The fact that Niel Robertson spells his name with an “i” before the “e” isn’t the only thing that makes him unique. He has successfully founded two software companies, and is currently going gangbusters with his third start up. On top of being an incredibly savvy businessman in the heart of pounding Boulder, CO entrepreneurial scene, he’s also just an incredibly friendly, engaging guy who meets colleagues for lunch in flip flops and smiles a whole lot.
A whole lot of smiles
What’s not to smile about? His latest brainchild, Trada, is revolutionizing paid search for small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) and Enterprise businesses alike, relieving them of the time and resource burdens required to create, manage and progressively evolve their Google AdWords and Yahoo/Bing PPC programs.
The proprietary Trada platform connects advertisers to a crowd of digital marketing experts called “Optimizers”. This crowd–of over 1,500 tested, proven professionals–are incentivized to find customers clicks or conversions for less than the customers’ target price and ensure that customers’ advertising budgets are spent effectively and efficiently.
I caught up with Niel last week–here are some highlights from our conversation:
You’ve been involved in several successful start ups in the past. What made you decide to create Trada?
My first start up, Service Metrics, helped businesses starting websites in 1998 understand their customer experience. At that time, the web was the Wild West and I really enjoyed the direct relationship between innovation and outcome in that environment. After that, I built a company focused on helping manage legacy ERP system such as SAP, PeopleSoft, and Oracle EBS. When I left that company I decided I only ever wanted to build companies on the cutting edge of technology. At the time I started Trada the two Wild Wests were mobile and online advertising. Online advertising was simply a much bigger market and thus provided a lot more ready opportunity. When I looked at the PPC/SEM space, it was shocking to me that such a large market ($20B+/yr) had such little innovation in it. Once I realized the crowd-sourcing model (also a cutting edge arena) could be applied to this industry, I was hooked!
When small-medium sized businesses come to you, what are their greatest pain points that they want you to solve?
SMBs simply don’t have the time or expertise to do anything other than focus on their core products. Very few SMB owners know much about advertising and marketing. In the old days, this was mostly about picking the right location to be in and letting your storefront do the work for you. Online, there is no foot traffic so you have to drive people to your website. Trada fundamentally helps SMBs take advantage of the incredible online advertising opportunity that exists without having to become an expert in it. Every time we help an SMB increase sales, lower sales costs, or simply attract new customers to their site I feel like we’re working on something that provides real value to an important sector of our economy.
What is the biggest hurdle you see for small-medium sized businesses looking to brand and market themselves today?
There are three problems for SMBs. First and foremost is understanding the numbers that drive your business profitably. A large number of SMBs we work with have never sat down and calculated how much they can spend on sales and marketing profitably. We help them with that. Second, as with any advertising medium online or offline, it takes a bit of time to explore the medium and find out what works the best. In paid search this is about finding the most effective keywords. An offline analogy would be where to put a billboard for the most relevant audience. All advertising takes a bit of time and experimentation to get right. The main difference is that online advertising is very measurable so you can quickly adjust your spend to the most effective outcomes. That said, it’s hard for SMBs who many times fret over every penny to wrap their head around paying for the experimentation phase. There is simply no way around it though and taking a bigger picture view balances the numbers out. The last challenge I think as an SMB is knowing what option for advertising to use. There are a quickly growing number of options–from PPC to display advertising to coupons to focusing on content (SEO). A big mistake SMBs make is trying a little of each and not learning enough to excel with any. Hence back to my point about knowing you have to collect enough data before you can optimize any form of advertising.
What role does paid search play in the success of small business owners today compared to five years ago?
We all know from our own habits that we go more and more to Google when we’re looking for a product or service to buy. This habit and trend is only increasing at an exponential rate. Paid search is the primary mechanism by which SMBs can find customers in the purchase cycle. By definition, if someone is searching for your product on Google they are likely in the purchase cycle. Other forms of advertising are much further up the funnel and attract customers in the research phase. That’s why paid search, if done well, can be a very cost effective mechanism for driving sales. On top of that, it’s incredibly measurable so you know the value of every dollar spent. There are few SMBs who should not be running at least some amount of paid search as part of their advertising strategy.
What do you see as the major upcoming trends in what will make SMBs more successful over the next five years?
Attracting visitors to your website (no matter what mechanism you use) is only part of the equation. Understanding what they do when they get there is critical as well. Are your landing pages well designed? Can users navigate easily around your website? Is your website fast? All of these variables greatly affect how many visitors turn into buyers. I think most SMBs are just starting to focus on improving the quality of their websites and social media presence and the next 5 years will be a lot about getting these variables in the equation right. Companies like Trada will optimize the front end of getting people to your website but you’ll still be responsible for turning them into customers. This is no different than if someone walked into your storefront – the layout of the store and the staff working in it has a big effect on the outcome.
What are your biggest challenges at this point in the game?
Going back to an earlier point about sticking with it, the biggest hurdle we face is that businesses need to commit to paid search for 60-90 days. You simply don’t know the keywords and ads that will work when you start your campaign. You have to spend a little bit to get enough data to triage those that don’t and invest more heavily in those that do. This can be challenging for some businesses who are watching every dollar. Trada minimizes that spend because our paid search experts generally have experience in the campaign categories of most advertisers now (we have over 1500 PPC experts in our market) so their prior experience can reduce the cost of learning. We also have complete transparency for the advertiser to see where there money is going and they can put in lots of controls to require approval on ads and keywords before their money is spent. We believe the advertiser should have as much control as they like or as little as they like depending on their need.
What’s an example of a current SMB success story using Trada today?
Ties.com has been running with Trada since June 2010. They’re an independent retailer with a limited marketing staff, and we provide a cost-effective way for them to conduct successful pay-per-click campaigns. During their time with us, our Optimizers have created 326 ads and 7,593 keywords and have driven down their cost-per-action by 71%. We seamlessly added Microsoft Search Alliance which makes up 28% of their conversions and, overall, we’ve quadrupled their conversion volume from search. Omar Sayyed, the founder of Ties.com, messages the Optimizers weekly to keep them engaged and provide them the information and analytics they need to be successful.
To learn more about Niel and Trada, check out some other interviews with Forbes, New York Times and Entrepreneur. Or, just contact Niel through the Trada website and ask him to lunch–I promise you–he’ll wear flip flops.