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. :) 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 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.