The Acquisition of Reviews.com
In early 2011, we acquired the domain name, Reviews.com, from a company that was using the name for a computing reviews business. Before we acquired the domain name, the company that owned it was not really utilizing the name -- at least not as a brand. So, our objective was to get our hands on the name so that we could build a world-class media brand for consumer focused reviews.
We didn’t need to have a clear business model in place in order to get going and to recognize the value of the opportunity. The business strategy was no different than what we had all been doing for years. We weren’t exactly sure what angle we would take with Reviews.com, but we were excited to dive in and figure it out.
The Reviews.com Minimum Viable Product
Around September of 2012 we started working on the Reviews.com product and content strategy, but we really had no idea where to start. If you think about how broad the name is, you’ll realize that we could start anywhere. At the time, we thought it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to work with an asset like that, and we don’t feel any different today!
We got into the trenches and we came up with all kinds of great ideas. It was important to us that we create the most useful product possible and the ultimate reviews site. Our original motives were driven from the concept that online reviews are very broken. There was a lot of press out there at the time about the problem of fake and biased reviews. We wanted to figure out how to make the very best reviews site that people could trust.
However, there is a problem with having all kinds of great ideas and coming up with ways to build the best product that people can trust. You quickly realize the amount of work and resources it will take. It’s also entirely possible that the best product in our minds may not be what our users consider to be the best product. With a limited budget and resources, in addition to our realization that we didn’t know what the best product for our users will be, we decided to build a minimum viable product. We built it as fast as we could with very clear objectives in mind.
By December of 2012, we launched our minimum viable product with 5 vertical categories: project management software, online stock trading software, CRM software, photo editing software, and property management software.
Marketing Reviews.com and Gathering Data
There were two very clear objectives we knew that we had to achieve in order to get any benefit out of a minimum viable product:
1. We needed to get more categories live on Reviews.com as fast as possible, while continuing to focus on quality. While we definitely simplified our product, it has always been important to us that we publish high quality, accurate content. Minimum viable product never meant that we take short cuts and publish garbage on the Internet. We knew that scaling even what we considered to be a minimum viable product would not be easy.
2. We needed to get our content in front of as many people as possible so that we could gather the data to determine what the optimal product and review style would be for our users.
3. We needed to find a way to gain financial stability so that once we do figure out what we need to build, we will have the resources needed to build it.
For a good portion of 2013, we focused on those three objectives. We have a strong background in search marketing, so naturally that was our method for getting people to our website. As we figured out how to scale our categories and create more reviews we also promoted our content and worked on marketing campaigns. Making money didn’t come easy, but we also knew how to do that. Once we started establishing traffic, we were able to generate revenue.
The Simple Dollar and Formation of Soda
Reviews.com originally started within an incubator company that went by the name of Soda. The idea behind Soda at the time was that this particular group of investors and advisors would invest into various online publishing companies. They would utilize their resources, knowledge, and funding to help a small group of Co-Founders for each company get started. It was more of a hands-on version of the popular startup incubators you hear about all around the country. They decided to call it Soda because they had a chance to acquire Soda.com, and figured it would be a fun/hip name for the group looking to invest into cool opportunities.
The Simple Dollar
One of the properties that Soda previously acquired for another one of these incubator companies was TheSimpleDollar.com. It was acquired from the original founder, Trent, who to this day is still a big part of the site. Originally, it was a frugal living and personal finance blog. Our investors saw an opportunity to build this blog into a bigger site within the coupon and deal space, which is what the other company was focused on. Things didn’t work out for that company, so The Simple Dollar ended up just sitting around for a long time with nobody working on it.
Our board of advisors and investors saw an opportunity to get the Reviews.com team to work on The Simple Dollar and take it to the next level. We were having some success with the things we were doing on Reviews.com. We had done a lot of work in a short amount of time with a very small team. Since a lot of our competences aligned with what could be done on The Simple Dollar, it just made sense. Aside from that, it was another opportunity to get closer to financial stability because there were some revenue opportunities on the site that Reviews.com didn’t have.
The New Soda
As we worked through both The Simple Dollar and Reviews.com, the Soda Board decided that the original vision for Soda had completely changed, and that the Reviews.com founding team was effectively the new Soda. We had taken it and turned it into something completely different than originally intended. At this point, there was no other incubator companies, and it became clear that the incubator model didn’t make sense. We were attempting to solve all the problems that needed to be solved within online publishing. It didn’t make sense to have other companies that would be trying to solve those same problems.
Our small Co-Founding team of Reviews.com became the Co-Founding team of the new Soda. We had a vision of what it would one day become and set out to start building the foundation.
Our Race to Financial Stability
As we began to work on The Simple Dollar, we started to see that there were some big revenue opportunities on the website. Between The Simple Dollar and Reviews.com, we were starting to close in on financial stability. We knew that the only way we could deliver the quality level of content that our users deserve and keep it updated (all at scale), was if we had the funds to reinvest into our editorial, products, and tools. We didn’t want to raise funds to get to this point, so we put it on our back to get to profitability by Q1 of 2015.
Still working with a very small team, we focused in on opportunities that could help us grow our revenue so that we could grow our team and reinvest into building what needed to be built. In February of 2014 we had our first profitable month. At the same time, we were able to grow our traffic and collect enough data and feedback to get a much better understanding of what we need to build moving forward.
Establishing Our Mission and Values on Paper
Working on two properties, with aspirations of one day having even more properties, we knew that we had to really start thinking through what we wanted to do with Soda and where we wanted to take the company. We needed to figure out our purpose. We also needed to clearly outline who we wanted to work with in order to accomplish our mission. Now that we had a much better idea of what our vision was for our products, we had to nail down the details.
A big part of what needed to happen was that we had to clearly establish our mission and our values so that we could use those as guides in our decision making progress. Each of us spent a lot of time really thinking through this concept of a mission and core values. We have each had a fair amount of experience hiring and working with lots of different types of people. It was clear to us what types of people we wanted to worth with going forward. We wanted to work with people that shared our values. The only problem was that we didn’t quite know how to get our values down on paper.
After many iterations and deep thought, we finally got our core values to a foundational point of establishment. In addition, we really felt it was important to clearly describe our mission and point of existence. In thinking through that, we came to the conclusion that we truly value excellence and that we were not going to accept anything less than our best. Our users and readers deserve that and so does anybody else we come in contact with.
The Addition of the 3rd Leg: Freshome
As we continued to grow Reviews.com and The Simple Dollar, we ended up with an opportunity to add a third property to our business. We acquired Freshome.com in January of 2015. Our goal with Freshome is to turn it into a destination for all things home related. Right now, it is a popular blog about interior design and architecture.
Today and Beyond
As time goes by, we continue to aggressively pursue the growth of Soda. Our biggest lever right now is to add talented people to our teams. Each of our three businesses are growing fast, and have a number of positions open.