As CEO of business.com, Doug Llewellyn led the company through a period of change as it became its own entity focused strictly on helping small business owners succeed. We recently spoke with Llewellyn about those changes and the future of business.com.
From transitioning into its own company to undergoing a brand and website refresh, business.com has undergone a lot of changes in the last six months.
In September of 2018, business.com separated from its former parent organization, Purch, which sold its consumer portfolio of sites to U.K.-based Future Publishing. As a newly independent company, business.com is able to focus exclusively on providing small business owners with the advice and resources they need to succeed.
Leading business.com through this period of change is the company's CEO, Doug Llewellyn. Llewellyn is no stranger to the digital media industry, having worked in the field for more than two decades. Prior to taking over the reins of business.com, Llewellyn served as president and chief operating officer at Purch and vice President of corporate and business development and digital media sales for the SMB community platform Manta Media.
He also spent 12 years with CBS Interactive/CNET Networks, where he worked in a number of roles, including vice president and general manager of the B2B portfolio of properties that included ZDNet, TechRepublic and SmartPlanet.
Since taking over as CEO of business.com, Llewellyn has spent time on refocusing and rebranding the company. We recently had a chance to speak with him about those efforts, as well as what he thinks separates business.com from the pack in the crowded digital media industry and what excites him about the future of the company.
The business.com brands
Q: Business.com is more than just one website. Business News Daily and BuyerZone are part of the business.com brand. How do you see these three websites differing, and how do they complement each other?
A: First and foremost, we want our sites to complement each other. Because of that, there will be some overlapping aspects to them. But, as we continue to evolve business.com as our leading brand, the others will follow that evolution, while also still being distinguishable in their own ways.
Business News Daily takes an angle to the small business marketplace that's really around information for anyone looking to, what I would call, explore their entrepreneurial interests. This could be people who are working in big businesses now but have a little bit of a bug to maybe leave their corporate job and start their own venture.
Business News Daily certainly has content, information and resources for people who are already in small business, but more so at the earlier stages, like business plan writing and other very early startup type of stuff.
BuyerZone has typically been about purchase decisions. This includes buying guides centered on "what product should I buy and how should I go about buying it," and things like that. We have content like that on both Business News Daily and business.com because there's a natural flow between different kinds of articles. But BuyerZone is much more about buying guides and decision enablement. With this site, we are also able to utilize our quote technology services, and other tools that connect buyer and seller.
Q: Business.com just unveiled some new branding, including a new website design and feel, as well as a new logo. Why did you feel it was important to give the brand a refresh in terms of style?
A: It was two things. One, I felt like we wanted a new front door to our website that, at a very pragmatic level, provided much more clarity to everyone who landed there about what our value propositions are; our expert community, business advice through articles and what I would call decision enablement content in the form of our product reviews. You could get to all of this on our old homepage, but you couldn't necessarily do it easily. I think this new design does that.
In the process of redesigning the business.com homepage, we decided that it made sense to evolve the look and feel of the brand as a whole. When I think about the future growth of business.com, I look at the "little c" community, meaning the actual Q&A section, as well as the "big C" community, which I think of as everyone who's involved in the marketplace. We think the new chat box logo is a very good representation of that community interaction among small business owners, vendors and everybody in the marketplace.
Q: There are a lot of online publications serving business audiences. What makes business.com different?
A: I think it's that combination of peer-led advice mixed with our roots in professional journalism and expert advice. That's not to say that peers can't be experts from a small business perspective, but that's much more experiential advice, versus more what I would call having a rubric about how we decide what attributes are important in, for example, an accounting system, point-of-sale system or other types of technologies that most small businesses use. I think being able to use business.com for both purposes is a good differentiator.
We also cater to what I would call "service journalism" a lot more than what I would call "headline journalism," which is what some of the other outlets are serving business audiences.
Q: A key component of the business.com content is reviews of business-related products and services. Why is providing this type of advice important to the brand, and how do you remain transparent about your independent reviews process?
A: In terms of remaining transparent, I think it's a question that everybody, even at some level Consumer Reports, gets. If you're reviewing products, how can you remain independent if, at some level, you're getting paid to review them? My answer is always, if we lose that credibility and lose that independence, we won't have an audience because they won't trust us. Trust is a big tenet of what we have built at business.com and Business News Daily over the years.
Whether you're Wirecutter, CNET, Inc., business.com or any of the others, trust is important if you're an independent review site. We have protocols and operations that allow us to maintain that separation. But we also have a culture where we don't need to test those boundaries. It's never been much of an issue for us. The fact that we have millions of people coming to our sites every month is a testament that we're doing it right and people trust us.
As to why we think it's important, frankly, most small business owners are really good at their craft – meaning they're good at accounting, being a doctor, being a roofer, baking cupcakes, being a mechanic or being a florist. They're not necessarily good at running their business. But as they grow, they're going to need tools and services and different types of technology to run their business. They need an efficient place to turn to figure out what the best service or software is for them. I think offering reviews will always be important.
Q: Business.com offers a community where members can share advice and contribute expert articles. What is the value in people joining the community, and how do you envision the community growing with the business?
A: Being able to get what I would call grassroots experiential advice from people, in conjunction with some of the expert advice that our staff members give, is critically important.
Let's say I own a coffee shop in Waltham, Massachusetts, and I'm having trouble figuring out how to get the morning shift to show up on time before commuters walk in the door. That is probably an issue that a lot of coffee shops have. I can go ask that question of somebody who might own a coffee shop in Chicago, Illinois, or Bozeman, Montana, or Denver, Colorado, and know that I'll hear, "Hey, you know, I had that problem too; what I did was I incented my morning shift by doing X, Y, Z and rewarded them here and there," as opposed to someone who's like, "Oh, well, I'm a business expert, I can help you."
I think the sort of real-world situations that can come from inside of this Q&A platform are critically important for business owners as they seek advice.
Q: What are the biggest changes you have seen in the digital media industry over the past two decades, and how is business.com addressing them?
A: The biggest thing is it's super easy to be in digital media. Anybody can have a WordPress blog and be up and running pretty quickly. Some of the challenges are, how do you grow at scale? How do you remain trustworthy? There are a lot of brands out there that aren't necessarily what I would call super high-utility value. They're more infotainment. There are services out there that don't have much of a brand and you're not really sure if they're trustworthy, but you can tell they're probably making a lot of money.
What we're trying to build at business.com is that authentic, trusted experience that really does serve the needs of the small business owner, but also with a business model underneath that foundation that helps us continue to invest in how we can help all sides of the marketplace.
The future of business.com
Q: What's next for business.com? Where do you see the company going?
A: I still think we have a lot of growth potential in the community side of the site. I think you're going to see a lot more organic interaction between our professional journalists and experts on staff and our community. I think there's a lot more room for the community to grow and be very valuable for people.
It's unclear how much more content expansion we'll do. We will always expand or write new categories that are important, but we're at 100-plus categories now. Are we going to be in 300? Probably not. But we'll probably be in 150 over time.
Q: What excites you the most about business.com and its future?
A: I just think we're only at the tip of the iceberg. Let's not forget small businesses aren't solely the property of the United States of America. There are plenty of markets overseas where we can be incredibly valuable as well. I think our brand can go global.
We don't have any plans in the next 12 or 18 months to be in international markets, but we're building something that should be valuable not only to small business owners in the U.S., but certainly across the world.
Q: How does your company's culture translate into what business.com does for small business owners? How is that culture evolving?
A: I think we need to be nimble and adaptable. Small business owners need to figure that out probably five times a day. We've got a little bit of a bigger operation, but we're still small – less than 100 people. We are certainly not a big enterprise.
As we see the marketplace changing, our customers' needs changing and the needs of small business owners changing, we can't just say, "Oh, we have a plan and we're going to stick to it." We have to say, "OK, how does our plan need to evolve?" so that we don't get yo-yoed back and forth into changing plans every week. How do we serve our customers on an ongoing basis?
I like to think that we're scrappy and can adapt what we're are doing pretty well. We can always get better at it, but I like to think we do that pretty well.