What some business leaders might consider risks, Amanda Huntington sees as opportunities. She knows that to position her company for long-term growth and success, she’ll sometimes have to make decisions that, short term, seem rather daunting.
“Probably the biggest challenge that we’ve had is really being faced with decisions that weren’t always simple decisions. They would have put us in a position or they did put us in a position where we might have had to lose market share in the short term or spend money that we didn’t really want to spend at the time to make those decisions, but it was because we knew that in the long-haul they would be the right things for us,” says Huntington, co-founder and CFO of IntegraClick LLC. “They would give us the longevity that we were looking for, and it was the right thing to do for our publishers or for our advertisers and for the people we serve and work with every single day.”
Business decisions are rarely black and white, but the key to setting your company up for growth and market competitiveness is knowing how and when to make the tough calls or take calculated risks that will better your business. It’s by making these decisions that Huntington and her business partner, John Lemp, have built IntegraClick and its operating cost-per-action (CPA) network, Clickbooth LLC, from a start-up in 2002 into a thriving online marketing solutions business, topping multiple lists as one of Tampa’s fastest growing companies and generating 2010 revenues of $120 million.
However, before you make any big decision affecting your business, you first need evidence to back it up.
Build a case
There’s a big difference between being a risk-taker with your business and just making risky decisions. To determine where there is potential to improve your business you have to keep a constant watch on changes, trends and issues affecting your industry.
“We spend a great deal of time trying to keep our finger on the pulse of the industry and looking at ‘What have we heard? What are publishers talking about? What’s the next thing coming down the pipeline?’” Huntington says. “But also, ‘What are our competitors doing that maybe we could do better? How can they challenge us?’… It gives us a great ability to better ourselves all the time, because the competition is pretty fierce.”
For example, several years ago Huntington and Lemp noticed a certain type of incentivized marketing being used was making some advertisers unhappy. After looking into the issue further, they realized it was also losing them some clients and volume by not converting well to customers.
“We would talk regularly and it keeps coming up,” Huntington says. “Every month from an accounting side, I can see that clients didn’t like having to pay for the traffic, weren’t happy with the quality etc. … It just became sort of an obvious thing.”
Often when she’s facing a major decision affecting the company, Huntington brings in her top people from key departments to think through the issue from all sides.
“We’re trying to really integrate all of the relevant parties into the bigger decisions, because they’ve been here a long time,” she says. “They’ve escalated to these positions that they are in. They know how things work. They know the industry better than most, so I want their opinion, and at the same time, I want them to know mine so we can come together on the best thing for the network as whole.
“If it’s a marketing-related issue, I’m going to bring in the heads of the marketing team and John and say, ‘OK, tell me what you know, because I want to get this from all angles. What are the possible rewards that this could bring us?’ I may be able to say, ‘Here are some of the concerns I have, but tell me more about what you think of this long term.’”
When considering how to move your company forward, it’s important to understand the risks and rewards of making a change, but also the consequences of doing nothing. Huntington says she always weighs the long-term benefit over the short-term setback when making a tough decision. In the case of incentivized marketing, the benefit of eliminating the marketing type at IntegraClick seemed to outweigh the setback of losing a few clients.
“We did some homework and we looked at how much it was going to affect us or what we thought it would affect,” Huntington says. “We felt like we could come through it, because it would probably be a fairly short-term issue.
Being among the first companies to make a change seems scary when you’re thinking about how it can impact your revenue, customers and growth. But you can’t simply wait for change to happen; you have to drive it yourself.
“The industry is constantly evolving,” Huntington says. “So what we might have been accepting of in 2004, we’ve realized that’s not a good long-term plan now.”
Though there’s nothing wrong with conservative thinking, simply going with the status quo can be the biggest risk of all, because if you wait too long to adapt your business as needed, especially in a competitive industry, you’ll be left behind.
“We try very hard to proactively look at what our customers need,” Huntington says. “Where are the holes that need to be filled? Of those holes, can we fill all of those? And if we can’t, what is the one thing that we can do most successfully, or the two things that we are going to be the best at?
“That’s the reason we’ve been successful, there’s always been that push. In order to survive in this industry, and what’s really kept us going, is the ability to adapt. I think that’s something any new business needs to recognize and not be afraid of. It’s recognizing that there can be room for improvement, learning from mistakes, adapting and not letting yourself get buried by the fact that maybe you can’t, or you don’t want to or that it’s a scary thing.”
Once you’ve discovered an area where your business can be better, whether it’s in customer service, employee relations, best practices or processes, you’ve got to be willing to take the steps necessary to act when action is needed, even if it means doing it alone. It’s by adapting proactively that companies set the pace for their competition and become industry leaders.
After Huntington and Lemp saw that customers were increasingly unhappy with the incentivized marketing, they didn’t wait for their peers to take action, they went ahead and eliminated it from IntegraClick’s network completely.
“We were the first network to go out and say, ‘We’re going to stop this,” Huntington says. “We don’t want to be involved with this type of marketing anymore. It’s just not a long-term success plan for any of our clients. They are not happy with it. Even though it lost us a significant chunk of our revenue at the time, all the other networks followed suit within a year. As a whole, it’s just not even on the map anymore as a marketing type. It’s really cleaned up and improved the industry.
“While it did hurt for a little while, it actually gave other advertisers and our current advertisers a little more faith in using our network versus another one that still allowed it, because they knew that the quality they would get from us was going to be significantly better. So in the long term, it brought us additional volume and made up for that short-term lag.”
However, change can’t just be a reaction to something that’s wrong. Even successful business models can become stagnant and obsolete if they aren’t set up for continuous improvement.
“Within the company we always train for that: ‘If this isn’t working, what else can we do?’” Huntington says. “Be creative. Find those alternatives so that you are never having to shut a door or close out a client. If we can make it work, we will.
Stick to your guns
Sometimes a good long-term business decision carries some short-term hardship, and as your company experiences a negative effect on profits, client retention and so on, you may start to question if you made the right choice. Yet by doubling back on a tough decision, you risk losing even more, such as the trust and confidence of your employees and customers as well as credibility. If you can’t trust in your own decision-making, how will others?
That’s why it’s extremely important to research and be clear about the consequences of a decision upfront, so once you’ve looked at the evidence and weighed the risk, you can commit to the decision either way, 100 percent.
“If we make a change, we just really stick by it,” Huntington says. “We go out there with a firm stance and do a press release. We push forward as a team and as a unit. Everyone is on board and anybody who wants to come back to us or wants to work with us will have to abide by the new policy.”
For instance, when Huntington and Lemp recognized the lack of compliance standards in CPA advertising, they ultimately decided to release their own compliance guidelines for IntegraClick clients. Though the partners knew none of their competitors had compliance guidelines, they confidently enforced the new guidelines strictly with every client, no exceptions. Those clients that didn’t or couldn’t comply were no longer in the network.
“When we changed over to the next compliance standards, everyone pretty much told us we were crazy,” Huntington says.
“We did lose clients, who just may have been in the pipeline already just getting something going, and they didn’t want to have to make the changes and someone else would pick them up without those changes.”
It’s not easy to take risks when you know full well it’s going to cost you a client or a chunk of revenue, but if you’ve done your research, you’ll take comfort in knowing that the decision is the best one for your business in the end.
“That’s one of those decisions where it’s not an easy decision, but you know you have to do it because at the end of the day, you want to be around,” Huntington says. “When some of those other competitors might take the traffic, you might lose the market share to them, but they may not be around.
“We released those compliance guidelines, and anybody that came into the network had to stick with them. That’s just an example of the difference between us and some of our competitors. We make those proactive changes and it’s to be able to better our network for our advertisers. We are known throughout the industry as the network with the best quality, because we have done those things proactively to try and reduce any fraud that might happen, keeping any sort of garbage out of the network.
“I absolutely feel that we’ve found our direction and we’ve been able to rise to the top of the network market because of the way we’ve handled so many of these situations. …We’re still changing. We’re still adapting. We’re always trying to better our network.”
HOW TO REACH: IntegraClick LLC, (941) 584-6543 or www.integraclick.com
The Huntington File
Co-founder and CFO
IntegraClick LLC and Clickbooth LLC
Born: Glens Falls, N.Y.
Education: State University of New York at Geneseo
What do you like most about your job?
I love everything. It’s kind of hard to pinpoint because I’ve been here from the beginning. It’s amazing to actually see what this has become. Going from an apartment and working out of an apartment when we first got going to be able to look at all this. … I feel a lot of pride just because I’m proud of the people who have come on board and actually helped build this, all the people that have been with us for a long time, all of our executives that have risen to their positions. For me, it’s kind of watching this grow up. That’s really the most rewarding part of this job.
What is your definition of success?
Success is being true to yourself, and being happy with that at the end of the day. I also think the most successful people are probably very tired, because my most successful moments are usually the culmination of a great deal of hard work and many hours spent, whether I'm working to implement a new process at the office or putting together a family dinner, when it's all said and done well and as I planned, I sleep the most soundly. ... It’s never defined by money or a job title, but by whether you can look at yourself in the mirror when you are alone or in a quiet moment, and feel happy with who you are and the effort you give to whatever you do every day.