Interview with John Audette

John Audette

JOHN: One of the major things that I did with Multimedia Marketing Group (MMG) early on was focus on search and find and so-on. I can remember saying in an early article of a book I wrote, “Having a website with nobody able to find it is like having a beautiful billboard in a basement.” So I was always focused on being found, not just having it out there, and how do you do that? In those days you had to make sure that you were properly registered because they were mostly the file-based hierarchical systems like Yahoo!, and they didn’t have so many – in fact I don’t think there were any spider run search engines in those days, you had to go to those sites and register with them. Well, there were a lot of them because everybody was vying for that niche, so we put together what I call the “Web Step Top 100,” and actually there was the “Web Step Top 30,” as a subset of that. One of the first services at MMG was to register people with all of those, and that was our first big revenue stream. People would say, “Jeeze, it’s just so tedious to go in and go through all of these, and they all have different formats, and there’s no way to really automate it.” So, we went in and we registered websites with these file systems and we had a special code at Yahoo! that would let us in the backdoor immediately - even when Yahoo! got really big, we still had that special code, so we were able to get people in Yahoo! right away. That was a huge competitive advantage for us.

MARK: …and Yahoo! was the king.

JOHN: They were the king, yeah, the big break with the spiders was AltaVista maybe – I think that was probably the first one. Then, in a move that some people thought was crazy because that was a lot of our revenue, Web Step Top 100 was our crowned jewels and we had put together a little sort of web-based registration method for our people to use, we went public and made it available to anybody who wanted to use it for free; we called it the Web Step 100 - it’s all right here, just plug in your URL and sometimes you have to do a little more but you can do the whole thing yourself. So that business dwindled but then people came to us for bigger stuff. So we got involved in the whole suite, really, of internet marketing at that time. That was the early day, like 1995 or 1996…

MARK: That’s pretty early.

JOHN: It was early. I hired Marshall Simmonds from CompUSA in 1996.

MARK: How old was he?

JOHN: He was just a kid, I mean, 22 or 23; and Derrick Wheeler – CompUSA, and now those guys are big dogs in the search industry - and they learned everything at MMG. They learned everything from Danny Sullivan, because in 1997, I contacted Danny Sullivan – who was emerging as a guy that knew the most about search…

MARK: As a writer? How did you find out about him?

JOHN: Well, I was running I-Sales – which was another thing that was really responsible for MMG’s success and we had about 15 or 20,000 subscribers, we had the whole universe of Internet Marketers – Danny was on the list, I mean, Mark Cubin was on the list, he’s an I-Saler. I contacted Danny and I said, “We’d like to get better at this,” and there wasn’t really a name for it, “We’d like to get better at this search stuff,” and I said, “I’ll pay your way to Bend, Oregon,” we had just moved to Bend from Lake Oswego – we had 7 or 8 employees, including Derrick and Marshall. So he said, “Sure, that’d be great.”

MARK: Did those guys come down with you from Lake Oswego?

JOHN: They came here with me, and we were in a loft across from Goody's downtown.

MARK: Right above Goody's?

JOHN: On the other side of Oregon, up there on top.

MARK: I had that office right above Goody's for a little while. It’s dangerously close to ice cream.

JOHN: Ha – yeah I know. We used to get trays from Goody's and bring it back to the office. We ended up with like 40 people in that space, breaking every fire code, but our room was like $400 a month. So Danny came, and I can remember, he sat there in front of us at a computer and he opened several sessions of a browser at the same time, and he showed us different stuff. And I said, this is the honest to God truth, my son was there and he remembers this too, I said, “We need to make a product out of this, and we need to come up with a name, why don’t we call it Search Engine Optimization – SEO?” That term was invented right there in 1997 in downtown Bend. It’s disputed, I suppose we could look in some web archives and see MMG’s early websites to see when we put that on our website, it would have been immediately following that. But that was a term that I think I coined, and that’s how my son remembers it, although he thinks he maybe had something to do with it too…

MARK: JP or Adam?

JOHN: JP. He remembers it being coined at that session with Danny. So then Marshall sort of became our search guy after that, and went on to head up search for New York Times.

MARK: So what was Danny doing at the time?

JOHN: He was starting Search Engine Watch.

MARK: Was his site already out there?

JOHN: I don’t know, but he was the only guy who was really making a full time career out of that niche at that time. He’s certainly the first guy. I would have probably found him on I-Sales, either his posting, or somebody saying something about him because iSales was real international; In fact, I have more friends in Dublin than I have in Bend probably.

MARK: Was he in London?

JOHN: He was in London, but I was in London a lot, and so we were real international. So that’s how it started with our company, and I can remember at the time I sold the company, I had a tempered fit with Marshall and Detlev one day because they weren’t doing enough search business, I said, “You guys are just missing the boat,” and they said, “Ah, jeeze we’re doing like 20,000 every month,” I said, “It’s nothing. It’s just nothing. It’s an annuity. Once you get these customers they depend on you, you help them forever, it’s the best thing we do.” And then we ended up selling.

MARK: So it was never THE primary revenue stream?

JOHN: No, it never was. It never was as big as say, The Internet News Bureau. You know, that was our online press release service that we started; we sold that to That was always bigger than search. I didn’t see it as much as I should have, so I didn’t push them hard enough, and they were real happy doing what they were doing, and we knew it was early; when I was pushing them was probably 99 because the sale was finalized in 2000. So anyway, I think SEO started kind of formerly right here in Bend.

MARK: Right. Do you remember when Danny came over?

JOHN: We could look it up, but I think it was in 1997.

MARK: Adam thought he might have the email where Danny said, “Hey, yeah, I’ll come.”

JOHN: I might have it too. I save all my email.

MARK: That’s almost like an artifact.

JOHN: I know. Danny will probably remember it.

MARK: Yeah. If that email exists we want to post it here…

JOHN: Mm… yeah that would be interesting. That should stir up a lot of controversy because he’s become such a big deal, and of course everybody would like to think that they invented it – we didn’t invent it, but we were one of the very first to commercialize it. I mean, because our roots were in the Web Step 100; we always put infuses on that, and it really evolved from file registry to Search Engine Optimization – that was the evolution of it – before then you just submitted your URL and somebody manually included it in the database. The spidering didn’t really start until later.

MARK: Right, and the directory categorization includes trying to make sure you have the right categories nailed down. It’s like a taxonomy headache.

JOHN: Oh and it had such limits, how far could it go? I mean, the sites exploding at a geometric rate. So that’s basically how we started, and we did a lot of things. We did what we called AdAps, which was short for advertizing applications, they were little floating viral apps that people could pass along and add to their desktop and so on, and put brands on them and that kind of thing. That was before you really had to worry about all of the compromises on the internet.

MARK: We were doing a little bit of work with you guys as First Choice. We had some programmers in the back, and you guys had us doing some things. Then we bumped into Cloaking and created "Spider Lounges" – that's what we called them – we didn’t know that it was going to be a bad thing later.

JOHN: Ha-ha. Yeah, that was all early on. We were just making it up as we went along, because nobody knew anything, I mean, it was all brand new.

MARK: And it was Derrick and Marshall? That’s it; they were the first two guys?

JOHN: A guy named Adam Sherk was number one.

MARK: Is Adam still doing this?

JOHN: No, he went to Turkey to live; I think he’s back in the US. He was kind of a PR guy; he did more of our PR. Adam Sherk was my first employee – real nice guy. Let’s see Adam Boettiger - he’s still kind of a force out there. He’s working for a traditional agency in Portland now, but he started a list called iAdvertizing. He’s a real brilliant guy impossible to harness, so I told him to split ways. We’re still friends but…

MARK: He just couldn’t...

JOHN: Unmanageable. Another guy, I’m trying to remember his name, started his own internet marketing firm and went to a total boom and then just completely blew out – lost everything. Mark… Scream Marketing… something like that, but his name was Mark; but that was the crew in Portland. Matt, we called him “Goblin,” Matt H--- he was our PR guy, he was really good. We had like 6 or 7 when he came over. I told Vick I wanted to go to Bend for two reasons, I want to live in Bend personally, and secondly, I think getting employees and retaining employees in this business is going to become a real challenge, and if we have them in Bend they are going to be lifestyle people and they are going to want to stay there; we never got poached.

MARK: It’s so nice here, and with the Redmond, OR airport we can get to where we want to go and get back.

JOHN: So ended up with about 80 employees.

MARK: So I was dinking around through all of my stuff, and I find this notepad of paper from the Cascade Conference at Shevlin Park. I was asking myself, “Now, I don’t remember when SES started, but is it possible that that was the first search conference?”

JOHN: What year was that, 98 or 99? That was fun; remember we had a house band – Marshall, a guitarist…

MARK: Yeah, and there was a panel...

JOHN: A guy named Bill Letter at that conference was building a online enterprise called, and I remember standing outside Shevlin, and Bill was there, we were his only marketing company – we did everything for him – and he said, “John I can get the name for $50,000, do you think I should buy it?” and I said, “Bill do you have your phone?” and he bought it on the spot right in front of me. He ended up starting his company for like $200,000 and ended up selling it to Getty Images out of London for like two hundred million. is still out there run by Getty.

MARK: Maybe that’s the first Domainers.

JOHN: Yeah, I said, “Man, pick up your phone and buy that.”

MARK: That’s so funny, there’s still this "rodeo of ideas" out there, and things aren’t done yet, there’s a long way to go.

JOHN: Oh, it’s early. It’s so early. That’s why I think I’m going back in with Adam.

MARK: What do you want to do?

JOHN: Marketing. There’s way more demand out there than there is supply, and a lot of the supply is either black fab, or it’s simply fly-by-night unqualified. We want to build an intelligent company. I mean Adam right now is basically doing it on a consulting basis in a way, with some people helping him, and he’s got all of the business he can handle. So, we want to turn it into a company, so basically my job is to do that… just be on the business end of things. I think Adam is smarter than me, but I know business, and he doesn’t know much about business, so I’m just going to be Mister Inside and let him be Mister Outside. It could be just widgets, I just want to set up a company that’s going to accommodate what he’s capable of doing. We’re just waiting for the weather to clear so we can get away on an overnight retreat and start fleshing out the business plan, and turn it loose. I just want to do it better than MMG. I think we have two things going for us, one is that we have little brand – the name Audette does have a little brand recognition…

MARK: I agree.

JOHN: I have to be a little modest for a minute, but he’s built it too with LED. And that’s the second component, the LED, and that’s a pretty influential community of people. Adam does a great job running that. So I think that’s why we have opportunity because I think people will view us as being legitimate. We’ll get the opportunities, it’ll just come down to the delivery and the results because we’re going to base everything on ROI, and we’re not going to talk. That’s all it’s going to come down to. To me it’s the reason I’m motivated that way, because at MMG we weren’t consciously trying to fake anybody out, but by the same token we were making things up as we went along because it was so early and we didn’t have the tools to measure very well because it was kind of primitive in those days. Another ingredient as we were hiring and growing so quickly that we had what I call “The Implementation Gap,” because we had these really capable smart people at the top, but then it dropped off because we hired people and we had to train them. That’s why in this new company we want to go deep, we probably aren’t going to be looking for people to train. We’re going to be looking to improve it. It’s a more sophisticated approach because it’s a more mature market, and hopefully we can leverage our brand because I think it is a positive one - and then we can leverage our exposure on the LED, and some of the other areas and have a little more variety.

MARK: Right.

JOHN: That’s when I first used the phrase “drowning submariners” in I-Sales; I wrote a column in I-Sales because I was pretty talkative in there. Adam keeps a low profile in LED, but I didn’t and I said, “you guys are complaining about the commercialization of the internet are just drowning submariners. You don’t have a chance. You might as well adapt, because if you don’t adapt you’re going to die.” And I got a lot of flack over that, because “No-no, it belongs to the scientific community, it belongs to the academic community.” Who was one of the fathers of the internet in Switzerland? I wrote a little internet marketing book that I sold online back in 95…

MARK: Do you still have it?

JOHN: Yeah, I’ve got a copy of it.

MARK: We would love to get one of those.

JOHN: And, they gave me a letter-bound copy of it at MMG – the employees did – but I sold it online, and I was going to have it published and I could hardly make anything to do it so I said, “Well, this is what I do, I’m supposed to do internet marketing, so I’ll just sell it myself.” And I sold about 4,000 copies at like 30 bucks, and that’s the money I used to start MMG – just selling that book. I think it’s probably the very first little book on internet marketing. I had it printed at Kinko’s and bound there, and shipped it out.

MARK: I remember something about that.

JOHN: It was something like, “Marketing on the World Wide Web,” ha-ha.

MARK: So, the Cascade Conference…

JOHN: That was one of the first.

MARK: Right, so I don’t know if there are any factoids about that thing either. Interestingly enough, when you’re trying to do history on the internet, which I’ve been doing in this SEO world, as you can find domain names creation dates; I’ve got this record. So, if someone gets this idea – Zapos – well as soon as they like the idea, and they’ve named it, how many minutes are they going to wait before they register the domain name? I’ve been digging back, and placing these on a timeline and I hope to have a really nice illustration; I need some help – I’m not an illustrator. But when I get all of the facts right, I’m going to have a nice illustration to show what happened. These years you are talking about, 94 through 97; it’s hard to get before that.

JOHN: Really, huh.

MARK: In the search engine SEO world.

JOHN: You know what’s so bad for me – My company was called Multi Media Marketing Group because I was doing multimedia, PowerPoint, presentations for corporate clients – that’s how I got into this – I did one for Cascade Corp that makes lift truck attachments in Portland they’re publicly traded, and I did a training program for them in a multi-media presentation; it was much more powerful than PowerPoint, it was all automated and very cool. So my company was called Multi-Media Marketing Group, and then in addition to that I started doing some website creation. I did the first website for Peter Jacobson Production; they still have, that’s what made me think of that, I got that for them. I mean, where can you get a three letter URL…. I did the first website for World Trade Center in Portland. I did a website for Skamania Lodge and one for Cycle Oregon. I did a bunch of early websites, and then it just evolved into marketing. I thought, “It’s just like a gold rush out there,” and I wanted to do what Levi Straus did, I want to supply the minors rather than be one. I sought that consciously in 1994. I converted MMG to an internet marketing company, rather than building websites, and then we came up with the Web Step Top 100; and I wanted to name of course, and that was like 94.

MARK: That wasn’t your domain name?

JOHN:, CO stood for – secret in my mind because I knew what I wanted to do eventually – Central Oregon.

MARK: So what is that domain today, has that been one of the assets that Outwriter...

JOHN: Yeah, they purchased it.

MARK: … And we don’t know what they’re doing with it.

JOHN: No. The only thing we really have left is So that was the evolution of our domain, and that’s why it became Then one day in 97 I’m sitting there, and we had this little wooden framed building next to the sewage treatment plant at Lake Oswego that we were renting for $300 a month – Marsha, Derrick , & Bodiger were all there, and I’m thinking “Wouldn’t it be great to just give people a way to automate press release distribution, and have journalists sign up for whatever areas they want to get releases in, and then the journalists could just cut and paste from a digital format?” and I thought, “Let’s just do that.” We made it a division of MMG and I called it Internet News Girl, and then we got IMB I think, and Internet news girl, I’m just thinking of Domains – when we got them. But that’s a good way to track stuff.

MARK: Yeah, because they’re out there.

JOHN: Then we sold Internet News Girls at the time when the company that was buying us owned 25% of us I think, and I remember calling the company and saying, “I just got an offer for Internet News Girl, I think we ought to sell it because the valuation is pretty extreme, “and they said, “What is it?” and I said, “It’s 4 million,” and they said, “What? That’s nuts!” It was doing like 30,000 a month…

MARK: Well, hey, that’s worth 4 million.

JOHN: So we sold it to, and it’s still operating though, it’s doing well. So that’s how that domain name came along. And then we had

MARK: Oh yeah, I remember that one too.

JOHN: It was like a light version of MMG, where we were training people to do it, as almost like affiliates. We did quite a bit of business with that. We had people coming from all over the country for training here in Bend. We had a little theatre room in our office over there, and we were doing a lot of stuff; it was pretty fun.

MARK: So who were the folks that came down from Lake Oswego, that original core?

JOHN: Me, Marshall, Derrick , and the Goblin – Matt Hawkins. That’s it I think.

MARK: And then JP got involved…

JOHN: He got involved here. He was living here at the time, so he got involved right away.

MARK: And was Adam a part of it?

JOHN: Nope, Adam was going to college. Adam was pretty much a world class rock climber at one time… but not quite, he was probably in the top 10 or 20 in the US, but the US is behind…

MARK: So he probably knows Alan Watts?

JOHN: I don’t know. So that’s why he moved over here – to climb over at Smith Rock State Park. But yeah, JP was sales man extraordinaire; he could hold a whole conference room. We landed the publishers of Vanity Fair.

MARK: JP? Wow. What’s he doing now?

JOHN: He’s president of a biotech company in Eugene called MitoScience, LLC. They do mitochondrial research; it’s pretty interesting stuff – cutting edge. So, yeah, that’s a little history, but it was a fun run. It was funny we moved out of my house into that little wooden framed building, and the reason we got it for $300 a month was because the year before it was under water. It flooded down there by the Willamette River, and this thing was under water. So we went in and I remember on a couple nights we had to take our computers and put them up as high as we could because the water was rising and we were worried that we were going to get everything soaked. We were boot strapping the whole thing, saving every penny we could, you know how that works.

MARK: Sure, that’s funny. So, I’m trying to remember who else besides Danny at that time, and I don’t really know of a second…

JOHN: There wasn’t anybody.

MARK: When did Bruce… Bruce got started off of I-Sales?

JOHN: I believe Bruce probably made his name known through I-Sales. He was one of the very early I-Sales contributors, and always had interesting things to say.

MARK: What’s I-Sales doing now?

JOHN: When we sold MMG we kept all of the publications, because we had I-Search too, and I-Search was like 10 or 15,000 circulation. We had I-Search, I-Help, I-Sales, I-Design, a whole eight or ten of them, and we kept those and we rented a new office space and we ran it as We couldn’t monetize it and make it work at that time, I mean, we just couldn’t get the advertising to pay our expenses even though we had 200,000 subscribers, and today it’d be a goal even though it was crew, there was an email distribution newsletter. Adam and I owned it, and I sold it to Andy Borland – remember, he started ClickZ which he sold, and a lot of money, but he took it in stock, and by the time he was able to sell the stock in the company he was under water based on the taxes he had paid on the stock – he actually lost money selling his company, but he’s a very smart guy. He’s kind of a journalist. So he bought and then he changed the idea and the structure about every two or three weeks and just ran it into the ground, it just vanished.

MARK: And now it’s all gone.

JOHN: It’s gone.

MARK: Any interest in resurrecting it?

JOHN: Maybe, because we have LED now, and it’s really large. It would be pretty easy to spin off probably other subsets of that. That’s what happened, everything spun off of I-Sales, and it worked really well, but I-Sales was the key marketing component for MMG, because what I-Sales did was go out and build and embrace a community of internet marketers, that just happened to be our target market, and so that’s how we built our brand and awareness. So, these companies when they came to us knew exactly who we were – they had no fear. A good friend of mine, a guy named Wayne Dempsey who graduated from MIT, he got onto I-Sales somehow – he was a lot younger than me – and he picked up all of the concepts of I-Sales and the marketing approach that I used for MMG, and he decided to do the same thing in the Portia world; he started a company called Pelican Parts, and he built these discussion lists (bulletin boards) at Pelican Parts, and he has made himself the center of the universe of vintage porches, and he’s going make over a million bucks this year profit in his company. He’s done it exactly how I built MMG.

MARK: Really, what’s the name of that place?

JOHN: Pelican Parts, and he learned all the concepts from I-Sales and MMG, and he just built this community that ends up being his customers.

MARK: Is there anything close to I-Sales today?

JOHN: LED. Very close – the same – except bigger, but all of the influential marketers are on LED.

MARK: But he hasn’t branched out. He’s just kind of keeping it…

JOHN: Adam?

MARK: Yeah.

JOHN: In terms of publications.

MARK: Right.

JOHN: Well, that’s all he can handle because it’s daily, and he’s the moderator. It’s doing pretty well financially. People want to advertise now, but we had a hard time selling ads.

MARK: So ClickZ… they’re still around, but you say he’s sold…

JOHN: Borland sold that, it didn’t work out for him. Adventive didn’t work out for him. Adventive is a great word. I started Adventive – I came up with that name after it was hard to get domain names. I wanted it to be an A, I wanted it to be relevant, and what Adventive means it’s a biological term that describes a species that in the process of adapting to a new environment. I thought, “That’s perfect.” I’d love to get that name back. Someone is holding it hostage; they’ll sell it to us but ….

MARK: Do you know the price?

JOHN: Not much, I don’t remember; it’s not like $100,000 or something.

MARK: Nothing crazy like that.

JOHN: It just seems like extortion to me, I hate paying…

MARK: Yeah, I was there. We priced in on a couple thousand domain names and I got over that, so even $1,500… I know it cost him ten dollars to register this thing.

JOHN: Well especially when it’s a name that you kind of made up originally, you know like Adventive, I went through the dictionary methodically in the A’s to find a great word. And I thought, “Whoa, isn’t that a perfect word.” We were going to rename MMG Adventive at one time, it was such a great word, but we redesigned all of our collateral material because we had two internal graphic designers, but we just decided not to – another company came along and bought it.

MARK: So what does the future hold? You’re diving back in.

JOHN: I’m just going to turn it loose and see what it evolves into and basically the first step is for Adam and I to go off and spend 48 hours fleshing out the outline that we have in place, and start putting it together – we’ll come back to town rent some office space and start going.

MARK: If you guys need any help I’m definitely interested in finding a way to pitch in. I think we might be able to bring some zing back to Bend. It kind of makes sense. I think people will have some resonance and I hope to stir up some people too.