A Reflection on 10 Years of Netvantage

Frustrated. We were frustrated. Sitting at Sultan’s in downtown Lansing Adam Henige and I were having lunch on a Tuesday and complaining about our jobs. We both had helped grow an internet consulting and development company into a very good organization, but we were hitting a wall. We had learned a lot from the firm’s founder and both had a tremendous amount of respect for him and what he had built. But, we were starting to see some problems and cracks in the armor. We didn’t want to do large-scale web development projects anymore. We didn’t want to be bobbleheads in meetings when asked, “Can you do that?” Shaking our heads when we knew the answer was really more complicated than that. Web design is hard, complex, and you have to rely on a lot of people and moving pieces. We didn’t want to work in that environment anymore.

“What about, just search?” A napkin came out, several napkins were filled out. And on that November day at lunch in 2007, Netvantage was first sketched out. Sunday afternoon meetings happened, domain names were bought, desks were our purchased on Craigslist. A lot of people questioned it. We both had good, well-paying jobs. We got to travel around North America and do consulting. Adam had a good, single late 20s lifestyle. My wife and I had just bought a new house in the country and had one daughter, were planning on having a second child soon. There was risk. Now, here we are, Adam and I are in our 10th year. Hundreds of clients, hundreds of projects. Fourteen full-time employees and over 40 interns have worked for us over the years. Six office spaces, currently with 3 across the Midwest. Some highs, several lows but mainly just 10 years of grinding it out, day in and day out and staying in our lane. Just search.

A Strong Partnership

Writing personally from my standpoint, this company would be nowhere without Adam. He has been an amazing business partner. First off, he is extremely intelligent and a numbers wizard, and has his MBA. Second, he is a machine. I work a bit earlier in the mornings, of course during a normal business day and generally on weekend mornings, I might be able to work into the evenings until 10:30 or 11, maybe midnight once in a while. He absolutely cranks out work nearly every weeknight until 2:00, 3:00, 4:00 AM. It is unreal, to the point where sometimes I get jealous of it. While I had some ability with high-level strategy, business development, and being the face of the organization, he was the nuts and bolts of the operation. He took it upon himself to learn to get our firm to a high capability level for building links for clients, which to this day remains our top competitive advantage.

We have always been able to stay on the same page. Every operational and financial decision – we generally come up with the same viewpoint. It is incredibly rare that we don’t see things eye to eye. Issues and items are addressed frankly, quickly, and always with reality. I realize that this is rare in business partnerships, but it has just worked. I always knew for some reason, even in the darkest times of our balance sheets, we would make it and operationally survive. It was a confidence that came from having two of us to be a check and balance, handle the workload and divvy up tasks.

Moments You Remember

Several moments stand out to me over these years.

I remember walking into our small office in Okemos on our first day May 12, 2008, sitting down at a garage sale desk next to Adam and saying “Okay, now where are the customers?”

I remember the following November, we hit a breaking point. It was do or die time. Loan money was going fast and we were swimming upstream. I remember we wrote our numbers on a whiteboard, and it seemed to clear what we needed to do, the goals we needed to hit to meet payments and stay alive. And we hit them.

I remember getting off the phone after we had landed our first actual big client, a horse nutritional supplement company from Idaho.

I remember in 2009 launching a large search and banner campaign for DTE Energy, who came to us from an agency we had just been contacted by. It was our largest project at that time. I launched it and went directly to the hospital for the birth of my second child. DTE is still a client to this day.

Like any small company, there have been challenges. Some days you feel like the world is out against you. Like the day several years ago that there were two IRS officers unannounced at my office door. Over a relatively small payment that was a month late but still was within the quarter of being due, which I thought we were allowed wait to pay it on. I will always wonder why we got their attention… we seemed too small for that, but something tipped them off. They stayed for 2 hours going through everything. Paperwork, receivables, bank accounts. I have never felt so illegal and frankly naked in my life. Over $1,400.

Or the day in 2013 I was standing in line at Disney World with my 7-year-old daughter, on “vacation” waiting to go on some pirate ship ride. I got the message that checks we were expecting didn’t come in. Back then, we did a lot of work with large companies via agencies. Large companies generally don’t pay on a 30-day schedule. Then once the money is released, they have to pay the agency, then the agency pays you. If your cash flow fails to meet that schedule, well, you could be in trouble. Well, it happened. And there I was, calling my personal bank to front a loan over to our business bank to make payroll which needed to be met. Fortunately, those days are well behind us.

The Foundation

We have had some great team members here. With my first background being in athletics, I actually hate overused business-sports analogies. But our team has been really good. They are consistent, they care, and they execute for us. Deadlines are met, clients stay happy. We don’t meet often, office chatter is pretty minimal. Someone works remotely in Texas. Someone works remotely in the Chicago office. Adam and another team member are in Grand Rapids. We don’t do retreats or team building. Come in, get your coffee, say hi, and get after it. Leave at 5. Take 15 vacation days. Working weekends and evenings are foreign concepts here. We always want our team to have lives. There are no passive aggressive emails on a Saturday at 10 AM that are expected to be answered. Everyone knows their role. The clients are our bosses, take care of them. Again, it has just worked.

Without clients, a consulting firm is dead. We have had an incredible run of some great clients. Both very large and small, we have had the opportunity to work with a variety of businesses models and some very enjoyable people to work with. We currently have six clients that we have been working on monthly since 2011. We have over a dozen that we have been working with for almost four years straight. Our ability to get them consistent search results over the years has kept them with us. While several projects and clients also come and go on a yearly basis, one of the things that I am most proud of with this company is the client continuity and their satisfaction with us.

Moving Forward

Finally, I am not sure what the next 10 years will bring, simply because I don’t know what the next year will bring. If you haven’t learned in running a small company that your world could get flipped upside down with one phone call, one email, one piece of bad news, you could get sued at any time, some important tax letter got sent to the wrong mailing address and you missed it, etc., then you’re either naive or arrogant. Pressure. There’s always pressure. Over time you get used to it, but some days it still slaps you in the face, reminds you, stares at you, you better be damn good today. Because you can have one bad day, even two. But if two bad days get paired into a bad week, which turns into a bad month, which bleeds into a bad quarter, you’re in trouble. Trying hard doesn’t pay health insurance premiums. Having business development meetings doesn’t make payroll. Keeping a pretty list of tasks of endless client campaign to-dos doesn’t pay rent. Writing proposals you don’t win doesn’t pay federal taxes every other week.  Making sure you do good solid work for current clients, getting a steady stream of new clients and making sure they pay you on time does pay for those things that you must do every month to make a business run.

While having long-term plans are good and splashy, pretty even number sales goals are good, it’s not reality. Heck, I don’t even know what the next quarter will bring. But I do know that Adam and I will keep grinding it out, staying in our lane and pushing forward. We aren’t setting records. profitable. Just search.

Joseph Ford

Joe Ford is a Managing Partner at Netvantage Marketing. In addition to overseeing day to day business operations of Netvantage, he directs paid search strategy and management. Ford is on the Marketing Committee for Impression 5 Science Museum, and the Executive Board of the Capital Area IT Council. He was previously a member of the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce Executive Board of Directors for 8 years. Additionally, Ford is an adjunct faculty member in the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University.

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