An Interview With Mitch Russo
Pitch your business to people in that industry and ask for critical feedback. This is your chance to refine your offering. I made some critical adjustments early-on thanks to this feedback.
As part of my series about the “5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kean Graham. Kean is the CEO of MonetizeMore, an 8-figure ad tech company that is a Google Certified Partner with 100+ full-time team members remotely based across the planet. MonetizeMore was conceived in the mountains of Machu Picchu and has grown to $20M in revenues. Graham has traveled to over 90 countries during the 9 years that he has been growing MonetizeMore.
Thank you so much for joining us, Kean! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I originally fell in love with the online industry when working for a large online classified network. The job was an immense learning experience but once the recession hit, the company decided to lay off the marketing department. I lost the best job I ever had but I was determined to turn the bad into something great.
Five days later, I’m on a plane to South America to go on a life changing trip. Four months into my backpacking trip I was on a four-day trek through the incredible Inca trail towards Machu Picchu. By the end of it, I was sitting on top of Wayna Picchu reflecting on my experiences throughout my trip. I have had the most fulfilling time of my life and it finally clicked:
I will work and travel when I want, where I want.
I have to start a digital business to enable this autonomous lifestyle. Seven months later I started the digital business called MonetizeMore which now offers this autonomous lifestyle to every member of our team.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
When I came back to Canada I was set to build my skills and come up with my big business idea. To do this, I made websites and tried out affiliate marketing. I grew important digital marketing and basic coding skills to bolster my capabilities and come up with that big idea.
A big reason for my early success was that I was malleable in that we focused on results and less about the internal business early on. My goal was to achieve measurable revenue increases for businesses. This was originally going to be achieved by the below offerings:
– Social media optimization
– Analytics consultation
– Ad inventory optimization
– Customer usage model optimization
I quickly found out that the greatest opportunity to grow measurable revenues was via ad inventory optimization. Rather than sticking with all offerings I focused on the offering that got the best results and only targeted online businesses that earned revenues via display advertising.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
In January 2014 our largest publisher at the time received a spam attack from one of their competitors. After 3 weeks of investigation, the violation was deemed large enough to ban the whole master account. When Google bans an account, they revoke all unpaid ad revenues which added up to $2.2 million USD that was owed to MonetizeMore and our publishers.
This was crushing news that brought MonetizeMore to the brink of bankruptcy, however, our team was able to rally and come out of this horrible situation stronger than ever. We were able to retain a decent percentage of our publisher partners and had to make one-off deals with several. We responded to the Google ban by implementing three measures to prevent a Google ban from happening again and to be less dependent on Google: stringent screening, fraud detection & suppression tech, diversified revenues.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Since the ban, we have been able to patch up our relationship with Google. Our relationship with Google is better than ever and MonetizeMore is a healthier company thanks to the measures we implemented after the ban. In fact, we are now at $20M in revenues. It ended up being a blessing in disguise!
When things were at their worst, I re-positioned my mindset by remembering that people would still be in my position despite the harsh situation. I was still running a business traveling the World. I also remembered, there was also much more at stake than just my own livelihood. We had 10+ full-time team members and their families dependent on the health of the company. Those factors drove me to persevere through the toughest times.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I started the business it was challenging and exciting. I was able to break-even by month five. My first client was an employer that laid me off a year before. I offered them a percentage of the ad revenue increase and was able to make them additional millions. At the time, I was a one-person company and communicated myself as such. Since I communicated the business as just myself, they looked at my company as just an ex-employee. As a result, when I was increasing their ad revenues by over 300% and earning strong commissions, the executives saw this as unjust that an ex-employee was making 4x more than what he used to earn. As a result, they strong-armed a deal with much less commission.
Ultimately, my mistake was not communicating my business as something bigger than just myself. I could have avoided that re-negotiation because it’s reasonable for a larger company to receive large commissions to pay for overhead, technology and employees. Ever since that mistake, I always communicated my business as “we” rather than “I” even when it was just me out of habit!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
As a location independent business in a relatively traditional advertising industry, MonetizeMore has been an enigma. We approach ad optimization from a create value first then charge after perspective. All our competitors charge a revenue share of all their publisher clients’ revenues. We started by charging a percentage of the increase we earn for them. Therefore, we charged nothing if we did not increase their ad revenues. We live and die by our performance which has propelled us to build the best ad optimization practices and technology which has enabled us to be the best performing ad optimization company in the industry.
Thanks to our value first model, we’ve been able to establish high-trust relationships with premium publishers that have worked with us for 6+ years and counting.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Back in 2013/2014 I was overworking myself on a path towards burn out. This was the first serious growth stage of the business. I started hiring full-time team members and training proved to be a significant challenge. I not only had to spend more time in my day training them, I still had to do my normal sales, marketing, operations and accounting tasks to keep the business running smoothly. This was even more important because there were new salaries that had to be paid for so the pressure was mounting.
By 2015, the team was at a more self-sustaining level so I could finally focus on higher level tasks. I was able to engineer myself out of a lot of the day-to-day tasks and could finally achieve a healthy level of work-life balance. If I were to breakdown achieving work-life harmony to avoid burnout into specific steps while growing a company in ad tech, they would be:
· Hire new team members
· Train each new team member the core of the business
· While training, record the training material so it can easily be used again for the next hires
· Establish important teams like marketing, sales, operations, support, accounting/finance and product so these tasks can be delegated
· Engineer yourself out of the day-to-day by training clients to stop contacting you directly and to delegate high-level problem solving responsibilities to other team members.
· Turn off all sound and vibration notifications from your phone and computer.
· Do an organization overhaul of your email accounts.
· Engineer balance into your day-to-day.
· Recognize symptoms of over-work.
· Build habits establishing and maintaining balance in your life.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I couldn’t say all my success came from the mentorship of just one person but rather many. My Mother has been a huge inspiration in terms of raising me to be balanced, grounded, prepared and generous to those that deserve it. I can attribute my analytical skills and frugalness to my Father.
I learned a lot of important business lessons early on from a business consultant involved in many self-employment seminars that I took. I still use some of the core business principles today that he taught me.
I remember how shrewd he would be during the business plan phase. While it was tough at the time, looking back, people can be quite vague and fluffy with their business plans which leads to low quality execution. He would do a great job not accepting this and resting till every detail of our business plan was specifically explained so our business plans would be more executable.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?
Currently, PubGuru has over 300 active publisher networks. Content marketing has been the biggest contributor to the community we’ve created and our customer base. About 90% of our leads are inbound. Below are some of our main content marketing channels:
• How-to blog articles
• Ad tech social media tips
• Youtube ad tech problem solving
• Answering ad op questions on Forums and Quora
• In-depth webinars
• Guest articles on other ad tech sites
• Speeches at conferences
• Useful technology like ad ops platforms, Chrome extensions and WordPress Plugins
What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?
Our monetization models are success based. We win when our publishers win. We take a revenue share of our publishers’ ad revenues in most cases. For Traffic Cop, since it measures and blocks invalid traffic, we instead charge a CPM of traffic.
We’ve taken the approach of revenue shares and CPMs because we share the costs and wins with our publisher partners to create goal alignment. Otherwise, it would be a big risk for publishers to have a large upfront cost to setup our tech. Instead, we absorb these costs and are confident they will run PubGuru in the long-term because of the strong ROI it will provide.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know before one wants to start an app or a SAAS? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Interview your prototype target audience about your product/service and how much they’re willing to pay. I completed this first step with my old employer who eventually became my first client. This is a plausible scenario for first-time SAAS entrepreneurs as well.
2. Already have important expenses priced out to create an accurate launch cost estimate then multiply by 1.5x. Launch costs are always more than you think even if you’re frugal like me. I did forget a few things to include in my launch costs plan.
3. Research competitors and have phone conversations with each one of them to find the market gaps. Typically, it would be tough to get them on the phone but if you say you’re interested in their product, a sales person should be willing to get on the phone with you. Don’t forget to write detailed notes! I was able to find the market gap that MonetizeMore sits in now because of these inquiry calls.
4. Pitch your business to people in that industry and ask for critical feedback. This is your chance to refine your offering. I made some critical adjustments early-on thanks to this feedback.
5. Take what you found out and create a business plan. Your business plan is your blueprint for the next few years and can be a document that you can refer back to many years after. Building my original business plan was a helpful exercise to help me steer MonetizeMore in the right direction early-on.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
MonetizeMore is one of the pioneers of location independent businesses. We have proven that it is possible to run an effective business without any offices and over 130 full-time team members. Location and schedule freedom has shown to be competitive advantages for MonetizeMore in an industry where that is rarely offered. As a result, MonetizeMore has been able to acquire incredible talent, minimize turnover, out-innovate competitors and better tailor to international clients.
We can already see effect of the influence of location independent business pioneers like MonetizeMore has had on the technology industry. The trend of remote working has been trending as expectations for in-office work has decreased. I believe in the next ten years when someone mentions a new business, the next common question is: “Is that business location dependent or independent?”
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
About the author:
Mitch Russo started a software company in his garage, sold it for 8 figures and then went on to work directly with Tony Robbins and Chet Holmes to build a $25M business together. Mitch wrote a book called “The Invisible Organization — How Ingenious CEOs are Creating Thriving, Virtual Companies” and now his 2nd book called Power Tribes — “How Certification Can Explode Your Business.” Mitch helps SaaS company founders scale their own companies using his proprietary system. You can reach Mitch Directly via firstname.lastname@example.org
Kean Graham: “Here Are 5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My SAAS” was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.