A Q&A with BrandYourself.com co-founder and CEO Patrick Ambron. The Syracuse, New York–based company was founded in 2010 and won the ‘Best Bootstrapped Startup’ award at the last SXSW accelerator event. It has raised $1.2 million in outside funding from investors that include Carl Schramm, former head of the Kauffman Foundation, and Barney Pell, founder of Powerset.
SUB: Please describe what BrandYourself is, and the value proposition you bring to reputation management.
Ambron: BrandYourself.com is the first do-it-yourself platform that makes it easy for anyone to take control of their own Google results. The system helps users boost positive content—like LinkedIn or a personal website—to the top of search results and bury results that are negative, irrelevant or about someone else with the same name.
SUB: Who are your target users?
Ambron: You will be Googled—75 percent of HR departments are required to Google candidates, 80 million names are Googled a day—so the short answer is everybody should be actively managing and improving their search results. That said we help people with certain problems: you have something embarrassing in Google you need to bury; you are being mistaken for somebody else with the same name; you need more visibility…you don’t exist at all in Google.
SUB: Who do you consider to be your competition?
Ambron: Before BrandYourself if you wanted to improve your search results you needed to pay a reputation company thousands of dollars a year to do it for you. Those competitors appeal to a very small corner of the market who a) have something very negative out there about them they need taken care of; and b) have the money to pay someone else to manage that process for them. We, on the other hand, appeal to a much larger market who want to look better online but aren’t willing or able to pay thousands, but happy to do it themselves.
SUB: What differentiates BrandYourself from the competition?
Ambron: [We’re] for people, not businesses. The problem with reputation companies is that they use the same model on people as they do for businesses, which have much more complicated and expensive needs. For the average person who’s just trying to control the search results for their own name, it simply doesn’t make sense to pay a company thousands of dollars.
Since we’re the only product concentrated solely on helping people control the search results for their name, we’re able to cut out needless complexity and focus on creating a simple, effective solution that’s easy for anybody to use.
We’re simple and DIY—since we believe it’s not sustainable, affordable or even necessary to have an entire team of ‘search engine scientists’ improve your own search results for you, we simplified the process to make it easy and fun for anyone to do themselves.
We’re free—part of our mission is to help every individual take control of their own search results with no price barrier. That’s why our basic features are 100 percent free and our premium features are incredibly affordable—just a few bucks a month.
We’re transparent and White Hat—unfortunately, many reputation companies will sometimes use ‘black hat’ techniques that help in the short-term but ultimately get you banned from Google once detected. With BrandYourself, you never have to worry about that. We’re completely open and transparent about our process, and only use ‘White Hat’ techniques approved by search engines. In fact, many of the people behind our company have founded, worked or still work as executives for the most popular search engines in the world.
SUB: When was the company founded and what were the first steps you took in establishing it?
Ambron: BrandYourself was founded in 2010 by Pete Kistler, Evan Watson and me in Syracuse, New York. The first thing we did was make sure that everyone was fully committed to the project. Pete and Evan took a leave of absence from school, and I made sure I didn’t have anything to fall back on. We identified things we could change to help average people dealing with search issues and mapped out ways to make changes. We created an early version of BrandYourself.com, but we couldn’t handle the response of thousands of users who wanted better search results about themselves. So we raised about $1.2 million from, among others, Carl Schramm, former head of the Kauffman Foundation, and Barney Pell, whose search-engine company, Powerset, was sold to Microsoft. We used that money to put together a team of software engineers from online dating service companies, where reputation management is a big part of the game.
SUB: What was the inspiration behind the idea for BrandYourself? Was there an ‘aha’ moment, or was the idea more gradual in developing?
Ambron: We got the idea for BrandYourself.com when Pete couldn’t get an internship in college because he was being mistaken for a drug dealer with the same name on Google. I had a background in SEO and was able to help fix Pete’s results. But we couldn’t stop thinking about the millions of other people with the same problem. A case of mistaken online identity can damage someone’s online reputation, putting first dates and job interviews in serious jeopardy. Unless you are willing to spend thousands of dollars on a reputation company, there is nothing you can do. BrandYourself.com decided to put the power of SEO in everybody’s hands, regardless of how tech savvy or wealthy they might be.
SUB: What have the most significant obstacles been so far to building the company?
Ambron: One of the biggest obstacles has been building the right team. I’m a strong believer in building the best team possible and not settling for anything less. That’s because we know firsthand how hard it is to operate when you don’t have all the expertise needed. When we first started, while I had a background in SEO and Pete was a great designer, we had no experience building software. We iterated the first version of our products, and they came out slow, laggy and un-scalable. As we got more and more users, we knew the whole thing was going to fall apart. We became determined to attract some of the best engineers in the space.
However, it’s not always easy to attract the best talent to a startup with 22-year-old founders based in Syracuse, New York with no real funding, at the time. That said, I found out exactly who I wanted—someone in the online dating space. When Singlesnet got sold to Match.com after growing to over eight million users in about two years, I started courting their founder and CTO. After a long process, I got him to really believe and get behind our mission and product, and he came on as our VP of engineering. Lucky for us, he brought three lead guys from Match.com with him, giving us a world-class team. I can’t overstate how important that’s been, and it was just a matter of making it one of the most important priorities in the company and not settling for less.
SUB: You recently won the Best Bootstrapped Startup award at the SXSW accelerator event. What effect has this had on the company/your business?
Ambron: The press has been tremendous for us. We have an incredibly simple but important value proposition: When people Google your name, make sure they find positive and accurate information. It’s something everybody can relate to and understand. Many people have experienced some sort of Google problem themselves. As soon as somebody hears about us, they come and sign up and our product does the rest. Press is an unbelievable way to reach a lot of people, so our metrics in terms of getting users and customers is off the charts. I try to get as much press as possible, and SXSW has really helped fuel that.
SUB: Do you plan to raise more outside funding in the near future?
Ambron: While we aren’t actively raising money right now, and we’ll be cash flow positive again this year, it’s quite possible we’ll raise a round at the end of the year, for adoption and customer acquisition purposes. To be honest, we are laser-focused on improving the product and getting customers, and that&r
squo;s all the team is thinking about right now.
SUB: What are your goals for BrandYourself over the next year or so?
Ambron: Whether you like it or not, people are Googling and forming opinions about you based on what they find. It’s absurd that in the past, to manage your own results, you had to pay a reputation company thousands of dollars every single year. Everybody should be actively improving and managing their own search results, and now by signing up for a free BrandYourself.com account, everybody can.
Our goal is to get our product into everybody’s hands. For us that means over 250,000 free users by the end of the year, and thousands of paying premium subscribers.
BrandYourself – www.brandyourself.com