Jon Waterman of Ad.net: “To develop resilience, focus on understanding what you can control and what you can’t”
Focus on understanding what you can control and what you can’t. One of the defining traits of resilience is being laser-focused on identifying the difference. For example, I can’t control the recessions that negatively impacted my company’s profitability, but I can control how I understood the effect it had on search advertising and also how to adjust my business strategy to weather the storm. It is truly an underrated skill and helps with prioritizing areas when faced with large problems.
Jon Waterman is the founder and CEO of Ad.net, an advertising marketplace that helps Fortune 500 brands acquire new customers outside the major search engines. Ad.net’s mission enables those brands to find incremental customers through intent and audience-based targeting to reach an untapped market. Under his direction, Ad.net has grown significantly into an innovative leader in search advertising with over 10,000 successful campaigns and a 90% customer retention rate. As an influential thought leader, Jon is a sought-out source for his industry insights in many of the top marketing publications. Jon is a member of the Young Presidents Organization and was recognized as an honoree for the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year awards.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
My business journey in digital advertising began during the Wild West Internet era in ’98 when I was a sophomore at UC Santa Barbara. We were on the cusp of the “dot-com boom” and my friend Danny Yomtobian started to make money buying domain names. There were a multitude of different avenues to explore in the space and I founded my first company in my 3 bedroom apartment that I shared with four friends. Before that moment, I didn’t even have a computer or email account! I saw its potential and it quickly became an obsession as I followed the rabbit hole to discover the intricacies of domain traffic, search engines and building an Internet business from the ground up.
I founded Findology in 2000 with Danny which focused on the pay-per-click search advertising space and quickly grew to the point where we had a 12-person team. It was great for a couple of years, but as with many companies that came out of the dot-com bubble, we hit turbulence around 2002. I bought my partner out at our low point and was forced to let go of my staff, making the entire company just me and an outsourced consultant that I brought in full-time. We spent 5 years slowly building the business back up to the point where it was attractive to sell. I was able to close the deal in just a couple of months, selling to an Australian public company in 2007, a few months before the 2008 economic recession hit.
Even though I didn’t own Findology anymore, I was still heavily involved with the company for a period of time, but when the market got worse so did the company that purchased it. Instead of getting out, I bought the company back in 2012 and re-branded it as Ad.net. The first couple of years taking back the company I built were rough, but thankfully we have now a have a large staff and just completed our 10,000 campaign with clients that range from Fortune 500s to Fortune 2000 brands, such as AT&T, Microsoft, Hyundai, Hulu, Keurig, Uniqlo and more. Over the past 5 years, we’ve be able to maintained a 91% retention rate.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
The story that comes to mind is buying back Findology from the public company I sold it to. As I mentioned earlier, I was still involved in growing the business after the sale but wasn’t involved with the high-level organizational conversations. I heard from friends within the industry that after the recession took a hit on the public company’s business across the board, they were looking for suitors.
This verified that I had made a good selling decision initially; however, I had built Findology from the ground up and was ready to take the risk in buying it back and betting on myself to revive it. I knew I could grow it again, but I also did it because many of the staff I hired who put their belief in me could lose their jobs if it sold to another company. You get into business to make money, but you also develop an emotional connection to those who appreciated and executed upon your vision. I called up the CEO of the public company and after a while, we agreed upon a fair amount and the rest was history.
The first takeaway I learned is that once you sell a business, understand it truly isn’t yours anymore. In this case, the company I sold it to never planned to let me know what they were doing, despite the fact I still had a real connection to it.
The second takeaway is that when you are no longer making the ultimate decisions in the business you have less control, and they don’t always understand the unique needs of it the way you do. In this case, the company put Findology in a direction of growth that was ultimately unsustainable.
The final takeaway is that you should always appreciate the people who work for you. Part of the reason I bought back Findology was because I knew exactly what it needed to be profitable, but the other reason was supporting the staff who believed in it from the start and time and time again proved their worth and loyalty to the company.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
In today’s digital media landscape, a lot of companies talk about offering incrementality, which essentially means ‘how do I know your web traffic isn’t the traffic I’m already getting?’. Ad.net developed a method that shows that we are adding incremental traffic by looking at a sample set of users in our network and withholding them from being delivered to our clients, once the determined time period is up, those users are then allowed to visit the clients site through us, and we measure the amount of increased conversions or revenue associated with that campaign.
We also leverage predictive analytics that compounds proprietary audience targeting data against customer intent and have seen a 3x improvement in conversions for our clients. Our team has truly developed a managed solution that helps some of the biggest brands in the world acquire new customers outside of search engines such as Google and Microsoft for more than 20 years.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are so many people that come to mind for my response to this question, but I’d say my old business partner Danny Yomtobian. If it wasn’t for his infectious intrigue with the Internet when it wasn’t yet fully understood, I wouldn’t have entered the digital advertising space and experienced the success I’m fortunate to have built over the years. He literally set me on the path I’m still walking today, and I’m truly grateful.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
I define resilience as someone that overcomes obstacles, failure and doubt in order to keep moving toward the right path for them. It is so easy to derail from your vision when you experience any of those three hardships, and to keep your drive and belief in what is right is so powerful and difficult to do. I believe that the traits of a resilient person are focused ambition with ultimate confidence and unbreakable self-control.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
I immediately think of my father. In many ways, it was his resilience and devotion to his real estate business and our family’s future that helped put my own ambitions in perspective. At the age of 35, he left an already successful real estate business and moved to Los Angeles to pursue the ‘California dream’. He built another real estate business from the ground up that was very successful until the recession in the early ’90s made him lose everything. Instead of giving up and choosing a more stable living, he got back into real estate and slowly grew his second business that remains successful to this day. The ability to experience success followed by ultimate failure, with the pressure of supporting a family, and still having the resolve to realize he can do it again is why he personifies resilience for me.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
Yes, ironically, it was my parents that told me that I shouldn’t get involved with the Internet. Even though they know firsthand what starting your own business could bring, they still didn’t understand the potential of the Internet at the time and what I was doing. They thought it was risky and requested I focus more on academia. Clearly, I’m happy I didn’t listen to their words at the time and followed my father’s actions instead. He definitely instilled the entrepreneurial spirit within me.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
When Danny and I founded Findology in ‘2000, our business quickly grew to 12 employees and brought in a lot of revenue. This success followed us until 2002 when we hit a rough patch and had to lay off our entire staff. I bought out Danny at the time, and the whole company became myself and one outsourced developer who didn’t know anything about the search advertising space. Over the next 5 years, we worked to bring the company back from near death and were eventually able to sell it at a very high price in 2007. During that first year after I bought the company from Danny, I was constantly reading up on real estate, thinking about pivoting and following in my father’s footsteps, but ultimately my love of this company and the search space won out.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
It would be the same story I shared about my father earlier. His ability to continue to build the same business multiple times, even after failure and setbacks. This made it much easier for me to realize that I could always ride out the turbulence. It’s one of the main reasons I kept coming back to Ad.net instead of pivoting to the path my family wanted me to choose.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
1) Focus on understanding what you can control and what you can’t. One of the defining traits of resilience is being laser-focused on identifying the difference. For example, I can’t control the recessions that negatively impacted my company’s profitability, but I can control how I understood the effect it had on search advertising and also how to adjust my business strategy to weather the storm. It is truly an underrated skill and helps with prioritizing areas when faced with large problems.
2) Create a vision board. Not because I believe vision boarding has some unexplainable supernatural impact, but because it really helps keep your eyes on your ultimate goal on a day-to-day basis when doubt, failure or outside entities impact your life and cause you to lose your way. Some can do it naturally, but just like anything else, it can be a learned habit.
3) Surround yourself with successful people. One of the best ways to learn resilience is to be around it as much as possible. There is truth to the idea of ‘you are who you hang out with’. Since day one of my business, I always knew the only way I would succeed was to have positive, fearless and resilient individuals around me to propel me to new heights. I also learned a lot of my resilient traits from my father growing up. Don’t let negativity in because eventually, it starts to affect you.
4) Foster a collaborative mindset. Being resilient means you’re strong-willed, not all-knowing. One of the most important traits of resilient people is being in tune with those around them, and help uplift them alongside you. Achieving your goals is rarely done alone and you need others to be there to help you learn new perspectives. One of the reasons my company has always thrived beyond the turbulence it has faced is because of the dedicated team I have brought together over the years, some of which have been with me from the start.
5) Avoid institutional barriers. In my experience, many people are guilty of putting up walls and limitations about what’s achievable and what isn’t. With academia and societal norms, it is very easy to buy into the idea that there is a certain way to achieve success and your dreams. It’s important, and difficult, for many people to remind themselves there is simply no clear-cut path from point A to point B, and that is helpful in becoming a resilient person. There were many times in my business over the years, when ideas that helped push the company forward came from this kind of out-of-the-box thought process.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I’d like to create a movement that helps normalize addressing mental health in the workplace. In general, I don’t think it’s admirable to keep things close to the chest in an effort to stay strong and get work done. You will always get more productivity from workers that are genuinely content with their personal as well as professional lifestyles. This is the type of culture I strive to deliver for my team at all times.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.
Mark Zuckerberg because of how unbelievably central he became to information gatekeeping in the United States. He transitioned from a college student creating a social networking platform for other college students, to running a platform and ad network that has the potential to fundamentally alter the trajectory of the country. It would be very interesting to learn how he deals with the pressure and the accolades of his achievements.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Jon Waterman of Ad.net: To develop resilience, focus on understanding what you can control and what was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.