Lessons & Thoughts On My Five Year Anniversary Of Starting A New Business

Five years ago, I found myself heading down an unexpected path, starting a new business to carry on the work I had been doing writing and speaking about search engines and search marketing. On this anniversary, a few thoughts on life along the way.

My First Founder’s Story

For those unfamiliar, I’ve been covering search engines for 15 years now, since I first wrote a publication back in April 1996 called “A Webmaster’s Guide To Search Engines.” I later developed that into the Search Engine Watch web site, which I sold in 1997 to Internet.com — the company today known as WebMediaBrands.

While I sold the site, I continued to be the editor. I also was instrumental in helping to develop, in 1999, the conference series that was then called Search Engine Strategies (it was rebranded last year as simply SES). If you want more background on both of these, and my roles with them, see the links below:

Things unexpectedly changed for me in 2005. The web site I founded, and the conference series I helped create, were sold along with the ClickZ web site to a company called Incisive Media. I wasn’t unhappy with the sale. I found it worthwhile to agree to stay on when the deal was made.

A year later, when my contract was up for renewal, I no longer felt it made sense to stick around. That made for an interesting day:

If you want the backstory about that, see my previous posts below:

I announced my departure on August 29, 2006 — hence my five year anniversary today. Well, a few days off — I was on vacation when the actual date happened. Being on vacation, totally unplugged for a week, is a pretty great sign that things have grown well.

My Second Founder’s Story

In the end, I felt I could produce a better web site and a conference series, as well as have a long-term interest in these, if I went out on my own. So I did. Search Engine Land became my new home; SMX: Search Marketing Expo my new conference series. But by my home, I mean these were the new places where I was continuing to do the work I’d always done, not that these were creations solely on my own.

Instead, these — along with Sphinn, Search Marketing Now and our recently launched IMT Courses, are creations of a new company I cofounded with partners Chris Sherman, Sean Moriarty and Chris Elwell: Third Door Media. Our little company now counts over 15 employees and recently made the Fortune 5000 list, ranking at 1,585 overall and 147 the Advertising & Marketing category.

Later this month, we’ll hold what’s firmly on track to be our biggest search marketing conference ever, SMX East, with record attendance. Our first ever show, SMX Advanced, has sold out ever year we’ve held it, five years in total, now. Search Engine Land keeps having record traffic.

How did we get here? Well….

Good People

It sounds easy. Just have good people. Finding good people, however, is hard. I wish I had great insights to share on how to find them, but most of our staff has come about because someone knew someone else. Maybe that’s a good lesson. Your best recruiting tool might be your existing employees.

Trust Your People

Having started originally 15 years ago by doing everything myself, there’s a part of me that always thinks I should be mapping out exactly how everything should be done. But I’ve learned, fortunately, to largely let that go.

For one thing, there’s simply no time. If you try to do everything, you’ll either get nothing done or a lot of things done badly. Trust in your collegues, and you can focus on the things where you’re really needed — as they can too.

React Quickly

One of the biggest surprises in our growth story was the economic downturn of 2008. Suffice to say, we hadn’t planned on one of the worst economies since the Great Depression to happen.

Our plans for growth in 2009 quickly changed to adjusting to the new normal. We locked down thoughts of expansion and stayed extremely cautious on what we forecast. By battening down the hatches quickly, we came through the storm.

Embrace The Virtual World

Someone asked me recently where Third Door Media was based, and I didn’t have a good answer. We’re incorporated out of Delaware. Many of our employees are based in Connecticut, for no particular reason other than that’s where they already lived. But we’re also spread out across the US, and virtually all of us work from home. We have one really small leased sales office.

The same person found that really odd. Really — no office? And we all manage to communicate and get stuff done?

Yes, we do. For me, having worked from home for 15 years, this feels completely normal. It’s easy to forget that most companies do not operate this way.

I’m not sure how many companies could do so, but I’m glad we can. Having no commute is a huge employee benefit. I sure don’t miss all that wasted time driving in a car or getting to-and-from work each day in some way.

How we do it varies. It turns out that old school Web 1.0 technology — email — works pretty well. So does pre-web phone calls.

Still, the ability to collaborate through shared documents via Google Docs is a huge help. Not having to run our own web servers but instead outsourcing that to the amazing Tiger Tech is also fantastic. Similarly, having our stats churned by Google Analytics and ChartBeat, or our ads served through DoubleClick For Publishers, saves us time to spend our technical development on things that can easily be outsourced.

Self Grown

I don’t have any tales to tell of navigating the world of venture capital. That’s because we’ve never taken any. We bootstapped ourselves and have grown based on the revenue we bring in.

(Note: I meant to put this in earlier, but if you do like stories of investment lessons, definitely check out Rand Fishkin’s recent, excellent piece Misadventures in VC Funding: The $24 Million Moz Almost Raised).

In some ways, I think that has made us a stronger company. I’m a big fan of SimCity. Sometimes I’d play using the code that let you start off with a huge wad of cash. I’d zone tons of stuff, add in streets everywhere and build out in a way I couldn’t do when limited to the cash I generated naturally. Usually, these types of cities didn’t do as well as those that grew organically.

Because we’ve grown to our revenues, I feel like we continue to have a solid base. Don’t get me wrong. I know there are reasons why a company might want to have outside investment. I recognize that investment might allow for new things that you simply can’t do on your own.

Still, I always feel a little sad when you read about some company on the tech blogs that’s sounds like it must be amazing because it has had a first, second or third round of investment. Companies that are doing great without taking or needing investment don’t seem to get the same attention.

Starting Over

I’d helped build my old site and conference series into a well oiled, humming machine. Then I walked away from all that, to build afresh. I knew it would be a lot of hard work, but there were things I totally didn’t anticipate.

For one, there were a billion little things that had to be put in place. I remember having to write our privacy policy at Search Engine Land, and spending huge amounts of time thinking about it, even though it really wasn’t a major part of my job. But it wasn’t necessarily anyone else’s job, either — and I wanted it to be right for our new site.

Another was discovering how, despite years of having a “personal brand,” that could be easily lost within the corporate brands I helped build. I wrote about this two years ago, how people thought I was still writing for SEW or running SES.

Yet another was discovering how hard it is for people to break habits. On one occasion about two years ago, I had someone complaining to me about SES. I explained that I no longer ran that show, in case they didn’t realize that. Yes, they knew, they said. I suggested that they might want to attend our SMX event. Maybe — they knew of them — but you know, they explained, they always went to SES at that particular time of year.

Perhaps someday, I’ll finish a piece I’ve long planned to write about making the right choice about search marketing conferences. The short story is there’s no “right” choice anyone can tell you. Each person ultimately will decide what’s the right fit for them and their needs. But suffice to say, if you’re not happy with ANY event, perhaps it’s time to broaden your horizons!

For us, the good news is that over time, more and more people have developed the SMX habit. That makes me pretty happy, because we put a huge amount of work into everything that goes into those shows, from the programming to the food.

The other good news is that you learn a lot going all the way back to the beginning. It causes you to reassess everything you do, to cast aside your assumptions or heavily test them. It’s an experience, despite all the work, I feel fortunate to have gone through.

Going Forward

In the end, I’m really happy and proud of the team at Third Door Media and the team at Search Engine Land for helping get the company to where it is today. I’m also grateful to all the writers and speakers who have worked with us, especially those who jumped in and gave support early on.


  1. says

    Whenever I talk to other folks in the tech/startup/investment sector about the world of search, I always remark on how many amazing people work in the space and how few buttholes we have :-)

    When they ask why, there’s a host of reasons (the type of personality search attracts, the bootstrapped nature of many businesses, the lack of outside entities trying to control or influence the industry, etc) but one of the biggest is that our field was founded and led by Danny Sullivan.

    You are a huge part of why this industry is so remarkable – why it’s filled with good people with strong moral compasses. Thank you Danny. Thank you for all you’ve done for search, SEO and inbound marketing. Congrats on the success with Third Door; here’s to another terrific 5 years ahead.

  2. says

    Thanks, everyone! Rebecca, yep, life does get better, right :)

    Rand, thanks so much on your kind words, and congrats on the amazing company that SEOmoz has grown into. I’ve always read your various posts on growing a business with interest (and meant to add the latest one to this, fixed that now). It’s such a remarkable business story. Best going forward, too!

  3. says

    Wow, what a nice walk down memory lane. I love the way you included “Trust your people” and “Embrace the virtual world.” Those are so important for growth.

    I know it’s been a difficult road as a small business owner. I knew if I wanted to grow I had to surround myself with people that are awesome, I had to let go of my “control” and trust the people I surrounded myself with. It’s not easy, but I know it’s the right thing. I was finally able to go on vacation for three weeks. Off the grid as they say – okay, maybe not completely, but I barely turned my laptop on.

    The more I read about you the more I appreciate the road you have taken. You’re not so bad after all…no matter what people say. Congrats, Danny. Looking forward to watching you grow while reaching out to the search community. Your words of wisdom are priceless.

  4. Akvile Harlow says

    Congrats on your anniversary Danny! Sounds like an amazing journey had thus far and I think many of us look forward to what the next five years will bring! :)

  5. says

    Congrats Danny on the anniversary as well. Having had the opportunity to learn from you over the years, and speak at both your past and present conferences, I wanted to note that you would probably be surprised at just how much of an impact you have had on many, many people (such as myself) that perhaps you don’t interact with on a regular basis or that you may not even know that well or remember. You’ve helped many of us become very successful by sharing a lot of valuable knowledge, and I for one am very grateful for that.

    So thank you for your continued efforts and best wishes on another 5, 10, 20 years of success!

  6. says

    As one trying to start a business over in France, I wish you’d say a little more about your mistakes too… For instance, its so difficult to select the right people, to pay them, let alone take the *time to find them*! Unless you attracted them with a lot of hard work and a company they wanted to belong to?
    Were there people who were instrumental in the beginning, who were there with you from the start?

    Also, how did Incisive Media just let you go out and create a competitor straight out of leaving them?

    Sorry, but your story is too interesting to stop there.;-)

  7. says

    Congrats Danny, can’t believe it has been 5 years already. I distinctly remember the ripple of shock that spread through the SEO world on hearing you were departing SES/SEW along with the eager anticipation to see what you would develop on your own. Although expectations were high you and the Third Door team have clearly exceeded them. Looking forward to seeing what the next five years brings!

  8. says

    Danny, we met in 2001 when I was working for Oracle and attended my first SES. I have a bunch on Google Dance shirts from several conferences and followed your journey from SES to Search Engine Land and SMX.

    My first week working for Bill Hunt, he sent me to Argentina for the 2008 SMX conference in Buenos Aires. There are many marketing professional that follow your work. We know it has the proper research and we can trust it. You will not find us promoting a book, complaining about Matt Cutts or speaking at conferences. We are the ones sitting towards the back, taking notes and being grateful that you made the decision of starting this business. Congrats on 5 years, from a fan than has been following you for 10 years. @SocialJulio

  9. says

    Inspirational, Danny, way to go! I like the bit about “self grown”, that’s the spirit. Time for me to get my act together if I’m going to make the Fortune 5000 listing!

  10. says

    Congratulations! and very pertinent. You are complementing well a lot of the thinking that I have been doing now that I’m at the first anniversary of my second startup, you know how it goes, doing lots of thinking on where the company is headed, whether or not its the right path, and how to build a business that is sell-able later on. It’s such a journey, isn’t it?

  11. says

    Danny, congrats on hitting 5 years and building a company that has grown so much since then. It truly is a testament to the team and it’s leaders. Reading your piece on bootstrapping and the team, etc. reminds me of the guys at 37signals and two of my favorite books: “Getting Real” and “Rework” that talk about all of this. Overall the Internet Marketing industry is lucky to have a Danny Sullivan leading the way!

  12. Val says

    Congrats on the anniversary Danny. What a remarkable journey and an inspiration.
    There’s so much truth in your “Good People / Trust Your People” paragraph. In the most difficult time, it’s the people which are close to you and are passionate to move ahead. From my experience that is a good foundation to build successful venture.

    Here’s to an even better anniversary for 20-th, 25-th and so on. Your observations carry a huge weight on how the SEO will grow to keep pace with the new technologies and markets.

  13. says

    Just over 7 years ago I attended my first Search Engine Strategies conference in New York, one of the best conferences ever, IMO. The creation of Third Door Media had been equally impressive, but I have one request…

    …please being back the Daily Searchcast!

  14. says

    Happy anniversary Danny! Doesn’t time fly? I remember reading about your departure from SEW all those years ago and really glad you found a new baby in SEL. Thanks for all your efforts this past 5 years and really looking forward to the next 5 :)

  15. says

    Danny you are indeed the Godfather of search and I owe many of the highlights in my professional career to you.

    If companies started to realize we the people don’t want to be wasting gas driving into an office, where we only waste more energy and ar less productive (think water cooler).

    Congrats on 5 years! Here’s to continued success you’ll no doubt have. And keep having fun.

  16. says

    Happy anniversary, Danny!
    I didn’t know much about your history until I read this article because you have already have SEL and SMX when I was involved in SE industry. Your story encouraged me very much. My dream is to be like you. :) I’m looking forward to seeing you soon.

  17. says

    Happy Anniversary Danny!

    It is a great feeling to be in business in general and I think it is even better when you are in this space. I am coming up on 2 years since I was down-sized out of “corporate America” and that was the best thing that ever happened to me. I decided full-time internet marketing was the only way to go and I never looked back.

    Congrats again Danny!

  18. says

    Happy anniversary, Danny! I am one of your fans, and I learn much from your writing. I hope someday become like you. Start to be a Netpreneur… I know that I must keep learning…