The Small Business Leader You Have Probably Never Met





There’s someone in Houston, Texas who you’ve probably never met. But he is a very influential person in the world of small business.

Last week I finally got to meet the elusive Robert Clough. And his supportive wife, Heidi.

 

Robert Clough operates a family of small business sites under the umbrella of the Small Business Answers network.

It includes Small Business Brief (a social media sharing site), the Small Business Ideas Forum, and Search Engine Guide. Recently it was expanded to include the Small Business Marketing Unleashed Conference.

The Quintessential Virtual Small Business

Robert’s business fits the definition of a virtual small business. He runs it from his laptop. He doesn’t have a headquarters office. No warehouses or plant facilities. Just a laptop and his favorite chair in the living room. There’s not much in the way of overhead. Most services, such as hosting and Web design, are outsourced.

Unlike many who run content websites, Robert did not start out as a blogger. In fact, he doesn’t appear to be a big writer on his sites. Much of the writing is done by Jennifer Laycock, Editor in Chief of Search Engine Guide, or comes from members of the community.

The people in the company are spread out. Jennifer is located in Columbus, Ohio, as is Rachel Phillips, the Business Development Manager for Search Engine Guide.

How Come You’ve Never Heard of Robert?

You know what they say: on the Internet no one knows you’re a dog.

I had corresponded via email with Robert for nearly 4 years but only just met him last week at the Small Business Marketing Unleashed Conference. In fact, it was only recently that I even saw an avatar photo of him.

I was beginning to think he didn’t exist. In fact, I was beginning to think it was that cute puppy dog on the site running the show. (See puppy logo below.) Maybe the dog just put up a fake photo of a human as a front. πŸ™‚

Turns out, I wasn’t the only one. I asked some of the movers and shakers of the small-business-SEO world if they had ever met Robert before last week’s Conference. Most said “no.”

Just joking around, I asked his business partner, Jennifer Laycock, when she first realized Robert was for real. Without missing a beat she said, “last August.”

Come to find out, Jennifer had been working for Robert since 2004 but only met him in the flesh nine months ago. Jennifer now shares ownership of the company with Robert and his wife.

So meanwhile, during breaks at the Conference, I managed to interview Robert about his intriguing “virtual business.”

A Passion for Entrepreneurship Leads to His Own Business

Robert spent his early years in Texas, then moved around a lot, only to return to Texas as soon as he could at the age of 18.

Robert is a work-at-home dad. He got his start online by building links for businesses in the 1990s. “I was able to start the company because my wife, Heidi, provided a steady income while the company produced very little revenue. Heidi was always supportive and never complained about the sacrifices we had to make to keep it going in the early years. There are two people I credit for the success of our company, my wife Heidi and Jennifer Laycock. If it wasn’t for them you wouldn’t be interviewing me.”

Like many Internet entrepreneurs, Robert does not work in a trendy office with Aeron chairs in Silicon Valley. He lives and works in the countryside, outside of Houston.

Says Robert, “My wife just recently got her living room back. For years it was overrun with my computers but now I just do everything from my laptop.”

Robert says he always was fascinated with the idea of Mom-and-Pop small businesses, subscribing to Inc magazine from the age of 16. He always wanted to start his own business.

How Has the Business Developed?

Robert’s fascination with small businesses led him to build out his own sites covering small business. Here’s a timeline:

1998 – Started Search Engine Guide as a list of search engines.

1999 – Transformed Search Engine Guide into an informational site with newsletters.

2004 – Started Small Business Brief, a compilation of the best articles on small business issues, along with a weekly newsletter. Started the Small Business Ideas Forum, a discussion board about small business issues.

2004 — Hired Jennifer Laycock as Editor of Search Engine Guide.

2006 — Added an eBook, the “Small Business Guide to Search Marketing.”

2007 – Jennifer Laycock gains ownership in the company.

2007 – Transformed Small Business Brief into a social media voting site (Digg-style, but friendlier), where you “Fetch” small-business stories you like.

2008 – Launched the first Small Business Marketing Unleashed Conference.

2008 – Is in the midst of launching Small Business Answers, the umbrella domain for the entire family of sites.

The Small Business Answers business model has gradually expanded into multiple revenue streams. The business model consists of 3 main pieces:

  • Advertising sales on the Web properties
  • Sales of the Search Marketing ebook product
  • Income from the Unleashed Conference

Which is the bread and butter income, I asked? According to Robert most of the revenue comes from advertising … and the spare change he picks up in parking lots.

What’s with the Puppy Dog Theme?

Puppy, of Small Business AnswersPuppy is the cute puppy-dog logo with the hypnotic eyes on the Small Business Answers websites. So let’s get the dirt on Puppy:

1. Puppy is a girl

2. Puppy is a Rottweiler (the kind of dogs Robert has)

3. Attendess at the Conference agreed that Puppy has hypnotic eyes. When you blow up Puppy into a giant banner, those eyes really stand out.

4. Oh, and Puppy’s real name is Roo (named after Jennifer’s dog). But she answers to Puppy, too.

Why a puppy? Robert said, “We know online marketing can be intimidating for small business owners. The same can be said of Rottweilers. Both can seem intimidating and unapproachable … at first … but if you’ve got a friend who will introduce you, you quickly learn they’re not so scary after all. We felt like Puppy embodied the concept of introducing someone to something they feared in a way that suddenly made it seem safe and approachable.”

What’s Next for the Small Business Answers family of sites?

Robert and Jennifer are in it for the long haul. They are thrilled with the turnout for their first Conference event, including the strong sponsor support they got (8 corporate sponsors) and speaker involvement (10 well-known industry speakers). They have plans to offer the Small Business Marketing Unleashed Conference again next year. In the meantime, they’re focused on continuing to build up the great content at their existing sites and on preparing the umbrella Small Business Answers site for a launch later this year.

21 Comments ▼

Anita Campbell


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.

21 Reactions

  1. Mark Anderson

    That’s so inspiring! And the puppy IS hypnotic. (Maybe that’s why the conference was so well attended?) πŸ™‚

    I’d love to check it out next year!

  2. Shirley George Frazier

    Solo Business Marketing

    What a wonderful look at the makings of a great business. And the puppy is precious.

    I can tell, from what you share here, Anita, that Robert has much more insight that will benefit all of us.

    The timeline insights are terrific and a piece of the puzzle I believe all businesses must create to track their progression.

  3. Anita Campbell

    Hi Shirley (Solo Business Marketing),

    Robert definitely has a lot of insight — and foresight.

    I was so intrigued with the fact that he has had a fascination with small businesses, even subscribing to Inc magazine at age 16. Now, there are a lot of publications I can think of a 16-year old subscribing to, but Inc doesn’t come first to mind. So that tells you something right there about Robert.

    Anita

  4. This is a great interview and a great recap of the how hard Robert, Heidi and Jennifer have all worked to make Search Engine Guide a successful, stable business. Like any small business owner, there’s a lot of heart and soul that goes into your creations. Robert is the epitome of this. He puts everything he has into what important in his life.

    Great article, Anita! And I’m proud of you, Robert! πŸ™‚

  5. You know Anita, I have often wondered about the elusive Robert. This is great!!! = )

    -Shama

  6. Anita Campbell

    I had a lot of fun writing this profile. Robert and his wife are the nicest people — really wonderful.

    Robert also introduced us to Kolache, which are little meat-stuffed buns. They served them at the conference one morning. I had heard of kolachi, but in northern Ohio kolachi are stuffed cookies, not breakfast sandwiches. So it was a totaly new thing.

    Just another bit of trivia that didn’t make it into the final article …. It’s the kind of trivia that makes interactions so rich and multi-faceted.

    — Anita

  7. Thank you for introducing us to Robert and Jennifer. I have been over to Small Business Brief tons of times and it’s great to hear the story behind it’s founder. It sounds like he’s been motivated in small business from an early age.

  8. Hello Robert! So nice to finally see your face. Fellow Rottie owner here, too, and I must say that I just love Puppy. Everytime I’m over at the forum, Puppy, brings a smile to my face and makes me think of my Rottie. And I also love the concept behind Puppy. I can totally relate to that with my experiences with my Rottie. Here’s a tips for those eyes, too. Try placing a tiny white dot as a focal point within them. Maybe toward the upper right hand side – like she’s looking up and to her right. It will help take away that hypnotic look (although I still really love her!)

  9. Great, great writeup Anita. I agree and love both Robert and Jennifer for their contributions to small businesses and because they are just two fun, wonderful people. Loved this! πŸ™‚

  10. Robert is simply one of the nicest and most generous people you could hope to meet. I’ve been privileged to help out at Search Engine Guide by writing the occasional article and helping moderate the forum there. The whole group is wonderful, and Robert’s built a great team.

  11. I’m really honored to have been interviewed by Anita and finally meeting her was great fun. You never know what to expect when you meet someone of Anita’s stature so I was a bit nervous. I immediately realized I had nothing to be nervous about. Anita is such a charismatic person but in a very gentle and peaceful way. She has a great sense of humor and I absolutely love her laugh. Spending time with her is just… fun.

    So, thank you Anita for the opportunity and I’m really looking forward to seeing you again.

    And thank you so much to everyone here for your amazingly kind and encouraging words! You have no idea how much I appreciate your comments and the fact that you visit our sites. Finally, my being a business nerd is a good thing! πŸ˜›

    Hi Staci and thanks for the idea of creating a focal point. If anyone would like to see Staci’s baby, Nadja, just look at this picture: http://www.smallbusinessbrief.com/photopost/showphoto.php?photo=152
    Staci’s final comment describing Nadja is just the best: “She’s my buddy and my best friend.” You’d have to have a heart of stone not to love that quote. πŸ™‚

  12. Oops, not sure what happened with the words getting spread out like that.

  13. It’s great to hear that 2 successful business people can admire each other so much. Puppy is my favorite part of the sites as well. Being a dod lover myself, it adds a nice relaxed atmosphere to the sites. I would also be interested in hearing other info from the conference.

  14. Oops, I meant dog, not dod. πŸ™‚

  15. Hi Don. You can find links to the various session notes within the following article

    http://www.searchengineguide.com/jennifer-laycock/small-business-marketing-unleashed-we-mi.php

    The main page for the conference is here –

    http://unleashed.smallbusinessanswers.com/

    Cheers to Robert and Jennifer! the best.

  16. Martin Lindeskog

    The “comfy chair revolution” is here…

  17. LOL, that is great Martin. I need to have a tshirt made with that phrase. πŸ™‚

  18. This is a great interview! I love the way Robert honors his wife and business partners — obviously he knows how to treat people right. I also like how he developed his business in steady step by step manner. In today’s hyped up society, that is quite a hard thing to do.

    Thank you, Anita, for sharing this interview.

  19. My neighbor and her 7 year old daughter who were playing in the snow in the front yard whip their heads around like the dramatic chipmunk. ,

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