Interview by Mike Sullivan
Kris Jones is the founder of KBJ Capital, an early stage investment fund, as well as the author of Search Engine Optimization: Your Visual Blueprint for Effective Internet Marketing. He is also the former President and CEO of Pepperjam, a full-service internet marketing agency and affiliate network he founded in 1999 and sold to GSI Commerce in 2009. Kris is an internet marketing expert, pioneer, and leading voice of the search engine and affiliate marketing industries. He’s welcomed as a frequent keynote speaker, panelist, and moderator at leading national and international interactive marketing and technology conferences. While President & CEO of Pepperjam, the company was recognized for three consecutive years by Inc. Magazine as one of the fastest growing privately held companies in the United States. Kris enjoys traveling, reading, and giving inspirational speeches to young professionals and students.
KBJ Capital makes early stage investments up to $250,000 per transaction to technology companies throughout the United States. Its first investment has been in Highlighter.com, a company that unifies what you highlight, comment, and share across all content, platforms and devices, to create a dynamic relationship with publishers and readers. Other investments include Yumm.com, a disruptive technology that allows users to seamlessly save recipes, interact with other foodies, and share a love for food with your friends and followers, VigLink.com, a tool for publishers of all sizes to make monetization of their outbound links, APPEK Mobile Apps, a B2B Mobile App Development Company primarily focused on building apps for funded early stage technology companies and large Fortune 1,000 clients, and most recently ReferLocal.com, a local digital advertising platform (Kris serves as its CEO).
You’re living the entrepreneurial dream. As the founder of an investment fund, what is it that you look for in technology companies to invest in? Are there certain elements that are important to you?
The most important investment element is the value I bring to the table as a strategic advisor. My primary expertise is in Web traffic monetization so if I can add “value” in terms of monetization strategy my interest is peaked, but I also evaluate whether or not I believe I can add value as a mentor to the founder(s) of the company. The second most important factor is the entrepreneur – I invest in entrepreneurs, not ideas. If an entrepreneur thinks big, dreams big, and wants to crush it in life, it’s easy for me to become a big fan and supporter. Finally, I favor early stage technology companies that are automated and transaction based.
How involved are you in the companies you invest in? What role do you play, aside from an investor, and what do you enjoy most about it?
I get as involved as makes sense on issues that I bring experience and expertise to the table, which typically revolve around monetization, user acquisition, and raising money. If I’m asked I also provide some perspective on hiring, firing, and most of the basic soup to nuts start-up hurdles. So my investment model is that (1) I make an investment, (2) I take a seat on the company’s board, and (3) I serve as a non-paid strategic advisor. In addition to my three-pronged model I also find that much of the value I add as an investor centers around being a mentor – since I’ve successfully built a technology company and exited to a publicly traded company there is quite a bit I learned along the way that I’m happy to share with the companies I invest in. In terms of enjoyment….sincerely, there is no place I’d rather spend my time professionally than working in a start-up environment with motivated and passionate entrepreneurs! The energy, dedication, and optimism that define a start-up environment is up there with attending a Tony Robbins conference, which I’ve done several times. Since Tony doesn’t host conferences 5 days a week I need to get my fix by investing in early stage technology companies – the buzz is comparable! Shit, I just busted my move and did the Tony clap – I feel like taking on the world. :)
Aside from founding and running successful businesses, you have found the time to write two books. Search Engine Optimization: Your visual blueprint for effective Internet marketing has received rave reviews on Amazon. After reading the reviews, I plan on ordering it to apply to my own sites. What lessons will website owners and developers learn from the book? How effective is it?
The success of the book has really exceeded my expectations – as the best-selling book on search engine marketing in the United States for the last three consecutive years the most common feedback I’ve received is that the book provides a strong (visual) blueprint of how to effectively rank better organically (versus paid on Google AdWords for instance) on search engines like Google. In short, when optimizing your Web site for search engines there are two primary areas of focus: (1) Onsite considerations (i.e., site architecture, tags) and (2) Offsite considerations (i.e., links). As “technical” as many people see search-engine optimization or SEO I hear that my book does a good job of boiling the topic down into readable language so that basically anyone that owns a Web site and regardless of their technical skill set can benefit from the book. Also, the book was written more as a “how to” guide instead of a book you need to read cover to cover to understand the full picture – the book is broken down into 15 chapters that can be read in any order the reader wants – while there was logic to ordering the chapters the book serves well as a reference guide. I’ve received overwhelmingly positive feedback from readers who’ve implemented many of the techniques and strategies I share in the book to increase search engine rankings. The book is available at bookstores across the country, online, and digitally on the kindle.
You were the President and CEO of Pepperjam, a company you founded in 1999. 10 Years later the company is sold to GSI Commerce …and eventually acquired by eBay. To what do you attribute your success in growing the company into such a valuable and attractive position?
A few things. First, in the late 1990’s I was lucky enough to be an early adopter of a number of emerging online marketing strategies, including pay-per-click marketing (pioneered by GoTo.com), search-engine optimization, and affiliate marketing. In 1999 I began using search and affiliate strategies to promote a family owned gourmet food business (Grandma Jones’ Originals Pepper Jam). Shortly thereafter (early 2000) I started to offer my internet marketing expertise to other businesses looking to leverage the growth of the internet. Second, as an early adopter of search engine and affiliate marketing I was able to build a reputation as a “super affiliate,” which provided a strong platform for me to launch Pepperjam – a full-service internet marketing agency (2003) and later Pepperjam Network – a next generation affiliate network.
Along the way I took great care in building a brand (Pepperjam) that thousands of people perceived as highly innovative. Seriously…there was one day (probably in 2006 or so) when I realized that Pepperjam had become a pretty household name within the affiliate and search marketing space. I realized the name had transcended my personal brand (although that had grown considerably as well) and that because of that we could do a lot of cool things and our followers would likely support it. When we launched Pepperjam Network in 2008 it only took about 6 months before Marketing Sherpa published a report saying Pepperjam was one of the top five largest affiliate networks in the United Stated. Again, the brand took on a life of it’s own.
When I look back I honestly think that the coolest thing we did with Pepperjam was create a high energy, innovative, disruptive brand – there were many times that people walked up to me and said you guys are totally awesome yet they didn’t seem to really know what we did…they just seemed to want to find a way to work with us. That’s what it’s all about!
I can tell you with the launch of my most recent business, ReferLocal.com, which is a local digital ad platform (plug and play) for traditional media companies…..I can already feel the new brand taking on a life of its own!
What lessons from your experiences with Pepperjam do you carry into KBJ Capital?
In general, my philosophy with KBJ Capital portfolio companies is to actively apply “what I know now that I didn’t know then.” In other words – I learned a lot during the 10 or so years I built Pepperjam and one of my primary focuses is to apply those experiences to everything I do today, from advising and investing in early stage technology companies to managing several businesses of my own. For instance, it took me several years to take action with properly setting up the HR functions and financial controls of Pepperjam – therefore, I strongly encourage all the companies I invest in to address HR and finance right out of the gate – I want my portfolio companies to get comfortable reviewing monthly P & L’s and understanding how to prepare to scale.
Do you have advice for entrepreneurs looking to get their businesses off the ground? What are the best ways to maximize the chances of receiving funding from investors?
First, think big. All start-up entrepreneurs should read the book “The Magic of Thinking Big” by David Schwartz. I’m a big believer that the most successful entrepreneurs don’t play by the rules….they are dreamers….think outside the box….and think big. Here’s a link to some of my other favorite books for entrepreneurs.
Second, leverage the wisdom of others who have succeeded before you. In other words, spend the requisite time early on establishing relationships with prospective advisors. Key advisors serve as a needed sounding board for you when you need it and provide real-time perspective that will ultimately save you time, open doors, and maximize your limited resources.
Third, if you want to raise money for your business build your personal brand. Call me crazy but I think most investors are like me – they invest in entrepreneurs, not business plans or ideas. Your personal brand is basically your reputation for past success and is a good predictor of your likelihood of future success. Are you an influencer? Are you a connector? Are you connected? Based on my experience the answers to these questions tend to correlate with business success and raising capital to support your business. In short, entrepreneurs who establish a reputation for influencing others (i.e. you are perceived as a leader in your community and by your peers), a connector (spend more time doing things for others than you do for yourself…such as connecting others to people who can help them), and are connected (you have a lot of people in your network and generally people like you) tend to have strong personal brands. With numerous online social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter you have many tools at your disposal to work on your personal brand and do things for others. I strongly advise that if you want to get funded…build your personal brand.