative, just wouldn’t be the same thing.

It’s been a 14-year gauntlet and I’ve got the collection of bruises to show for it. Somewhere on this decade-and-a-half ride I got old. I went from being an “upstart” to being a “village elder” (yes, I’ve actually been called that on more than one occasion). I went from being “bright” to being “wise.” I suppose there are worse things to be called.

I don’t mean to make this sound like a swan song. I’ll still be very much part of the search biz in my new gig. But, as I found out when I walked out the doors of Enquiro on Monday night and in the doors of Mediative Tuesday morning, this is a new chapter for me. Indulge me as I thumb through the ones that preceded it.

But you know what? In hindsight, I wouldn’t change a thing. All things considered, it’s been a hell of a ride!

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