199: Building A Business From A $2.2 Million Loss To A 140-Person Remote Team With Kean Graham
When life throws us curveballs, we either get knocked down and stay there or stand right back up and do better. Kean Graham, CEO of MonetizeMore, is someone who chose the latter, and in this episode, he joins Mitch Russo to share the incredible story that took him from incurring a $2.2 million loss to now operating a 140-person team completely remotely. He tells us about his hero’s journey beginning with conceptualizing and starting in a narrow niche to getting hit with a crippling blow and deciding to push through and rebuild again, now with a virtual team. He gives us some of the great lessons he learned throughout his experience, as well as some helpful tips and tools on starting a business and hiring a remote team. Follow through this great conversation to find wisdom and inspiration on what it takes to build a successful business, especially one that can take a hit.
Building A Business From A $2.2 Million Loss To A 140-Person Remote Team With Kean Graham
Do you know any other show that is a two-way conversation? I bet you don’t, but you can talk to me anytime you want and I will respond back to you. I’ve had voice messages from all over the world and I want you to click the button on every show page that says Speak to Mitch and I’ll return the favor with an honest and prompt answer. This is sponsored by VEA, the Virtual Entrepreneurs Association. Finally, a place with all the tools, resources, discounts, education, and community to help you on your entrepreneurial mission. Think of VEA as the AAA or Swiss Army Knife for business. This is an incredible value and the price is ridiculously low. I’m sure there’s a free trial, so check out this resource-rich asset because you can save money on the things you are already buying anyway and for a limited time you can get ahold of Daven Michaels’ new book that’s called The Virtual Entrepreneur at VEABusiness.com/Mitch.
Now on to my guest and his incredible story that started in January 2014. His largest client receives a spam attack from one of their competitors. After three weeks of investigation, the violation was deemed large enough to ban his whole master account. When Google bans an account, they revoke all unpaid ad revenues, which in his case added up to $2.2 million that was owed to him and his company. He lost that money, a crippling blow for sure, and this brought him to the brink of bankruptcy. He didn’t give up. He didn’t give in. He rolled up his sleeves and he worked to make sure it would never happen again. Do you want to know how he recovered and moved past a $2.2 million loss and now operates a 140-person team completely remotely? Here he is. My guest, Kean Graham.
Thanks, Mitch. I’m glad to be here.
What a story. I don’t know what I would have done if I would have received that message that I lost $2.2 million. I have a feeling that your entire company probably was worth maybe that or a little less.
It was a crippling blow. To put it into perspective, it was 99% of our revenues over a two-month period. It slipped into my mind of like, “Are we going to survive this?” At the time, we had a team and that was what I was most worried about. These team members were dependent on their salaries, on the company to be successful. That’s what drove me to push through, not to give up, not to put up a flag and go on to the next venture. I had to push through it. It was a very scary thing. It was completely uncharted territory and one of the toughest times of my life.
Kean, when this happens, you reached out to Google. You tried to make contact with somebody. Was there no compassion, no understanding, just a complete shutdown, and with no one trying to help you inside the company?The only way to grow is to hire. Click To Tweet
We were able to get a call out of them, but as a large company, you’re not allowed to say much. They were pretty tight on what they can give up. Fair enough, this was an invalid traffic attack to our largest publisher. It was from one of their competitors. Because it was so large, it bled to this ban. Google is very protective of their algorithms that detect invalid traffic because if the hackers that create this invalid traffic were to find out how they detect it, then they could trick it. That’s the last thing that Google wants to happen. If you think of Google overall, they get the majority of the revenues via paid advertising and you pay mostly by click. These advertisers, if they cannot be confident that a click is a real click from a human, then that diminishes the whole value of the click and what they’re paying for. Some of these huge advertisers spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on these budgets. Google has to be very protective of it and cannot be giving up any secrets, any hints, any immediate feedback on invalid traffic. That’s why it’s such a difficult problem.
Did Google try to find out who the source of this invalid traffic is?
Google was not interested in the source of it. They put it on the publisher to pretty much optimize their traffic quality. They put it up to the publisher to make sure they have high-quality traffic and it’s up to the publisher to either be proactive or reactive to prevent low-quality traffic or invalid traffic from coming onto their website.
Let’s take a step back here for readers who have no idea what we’re talking about. Kean runs a very specialized type of company for a very specialized type of business. Kean, give us an overview of what your company does and who you serve as your clients.
MonetizeMore helps large publishers. They get millions of users per month. Typically, they have free content, and the way they monetize their users is with ad placements. Some of your readers might be familiar with Google AdSense. That the most popular form of monetizing users with ad placements. There are many other Google alternatives. They have competitors like Facebook, Amazon, Index Exchange and AppNexus. There are hundreds. What our technology does is replace the setup that the publisher has, a typical one is Google AdSense, with our auction technology that competes Google versus Facebook versus Amazon versus AppNexus and all the different alternatives and chooses the highest bidder in places that into the ad placement. That’s one ad impression, but when they’re getting hundreds of millions of ad impressions, that’s huge revenue increases, and we take a percentage of that.
You serve people who have very large sites that are driving tons of free traffic and those are your customers. That’s probably not many people in our audience. The reason I love your story is because you have gone through what all of us go through who are building businesses in conceptualizing this, understanding the problem, and creating the business. As the hero’s journey story dictates, you hit a point where you almost lose everything and were almost ready to give it up. In your case though, you were way to determine not to, but many people would have, as you probably know. You were in a situation where if you did say, “We can’t survive this.” It would be not liked but understood by everybody involved. Let’s get into the real story behind this to me, which is how did you start a business in such a narrow niche?
I got the inspiration to start my business during a trip to South America. I was laid off from an online classified job that I enjoyed. It was the best job I had. I fell in love with the digital industry and I saw the opportunity in it. Once the recession hits, it was owned by a newspaper company and they decided to consolidate. They go from a growth strategy to make a profit now strategy. They laid off the marketing departments. I went to South America and got the inspiration to start a business that would give me a location and schedule freedom. I wanted to build that ideal lifestyle for myself rather than going back to a corporate job and working from an office. I went back to Canada and I went to improve my skillsets and SEO, social media, all the different facets to provide value to businesses via digital means.
I used my old employer as a case study. I saw that they were making the majority of the revenues from Google AdSense. I thought, “It looks like Google has a monopoly over their ad inventory. I can improve that. I can have Google compete against all these other alternatives to create a marketplace.” They go from monopolistic competition to perfect competition. There is an opportunity for revenue growth. You’re taking away from these market failures. I showed this to my old employer. I said, “I can increase the demand for your ad inventory while the supply stays the same,” being the traffic, “That will increase the price for your ad inventory.” They said, “That sounds pretty good, but we can’t exactly afford to pay you a retainer for this. Business is still tough.” I said, “That’s fine. I will charge you a percentage of the increase in ad revenues. If I don’t increase your ad revenues, I charge nothing. No risk.” They said, “Let’s try it out.” As I tested different strategies, pretty much built this ad optimization model, I was able to increase their ad revenues by millions over a 2.5-year period.
At the end of the period, did they say, “Kean, I think we can hire you now, you made us all a lot of money?”
It was a bit tricky because they saw me as an individual rather than a company. Some executives got wind of it and they weren’t very happy that an old employee was making three times more than he was making before. They wanted to renegotiate. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the leverage at the time to push back. They were able to negotiate a lower commission, but then I was able to further increase the revenues and get back to the old levels, so there was another negotiation. One thing that I did learn was to communicate my business by saying we rather than I. I was communicating myself as an individual rather than a business. I essentially positioned myself in a way that they were mad that his individual was earning so much. If it’s a company with real expenses, then that’s something that they can swallow a lot easier.
That’s what we call startup wisdom. Unfortunately, you learn it the hard way, but then it sticks like it has for you. One other comment about your business model, you, in effect did what many companies have done, which is to aggregate different suppliers and allow this marketplace effect to help buyers get the best price. Up until the time that you did it, it sounds like no one else had. Is that right?
This was a completely virgin market at the time. This was brand new when I offered it for the initial client. I was pioneering this model. I didn’t find out until later that I had competitors and it was completely new. I felt like I was a mad scientist in a lab, testing out different things and see what the reactions were until I found some intended reactions, and then I would double down on that and go further with the traction.Remote work is a huge transfer of trust. Click To Tweet
That’s how all great businesses I think are started, by trying to find and optimize something that works and generates revenue for the company, which is what you were doing. Let’s shift gears for a minute. You were a person that had figured this out. At the time, how did you get beyond being an individual person? I know you hired people, but what changed for you when you realized that this could be a big company and you could grow it? Did you go out and decide to raise money or did you grow the whole thing bootstrapping? What was your process?
We were still 100% bootstrap until 2020. I would say some big milestones. That would be the first one. We’ll get in the first client and then proving out the model to the first client. I’ve been able to increase their revenues by millions. It’s a big one. I had that first testimonial, which as you know, with B2B, having a testimonial is huge. You’ve been proven. What I found when I was approaching other publishers was there was skepticism. Maybe I got lucky the first time. I had to prove it out again in a different scenario. I was able to do that with another website in the US and was able to increase the revenues by over 300%, so it was another huge success story that I was able to have a testimonial and that’s where I know it wasn’t a fluke. I did it again.
From there, I went on a trip to Europe and I was able to pick up five large publisher networks and initiate a partnership with Google. This was the partnership that we talked about from the beginning, which ended up resulting in a ban. However, this initial partnership was a huge opportunity because it would allow me to offer a scalable product, which is the DoubleClick Ad Exchange. This is Google’s premium version of AdSense. It can only be offered to huge publishers that have direct links with Google. They have the contacts or they have to go through a company like MonetizeMore. Once I got access to that and I could offer to all these publishers where they would get immediate ad revenue increases with this premium demand source, then I can start scaling the business with this product. There was a huge running opportunity and that was a time when I was ready to start hiring the team. That started at the beginning of 2013.
Let’s unpack that for a second here because I think what you were doing was looking to build a strategic alliance with the number one player in the entire world, Google. Was the relationship that you started or built by having that initial $2.2 million held back from you, was that part of the beginning of that relationship? Did you then go back and prove that you are one of the good guys and a white hat player and that’s what enabled you to have that next conversation?
It was via some contacts at Google that I had. It was initiated in the EU office in Dublin. They saw what we were doing, the results we were getting for publishers, the great relationship we’ve had with them. Because some of our publishers have Google reps, we were able to build some rapport with Google through that. This partnership program via Ad Exchange was pretty new at the time. After the conversation they had within the Dublin office, they saw that we were perfect for the partnership program and it pretty much went from there. It got finalized in the New York office. This all came about because I was working and traveling at the same time. If I stayed at home on the West Coast, Canada, this wouldn’t have come about. It’s because of me being opportunistic while traveling the world.
Kean, did you intend to create a virtual team or did you basically hire as needed and then discovered later that what you had was a bunch of scattered people and now needed a way to organize them?
That was the vision from the start. The original vision was to enable this ideal lifestyle for myself. I never envisioned this to go as big as it has become. I’m an opportunistic person. I have a lot of entrepreneurial fire. Whenever there’s an opportunity to grow, I’m going to grab ahold of it. That’s pretty much what happened in 2013. I knew that I was the bottlenecks to the business and the only way to grow it was to hire. That’s why I took advantage of that. Three years prior, I’ve been enjoying this amazing location and schedule-free lifestyle running my business and I wanted to offer it to each one of our team members. I have benefited from it immensely and I knew that other people could as well. That’s how it blossomed into this vision of growing a virtual company.
Let’s talk a little bit more about something that I covered in my book called The Invisible Organization. In that book, which was written in 2015, what I talk about was the role of the CEO and how it is the mindset of the CEO that makes a remote operation possible. Clearly, you have that mindset, but let’s dig into that a bit. Did you ever worry, for example, that people working remotely would screw off and not do the job that you’re paying them to do?
It’s something you have to worry about. It’s a huge transfer of trust. Within an office, you can get away with so much more. At least you know they’re in the office. You can look over their shoulder. There’s this feeling with this like surveillance of the office, whether it’s from a boss or a peer, that you have to be focused on work or at least look like you’re working, which seems to be more of an office type of culture. With remote, there’s so much more freedom and freedom for the good, which I talked about, but also freedom for those that choose not to focus on their work or not focus on results. It was a big worry. We have had to rely on some tools to catch some unsavvy players. We’ve come across them and we’ve also learned through the hiring process how to find people that are more likely to produce and focus on their work and focused on results rather than trying to make it look like they’re working.
One of the things that this reminds me of is I had a guy who worked in my tech support department when I had built a 100-person software company called Timeslips Corporation. I found out later that he had a foot switch under his computer that when he saw me walk by, he’d clicked the footswitch and it would flip open a page that looked like our transaction screens. After I walked away, he hit the footswitch again and go back to playing video games. It’s funny in a sense because I relied on walking around, or as Tom Peters used to say, “Management by walking around.” In essence, after we build virtual companies, we have far better tools to monitor productivity than the old managed by walking around methodology. Let’s talk a little bit about those tools. Tell me the tools you use and how they help you make sure that the people that you hire are doing the jobs you tell them to do.
Before I get into that, I want to mention, can you imagine if that employee that you were talking about use that energy and innovative ability in your business rather than to trick you? It’s a very powerful thing. Those are important skills to direct them in the right direction. In terms of tools, so we do use time tracker tools. It tracks their time, it categorizes what they work on and it takes screenshots of their work every 30 seconds, only when they turn it on, only when they’re working. We only look at it and we only use it if we find a team member is underperforming.
We have found people in the past playing video games, on Facebook, not working. This is where we found why they haven’t been performing well. We find the most powerful tool, the most effective one, has been KPI tracking. We have become more data-driven as a company. We use Google Sheets to centralize our KPI tracking. We have an overall company KPIs. We have team KPIs that we’re tracking on a daily basis. We categorize it by color, green, blue, yellow, and red. Red being the worst, green being the best. We have it broken down per team that we have the overall company one. We have individual ones. We’ve been evolving as a company going from focusing on inputs, hours to output, the KPIs. We’re even evolving our KPIs to focus on outcomes for our users to provide a better offering for our customer base.
We found that with this aligning of the interests of our individual team members and the company and also aligning their compensation to though that KPI performance that they are fully incentivized to produce results. If they’re not able to produce results, then that goes to show that it’s not a good fit for the company. It’s not a good fit for them. We’re able to part ways sooner and we don’t worry about those inputs anymore because we have the numbers in front of you. The numbers don’t lie and it’s been an incredible transformation for MonetizeMore.Those who need that separation between personal and work lifestyles are not a good fit for remote work. Click To Tweet
With a remote workforce, you don’t care about personality, you care only about performance. That’s one of the great benefits that I wrote about in the book. You’re taking full advantage of that. You also mentioned that you’ve discovered a way to hire people for remote positions that helps weed out and advance what may be personality traits or characteristics to look for to prevent hiring the wrong person. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
They are related to our company culture. We have a culture doc that we show to any of the new candidates. They show them again once they joined the company. We continually leverage it within the company for promotions, recognition, rewards, and company updates. We have three pillars. The first one is reliability. Reliability is important for any company, but especially for remote companies. Like you said, you can’t look over their shoulder. You don’t know if they showed up to the office. You have to be able to trust them more and reliability is a big part of it. Do they do what they say? Enterprising, being an intrapreneur within the company. Being resourceful based on being able to do more with the resources that you have.
Being innovative, driving towards results. Being data-driven, that’s an important one, especially in remote environments. Kaizen, the methodology that everything around you can be improved and deserves to be improved. It’s that continuous improvement dedication. All three are part of the company, but especially more important within remote environments. I’ll give an example, like reliability within the hiring process. If they show up late to an interview and if they didn’t finish their test project or they didn’t bring it into the interview, that ends that applicant’s chances of being hired immediately because that goes to show that they have a behavior of not being reliable. We would not be successful as a company if we didn’t have a reliable team. I would say of the three pillars, reliability is the one that sticks out the most as being the most important for remote teams versus in the office.
If someone were to do the assignment, turn it in and it’s adequately done, if they show up for their interview on time, meaning they call in. I assume it’s a remote interview because it’s a remote job. At that point, what else are you looking for besides those key components that you mentioned?
Remote work experience is important. They need to be able to go through it beforehand. There’s a lot of nice benefits from work, but people don’t know if they’re a good fit until they go through it. Some people see on Instagram the laptop in front of the beach and they think that’s all it is, but they don’t realize that you have to have a strong willpower to say no to a lot of things because you’ve got to get work done. You do have to be very disciplined, have a lot of willpower and you have to be able to create an environment that is good for your work. Some people need that separation between personal and work lifestyle. That means remote work is most likely not a good fit for them. For example, someone like me, when I went to university, I never worked for the library. I always worked from home because that harmony between work and personal was good for me. For some of my classmates, they had to work from the library because there’s no way they can work from home because they’re too distracted.
I want to dig a little bit deeper here because this is an issue for so many of us who are hiring remotely. When I wrote my book, it was relevant. It’s not as relevant anymore because so much of work is now remote. My book would be relevant for those who have a physical brick and mortar company that they want to convert to partially or fully virtual. What we see now is everybody’s starting out as a virtual organization. Through experience, you’ve discovered these elements that make hiring virtual people more efficient and more reliable. I want to ask you about one of the things that you said. You talk about the concept of Kaizen, which is continuous improvement. Is that something that you test for or is that something that you instill as part of the culture?
We do both. Within the interview process, we ask for examples where they improved throughout. We asked for what sources do they look for and what books are they reading. We ask what they can teach MonetizeMore. That’s a big part. Not just learning, but the teaching aspect. That’s a great way to absorb what you’ve learned and spread it across the company. That collaboration of improvement is very important. We do test for it and then we encourage it within the company. We have performance reviews every six months. We have five categories. Three of these are the three pillars, one of them being Kaizen, and this is something that we watch out for on a regular basis.
We have a shout out program where we give points to each team member that gets the shout out at which they can redeem for prizes and awards. One of the shout outs that we give is based on Kaizen. We look for people that are looking for ways to improve themselves, to improve the team members around them, and to improve the company, improve the processes and the systems around them. There are a certain approach and outlook of Kaizen and it involves their whole environment, not themselves. We look for this evidence and we encourage it. More importantly, we live it as leaders. I am proud to say I’m a very good example of the company culture. I take Kaizen very seriously. I’m reading books, listening to podcasts, getting on podcasts, talking to people, always asking, “How can I be a better CEO?” This trickles down in the company, which fulfills me as a leader.
I think you’ve taught us something and that’s everyone who’s reading, if you don’t ask the next person you hire what can you teach us by being part of this organization, then you’re not listening. To me, that’s a great question. That’s a question that everyone should add to their roster of interview questions. At this point, we’re going to transition to something that I hope every reader looks forward to. It’s the questions we ask every guest we have. These questions are designed to go deeper than who you are as a company leader and CEO but to more about who you are as a person. Here’s the first question. Who in all of space and time would you like to have one hour to enjoy a walk in the park, a quick lunch, or an intense conversation with?
I would have to say Elon Musk. He impresses me as a visionary and someone who drives through problems that seem impossible. It impresses me how he’s able to run multiple companies at once that are gigantic, facing such huge problems, taking on huge amount of risks, and being able to manage all these companies with one person. I would be interested to get down to the nitty-gritty of how he plans his day, how he finds specific people to bring into his organization. How he incentivizes or KPIs he looks at. I would find that fascinating to pick his brain on how he optimizes his businesses.
I have invited him, but he hasn’t had the good sense to say yes yet. If anybody’s reading can bring Elon to the table for me, I think it would be a great interview and very worthwhile. If in fact, I can arrange an interview, I might also mention that I have a friend who’d like to take him to lunch. Kean, that’s the deal. We’ll make sure you get to have lunch with Elon Musk if I can make that happen. How’s that?
I’ll put it in a good word for the show.
Here is the grand finale, the change the world question. What is it that you were doing or would like to do that truly has the potential to literally change the world?
I would say it would have to be the Remote Work Movement. With MonetizeMore becoming a location independent business, I’ve seen how it’s changed my life in terms of my work and personal life harmony it’s come together. I’ve been able to engineer my ideal lifestyle, but also with our team members. They’ve gone from working within offices where they had to commute two hours one way and waste so much time with commute time. They get to the office, they’re stressed out. They have many different errands related to working from an office. For some people, they live in a city that they don’t want to live in because it has the career opportunity. With remote work, it puts the lives into people’s hands again. It gives them the power to engineer their ideal lifestyle.Remote work puts people's lives in their hands again. It gives them the power to engineer their ideal lifestyle. Click To Tweet
Because I’ve seen such powerful improvements in people’s lives where it’s literally changed their lives, I want to see this grow within our other businesses. I am friends with many entrepreneurs, some with remote businesses, some with office businesses. What I’ve found is it comes down to the preference of the owners, whether they are open enough to remote work, whether they can trust their team enough to work remotely. The way I see it, it’s a matter of time. I think there needs to be more success stories like MonetizeMore growing large teams because I find a lot of people, they seem to have this mind block.
They think at what number of team members will you get where you have to get an office? There isn’t a number. It’s unlimited. You can run a location-independent business to an unlimited amount of team members like you can run it with many different offices across the world. It’s going to take some time for people to get used to it. It’s a generational thing. I want to do my part to show people, to show employees, managers, directors, executive owners, entrepreneurs that it is very possible to run companies completely remote. At the very least, partially remote, to give people that lifestyle autonomy, change their lives for the better.
Kean, I’m there with you. That’s why I wrote the book. That’s what I did when I built the Tony Robbins and Chet Holmes organization, Business Breakthroughs International. We ran a 330-person team completely remotely and we didn’t own a single physical asset. I think we had a copy machine somewhere, but that was about it. Ultimately, it is the way of the world and the way the world is going. However, as Kean has suggested, if you’re not there yet and you’re looking to get there, it’s going to be you, the CEO, who is going to be the one who holds back that process until you get yourself educated and come up to speed.
Speaking to people like Kean is a way to get up to speed. Reading my book, The Invisible Organization will help as well. Most importantly, it’s getting started. You could take five team members that are working at your office, send them home and see how that works, and then take ten and keep going. Kean, it’s been a delight chatting with you. This has been a great experience. I always learn from my guests and this was no different. Thank you for your time. I look forward to the next time we get a chance to talk again soon.
It’s the same here. Thanks, Mitch.
Resources Mentioned in This Episode:
- The Virtual Entrepreneur
- Kean Graham
- Google AdSense
- Index Exchange
- DoubleClick Ad Exchange
- The Invisible Organization
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