As the CEO and Founder of the Small Business Trends website, Anita Campbell will now take us on a 10 year journey of her life as an entrepreneur. Her award winning site has twice won the Forbes Best of Web Award in the category of Small Business Blog, in both 2005 and 2008. So today, it truly is an honor to feature the mastermind behind this great online publishing company.
Q: Tell me a little about yourself and the story on how you created SmallbusinessTrends.com
Anita Campbell: I got into online publishing accidentally. I had a long career in the corporate world, first as in-house legal counsel, then General Counsel. Eventually I became the CEO of a technology unit within Bell & Howell.
After leaving the Corporate world, I started doing consulting for friends, helping them with their business plans and business models. I’d started an email newsletter to build my consulting business and found the process of setting up newsletter articles using Dreamweaver to be a giant mess. Someone suggested that I try out one of those new publishing platforms called a blog (this was in the summer of 2003 – blogs were still cutting edge then).
So I went over to Blogger.com – I couldn’t believe how easy it was to publish articles! Pretty soon, more people were reading the blog than the newsletter.
Eventually that blog became much much bigger, and evolved to become the business. It became my business’s main revenue generator (not just a marketing tool).
Along the way, we acquired other sites (such as BizSugar, our social media site). We also started other initiatives such as the Small Business Book Awards and the Small Business Influencer Awards.
Q: What were some of the worst mistakes you made starting out?
Anita Campbell: Looking back now, some 9 years later, I’d say two things:
(1) Not investing enough in technology support soon enough. Today you have to offer more than just a standard blog template to compete with bigger entities, if you want to grow a publishing brand. A site needs advanced features. You have to invest in custom plugins. And even if you use standard WordPress plugins, we find that as the site grows many of the plugins are inefficient at our volume of traffic, and so one by one we replace them with custom versions simply for performance. Also, server configuration and database optimization strategies become so important.
(2) Not publishing enough content. Here’s a simple truth: the more content you publish, the more your traffic grows. Now… you have to publish quality content, for sure — but quantity also matters for traffic. Just last week we compared our traffic year over year. We increased from an average of 4 posts a day to 6 posts a day over the past year, and doubled visits and pageviews during that time. In other words, a 50% increase in content yielded a 100% increase in visits and pageviews.
Our growth skyrocketed once we hired a full-time IT Manager to handle programming and server administration. Before then we were buying a block of hours from an outside firm each month, and were very happy with their services except for one thing: we always ran out of month in the first week! We used up all of our budgeted hours quickly and never could get to the big growth plans we had. I was constantly telling the rest of the team, “That project will have to wait until next month.”
Well, tempus fugit — before you know it, 10 months, a year goes by and you’re still dreaming about that project but it’s not getting done. Hiring a full-time person required taking a risk — it was a scary expense for us to take on, but it paid off. Once we stopped that cycle of budget-forced delay, growth accelerated quickly.
Q: You have built several other successful online businesses, tell me a little about each one.
Anita Campbell: BizSugar.com is a small-business-specific social bookmarking site. It’s for those with small business content to share their posts, and find other content they like. I bought the site in 2009. I had been familiar with the site and used it, but it was small. today is has 650,00 registered members. We have a Friday email newsletter that goes out to over 200,000 with the top stories of the week. Our dedicated worldwide team of Moderators keeps the site on track, keeps out the spam, and we are able to generate community feel.
We also are proud of our two Awards initiatives. There is the Small Business Book Awards, which honor books written for small business owners and entrepreneurs. That’s in its fourth year. The other Awards are the Small Business Influencer Awards, which are in their second year.
For both we use a highly customized version of the same platform we use for BizSugar — that keeps our internal challenges down, because we really only need to be expert in two software packages, WordPress and Pligg.. We also have some smaller sites, also, including TweakYourBiz.com. We have a neat headline generator tool there, and plan to build more tools.
Q: Being an entrepreneur sometimes means doing a little bit of everything, so describe what a regular day is like for you?
Anita Campbell: As soon as I arrive at my computer in the morning, I visit all our sites and take a look around just to make sure everything is OK. I have a bookmarked folder on my browser bar called “Daily Visits” and I just do down each link and visit them. It’s the online version of “management by walking around.” I look at the front of the sites, and log in the back ends, too. I might update messages on some of the sites, such as Trending topics. I check comments, and moderate any, and respond to a few myself. This often takes an hour.
Then I check social media for comments. Twitter is the platform I personally am most active on — it’s particular well suited for a B2B news and information site like Small Business Trends. I respond to any comments and check Direct Messages.
Then I check email. Email for us is a huge source of business. We get emails from about a dozen inboxes.
I have staff who monitor many of them, but they often forward things to me for decisions after they’ve filtered through them. We are constantly getting emails for advertising/sponsorship inquiries, speaking engagements, and so on — those are the opportunities. If you want to be an Internet publisher, you have to realize that you cannot do it without being open to communicating, and most of that comes through email. (I’ve never understood publishers who make it hard to reach them — you’re probably missing out on opportunities.) We also get a ton of emails for customer support issues, article pitches — you name it.
Email consumes a lot of my time responding, forwarding to team members, and so on. I am in ongoing Google chat communication with my Operations Manager from morning till evening, also — she works in a different city and that’s how we communicate. She is responsible for the editorial process. We cover various issues, solve problems and make decisions periodically throughout the day.
When my IT Manager who is on the West Coast USA logs on for the day (I’m on the East Coast and 3 hours earlier) I also touch base with him on various projects throughout the day via Google Chat. A couple of times a week I have Skype calls with some of the team members.
Much of my day is spent on advertising sales proposals with our various ad sales reps, and special initiatives such as new projects we are working on. I handle administrative tasks such as invoicing, too.
And then I do some writing of my own, although I usually end up doing that late at night and on weekends, because that’s the only uninterrupted time I have.
Finally, I try to check various reports and stats (analytics, etc.) in the evenings so I can make sure there are no problems and all is on track.
Typically I work from 8 to 6pm, with a couple of breaks to walk around outside during the day. I often come back in the evenings for a few hours. If I’m traveling, then the schedule is much different of course.
The above schedule may sound boring and not like a high-flying Web entrepreneur’s life — it’s analytical and while I work alone in my office, I am constantly communicating with people via chat and email so there’s really quite a lot of social interaction. I love it!
Q: How do you go about marketing your business,what has been the most successful form of marketing for you?
Anita Campbell: A lot of our marketing has evolved to be social media focused in 2012. We’ve now built up our presence on various social platforms (Twitter, Facebook and Google+ are key), and they drive a LOT of traffic back to the sites.
Also, I’ve been forced kicking and screaming over the years to learn something about search engine optimization. At first I found it cool. Then for a few years I resented it, because I didn’t understand it and it always felt like the site was getting buffeted back and forth. Traffic would grow, then Google would change something or we would change something in ignorance and shoot ourselves in the foot (such as poor site structure that led to duplicate content), but not realize it.
Traffic would drop for a while. Eventually, though, I learned a bit – by no means am I an expert. We try to at least cover some of the basics and not harm ourselves through doing anything stupid. I’ve hired outside help to address a few issues and guide us properly. Bottom line: SEO has helped to some degree, although I realize we could do a lot more.
Finally, we have done a lot through leveraging my personal brand. That’s why I write on other sites and speak at events.
Q: Share a few tips and advice on how to increase web traffic.
(1) Build a strong social media presence. Social media is key to marketing online today. Thing of it as creating satellite outposts where you can share your content. Pick a couple of social media platforms and set out to master one or two. Don’t be a dilettante of many. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ are good bets, but there are others depending on your industry and target audience. Find where your audience hangs out — that’s where you need a strong presence.
(2) Create share-able content and share others’ content. Sharing content is the name of the game in social media. Don’t just think of it as throwing up a feed on a social site, but instead make friends. Connect with people and they will pay more attention to your content.
(3) Develop a memorable name. I’ve come to learn that this is more important than I ever realized. People remember to come back when they remember the name — it’s that simple. Think of some big sites: Mashable. Techcrunch. They have short memorable names.
(4) Learn about SEO. It’s a must today. SEO isn’t about tricks to get traffic. Think of it as more about creating a clean site that is human friendly and spider friendly, and try not to do anything to shoot yourself in the foot (although sometimes we find that incredibly easy to do, to our dismay!).
(5) Guest post and accept guest posts. When you guest post on another site, you are exposing your brand to that audience. And when you accept guest posts, you are introducing another audience to your brand, also.
(6) Publish as frequently as you can on a blog, if you run a publishing business. At first you may not see much movement, but if you look back in 6 months to a year, you will start to see what a difference that makes.
Q: Who or what would you say inspired you the most to become an entrepreneur and how do you stay motivated?
Anita Campbell: I always wanted to run my own business — it’s just took me a while to get up the courage.
As far as motivation, keep reminding yourself: everything takes time. We started out just like everyone else does. The first day on Small Business Trends it had just one visitor – ME! Just when you think everything has stalled and you’ll never grow, you reach a new level of growth. But you have to stick with it and remain optimistic.
Q: If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?
Anita Campbell: I would have started a side business earlier, while still employed. Easy to say, though, and hard to do. I tend to put my all into whatever I work on, and probably wouldn’t have had a lot of time for a side business.
Q: How do you define success?
Anita Campbell: It’s about achieving your vision — whatever that is. For me it’s being the number one site in my niche, and doing it while being a decent human being.
Q: What 3 advice would you give to anyone looking to start an online business?
(1) Make sure you have some cash set aside. If not, then find a way to sell your services (such as Web design or consulting or writing) for a while. Growing an online business takes time. Somehow you need to find cash to survive the early days. For years I consulted and wrote for other sites, often working late at night. It was a grind. But you know the best part? It was cash flow.
(2) Sell something as soon as possible. I know that sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many people get caught up in writing, or hanging out aimlessly on social sites, or building the perfect technology — and neglect sales. You won’t be in business long unless you quickly figure out how to bring money in the door.
(3) Use visualization techniques to keep your ultimate goal in mind — it will motivate you. Try envisioning in your mind what would make you wildly happy, as it relates to business. Close your eyes and picture yourself. Whether that means getting “you’ve received money” emails when you wake up in the morning, or standing on a stage collecting an award, or signing the agreement to sell your business for $5 million. Whatever it is, envision it in your mind and play that movie over and over.
Q: What is your favorite entrepreneurship quote?
Anita Campbell: It’s more of a management quote: ”Inspect what you expect.” Eventually you will have to rely on others (employees, freelancers, contractors, guest bloggers, etc.) to help, and the biggest issue is giving people enough rope to be creative and feel a sense of worth, without abdicating your responsibility to lead. So you have to let people go off and do things, but know how to oversee things. That means you need to ask questions about the things that are important — “inspect what you expect.”