As part of my series about prominent entrepreneurs and executives that overcame adversity to achieve great success, I had the pleasure of interviewing…
Collin Holmes, founder and CEO of local brand management solution Chatmeter. Collin has extensive experience in the local search industry, both online and mobile, having served in product and marketing leadership roles at several other startups, including Akamai Technologies, V-Enable (now GroundTruth) and AT&T Wireless. He earned his MBA from San Diego State University and a BA from UC Riverside.
Jason Crowley: Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
Collin Holmes: Before founding Chatmeter, most of my experience was in product marketing and sales in the early days of mobile and voice search startups. After getting my MBA, I joined a young voice search pioneer called V-Enable, which provided the technology to search for ringtones on your flip phone via a voice search. At the time, when the search took approximately 15 seconds, this kind of technology was brand new and quickly began having a lot of applications beyond only ringtones. The company pivoted to local search and whitelabeled its technology to various wireless service providers, which could in turn allow users to voice search for a nearby business and be presented with a map of options — all on your flip phone!
As voice recognition and local search was improving, the iPhone was launched in 2008 and I recognized tremendous business potential, predicting that this phone would catapult the impact of local search and online reviews. As V-Enable pivoted again to enter the mobile ad space, I branched out to create Chatmeter as a solution to help businesses monitor and manage their online reputations down to the location level.
Crowley: Can you share your story of when you were on the brink of failure? First, take us back to what it was like during the darkest days.
Holmes: The first 4–5 years of Chatmeter were equally exciting and dark — I was building technology I knew the market needed, but the market wasn’t yet ready for it. Chatmeter started out of the second bedroom of my apartment, run only by me and a small team of software developers in India. I worked 90 hour weeks, was up at 4am to collaborate with India and hired engineers as consultants, who I paid in company stock after I had spent my entire life savings. I had predicted smartphones would drastically impact the local search and online review space, but I hadn’t anticipated it would be 3–4 years before they became ubiquitous enough for local search to matter to consumers and businesses. The potential was there, but being so early to market caused a few years of delay between concept and revenue. In addition, I launched a direct-to-SMB model, which ended up being way too difficult to overcome.
Around 2012, I started to pivot the business, selling to agencies and multi-location businesses. I was doing all the sales among a million other jobs. I wasn’t sure if this was the right direction, but then I closed a deal for Chatmeter’s first chain business, Learning Care Group, which prepaid for a year of service (six figure check) and proved not only that the market potential existed, but that it lied with multi-location businesses. I then brought on a couple sales representatives who had a big rolodex of multi-location clients, but they were not willing to work for commission and came at a big monthly cost. They were very confident that we had a huge opportunity and it would be easy to bring on their old clients, but after six months of pitching, they only brought in a couple small accounts. This drained the bank account again and I was forced to cut them loose and was left to either close the business or keep pushing forward.
Crowley: What was your mindset during such a challenging time? Where did you get the drive to keep going when things were so hard?
Holmes: Most people would have given up at this point, but I knew I had something here and used my tenacity and grit to push through these dark times. I always had faith in the logic behind Chatmeter. Reviews clearly impacted the e-commerce space online, so there was no doubt it would have an impact on mobile local search. As Chatmeter’s technology was growing into what I envisioned, I was watching smartphones rapidly become commonplace and start changing how consumers interact with the world around them — I knew there was no way that a business opportunity didn’t exist in that. I kept going because I knew it wasn’t a ‘now or never’ situation, it was a ‘wait and see’ opportunity — and that mindset paid off.
Crowley: Tell us how you were able to overcome such adversity and achieve massive success? What did the next chapter look like?
Holmes: Once I pivoted to agencies and multi-location businesses, I started to build some consistent revenue. Small, but consistent. I had an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) in the market, but I needed more help and resources. I spent time going to startup events, meeting angel investors, joining an incubator and finding the right team to help us grow. While my first angel round of funding was tiny, it allowed me to find both my CTO and SVP of Sales. We all worked tremendously hard, rebuilding the product for the new market we were going after, and focused on reinvesting every new dollar earned into the business. My five-year mistake taught me a lot about growing a business, and about trusting my vision — and in the four years since moving past it, the company has achieved over 700% revenue growth, placing us in the top 10% of the fastest growing software companies.
Crowley: Based on your experience, can you share 3 actionable pieces of advice about how to develop the mindset needed to persevere through adversity? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Trust in the difference between a market that isn’t ready and one that isn’t interested — It can be tough to see your business isn’t taking off as fast as you thought it would, but it’s important to distinguish between delayed potential and failed concept. Ask yourself not just if you are ready to launch your business, but if your market is ready to buy in to it. If you find yourself in a situation where your buyers aren’t ready, like I did with Chatmeter, focus on perfecting your product and educating the industry so you are ready to strike when the time finally comes.
- Don’t ask without listening — When you research and speak to your target market, listen to what they communicate as their strengths and weaknesses, and understand what that means for your business. When I started Chatmeter, I was set on launching in the SMB space because I heard from many that that was where the money and growth potential was (30 million SMBs). I wanted it to fit so much that I discounted what SMBs themselves told me they struggled with (being starved of time, money and knowledge; high churn), and I wasted years going after a market that didn’t have the capacity to buy into my product. It took a couple of years to shift to another market, which could have been avoided had I really weighed the impact of their input.
- Don’t allow biased information to cloud your judgement — There is such a thing as over-believing in your potential, and it can be detrimental to your business if it gives you an unrealistic perspective. Regularly check in with yourself, your team and your resources that research and planning is unbiased and equally weighing the good with the bad, the potential with the threat. In the early days of Chatmeter, I convinced myself and others of our market opportunity by relying on analyst reports that forecast a $5 billion reputation industry — something it hasn’t even reached 10 years later. I failed to account for the bias that can come both from the report’s method of prediction and from my own desire for the prediction to be true.
Crowley: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Holmes: I wouldn’t say one person, but two. By 2013, I had run through several salespeople and engineers who didn’t work out and were not up to the task. But the addition of both Paul Koch (CTO), and Lee Auerbach (SVP of Sales) was key to refining the vision of Chatmeter and pivoting it to the proper product to market fit. Paul did a great job hiring very skilled talent and focusing the product on features that were needed for our new multi-location customers. Lee did an amazing job starting from scratch and building a sales process that was finally working. I was finally able to see a real company forming and a light at the end of the tunnel. We have since assembled an amazing company with a great team and I credit my leadership team with that. We recently won an award for the Best Places to Work in San Diego by the local paper and I am extremely proud of that and we wouldn’t have done it without Lee and Paul.
Crowley: Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Holmes: With the rise of voice assistants, particularly over the past year, I’ve returned to my roots in voice search to help businesses capitalize on local search and brand reputation with what I call Voice Engine Optimization (VEO). VEO is a new content marketing strategy to help businesses provide these voice assistants with questions and answers that consumers are frequently asking, so the device correctly offers the nearby business as a solution to their ask.
In 2019 especially, voice assistants will improve customer experience as they become even more humanized, with new updates that fix common voice recognition errors and more businesses optimizing their content to be ‘speakable.’ As the tools become easier to use, voice-based search habits will increase and the domino effect will be that brands and marketers will face an adopt or die situation where favoritism goes to those optimized for voice. For businesses, this will continuously drive revenue and foot traffic into real stores, and for consumers this will make interactions with brands and engagement with the local community excel.
Crowley: You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂
Holmes: I want to help our world become more experience and less transaction. While we are more connected digitally than ever before, it’s the experiences we have that make life fun, unpredictable, and memorable. I see experiences as things that drive people to grow and change and be inspired. That’s an exciting thing about Chatmeter since we help businesses understand that consumers have the power now. Reviews provide transparency and force businesses to improve their services, in turn providing great experiences for everyone!
Crowley: Any parting words of wisdom that you would like to share?
Holmes: Seek out as much support as possible, as early as you can in your endeavor. If you’re like me, you might be naturally too stubborn to ask for this, but as your business is built and your vision tested, you will need people to turn to. You cannot expect how everything will unfold, so the sooner you build and accept support — whether an actual team (no matter how small), a group of mentors or advisors or a personal buffer of friends and family — the better off you’ll be through all the challenges.
Crowley: How can our readers follow you on social media?
Holmes: You can find @Chatmeter on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Crowley: Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.