I've probably known Aaron Houghton longer than I've known any other currently working entrepreneur in North Carolina.
In fact, I've known Aaron so long that I can't remember how we met. I remember having conversations in his office, talking about his service-slash-product company Preation, and my service-slash-product company Intrepid Media, so this had to be in the early 2000s. I do know for sure that it was a couple years BiC, before iContact, or at least before iContact blew up.
Aaron and I shared some of the same views on productizing resource-intensive services into repeatable frameworks. We both lived by a customer-first approach to growth. We also believed firmly in the ability of the Internet to level the playing field for the underdog. In my universe, at the time, that was unpublished writers, and in his, the underdog was and still remains small businesses.
What a lot of people don't know about Houghton's strategy is that it doesn't matter if the product is an email platform, a predictive website traffic builder, or an algorithm-driven resource locator, the common thread between almost everything he's done has been small business.
SMB should be his middle name. He's that dedicated to it.
"It’s an amazing market," Houghton says, "and totally underserved by VC investment. Most of the big firms won’t touch software companies selling to SMBs. I’ve been in this space for 15 years and plan to continue to make my career in it for a long time."
There are basically three groups of sales categories out there. Enterprise, mid-market (which includes SMB), and consumer. The difficult part of understanding the mid-market, according to Houghton, is that it sits between enterprise and consumer, both of which have a clear path (not easy, but clear) to customer acquisition. Enterprise customers are expensive to obtain, but you only need a few. Consumers are plentiful, but impossible to target individually.
So when you compare SMBs to enterprise, you need to spend a lot of money to acquire a lot more customers. When you compare SMBs to the consumer market, you're targeting a much smaller number of individuals.
That's misunderstanding based on an invalid comparison, and there are two ways to mitigate this.
First, you have to target SMBs indirectly.
"Local, grassroots, but not individualized, training," Houghton advocates. "Basically blessing experts in local markets to get in front of small businesses at events that they're already at -- like local trade shows, chamber of commerce events. And if you educate them and if they find your tool is valuable, then they become customers for a very long time."
The other is essentially viral, but not that kind of viral.
"When you get a small business person as a user of your product, they tell lots of other small businesses about it," Houghton says. "They're very passionate people, they work in groups, they think in groups, and they share your product with other people around them."
Houghton knows that the web is the machine that can elevate the small business owner, the startup, the owner-operator, anyone who has something to sell to someone else. It can do this by making the paths to sales and marketing more efficient.
The goal of iContact was to put world-class email marketing into the hands of the small business owner. The goal of BoostSuite was to put world-class SEO into those same hands. Now the goal of BoostSuite is to connect those small business… hands. So to speak.
Houghton announced a pivot for BoostSuite
in these same pages of ExitEvent on Friday, and in some sense, that announcement and Laura Baverman's excellent article stole some of the thunder for this article.
But even so, Laura's article served as a primer for some of what Houghton and I will talk about (along with Justin Miller and Eric Boggs), at our Mostly Legal Marketing panel at Internet Summit on Wednesday.
Now at over 20,000 small business customers, Aaron and his team have decided to evolve BoostSuite into an automated partnership builder. Their technology finds ways to connect and cross-market SMBs via connections made based on matching data points from website traffic. There's a heavy emphasis on content marketing, shared research, and, of course, optimization.
I'm a big fan and I've seen it work. Intrepid Media was writers helping writers, ExitEvent was for entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs. The value of those connections is huge. Taking the pain out of making those connections, such as what I did with Intrepid and ExitEvent, is a difficult path. But with enough data and -- here's the important part -- a smart enough, self-sustaining mechanism to keep that data coming in, you've got, as Houghton puts it a "huge niche opportunity."