Joe Griffin recently left his job of 8 years as co-CEO of ClearVoice, a company that he and co-founder Jay Swanson started in 2014 out of their digital marketing agency business in Phoenix, Arizona. ClearVoice was acquired by Fiverr in 2019 and has been operating as an independent subsidiary since then. Fiverr is now a large public company with a global reach.
ClearVoice was created in the fast-changing web search marketing industry in 2014 out of the need from larger companies for high-quality content to drive their organic website traffic. Joe and Jay previously ran their search marketing agency iAcquire and used profits to self-fund the first ClearVoice platform. They eventually raised a small amount of practical outside funding, including a seed funding round of $1.5M and venture debt of $2M.
ClearVoice is now a leading platform for brands to hire industry-savvy experts to write useful content that is branded for their communities and customers. Thousands of brands and over 10,000 industry specialist creators use ClearVoice to drive organic marketing efforts with high-quality content.
Best quote from Joe:
“I would never recommend to a founder that the path to success is raising money. It can be, but you should only raise it when you have to or when you’re super confident. I think a lot of times people say, Oh, I’ll start a business and I need to go out and raise money to start the business. That’s not true at all.
“You can start a business super cheaply. You need to wear every hat, including the revenue hat for a while, until you establish a level of validity, get to profitability, and make some really strategic hires. And you don’t need to grow that fast unless you have to. I would just avoid raising capital unless you need to.”
Transcript of Practical Founders Podcast interview with Joe Griffin, cofounder and former CEO of ClearVoice
Greg Head: And we’re live with my buddy Joe Griffin, the former CEO and permanent co-founder of ClearVoice. Hey, Joe, welcome to the Practical Founders podcast.
Joe Griffin: Greg Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Greg Head: I saw on LinkedIn just last week that you left ClearVoice, the company you started. So it was the end of the journey. First of all, how does it feel to not be the CEO and of ClearVoice and show up to work every day?
Joe Griffin: It’s been a long journey. I started the company back in with my co-founder back in 2014. So. Yes. Yeah. Eight-year run and man I put my blood and sweat and tears into it, you know, just you shoulder a ton of responsibility, and watching that fall away has been a really interesting experience and I’m early into it, but it’s feeling good.
Greg Head: You’re a week into it.
Joe Griffin: Right
Greg Head: With a smile on your face, and the eight years must have felt like 20 years in growth venture years. We’ll start with the end in mind. Why don’t you get everybody in the neighborhood of what ClearVoice is today and about the size of it and how it’s now part of another organization, which you did that transaction three years ago, and then we’ll go back to your background, and your journey starting and growing ClearVoice and ask all the fun questions about how you got there. So what is ClearVoice, Joe?
Joe Griffin: ClearVoice is a content marketplace powered by freelancers. And so one of the unique angles that we took was really trying to bring subject matter experts into the marketplace, and we divided that into the top 20 business categories, like finance and technology and health care and online education. And then we drill down further. So in that finance category, we have people who are subject matter experts around credit cards and mortgages and any lending. So really just finding high-quality people that had a really good pedigree. A lot of manual vetting to bring them into our marketplace and then letting that talent be available to our customers so they could create good content, feed the beast, rank and Google all that fun stuff. That’s the number one thing that brands will say when they think about outsourcing content is “No one can speak in my brand voice” or “We’ve tried freelancing before or we can’t find people that understand our business.” These are the most common problems and we wanted to solve those problems. And that’s why it is a specialized marketplace like you said.
Greg Head: I was just thinking about that today: I’m actually a vertical content specialist.
Joe Griffin: 100%.
Greg Head: I’m talking about specific things for the software companies who are doing it a certain way (without big funding), just software companies, just early-stage, I’m helping a lot of people, but I would say I’m fueling my marketing efforts with great specialist content that I couldn’t outsource to somebody on Upwork to write me a piece. Took me 35 years to get all this hard-knock experience and all these conversations to get that. So is that what you do? You when somebody says, I’m American Express, and content marketing is part of our credit card division and we want to talk about these topics.
Joe Griffin: American Express is a good example. We have another one, QuickBooks. These types of customers where they have an entrepreneurism section or they may have a starting a software business subsection. And so they’re looking for Greg Heads. They want you, they understand, they can’t just just go to Upwork.
Greg Head: So ClearVoice is this freelancer marketplace for specialist content creators for specific verticals. Not every vertical right? You chose the focus there. About how big is it now? It’s still a growing company. It’s still part of the organization.
Joe Griffin: So of course I say we still, and I’m still doing some advisory, so you’re going to do that obviously no longer the CEO, so I’ll still refer to it as we probably throughout this interview, but I think there are about 60 employees today. The marketplace itself has about 10,000 people. There are about 100,000 people on the waiting list, but there are about 10,000 that are in there now that can be hired.
Greg Head: So it’s a quality game. You don’t let in everybody, you’re vetting people for their expertise, right?
Joe Griffin: Yes. And the reality is we don’t have enough demand to keep 10,000 people busy. I mean, we’d be a $1,000,000,000 plus company if we did.
Greg Head: I see.
Joe Griffin: So if we could even keep 10% of them pretty busy, you know, that’s a lot of work. I mean, this is we’re doing thousands of pieces of content a month, tens of thousands.
Greg Head: And so you grew it out of a service business. You raised a little seed funding, and venture funding in practical numbers, not very big. You raise a little venture debt. You kept growing the business. I remember seeing your face through the middle of those journeys and the ups and downs, talking about all those things. And then you sold the company. Let’s go to the acquisition of Clearvoice. Why don’t you tell us about that and some of the journey you just finished up there?
Joe Griffin: Yeah, we were acquired by Fiverr in February of 2019 as a wholly owned subsidiary, and it was great timing for me and my business partner, Jay Swanson. We were able to participate in the public offering, which was in June of 2019, so that was pretty cool. We got to get on the New York Stock Exchange floor and be a part of the public offering. And that was a lot of fun. So we were acquired in early 2019. We were not looking to be acquired. We were actually in the process of raising another round, which I’m sure we’ll talk about today as well. And I think in that process we were just communicating with VCs and private equity and just the market, that gets out, right? And so I think at the same time, Fiverr looking for strategic acquisitions. Fiverr is likely the number one, likely the largest digital services marketplace business in the world. And their name Fiverr comes from a time when there they were having they had $5 gigs. So people were doing silly stuff like writing I Love You and the sand at the beach and taking a picture of it for your girlfriend and you’re paying people $5 to do kinds of wacky stuff. So it started out as these silly little jobs and then it professionalized more and more and more. And so it continued to push upstream and where they’re serving large businesses, too. They have millions of customers, but a very large percentage, over 90% of their businesses are SMBs and solopreneurs, whereas we were skewed the other way in the mid-market and enterprise. And so it was an opportunity for them to try to bridge that gap and move upstream. That was the thought process behind the acquisition.
Greg Head: So Fiverr is a freelance marketplace for project work. Is there a specialty around creative services and things like that or not necessarily?
Joe Griffin: They do have some key categories, but they continue to expand and I’ll say over the last few years, the primary categories would be things like design, logos, and writing is a big category, so is web development. But they’ve expanded into things like architecture services for your house, online yoga classes, you know, and development. And so and so the services have moved beyond just digital services, but can even be consumer services that are delivered digitally.
Greg Head: Well, so that’s F-I-V-E-R-R and it’s an Israeli company. Did you sell the company completely to them at the time as a full buyout?
Joe Griffin: Full buyout. Yeah, we did have an earnout, so couldn’t run for the hills or anything. Had to stick around for three years, which was a good time. But yeah, it was a full acquisition.
Greg Head: Okay. And they’re a public company too, that had their stock runup after they went public to COVID times and now their stock has run down. You lived through that.
Joe Griffin: Yeah, I did.
Greg Head: I got it. Well, I’m just looking at your background there. You were doing early Internet entrepreneuring and internet marketing, what it was in the early days before we said things like SEO, but you were doing that in Phoenix. You are an entrepreneur from the beginning, or did you ever have a real job?
Joe Griffin: Never had a real job after high school. That’s not true. I did have a job, but I did have a job for about 18 months. Yeah. And then I did work for Web.com when I was about 27. That was after our first acquisition. My dad and I started the business and sold that to Web.com. Yeah, and I was there for 20 months.
Greg Head: What kind of business was that?
Joe Griffin: That was an SEO agency called Submit a Website. We started that in late 1998.
Greg Head: Google automatically collects all the data and automatically indexes it and everything. But before you actually had to email the guy at Yahoo! to get your company listed.
Joe Griffin: Exactly. Yes. And people don’t remember, but there was Excite and Hotbot and Infoseek and dogpile and Altavista, Dogpile, and Northern Lights, and there were a ton of search engines. So back in the day, we started out as a paid service to just submit your site for you.
Greg Head: So you’ve actually been doing this Internet SEO content game, or whatever flavor it has gone through, for about 20 years. And the last eight years of it were with this company. So you were doing agency services work and different kinds of things there. iAcquire, which was another agency in this space, the precursor of ClearVoice or from which ClearVoice came. Why don’t you tell us about some of the adventures and how the idea for ClearVoice came about?
Joe Griffin: Yeah, it did spawn out of iAcquire. In my background for about 24 years I’ve been doing this It’s been always some component of search engine marketing, whether it’s SEO or paid search, or content marketing. There was always search in there, but it’s always been digital services. There’s been in all these companies, there’s been software development, whether it was in a back end or whether it was customer facing, there’s been marketplaces. So it’s always been a little bit of a blend of tech-enabled services, I would say.
Greg Head: Right.
Joe Griffin: iAcquire was a good business. It was another type of SEO company. We had a marketplace built into iAcquire as well. But a few things happen. First of all, we took some it took some pretty big punches to the chin. We had a spurt of client losses and there was some industry stuff going on that wasn’t really advantageous to our model. In 2012, Google made a lot of different algorithm changes and it was fine. Like it hurt our core business, but really, we wanted to find something that had a more scalable model anyways. And so it gave us an opportunity to really look at the services we were providing, what our skill set was on our team, where the industry was at, where we thought business was going, and that’s we took that opportunity to create ClearVoice inside of iAcquire and we were able to, you know, sell some of the assets of our acquire, take some of the employees and we divested ourselves of iAcquire, created ClearVoice anew as a new platform and really just focus in on that content marketing area. That’s where like in 2012 it became really clear to rank and Google you had to have the best content just at the core. And so we really invested in it.
Greg Head: Before it was gaming Google. Like at first you could show up and if you had a website and you actually had a page title, you would show up, and then you could game it in other ways. But in the long run, Google trained us to be content creators for their engine, right?
Joe Griffin: Exactly what they did.
Greg Head: You made it sound like there was a shift and you could pivot from one services business to the ClearVoice business. But, was it a messy transition?
Joe Griffin: Yeah, it took multiple years. Some services we were able to just shed and just say we’re going to do certain things and not other things. But certainly, when ClearVoice was founded, we were still an agency that had a more narrowed focus that was building software that our agency could use, and that also other customers could use. So really, in multiple different businesses, we had created some good software, but it was just an internal tool. Not something that was really public facing. That was a fun dance to play of spending additional dollars when you’re creating software for users that are outside your own business, you’re typically going to be investing a lot more into usability and there are just so many more things. You can’t let some of the bugs fly, all that stuff. It’s tough to self-fund. And we did self-fund to a large extent. You know, we did raise some capital, but we really self-funded as much as we could and that did require doing services. So we had to balance out for sure.
Greg Head: And so self-funding, meaning some of your team at iAcquire was working on this other project, and some of the funding you could have taken as profits you invested in development and other things like that.
Joe Griffin: I would say more same concept, but more at ClearVoice. So we actually pulled them over to ClearVoice. Yeah, we actually pulled people into ClearVoice and we actually shut iAcquire down fully and we’re only ClearVoice. We were still doing some of those similar agency services.
Greg Head: That’s a tough transition. How long did it take you to realize this internal tool that worked for your agency was about 10% of what was needed for somebody on the other side of the country to use it without talking to you. Usually, for service companies, it’s a big hurdle.
Joe Griffin: Right. A HUGE learning curve.
Greg Head: Did you have a vision that we’re going to be a product company or you just said we’re going to solve this specific problem, however it needed to be solved?
Joe Griffin: Yeah. Where we ended up is interesting because we started all services, creating some great software on the back end of an agency that only we used. Then we said, Let’s get in the SaaS business, let’s pare down our services, let’s create a product company and we’ll wean off services over time, we’ll wean on a product, we’ll get that revenue up. And the other thing too, we can talk about this all day, but as you recall, back in that time, VCs were really beating you up about you can’t have many services, you can have any services. They had a very specific blueprint.
Greg Head: They still do that.
Joe Griffin: Right. They still do that. I think there’s some more leniency, but I think it was like it was the early days of SaaS. And they were a little more worried about SaaS. The actual maturity around a lot of those unit economics, that today really are down pat and everyone can speak to that maturity, wasn’t there. So they thought, Be a software company. But anyway, we did try to transition, we tried to go full software company and we actually.
Greg Head: Were that you were trying to raise some money. We were talking about that having the calls. I remember being in my car and having these long conversations and VCs, if they smelled any service, they’d push the exit button.
Joe Griffin: Exactly.
Greg Head: And you had to fake like, Oh, there are no services here. It’s all product.
Joe Griffin: And that’s right. It did ultimately get pretty close to only software and the marketplace. And we actually used to call our platform a SaaS-enabled marketplace because we were charging a subscription fee to use the actual workflow platform to find freelancers, hire freelancers, and pay them. All kinds of tools we built around it as a true SaaS platform to help you better manage content and even manage your own content internally. So we got into the project management game. We had to get out of that. It just got too…We weren’t trying to be like Asana or Monday or Trello or Basecamp. We like that idea, but just for content production. But the reality is right, those platforms really became good enough that you could you can work with them to make it work for you on the content side, those other platforms. So that was one of the things that really influenced us.
Joe Griffin: Ultimately where we ended up, where we ended up as we listened and what the customers had to say, what we really came to understand. They just want good content. They want it to be in their brand voice, they want it to speak to their customers and they want it to be to a large extent, what they want it done for them. That’s why services were effective. We were doing it for them. Where we ended up is an interesting place where we have the software, we have the marketplace, and we certified and leveled up a contingent of freelancers that were like our best editors, our managing editors, and project managers. And we’ve created a new role. We called a producer, a freelance producer. And so the producer will actually work directly with the customer, and they’ll do ideation, they’ll create briefs, they’ll help with budgeting, they’ll dispatch work to the freelancers, they’ll do all the editing. So they’re going to get that. They’re going to manage about 90% of that for the customer. So our platform actually enables a managed service.
Greg Head: Is there still that content marketing/project management SaaS platform, is there an editorial calendar, and where is this project and who’s..? All that stuff.
Joe Griffin: The main users of the software now are probably producers more than customers.
Greg Head: Isn’t that interesting?
Joe Griffin: Yeah, but it’s become like a platform for freelance freelancers to better create and manage content.
Greg Head: Your customers are bigger companies that have a marketing strategy and they need to fill their content bucket. And then you come up and you say, Well, here is the whole platform you could run yourself, an editorial calendar and then you get to the 20th screen and they’re like, Could somebody do that for us?
Joe Griffin: Yeah, They’re like, Great. You know what you’re talking about. You’ve got a really good-looking piece of software. This looks like a lot of work. Can I can you guys just do ten articles a month in one white paper and help with some email drips? It’s like, sure, you could just run that for you.
Greg Head: You know this is the classic mix of services, SaaS revenue–recurring revenue for software, and marketplace transaction revenue.
Joe Griffin: Yep. We had all three.
Greg Head: But did you actually get back into the service business?
Joe Griffin: We have project revenue, we do have some project revenue, but I think the best way to think about where we ended up and we played with, we were SaaS and this and that, You know, we’re a subscription business and customers will hire us to create content and they can, they can pay us to just have access to the platform still like for $500 a month is about the average price, $500, $1000 a month. They can pay for access to ClearVoice, they can access their own freelancers, and they can project, and manage it themselves. That’s pure. It’s a traditional SaaS model, or they can pay ClearVoice to create content for them using the freelance team. And ClearVoice doesn’t have writers or anything like that. We just have we have some project managers, and we have some quality control people. We’ll help oversee some of that stuff, but that’s all enabled through the marketplace. So it’s really a subscription business. The average customer spends probably around $5,000 a month, $10,000 a month, or something like that.
Greg Head: Managed the amount of content they buy. So it’s the marketplace transactions that are the majority of the business in there.
Joe Griffin: Yeah, and we’ve done a lot of work around product configurations to where they can come in and we create what we call a content plan. So we’ll say, tell us about what your goals are, what are you trying to do? And some of them just come to you and say, We need 1000 articles over the next 90 days. We’re launching this new site and we need this. And they have this whole thing or others just say, Our content marketing is weak. We just lost some writers. We don’t want to be an editorial company and we like your model. Tell us what we need and we’ll build a plan for them. But there are a lot of different options in there. Like they can get a design or they can have an email copy or social copy associated with the pillar piece, like a lot of ways to assemble that, but they’ll buy that on a subscription.
Greg Head: Yeah. Content is a hard problem for mid-sized marketing groups, right? You’ve got all the people that run the engine of marketing and it’s more complicated every year. And then you say, I need a hundred pieces in the voice of our company that’s really savvy. And some junior person on the marketing team is not going to be able to do that. Like, literally, I’m the senior person on my team and I’m the only one who could do it. And it’s working.
Joe Griffin: Yeah, but it’s also super time-consuming.
Greg Head: Yeah, well, for me, I have time. But you actually bring in senior people, right? And you give them time and all of that thing. So that’s really interesting. And so the business is still growing, is an independent company. This is a still-growing in the Fiverr company. That’s amazing.
Joe Griffin: The business continues to grow. The business has grown by 300% since we were acquired. So we’ve had decent growth, but COVID was not friendly to us for sure, COVID was. It is true in a lot of ways, and we’ve always tried to figure out how we get around this, but in some ways, we’re a want, not a need. I’ve heard that. I’ve heard that description of us before. I want good content and I recognize its value and I know it helps me, but if I don’t have it, I’m not going to die.
Greg Head: But because it’s still that content helps you with SEO, which should help you with demand generation and leads in revenue. And it’s hard to make the specific hard line that you can often make, not always make, with pay-per or click advertising.
Joe Griffin: And so it is more top of the funnel.
Greg Head: But as paid ads go through the roof, as the world comes back to organic content traffic and all of that. so this isn’t an influencer platform were using their podium and getting their voice this is white-labeled content.
Joe Griffin: It’s optional to come out with it. It’s optional.
Greg Head: Oh is that right?
Joe Griffin: A lot of brands want it to be white-labeled, and maybe they’ll have someone on their team be the author. But there’s a really important part of SEO today that just continues to become, every time Google is talking about search or bringing this up, there was something called the Helpful content update recently. There are algorithms like YMYL, which is Your Money, and Your Life, and Google EAT, which is expertise, authority, and trustworthiness. And Google search quality raters guidelines, which are people that basically look at pages and they grade them and it’s about 150-page word document that tells them how to do that. But what I’m getting at is trustworthiness, the voice behind the content’s really important. And so like for Intuit as an example, one of the important things was, Hey, we’re going to talk about entrepreneurism and accounting and human resources and financial management, and that’s great. But it’s also important, like who’s talking to you about accounting? Who? Is this AI? Is this a college student, or is this someone who’s got 20 years of experience in bookkeeping? That voice really matters and it matters for usability and time on page, which is more of a technical SEO thing, but it also matters for like the physical rating of pages that search engine reviewers go through. This is why Healthline, and WebMD why always rank for all the health content. They have a really strong editorial board, same with the BankRate on the finance side. They have editorial boards of like legit people, like people who write on Healthline are actual MDs, registered nurses, and dietitians, and yeah, that voice is super important.
Greg Head: So ClearVoice today is a marketplace of these senior specialized content creators, right, for premium content, you know in the brand.
Joe Griffin: Yeah that’s the core model but you can dip below that, if you just want good enough content, you know I mean there’s a quality threshold. To be clear, there’s always a quality threshold, but you don’t have to spend a dollar a word on content.
Greg Head: You’ll pay more for a doctor to write content or a lawyer to write content.
Joe Griffin: This is part of the process. It’s like we want to understand, Who are you looking for? Do you need someone that charges $0.20 a word or do you need a person that charges $2 a word because they’re out there? If you need a doctor versus you need yoga poses or something, and not to trash yoga poses, but there are some categories that the content already out there on the Internet. It’s not like there’s very specific area, it’s predefined, right?
Greg Head: It’s that marketplace of this high-quality content and specialized verticals these days with a little bit of just done for you. The SaaS model always leads more every year, to I don’t want the software, I just want the thing done. I call that “service as a software.” I want to push the button and I don’t care if people do it. I just want the thing done right. So is that what you envisioned this would be when it was coming out of iAcquire and you were starting this and you were pitching to investors and running around Phoenix, pitching to angels? Let’s talk about that transition. In hindsight, what was it, if you go back to those old pitch decks, the first pitch decks, what was it back then?
Joe Griffin: This, it was you know, I mentioned it earlier a SaaS-enabled marketplace. But we really thought it’s just funny looking back. We always valued the freelancers and we always understood that as being a core value proposition of why you want to buy ClearVoice. But I think we actually thought that the more attractive or the thing that was even more necessary, or at least of equal necessity, was the workflow was like campaign management, managing your briefs, …
Greg Head: All those fancy charts, Gantt charts, timelines.
Joe Griffin: Yeah. The editorial calendars, being able to pay your own freelancers, being able to onboard your own team, everybody being able to coordinate and collaborate and message each other, and having one platform where you manage all your content. Like we thought that was just what everybody needed. And I think what we found out was that it wasn’t. Which is crazy enough. There are a bunch of other companies. I mean, there are several, I won’t name them, but we have some competitors that were more on the enterprise side who raised $50 million or $100 million dollars, and they just that that business didn’t take off for them at all. And they’re really struggling to this day. And it was the marketplace that mattered.
Greg Head: Yeah. The content platform, the do-it-yourself. I was running Infusionsoft back then. The platforms, it took a full-time person just to manage all that stuff. And the content game is complicated, just like all these other games. But isn’t that interesting? You thought they wanted to do the work and what they really wanted was content. Is that the punch line there?
Joe Griffin: Yeah. We just yeah, we were I think we were drinking our own Kool-Aid and we got caught up on some buzzwords like brand journalism. And we thought that you know, we thought that brands were going to be the new media companies, and they are to an extent. But now, we got caught up on that and it didn’t really go all the way there. We thought every brand is going to have to have this platform.
Greg Head: Or every brand would have a content editor like out of the magazine, right? The relevant industry magazine would come over and run a content media engine, but that didn’t really materialize.
Joe Griffin: Yeah, a lot of what you build needs to be sunset, and a silly phraseology I use a lot is, Someone who doesn’t need our platform won’t pay $99 a month, but some of that does the entire platform will pay @1500 a month. And that’s what we found. We found that because I thought we just thought that was going to be a bigger category. So what we found was like, if you need that platform, if that’s what you actually need, and there’s a lot of people that need it, we have over 100 customers on that DIY platform, you’ll pay a lot for it, but if you don’t really need it that much, it’s just like a nice to have. You won’t pay anything for it, you’ll just use Basecamp or Mondaq.com. Yeah, and that’s 99.9% of the audience.
Greg Head: So isn’t that interesting?
Joe Griffin: But I will say that I think the opportunity with ClearVoice that we always know is there, but it continues to come up, and we haven’t cracked the nut, is distribution. How do we leverage, and I mentioned you, Greg, as an example, and I use your name Greg Head because I do think you have you’re a known entity in the space. You’re you’ve been doing this a long time, and you’re a trusted advisor Those are the that’s the type of talent we want. We have a lot of those types of people on the platform. And if you’ve got those types of people in the platform, how do you leverage those people to distribute a brand’s message in a way that is, advertorially, has the right integrity? Doing this in the right way? It’s influencer marketing. It’s a type of influencer marketing.
Greg Head: Right. It’s a type of influencer marketing.
Joe Griffin: Yeah, it could be the old school traditional, put it on social media, but there’s a lot of other ways to attack this when you’ve got these writers, in particular creators, that we’re working with, That’s something that I think we’ve got to break into at some point. We always are asked about it. We just haven’t. And I’ve got you know, the company has a thousand ideas about how you do it. It’s just an execution-type thing. And trying to stay focused on that.
Greg Head: Isn’t that interesting? And you know what you think it is at the beginning and then you get on the field and it starts to move around. And then what it is eight years later after you’ve sold the company, we’ll put it inside another thing, it’s still not the whole bite of the apple that you see out there like that. The work is never done.
Joe Griffin: It just takes a long time. Really amazing time and it’s crazy because.
Greg Head: Yeah.
Joe Griffin: Even as a small business, and we’ve been very fortunate with Fiverr, especially in the first three years, they barely even, we talk to them and they were friendly and they helped us and all that and they are great, great guys, smart, helpful. But they didn’t get into our business. After that third year, they started to get a little more in there, we started integrating our finance, HR, and some of those spaces. A little more involved, which was fine. But my point is like considering how agile we really are. I don’t know if this is a typical founder, but I’ve never been satisfied with the pace. We don’t go fast enough and I think it’s me, but it just I also just think it’s the reality. Look at some of these popular platforms and how long it takes to get new features out. And it just never goes as fast as you want it to go.
Greg Head: Well, one of the things that founders tell me is, Hey, I’m selling the company and I’m going to go with it, and just I set my watch. But you did three years there and actually grew the business and your team reported to you and your co-founder, Jay. But it was unusual in that it was literally an independent company and you had a little bit of HR help, but a little bit of back office help. But they didn’t come in and say, Marketing reports over there and the whole matrix and the whole cluster and the slow you down. You had your own P&L, you had your own team, and presumably your own culture as part of it. I see it’s a Fiverr company, right? So it’s like a standalone subsidiary. A subsidiary company. And I did that once and it lasted two and a half years until they said we got to integrate you with all your other peer subsidiary companies. And then the shoe dropped and then the matrix started and all the entrepreneurial guys left. The buck stopped with me for a $50 million business with 250 employees until it didn’t. And then the fun ended. But tell us why would Fiverr buy you and then keep you off to the side as opposed to putting you in their platform?
Joe Griffin: Right. First of all, one of the reasons we sold to them is A), we got a good deal, right?
Greg Head: Right. Congrats.
Joe Griffin: You know, it wasn’t a desperation sale. We weren’t going to die. Actually, we were, I think, profitable. We were profitable when we sold to them. But we were trying to raise more capital. I think what attracted us to them was that they are smart guys, they have a good culture, and a big vision. Micha, the CEO of Fiverr, would just say he wants to be the Amazon of digital services and I think he is building the Amazon of digital services and this is a big category that they’re leading.
Greg Head: And Amazon has subsidiary companies that they leave on their own and don’t pull up into the Amazon brand and borg.
Joe Griffin: I think they view themselves as, and I won’t put words in their mouth, but I think that they are really good at building marketplaces. A lot of their design approach, and their marketing approach is, in my opinion, a bit of a B2C playbook. Historically, they view us as having B2B domain knowledge, understanding mid-market and enterprise businesses, and having a sales and marketing playbook. Sales is important to us. They don’t have any salespeople today. They may have a couple, but they’re they don’t have sales. So to integrate us is like they don’t want I think what they’re more interested in was I would have.
Greg Head: Killed your business if they would have brought you into the system.
Joe Griffin: Then going to start, we’re going to be talking two different languages. They were like, Leave them alone, give them a budget, give them a goal, top and bottom line goals, be supportive, but don’t get in the way, and can they continue to build something that’s better and better and better? Keep going upstream, grow the business and can we learn from them and vice versa? Can we learn from each other? Can we learn how to maybe market better? Can they learn about some of the B2B stuff? How do we come together? So it’s just a working relationship over three years, but not one where they were ever directorial about how we needed to run the business.
Greg Head: Yeah. And so you ran a profitable business within the business that kept on growing. Did you gain any leverage from Fiverr, from their leadership team, from their platform exposure, from not having to worry about the plumbing and payments and things in the backend?
Joe Griffin: Some. Yeah, they were, you know, from a product perspective, we did not get a lot of the integration that I was hoping to see. Some marketing integration, which was very helpful. One thing they did a good job of was that at the high level, at the highest level, at their C-level, they made a lot of introductions for us. We actually sold a lot of deals from their contacts. That was pretty cool that they just spent the time.
Greg Head: You got to say, we’re a Fiverr company. We’re part of a public company. Yeah.
Joe Griffin: So that was great for us.
Greg Head: What were the disadvantages of being there compared to being an independent company on your own.
Joe Griffin: You get bigger and this becomes inflamed if you’re publicly trade, there are things that an inexperienced manager, and I have managed a lot, but I still don’t consider I don’t consider myself a great manager, especially when you get into like 100-plus employees. I’ve had a 100-plus-person company once in the past. But, I think I think there’s a lot of value in having ten people that you work with. And, again I mentioned Micha earlier, he’s mentioned this and this is common knowledge too, but this is something he’s talked to us about is that every time you double your size, you have to really reinvent how you manage your business, your organization, your reporting structures, all of those things obviously reinvented. And I think that you know when you’re eight people and you need to let’s say I’ll just use this as an example, maybe you need to make a termination. It’s a little bit easier. Like everyone’s a little bit closer. It’s like less likely to be a surprise. Maybe it didn’t maybe you didn’t document as you should have, it’s like not a surprise conversation when you’re 25 people, and someone’s maybe not been well managed or just been swept under the rug or they’re not doing their job, but they haven’t been well documented, it becomes harder to just do certain things, whether it’s hire, whether it’s fire, with even the product as the product expands and gets bigger, it’s harder to change it. So I just felt like I feel like I said this earlier about I wasn’t happy with the speed. It’s almost like just even getting to 60 employees and just even being part of a publicly traded company where you’re a little more restricted. At the end, I started to feel like “legacy.” I even ask myself, we legacy , do we need to break ourselves? Like it’s the only way to go to the next level.
Greg Head: Old and slow. Yeah, right. .
Joe Griffin: It feels like that. And you know, and at the end of the day, you know, ClearVoice is doing great things and they’re one of the best companies in this category. But, I still feel that way. That’s the good thing. That’s the good thing about being like five or ten employees. I look forward to that again at some point. And just staying lean.
Greg Head: Yeah. All the pain and suffering of five or ten employees is worth it because you have the flexibility and the nimbleness and the rockstars and everything. And you had a co-founder and co-CEO through this journey, right since you started iAcquire? That’s unusual and how did that work?
Joe Griffin: Well, Jay and I have been buddies for a long time. We just have been in the industry together and ran into each other at conferences. I think we met back in 2005. So we were we started out as friends. And then very quickly I became his client. So he was running a business called Text Link Ads, which was acquired by MediaWiz out of New York, which is another SEO advertising company basically back in the day. I was I became a big client of his. We worked together a lot. When I sold my company, SubmitaWebsite in 2007, his business had been recently acquired by Media Wiz around the same time. So we were both getting at the end of our earnout in 2008, like toward the end of 2008, so we were talking a lot about what we wanted to do together or separately. And it just made sense for us to partner up. We had complementary skill sets but could bring separate things to the table, and he made the decision to go ahead and relocate from New York City out of Phoenix, which was great.
Joe Griffin: So we decided, let’s go into business together. We’ll be 50/50 partners. And we started iAcquire and then the idea of iAcquire wasn’t to be this SEO company. Like it ultimately became an SEO agency as well. We had actually intended on building our own lead-generation websites. We got in the edu category, we were in a couple of different categories. We’re building out our own sites and generating leads and making money on that, and we’re trying to scale that and be like a mini Red Ventures. If you’re familiar with Red Ventures, a mini version of that. And just for whatever reason, I think we both just had a Rolodex that kept us in that agency business. So that was challenging. But we worked together for a long time. And then of course, together we pivoted into something else. And that’s a challenging one. I mean, it’s challenging to pivot, but especially like in a moment of pain, we were in some pain and fighting through that together and deciding what.
Greg Head: What does the pain mean? These practical founders know pain. And we know there’s pain involved here that funding can’t solve, but what was the pain?
Joe Griffin: Just we went from $15 million a year in revenue to $6 million a year in revenue in six months flat.
Greg Head: Ouch. With the changes in the industry.
Joe Griffin: A lot of clients have left and went and did other things. And it was just it was ugly. So, yeah, I mean, going through that, losing, you know, 60-70% of your revenue. We had $4 million of debt we had to service. We had taken on so, man, there’s a lot of story here. Can’t get into the whole story.
Greg Head: Right. I see the sweat on your brow there. We’d like to hear this. It wasn’t all straight up and to the right.
Joe Griffin: Yeah, right. So we went from 0 to $5 million in a year. 5 million annually in the agency.
Greg Head: Yeah.
Joe Griffin: But we had subscription contracts, but still agency business and we got up to $^ or $7 million. We acquired a competitor and we got to $15 million in revenue within 18 months as a combined entity. When we acquired the competitor, there was some equity, there were some payouts, and there were all kinds of structures there. But ultimately one of the things we had to do to make that happen was to take on debt. Now, we were profitable and we had really just started to kill it. We were absolutely, really starting to kill it. So I was super excited about that. We took on $4 million of debt. And then a lot of these industry changes happened days after we got the money and literally the bottom drops. Yeah, the bottom dropped out, but we had all the debt still. So we had to just I mean, it was like two or three years of just like, man, it was rough. But we paid all that debt off. We paid every dollar off.
Greg Head: Yeah.
Joe Griffin: And then we got ClearVoice going around toward the end of that debt, because this happened around 2012. So in 2014, we formed ClearVoice at the end of that debt cycle, got the next business formed, and got that thing profitable. It started and raised a little bit of money.
Greg Head: And so you both were in the foxhole together during wartime? Yes. So you worked with Jay and he’s still with ClearVoice, right?
Jay is with ClearVoice still, yeah.
Greg Head: So that’s like a 15-year journey with somebody in the front seat with you with another hand on the steering wheel.
Greg Head: Did VCs get this? How does that work? Usually, somebody is the decision maker co- CEOs are difficult to manage. As a big company did you just divide and conquer? You said we’re in this together, but we’re going to divide and conquer.
Joe Griffin: We did it and do that business after we got acquired by Fiverr. We did not divide and conquer. We worked on everything together and all of the pros and cons that come with it. And a lot of those cons are known cons, but there’s a lot of good I mean, there are a lot of pros to that too. But yeah, it’s not scalable.
Greg Head: Like just quickly, what are some what is your favorite pro of working on all the big things together? And then we’ll talk about it.
Joe Griffin: If it’s someone you trust and it’s someone that’s knowledgeable and someone that has the blood and the sweat and has all the same incentive as you do, that person is really helpful in making decisions. And sometimes they’re going to be right. Sometimes you’re going to be right. But it’s also helpful to the ego and helpful to the business to be challenged and to say, I think this is the direction it should go, but the other person says I think you should go this way. Well, I trust this person’s opinion. That could be wrong. But also I could be wrong.
Greg Head: But you can have a discussion.
Joe Griffin: Yeah. Yeah. We can have a friendly discussion person. We can have a fight. We can curse each other out. I mean, it’s not always friendly, but, that friction I think, is healthy and good. Yeah. If you just. If no one can challenge you and you’re going to make all the decisions, I mean, you could fall hard by yourself.
Greg Head: Yeah. Because you lived through a lot of brutal adventures here, and you guys did it together. So you guys found a way to not die in the process, not kill each other in the process, and keep growing through it. Is there a disadvantage you could look back at and say, I don’t think I’d do that again because of this? Or What do you think?
Joe Griffin: I love Jay, and I think we had a great partnership. I think, that’s a long partnership. And so you’re going to have just ups and downs. We had some we had some tough times, certainly, where we didn’t get along or, you know, egos got bruised or whatever. I just think it’s a long time. I think it’s probably one of the better partnerships I could ask for. But still, when you’re talking 12, 13 years, that’s a long time to have a business partner I get it. I mean, most business partners are partners for like 5 to 7 years, not like 12 to 15 unless you’re like Warren Buffett.
Greg Head: Did you envision that you were going to go raise money for this new software-powered marketplace, not the services-powered ad agency? Or did you just think you could sell it fast enough and then you realized you needed to fill the cashflow hole?
Joe Griffin: Yeah, we didn’t really intend to raise money. We thought we would just organically grow it. What we did run into though, was, this is the time back with if you think about like the Scott Brinker with the MarTech 500 and then the MarTech 5000, the charts.
Greg Head: The explosion of marketing technology, right?
Joe Griffin: Yes, exactly. And so that was like a third-party factor for us, which basically said if you don’t go big fast, you’ll never get anywhere because they’re all coming around you. So we felt like we had to go fast
Greg Head: The race is on.
Joe Griffin: We had to go big and go fast.
Greg Head: But you didn’t raise big money. Tell us about your raise and then your debt. What you did, it was pretty practical.
Joe Griffin: We raised, I think, $250,000 of friends and family. And then we raised about a million and a quarter, a million and a half in a seed round.
Greg Head: So you ran around Arizona to the angel networks.
Joe Griffin: So we ran around. We pitched to Venture Madness. You helped us on that if you recall?
Greg Head: Yeah. Yeah, I do. But you took a million of seed money from Peak Ventures in Utah, which is now called Album.
Joe Griffin: But now it’s Album.
Greg Head: And they were a lead institutional investor, an investor with a fund, and somebody on your board.
Joe Griffin: It was their first fund. And by the way, they’re on their fourth fund now. They’re killing it. They’re one of the best seed-round VCs in the country now.
Greg Head: But you didn’t raise $10 million or whatever. Like in the crazy days last year. It was a million and a half. Just hurry up and move a little faster.
Joe Griffin: Yeah, it helped a ton. And it was also a tricky time too. In Arizona, in 2015, it was not a hotbed for venture capital. There were some companies that had raised money. And there were some good acquisitions and some good businesses that had come out of there. But what’s happening in Arizona now seven years later is ten times the activity then.
Greg Head: You could say that about Utah, where Peak Ventures was, that 12 years ago, 15 years ago, it was pretty quiet up in Utah and there were things brewing. But the tech explosion is happening up there now. And maybe some version of something will happen on the same trajectory in Arizona. Looking back, aside from you needing the money to grow faster in the game was on, would you have raised money and spent the time to figure out the VC game and play the whole game? Was it like a second job to raise money? Just even a million and a half dollars?
Joe Griffin: Yeah. If you could avoid it, don’t do it. You shouldn’t raise money unless you have to or unless you’re in the situation like I described, where it’s table stakes. You have to go from 0 to 100 and you got to get there super fast. You’re never going to survive.
Greg Head: Yeah, your odds go down and all of the crowd’s coming. You’ve got to keep your odds. You have to keep up with the table bet.
Joe Griffin: I would never recommend to a founder that the path to success is raising money. I don’t think that’s the path that can be, but that’s you should only raise it when you have to. Or when you’re super confident. Maybe you’re in this blue ocean category and you’ve got 1% of the market and you could get to 5% and you’re confident in it and you could do it in 18 months, but you need $10 million to do it. And you get all these metrics that say you should go do that. Yeah, but I think I think a lot of times people say, Oh, I start a business and I need to go out and raise money to start the business. That’s not true at all. I mean, of course, you could start a business super cheaply. You need to wear every hat, you know, including the revenue hat for a while until you establish a level of validity, get to profitability and make some really strategic hires. And you don’t need to grow that fast again unless you have to. But I would just avoid raising capital unless you need to or unless it’s unless you’re a role-up business or something like acquisitions are part of your strategy, then you have to.
Greg Head: Right. And then you raised a little venture debt from my buddy Vik Thapar over here at Cypress Growth Capital in Dallas.
Joe Griffin: Yeah, good guys.
Greg Head: You raised a little debt. So that’s not equity. You got $2 million in cash.
Joe Griffin: Right.
Greg Head: And debt you pay back at an interest rate but that’s way cheaper than capital.
Joe Griffin: If you play that right, it can be more cost-effective than venture capital.
Greg Head: Did you play that right looking back? Did it help you grow faster? So you got the multiple and it was worth it?
Joe Griffin: Yes. The answer is yes. The way that those things work is they’re stacked in a way where your incentive is to pay them back over a longer period of time if you pay them back fast. You get like a penalty. Not that it’s not a penalty. I guess the best way to say it is it’s not designed like a prepayment penalty, but it affects you in that way. And so we paid them back really fast because the acquisition came pretty quick. If we had continued to grow and got acquired in year four or five versus year to year two of the funding from them, like our effective interest rate is much lower annually, the annualized interest rate is lower.
Greg Head: So what can you tell us about the acquisition price? Was it a crazy price? Was it a reasonable price? Did they pay you in stock or cash?
Joe Griffin: They haven’t like they have not disclosed it publicly or marketed it. But I can tell you, it’s an eight-figure deal, a lower eight-figure deal, not a huge eight figure deal, but it was in a lower eight figure. So it was helpful.
Greg Head: It was life-changing.
Joe Griffin: Life-changing, primarily cash equity portion on the earnout.
Greg Head: And did you get a piece of Fiverr? Either that you invested in or whatever because Fiverr went public just after they acquired you, so they probably acquired you to juice up their total revenues and their whole strategy. Puffed up a little bit. And then they went from a stock price of 20 to like 300 two years later. Now they are back in the thirties or something like that. But did you get a piece of that exciting run-up?
Joe Griffin: I did. And I was fortunate that we came in at the time we came in, we got stock options. Everybody at Fiverr gets stock options, all employees. So nothing totally unique there. But it was great to have a good stock options plan, great to be part of the IPO and to just be able to experience that whole run-up. What a wild thing no one ever thought saw that coming, wasn’t it? I always thought Fiverr was going to do great and the stock would go up, but I didn’t think I’d go up to $300. I didn’t think we would be a strange beneficiary of COVID, which is not something that I guess is a good thing. But ultimately, from a business perspective, it was good for us.
Greg Head: So what do you do now, Joe? What happens the week after you wave goodbye to your team and correct yourself when you say “we” about ClearVoice? I know all these years and I know if you have your ClearVoice tattoo on your arm, you got to do something about that.
Joe Griffin: Take it off.
Greg Head: Do you take time with your family or whatever? You got a new thing cooking or, you know? It’s still fresh. You probably haven’t even thought about what life is like after this with the little of independence yet.
Joe Griffin: Yeah. I have a couple of ideas already. I think that’s the biggest thing. You know, one area where I really focused, I’m sure probably most people that listen to your show, I have a huge entrepreneurial spirit. I always love starting things. I love the idea stage. And as I was getting into that third year, as I was getting into, I went three years in like eight months, actually. So as I was getting into year three, even year two, I mean, I was having these ideas, but I really suppressed them and I wanted to do that because I wanted to get through my commitment, which was good for me personally and good for the business. And I wanted to suppress all those things. So all I ever did was keep a little bullet-point list of just ideas. Just a bullet list. Like this is an idea. This is an idea, but.
Greg Head: How many ideas did you have on your list?
Joe Griffin: Probably like 30. Probably like 30 ideas. Yeah, but there are two of them that I’m that I am interested in and I’ll pursue them. I won’t pursue them both. One is a smaller shorter term, the other one is a longer-term bigger one. But right now what I want to do is just spend time. I’m moving to Florida. I’ve got a couple of different Airbnb properties, one of which is a really big one that is being built right now, my primary house, which I’ll be converting. So we’re I’m doing more housework right now and like interior design stuff, but I don’t want to get too far outside of being in the game because the last thing I want to do is just lose the edge. But hopefully, the next two or three months will be a little low key and I could not go too crazy and enjoy the family.
Greg Head: Well, congratulations on your journey and your success. And I remember all those hair-raising calls we’ve had together. And you raised funding and things changed it. You know, some weight has been lifted a little bit more now.
Joe Griffin: I feel better. I feel better.
Greg Head: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently that you know, you would have done differently, not raise funding or raise more funding or go faster or change this or is there something that’s quite obvious to you you would have done differently?
Joe Griffin: I think, yeah, there’s one thing. There are a lot of things, but there’s one I would say with pivot, the transition from I acquired a ClearVoice. You know, it’s almost as if I would have not created ClearVoice out of a transition. We could have gotten to where we are now faster. But when you’re like under the gun, if you’ve got one business which is in pain, you’ve got some other good ideas and you want to get over here and you’ve got to bridge it like you have two options. You could like, you could, one option, and I’m not saying I should have this, but maybe I should have just bled that first company out, just like took. I could have bled a lot of cash out of that.
Greg Head: Right. All the profits.
Joe Griffin: Yes, right. I mean, we had $4,000,000 in the bank, but I could have bled another $5 million probably over to about two or three years. There’s a lot of profit we were kicking it out. Then you could create the new company from a whole different vantage point and just, like, maybe bleed that company, take all this cash, step back and spend 3 to 6 months on market research and really understand what people need versus trying to run two businesses and pivot from one or the other while keeping all your staff or a lot of your staff. You know, thankfully we did keep all our a lot of our staff and a lot of our really talented guys who are ultimately co-founders in the business. Our product team and engineering team like those guys were great and some advisors stuck around. But yeah I just think that can be done differently. But it’s really hard to like, it’s hard to manage and have that foresight in a time where the world’s on fire. It’s hard. It’s hard to lead in a fiery environment..
Greg Head: That’s right. And did you know that ClearVoice, that you were on to something with ClearVoice? I mean, it didn’t turn into Fiverr or a big public company, but when you started with ClearVoice, did you know it was going to go, or was this like, we got to run some more experiments and see if this is going to work?
Joe Griffin: I thought it was I thought I was going to go. I thought I was going to go bigger. I was I thought we were solving such a big problem. And with the software side, and the DIY side. I was wrong about that. But I don’t know if it was just we didn’t get the right brand share. We didn’t maybe market it enough, but I think it. But then, as I said, we had these competitors who raised $100 million plus and they didn’t, they’re the same size as ClearVoice still.
Greg Head: Well, I think that’s a pretty common myth out there. I won’t say it’s universal and it always works, but there is a problem in the world and the answer is the software, doesn’t always work that way.
Joe Griffin: Right. Exactly.
Greg Head: We get a little ahead of ourselves. And I’ve been there, too. So, Joe, is there anything else you’d like to share with practical founders that would be useful for them to hear about? You’ve been through the full cycle a couple of times now in your services businesses and now with ClearVoice and looking forward. Now we’re in the 2020s of all things here that practical founders should hear about how to grow a software business or how to be the founder and CEO of a business like that, but nobody’s telling them.
Joe Griffin: They may already be hearing this. But I think that and what I think about my next business, I’m going to spend a lot more time in recruiting and training. So in a way, I feel like especially in this day and age, you know the quality of your people. We’ve got great people. But like and I think that my time should be invested even more in that. Like as a founder, as a CEO, you want to do a lot of I personally want to do a lot of these things and do a lot of these jobs. And you have to. But your time is best spent recruiting others to do that for you. So I would highly advise investing time in recruiting more than you think you should.
Greg Head: Well, Joe, congratulations again on your successful journey and your house projects. And it’s been very exciting. I know you’ll do something really exciting and thanks for sharing the inside story of your journey here on the Practical Founders podcast today.
Joe Griffin: You got it, Greg. Thanks for having me. Good to see you. Good to chat with you.
Greg Head: Yeah, Thanks, Joe.
Joe Griffin: All right. Talk to you soon.
In this episode, Joe explains:
- How he had created and sold previous internet marketing agencies and technologies before creating ClearVoice
- The difficult transition of creating and funding the ClearVoice marketplace out of an existing services business
- How they finally found the right mix of marketplace, SaaS software, and services to serve their customers and creators well
- The acquisition by Fiverr before they went public in 2019 and how they operated as an independent subsidiary after that
- Their practical funding with self-funding from their services business, a little angel funding, a small $1.5M seed investment round, and then venture debt before being acquired
- How he led ClearVoice with a co-CEO and how they worked on all big decisions together
ClearVoice Company Facts
- Founded: 2014
- Description: ClearVoice is a marketplace platform for marketing leaders to connect with industry-expert freelance content creators in over 200+ industries to develop high-quality content
- Number of Employees: 60
- Funding: Self-funding from their services business, a little angel funding, a small $1.5M seed investment round, and then venture debt before being acquired
- Acquisition: ClearVoice was acquired in 2019 by Fiverr, a leading on-demand marketplace for creative and development projects. Fiverr (FVRR) went public in late 2019 on the NYSE. ClearVoice is a subsidiary company of Fiverr.
- Location: Phoenix, Arizona
- Joe Griffin on LinkedIn
- ClearVoice on LinkedIn
- ClearVoice website
- Jay Swanson (Clearvoice co-CEO) on LinkedIn
- Album VC
- Cypress Growth Capital
- Fiverr website
- Fiverr stock info
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