I guess it all started in that room I was renting in July of 2008 in Cambridge, MA, two blocks away from the Lechmere T station at one end of the Green Line. I found it on Craigslist and committed to it having seen only pictures. In the same apartment were two other couple-years-out-of-college kids doing the 20-something thing with jobs and girls and drinking.
19 months prior, in November of 2006, I'd quit my job as VP of Operations for a small but quickly growing SEO agency (in nine months, we had 23 employees and were operating at a 25% profit on a cash basis) started by Andy Beal - our second time working together. It was the second company I'd poured my heart and soul into, only to have it torched by the hubris of its highest leaders (Above Andy Beal. Andy was and still is amazing.).
With that, at the ripe age of 25, I'd quit my job and started consulting. Before I got to Boston, I'd lived in a van for three months while traveling the country, started SEO consulting, sold my house, put my stuff in storage and was now officially homeless. I'd decided to travel the country, renting one-month sublets. After Boston, I'd go to Chicago, Bellingham and Denver, before returning again to Boston, then Austin, then Seattle, and, finally, to Boulder, Colorado.
But back in Boston, I was feeling somewhat lost, but opportunistic as I looked at the possibilities that lay before me. I'd traveled the country, pushed the limits of working remotely and independently...I could do anything I wanted to. And I had only one question to answer on this trip:
What am I going to do with my life?
When I laid out the intersection of what I really enjoyed (finding patterns in large sets of data and solving unsolved problems) with the context of where I had a reputation, network, and experience (SEO and Link Building), it was becoming clear to me that "the link building problem" was one that hadn't been solved well.
Because of my experience a few years prior as the Director of Search Marketing at an agency with 1,400 clients, I'd already been thinking about how to design a link building solution that was scalable and customizable. I knew that you couldn't put every client through the same process. It had to be customizable. And it needed to work with and analyze large sets of data to get the best results possible.
I made the decision right then, about two to three weeks into July of 2008, to build a link building technology that worked with large sets of data, and was also customizable for each and every customer.And that's the moment that Ontolo was born.
Because I'd stopped taking on consulting clients a few months prior, time was running out on getting Ontolo created, out the door, and generating revenue. I remember when I was in Denver that November, I was running so low on cash and waiting on a check from a side project that I'd over-drafted my checking account while buying a burrito. It was my $37 burrito. And still more than a month before we'd even pitch a customer...
Around this time, Garrett French and I had been talking about each of our projects. I had hired him a few years prior at the large agency and we'd remained friends. We'd both been consulting for some time and had been wanting to work together. Ontolo proved to be a great opportunity for that; I wanted to work on the technology and could sell, he wanted to execute campaigns and could write.
In December of 2008, we made a couple pitches and got our first clients, sealing the deal with the link building technology that I'd Frankensteined together over the previous six months.
For the next two and a half years, we worked on a lot of agency projects. He'd market Ontolo, I'd land large projects with price tags bigger than either of us had thought possible and keep working at the technology, and he'd execute the campaigns. All along the way, we were leveraging our experience executing link building campaigns to tweak the technology and put together tools to make the process that much easier and faster for us.
In April of 2010, we released the Ontolo tool as a web-based service. And when I say web-based, you had some forms you could fill out, and I still ran a lot of stuff manually. We'll get to how I "designed" it in a minute...
For the next several months, I'd manually run crawls, data collection, and analyses using 12 1U servers I'd bought in Silicon Valley and drove back to Austin in my Honda Civic. I'd build the databases each week and upload them to the web server...it was pretty painful. And in that Texas summer heat, the second bedroom in my apartment that those 10 servers took up got mighty toasty.
That July, Andy Davidoff was passing through Austin. Andy and I have known each other since I DJed at my best friend's high school graduation party in 1999. Andy and I were both DJs and, not long after, would become great friends with lots of stories in the rave/DJ days that you'll most likely never hear. ;-)
He'd quit his job at Second Life a few months prior and was now driving around the continent, living out of his Toyota 4Runner, hiking, seeing National Parks and all that stuff.
Now, there are three things that everyone who knows Andy, knows to be true. First, He's the funniest person they know. Second, he knows more about music than anyone else. And, third, he's the smartest, hardest worker they know.
While Andy was at Linden Lab (Second Life), he worked on a single project, alone, for eighteen months where he built some sort of operating system and software to manage the 7,000+ servers they had. Which sounds straightforward until you understand that his software managed tons of OS and software configurations across almost any piece of hardware that was dropped into the network. Before, you would have to build hardware-specific operating systems, then configure it for how it was used (dev environment, front-end server, etc). With his software, it just kinda all took care of itself.
Before Second Life, he worked at Vonage and was one of a handful of people they would send all over the world to physically build out their networks and get them set up and configured properly. So, he knows some stuf...
Back to the story...
So Andy stopped by and stayed with me for about a week and a half while he was in Austin. I was asking him about some programming stuff with Ontolo. I'm not much of a developer and I knew that all of my code was terribly written, the database designs were incredibly inefficient, the whole thing was highly insecure, and it was not-at-all scalable.
Luckily, Andy took a look at the code...for eight days...
...and rewrote everything...
At the end of those eight days, everything was running on three servers that were at a hosting facility (as opposed to 12 in my apartment office), we'd moved from MySQL's fulltext search to Solr/Lucene, we were collecting third party data from Amazon and SEOmoz, we were properly using proxies instead of Tor...and it was secure. And it definitely scaled. And it was definitely automated.
It would take us months to get the front-end to catch up to the work he did on the backend. And in October of 2010, we released it to the world.
By the grace of God, Andy decided to join Ontolo after his continental road trip was done at the end of the year.
It was always my intention to have Ontolo be a SaaS product. I never liked agency work. I wasn't good at it. I found it hard to assess what I could promise and what I could actually do (and failed on a number of commitments). And I only and always saw it as a means to an end.
Through the Spring of 2011, Garrett and I had been pushing in different directions. He saw huge opportunities for us as an agency. I saw huge opportunities for us as a SaaS provider.
By April of 2011, it was clear we were going in different directions and decided to part ways. We decided to stop offering agency services and focus wholly on our SaaS product, the Link Building Toolset. Today, Garrett has, as expected, been very successful with his new company, Citation Labs.
From April of 2011 until today, the Link Building Toolset has been our number one priority and focus. We continue to push ourselves in terms of design and development and are looking at 2013 being a landmark year for us.
Andy and I have both moved to Colorado; me to Boulder and Andy to a log cabin in the mountains of Colorado where it's a 30 minute drive to the grocery store.
Until then, super perfundo on the early eve of your day.
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