Interview by Kevin Ohashi of Ohashi Media
Chris Merrill is the CEO of Super Web O Matic. He started his entrepreneurial career in 1999 when he started Thrive Networks, a company dedicated to bringing high quality technical support to small businesses. He eventually sold off Thrive Networks to Staples. When Chris sold Thrive Networks it had around 100 employees at the time. Chris found his passion for working with small business owners early through Thrive Networks and continued to start more companies before Super Web O Matic in the space. One such company was Designer Advantage where he worked to create a service to help interior designers manage their businesses by focusing on helping them with bookkeeping and project management.
Currently, Chris is focused on Super Web O Matic. Super Web O Matic provides online marketing services for small businesses. It was born out of the idea that what makes a business successful online is the ability to cost effectively generates leads. With this goal in mind, Chris and team have streamlined the process that normally would cost $10-15,000 down to $3000 by automating as much as possible. Super Web O Matic focuses on creating good looking websites with clear calls to action and apply online marketing best practices.
Tell me about Thrive Networks: was it your first company? Did you manage the company until it was sold to Staples? What was the most important thing you learned while working there?
My first company was actually a pager (no laughing) company I ran when I was 17. Most of my friends couldn’t sign up for there own accounts because of our age and parents didn’t like the idea. I saw a great opportunity (for beer money) so I convinced a distributor to give me a wholesale account and I rented pagers to everyone at school. Collections were a bitch, as I literally had to track down kids for 8 bucks. It must have looked so sketchy.
Thrive however was my first real company. College and I didn’t get along so instead I started doing computer support (my mother worked for an IT training company so I “borrowed” training materials.) I ended up getting a job at a computer reseller and that is where I really fell in love with small business owners. These small businesses would either use a friend or family member (Joe Six-pack) to maintain the computers or cycle through IT companies who force-fed huge contracts or blocks of hours. In addition all services were reactive, not only were the paying hundreds of dollars to fix the problems, they were down so everyone was pissed off…not fun.
This was the problem we solved with Thrive. Provide SIMPLE and effective computers networks to small business and then pro-actively monitor and manage them. It took us the first couple of years to get it right, but once we had the right people, processes, and technology we really gained traction.
Most important thing I learned, and I still have to be reminded of this weekly, is that I don’t need to control and be involved with everything, in every instance, there is someone who can do it better. Hire good-hearted people with high aptitude, train them, and get the hell out of their way.
You have been keeping an ideas list for many years. As a culture we love and embrace new ideas. If you’re up to sharing could you tell us about the craziest idea (in your mind) on your list? How about the one you most wish you had executed on when you came up with it and why you didn’t?
I loved the Dunkin Donuts delivery service. I am an addict, and don’t care how good of coffee an office has, I still want my Dunkin Donuts Ice Coffee. Think about how much time is lost when employees are always leaving to go out!!
I still believe in the senior driving service, we took that the furthest, and it is a HUGE problem. Turns out I just don’t really like old people.
Oh boy…. I just re-visited my idealist and I am still cracking up. You be the judge…
1.) Insurance policy against auto-deductibles (Pay 5 bucks a month, if you ever are liable for your deductible it pays out)
2.) High end private senior driving service
3.) $99 high quality snowboard, cost off-set by custom top sheet sold to advertisers…Think of how many people see the tops of skis and snowboards when you are in line or leaning up against the lodge
4.) Dunkin-Donuts office delivery service (Just found out someone did this)
5.) E-welcome wagon (Offers sent to new homeowners with links to local offers)
6.) Outsourced bookkeeping for small businesses
7.) Need-a-new: Crowd sourced lead generation for home services. People submit simple statements about their neighbors eyesores…(i.e. My neighbor needs a new roof, it Is starting to grow weeds)
From my understanding now, you’re sitting in the offices of Fresh Tilled Soil and Richard Banfield, a former interviewee of mine here at MO.com who is now also a contributing Partner for us. Could you tell us the story of how you two have connected and how you decided to work together on this project? How does Super Web O Matic fit with Fresh Tilled Soil as a company and a service?
I worked with Richard and Fresh Tilled Soil for a year when I engaged them for the development of a recruiting site I was helping to build. I would find excuses to be in the FTS office, the energy and the focus of only working with only entrepreneurial-minded clients made it a playground for me. It also gave me insights to the web development process, these observations helped fuel the processes we built into Web-O-Matic. Richard was always interested in talking about new ideas and of all the crazy ideas I brought up; this was one we both saw opportunity in.
Having worked with so many small business owners, I knew that while they were all trying to dig themselves out of the shit-show of an economy, they were starting to look for ways to drive more business. I wanted to solve this problem. I experimented with all types of “lead generation” including PPC and landing pages but realized those types of initiatives had high churn and were no substitute for building a real online presence.
Richard and Fresh Tilled Soil are established in Boston not only as experts in UI and web marketing but more importantly as connectors within the start-up community. With that they are approached almost daily from companies looking for websites with a 5-10k budget, below the typical engagement of FTS. Web-O-Matic fills that void by providing these clients with a full solution; Attractive websites built on a great CMS platform, with a focus on driving leads.
Also, having access to design and development super-stars comes in handy on a daily basis
You help small businesses do online marketing. I don’t want to steal your ‘secret sauce’ but what are the most important things a small business can do to enhance their online marketing efforts if they were going to do it themselves?
Great question, I think these are good starting points
1.) If you don’t love your logo, spend $250 and use crowdspring or 99designs to get a GREAT one. You can use this to drive design choices moving forward.
2.) If you don’t like your website and / or if it isn’t producing results consider these low-cost options:
3.) For all instances:
Super Web O Matic helps small businesses do their online marketing. Could you tell us what fundamental need your service offers and why someone might be using it? If you could add one feature to Web O Matic today, what would it be and why
Fundamentals are the keyword! Our clients don’t work with us because they want pretty pictures or “cool” designs. They work with us because they believe in our approach and want results and simplicity. We believe to be successful a small business needs more than one “thing” it is the aggregation of a few elements and must:
Is attractive and easy to use
Is found easily by clients
Incites an action (Drives leads!)
Our solution does all of that at an affordable price
If we could add a feature it would be a system that helps us set an activity plan for our clients to improve traffic (Blogging, E-mail marketing, etc.) and help them stick to it.
Online marketing is one of those dynamic areas that changes constantly. How do you keep up with the latest trends? Do you find marketing for different categories of businesses varies or is there some basic principles that apply throughout?
That platform that we build on, Adobe Business Catalyst, has a great community that we are directly involved in, and as a group we are helping to shape the platform. From a general marketing trends point of view, our association with Fresh Tilled Soil and involvements with other marketing companies keeps us engaged with new trends.
Of course there are specialized marketing activities and approaches for different size and verticals. For most small businesses though, they are so far behind and first need to brought up to an acceptable level and have the right tools in place to leverage more specialized strategies
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