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Livingston: Did you use the same strategy with other companies: Try us out
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for a month, and, if you feel like we ve driven some true leads, you ll continue with us
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Kaufer: Yes. Once other companies saw Expedia advertising, they sometimes didn t need a free test, but we might say, Look, our leads are normally a dollar a click, because they convert so well. But we ll let you get started at a quarter. And we ll send you 5,000 leads, and you can test with no risk. But you know, we re looking for an insertion order to show that you re committed to the test. Invariably it would take three months to get a test going. You have to find the right person; you have to introduce yourself; you have to decide whether it s an ad agency or direct with the client and lots of other annoying aspects. But for the most part, once the client was getting the leads, the leads would convert well enough such that they would be up and stay up for years and years. So there wasn t a whole lot of maintenance involved. Our technology would automatically find the right links to advertise. Livingston: It sounds like finally figuring out how you were going to make
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money was a major turning point for you.
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Kaufer: Right. We went from no revenue to break-even in the course of about
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4 months. That part was a testament to finding a model that worked. To break even, I had to do $75,000 in revenue for the month, something like that. We had never let our burn rate grow. We didn t do any advertising at that time. But even since, we re rarely going to do promotions that we can t tie back to actual revenue-generating activities on the site.
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Livingston: Why were you so careful about spending money Had you had a
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bad experience before
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Kaufer: By 2000, we d certainly seen the dot-coms that would move into the $50-a-square-foot offices, hire loads of people to get it all done quick to get big fast, etc. Several of them had already flamed out. That was really never in my blood, if you will. The other company I had started right out of college was self-funded, and then a tiny bit of angel investing, and then half a million dollars, and then a couple of million dollars, where the last round was purely growth capital. We had always run that profitably and had grown slowly because of it. I guess I had toyed with the idea of doing the same here taking my savings, building the product, not looking for any venture money but that would have taken a long time. I had a family to support, that sort of stuff. So we certainly decided early on to go raise some money, and within the first year we had raised $3 million or so but a comparatively small amount of money. There wasn t anything obvious that we should spend money on, other than hiring a lot of people, and I m just a fundamental believer in small teams do better than big teams. We were building a product, and if there were 5 people and they were all within shouting distance of each other, they were going to build a better product than if we had had 15 people. Really, even if I had the dollars, I didn t want to spend the money there. And then, did we need more
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sales reps without a product to sell No. Could we have bought more PR I m sure we could have. We actually had a full-time PR person pretty early on. But we were never going to raise $20 million for a marketing blitz.
Livingston: When you first started trying to get customers, they said, Pay you
You need to pay us. What were some of the other things that went wrong when you were trying to figure out your business model
Kaufer: Building the product actually went along reasonably well. The sales
and marketing and business development was the biggest challenge, because we just didn t have any takers. We finally had a major company come forward who wanted to license our database, and they were offering to pay us, I think, $50,000 a month. Maybe it was $30,000. The deal on the table would have covered half of our burn rate, right there, all at once. At the time, we looked at that deal and said, You know, it may be this or nothing as in, if we don t take this, we might just go out of business. When you look at a deal in that light, a very unattractive deal, maybe that s what you have to do to survive. As we proceeded down the negotiation path with this company, though, it became clearer and clearer that they wanted to be able to cut out of the deal after the term (I think it was 2 years) and essentially walk away with all of our intellectual property. Their point was, Hey, our dollars are funding a lot of the creation of this thing. We re going to be building a much bigger product around it. If we can t renegotiate terms, you can t cut our product off at the knees and walk away with your database. We need to be protected, and we need a copy of your database and the tools to maintain it. You won t have to maintain it for us anymore, but we ll be able to keep going. The notion that I take all of my time and energy, build up a business, and then hand another company who is going to be a competitor the crown jewels of the business fundamentally the business, except for the people after I thought about it, that ended up making it a reasonably easy decision. No. I d rather go out of business than take everything I d worked for, for so long, and hand it essentially for free to somebody else. In hindsight, we clearly made the right decision. But at the time it wasn t obvious, so we kept negotiating with them. My tip for someone in a similar situation a company looks like it might be going out of business this might be the only way to get enough capital to survive, on terms that really aren t very acceptable: keep pushing at it. Don t say yes too quickly, don t say no too quickly, to see whether any other options come along, or to see whether the deal gets so bad that it actually becomes an easier decision to just say no and you can go about your plans. We had a few sleepless nights back then.
Livingston: Can you think of a moment when you wanted to quit Kaufer: No, I never wanted to quit. I mean, it wasn t working, but I was going
to find a different way to try something different, something new. A good chunk of our engineering team was directed to running tests for prospects who might conceivably be clients. We weren t doing a whole lot of new product innovation, because it wasn t the product that was stopping us
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