Rob Bellenfant of TechnologyAdvice: How To Take Your Company From Good To Great
An Interview With Jerome Knyszewski
Trust but hold accountable. When you spend as much time hiring as we do, you can trust people to learn and do their jobs every day. We hold everyone at the company accountable for achieving their personal KPIs and the company’s goals, but we don’t have time to micromanage.
Set goals that stretch everyone. We started working with accountability coaches who helped us set big goals and have the confidence to work towards them. That support gave us the confidence to acquire 38 new web properties this year, which has already resulted in 3x growth and promises to create a flywheel of growth for the company.
As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rob Bellenfant, a serial entrepreneur and investor. He is the founder and CEO of TechnologyAdvice, and has created dozens of other businesses over the past twenty years. Rob has a competitive spirit and constantly pushes everyone he works with to achieve their goals. Rob calls Nashville, TN his home along with his lovely wife and four children. In his free time, Rob enjoys real estate investing, angel investing, traveling, learning about personal finance and spending time with family and friends.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I never listened to adults when they said “Don’t talk to strangers,” so as a kid I was perfectly happy going door to door, selling arts and crafts, selling lemonade or cookies, and raising money for Scouts. When I was 8 years old, I saw that a lawn care company was charging $35 to mow lawns, and although I was too young to push a mower, I knew I could compete. I started Weed Pickers Plus, which was my first business. I pulled weeds and planted flowers for 3 clients: my parents, our neighbors, and a family friend.
Then at age 12, I started cold calling businesses with two of my friends and designing brochure websites for them on Microsoft Frontpage. That led to us investing in a server starting our own hosting business, so we could get some recurring revenue. In the process of learning how to secure and manage our servers, we learned a lot that we then turned around and started to offer as a hosting management service, when I was 15 years old. Our freshman year of college, my business partner bought out my stake in the company, and I started buying companies on eBay.
Ad-Site Advertising — which eventually turned into Thrive Marketing and then into TechnologyAdvice — is the only one of those businesses that survived.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Six weeks after purchasing the Ad-Site Advertising business — which brokered web ads for customers — the only supplier of ad space we had for all of our clients went out of business. I thought that maybe I had bought a fifth company off of eBay that was going to fail. But after settling with the seller and looking at the assets I had leftover, I realized I had a good customer list I could work from. I started reaching out to those clients directly to see how I could help them, and eventually we were able to start brokering ad space for them.
The drive to succeed and continue through the adversity sounds so heroic when you put it like that. At the time I wanted to salvage this business deal and recoup my investment. I also enjoyed the challenge of finding ways we could help these clients.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I have always loved running a bunch of different ventures at once: I bought 5 businesses off of eBay! After buying Ad-Site Advertising from a serial con man — he went on to repeat the scam he pulled on me over 10 times — I learned to complete my due diligence before purchasing a company. I also love the opportunity and promise of starting something new, but there’s no way to fully build a business from nothing without help. Those first few years in a new business really take a lot of concentration and hard work to guide policy and ensure that you have the right people in the right places of leadership to take everyday operations out of your hands later.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
TechnologyAdvice has had its ups and downs but we’ve been able to learn from them and grow. Back in 2015, we had this great idea for a way to further productize our data in a new way. We spent months of work from resources all over the company and launched a new product — to crickets. Turns out, no one wanted or needed our product. We had grown our employee count considerably in anticipation of this product, too. It was disappointing to let go of that dream and even more disappointing to let go of many of the people who worked on it.
Ultimately, that lesson made us stronger. We concentrated our efforts back on our core product offering and grew that business significantly over the next few years. That focus and growth made it possible for us to acquire nearly 40 new web properties this year and expand our offerings in a thoughtful and strategic way.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Take time out to work on the things outside of your work and your job. I find that when I have a real problem with the business that I’m wrestling with, if I give my brain a little break by playing with my kids or working out or doing something creative, I often stumble across something that clarifies my thinking or gives me a breakthrough on a problem. My employees joke that my hobby is business, which may or may not be true. But I make time for myself and my family, which really keeps me grounded.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Back in high school, the librarians used to send me to the principal’s office all the time because I used the library computers to run my IT business during school hours. She didn’t really understand my business, but when I asked if we could use an empty room near her office to run our business during lunch or study halls, she agreed. It kept me out of her office and in a room where administrators could keep an eye on me, and reduced the amount of paperwork she had to do. She didn’t have to help us. She could have punished me, instead. But she didn’t, and I’m grateful. She’s still a principal, and I go back and see her sometimes.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
A good company is one that is generally doing its job of serving its customers and employees. We see these companies all over. They’re relatively successful and employees tend to earn their paychecks and go home to live the rest of their lives. A good company will hit all the traditional markers of success on the surface, but it won’t stand out in a crowd.
You can feel the energy of a great company. That energy is driven by a common goal or purpose and a clear vision of what each individual at the company contributes to the overall success. People are engaged. They like the work that they do, and the company is invested in helping them become better employees and better people.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Hire right. We hire less than 1 percent of applicants, even in times of incredible growth like we’ve had in 2020, we are selective about including individuals who work hard and are invested in their own growth as well as the company’s growth.
- Trust but hold accountable. When you spend as much time hiring as we do, you can trust people to learn and do their jobs every day. We hold everyone at the company accountable for achieving their personal KPIs and the company’s goals, but we don’t have time to micromanage.
- Set goals that stretch everyone. We started working with accountability coaches who helped us set big goals and have the confidence to work towards them. That support gave us the confidence to acquire 38 new web properties this year, which has already resulted in 3x growth and promises to create a flywheel of growth for the company.
- Celebrate. We celebrate individuals for their contributions to the company’s success. We celebrate workiversarys every year by giving employees an item off their bucket list. I give shoutouts every week to a couple of people — nominated by their peers — who make outstanding contributions to the company’s success. I have more nominations than I have time to shout out each week! And individuals are encouraged to recognize the work of their peers every day on a recognition app we use.
- Work on culture. When your company is small, culture tends to take care of itself. But as your company grows and you hire more people, it takes intention and work to ensure that the positive and growth-minded culture you built in the early days continues. Despite the pandemic, we’ve been able to virtually connect for all-hands events that help us align around company values and have a little bit of fun in the process. It brings our dispersed team closer together.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?
Businesses that can rally around a purpose give everyone at the company a common language or a touchstone to come back to outside of the basic goal of “growth.” Growth is important, but at the end of the day, money only motivates people so far. When people feel like their work makes an impact for the greater good, they’ll work much harder, celebrate harder, and become more creative. At TechnologyAdvice, our purpose is to create opportunity. At a business level, this means creating opportunities for buyers to find the best technologies and technology companies to find the best customers. At a more personal level, we want to create opportunities for our employees to grow, learn, and serve others, and this drives many of our managerial and policy decisions. And finally, our purpose is to create opportunities for our communities to grow and thrive through volunteer efforts and charitable giving. Having that purpose means that we have a touchstone to guide our decisions.
What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
We recently went through goal-setting activities with the Rockefeller Habits and contracted an accountability coach. If you’re extrinsically motivated, these tools can be really helpful, and the mentorship helped us align all the way down the ladder. It was also a great thought exercise for us because we wanted to jumpstart our growth. By going through the goal-setting as a company and reaching for big — seemingly unattainable without focus and dedication — goals, we have quickly seen and taken advantage of opportunities that we may have otherwise missed.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
My team thrives on data — one of the company values is Make Calculated Decisions. And when times got tough this March, we reacted by going back to the data we have. That data told us where we should be focusing our efforts and how we should pivot our processes to continue to improve. I’m lucky that I have a fantastic team that believes in another of our values: Challenge Mediocrity. They believe in pushing the limits of our goals and serving our customers, and this ultimately means we have been able to grow and thrive despite the economic conditions.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Our culture is obsessed with founders, CEOs, and thought leaders, but the most important people to a business are the people that you hire to make that business run. They make the millions of little decisions every day that add up to the eventual success or failure of the business. It’s much easier to come back from a couple of mistakes a good hire may make over the lifetime of their position than it does to repair the damage a bad hire can make over the course of their tenure. Some companies tend to throw bodies at a problem, but if you can throw brains at it instead, you get farther and save a little money in the process.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
Conversions come down to offering the right value at the right time. We have some of the best conversion rates in our industry because we spend all day talking to technology buyers. We then use that information to help us better communicate with buyers and meet them where they’re at. Marketers call it knowing your audience or targeting your persona, but we really think of it as listening and responding.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
- Transparency: Companies that consistently work on showing their work — even when it’s not as pretty as we’d like — build trust. Do you make your processes clear to customers? Do you come to them first when you’ve made a mistake so you can make it right, or do you try to hide your mistake and pretend like it never happened? When companies try to cover their tracks so they don’t look bad to one customer, they tend to set internal precedent that failure won’t be tolerated and should be avoided at all costs. But if you’re transparent with customers and with your employees, you can build a culture of failing forward.
- Dedication to quality: in a service industry like ours, that means not signing the deal if we can’t deliver the quality that they expect. If we get into a meeting with a customer and they have needs that we know we’re not going to be able to deliver on, we’ll pass the deal up. We’ll even refer them to a partner that we know can do it better than we can. We do this because we want to provide value and quality to our customers — anything short of that won’t fly. And we know that by sticking to that, the customers will come to us when they have projects we can help them with.
Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
Listen to the customer. So many customers are out there begging to tell companies what they need. By listening to your customers, you’ll better understand how to serve them. Most products on the market are really just services. If you can parse what customers tell you they need, then you’re steps ahead of the competition.
What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.
There have been times when our team has written or posted on the company social media that I have asked them to take down, sure! But these are few and far between, and most of the time those posts just didn’t take the right tone for the audience we were targeting on that social media channel. And those are learning experiences. Ultimately, I can’t spend all my time writing social media posts, so the next-best course of action is to hire the best people and train them well. We provide social media posting guidelines in our onboarding policy guide, and we train our social media professionals on our voice. Sometimes we have to course-correct, but that’s going to happen with any sort of customer-facing media.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Don’t confuse going all-in on a focused product with making your whole business depend on a single customer. You want diversity in clients and specialization in product.
Early on, when TechnologyAdvice was Thrive Marketing, we spent a lot of time experimenting with different lines of business. We were a full-service digital marketing company, and our clients were all over the map. But we saw an opportunity to focus our business around one product. That change led to a long period of sustained growth.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’m a huge proponent of business and tech education. We closely support and hire from tech bootcamps here in Nashville, and I’d love to see business and technology education extended to younger kids. I was lucky because I had a principal who said yes to my crazy ideas. But not all kids are so fortunate or feel like they can ask for the support they need. We need systems that find and nurture children who are interested in tech and business.
How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!
About the interviewer: Jerome Knyszewski (Kenchefski) is the CEO of HeavyShift. Jerome serves as an advisor to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies as well as entrepreneurs who disrupt their industries and therefore tend to be targets of malicious online attacks. His company builds, protects, and repairs the online presence & reputation of many celebrities, products and beloved brands.