Maintaining the mental health of employees is a real issue that should be at the forefront of all companies.
As a part of my Marketing Strategy Series, I’m talking with my fellow marketing pros at the top of their game to give entrepreneurs and marketers an inside look at proven strategies you might also be able to leverage to grow your business. Today I had the pleasure of talking with Peyman Nilforoush.
inPowered was founded in 2014 by Peyman and Pirouz Nilforoush — The two brothers previously started NetShelter in 1999, which became the world’s largest technology property on the web before being acquired by Ziff Davis in 2013. A media entrepreneur and tech visionary, Peyman is the CEO and Co-Founder of the company. He was named to the Who’s Who in Business Publishing by BtoBOnline’s Media Business Magazine. He was also a recipient of Profit 100’s Young Entrepreneur Award for being the youngest CEO on the list of fastest-growing companies in 2009. In his spare time, Peyman enjoys being a Charter Member of C100, an organization that supports and mentors Canadian entrepreneurs.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting and what lesson you learned from that?
Thinking back, during my early NetShelter days I would call Dell’s technical support line and beg them to buy banner ads. Took me awhile to figure out that it’s the ad agencies in charge of buying these ads! But that realization was a major moment for us in figuring out there’s a real customer for what we were attempting to do.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
Strategically focusing on creating NetShelter to own a specific niche was a true tipping point in my career. That business was one of the earliest ad networks, and we initially focused on offering our platform to different categories: one of them being technology but we sought out others such as gaming, music, sports, many different verticals. My brother and I were finding it difficult to build significant scale in any single one of these industries, which advertisers kept saying was a major pain point for them at the time. Based on that opportunity, we saw a need to home in on scaling in a specific category. This was a key moment because by committing to serving the tech industry, which ended up being the most exciting category regardless, it was a winning card for us; not only because we picked the category with the largest opportunity with content, but also with the sheer size + number of interested advertisers. That single decision took NetShelter from a company that was just trying to make it, to a company that really took over the category. We doubled revenue in the second year that we made this decision, even though it took a year of transition to get there. Once we accomplished this feat, our mission then became very clear — land every quality technology publisher within the space, which we were able to achieve over the following two years. We signed 250 of the top-quality tech bloggers with an exclusive contract and became the largest tech property on the internet, beating out CNET, Ziff Davis, and other major traditional publishers. We then had the freedom to recruit any independent publishers. I always tell entrepreneurs I talk to that focus is critical when building a business with limited bandwidth, cash, support, and staff.
Consumers have become more jaded and resistant to anything “salesy”. Where do you see the future of marketing headed?
For us, this has been the turning point for our company — realizing that manipulating consumers with clickbait isn’t the way to go. While it may produce high click-thru rates, it’s ineffective and inefficient in the long haul. A consumer is a human, and a human has a brain. We’ve become so savvy with our online behavior, and what’s become crystal clear to us at inPowered is that it’s about providing real value for the consumer. If you’re a marketer who wants to be successful with content, you want to focus on the consumer, regardless of where the piece of content is going. If your messaging and content doesn’t provide real value in exchange for the consumer’s time and attention, and hopefully their business, you aren’t to get too far. This is how I see the successful future of advertising heading: providing real value to the consumer thru content marketing. I think we’re now seeing big brands invest significant dollars and resources to create great content, that they can then distribute across various channels like Google and Facebook. We’ve been helping brands to learn this during the pandemic, and it’s become so clear that this focus on the consumer and what’s of great value to them wins the day — every day.
What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?
Since the pandemic started, the one thing that we all have in common is the daily grind on Zoom. Whether using it for business or virtual learning with our kids, birthdays, and family gatherings; life has transitioned from everyday communication to life on video and extended periods being on-camera with others. Anyone with media training knows that being on video calls 24/7 can be exhausting and takes a whole mindset of its own. We’ve all had to become professional Zoomers overnight, and while it’s been fun, it’s definitely changed the professional game and how business is conducted daily. All of this comes with burnout, and now we’re starting to see people moving off video and back to regular phone calls in order to preserve their energy. This is a major change and requires all of us to be mindful of how to balance the number of meetings in the day with time spent doing actual work, thinking through overarching strategy, and maintaining personal/self-care.
It’s crucial to be conscious of potential burnout so you can avoid getting to that place — taking a few minutes away from the screen, quick walks outside and real lunch breaks have been helpful in combating this. I’m seeing “Zoom Fatigue” even at our company; and as leaders and managers, it’s more important than ever to check-in and do what’s needed to manage the wellbeing of your team — be proactive about encouraging time off. I feel strongly that never in our lifetime has the issue of burnout has been so severe and real, and maintaining the mental health of employees is a real issue that should be at the forefront of all companies.
Can you please tell us the 5 things you wish someone told you before you started?
- You may have passion and the right idea/solution to a real problem when starting a company; but when it comes down to it, it’s really all about the execution. It’s easy to get lost in the idea and thinking, trying to spend a lot of time thinking about the problem and how to solve it — which is important. But entrepreneurship is about doing, and this separates the successful entrepreneurs from everyone else. There are so many smart people out there but doing makes the difference when it comes to breaking out as a business.
- Raising money is always at the forefront of entrepreneurial journeys, but I learned to focus on bootstrapping. We bootstrapped our company for nine years; and then, after getting the company to full profitability, we raised $26M in VC funds. You don’t need a lot of money to build a successful company, in fact, I think having less capital makes you more motivated to succeed.
- Focus — a critical component. For us, our journey with NetShelter was first on building an ad network, but the gamechanger was when we focused on a specific category. Without that focus, I don’t think we would have seen the same success.
- Do whatever needed and whatever possible to get to a product-market fit: everyone talks about product-market fit, but it really comes down to offering a real product/solving a real industry problem; and at the point when what you’re doing fully aligns with the marketplace, all of the sudden magic happens. The business scales, customer demand explodes, the entire road map blows up beyond your wildest dreams. Don’t spend a lot of money or time trying to expand the business before you get a product-market fit. This is a big mistake I’ve seen a lot of entrepreneurs make, including ourselves at one point, but you have to be concentrated first and foremost on getting to product market fit with the most minimal amount of money/investment.
- Building lean — the best companies are created out of limited resources, while staying focused on solving a real problem. This requires a mentality of being lean — the leanest possible team until you get to that product market fit, and at that point need to scale/invest capital in doing so. I would highly recommend reading the book “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries, it totally changed the game for me.
What books, podcasts, documentaries or other resources do you use to sharpen your marketing skills?
Earlier this year, a friend and industry leader of mine, Rishad Tobaccowala, left his role as Chief Growth Officer at one of the top agencies to pursue his passion for writing and mentorship. Rishad is someone who provides great value in everything he touches; and I’ve found his new book, “Restoring the Soul of Business,” and weekly newsletter to be an incredible gift to everyone. He passes along invaluable info for other marketers and innovators, and I highly recommend subscribing to that for both innovation and overarching wisdom.
One more question before we go: If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Being born in Iran, in a country where there really isn’t a freedom of press, I’ve always had a passion for journalism and independent news organization. Especially knowing the battle we’re currently in the midst of, with fake news, a lack of credibility in media, the impact that’s had on the world around us in both our democracy and society, and the chaos that it’s caused; it’s been my life’s mission to solve that real pain point we’re collectively experiencing — to bring truth and credible information to the people in a way that would bring us together versus tearing us apart.
Thank you so much for sharing these fantastic insights