Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello! I’m Christopher Sharp and in 1998, I launched a digital marketing company named SharpNet Solutions. SharpNet originated as a search marketing company, specializing in SEO and PPC service, which remain our flagship products today. Over time, our service portfolio grew to also include Social Media Management and Website Design.
Having worked in a corporate environment during my career before launching SharpNet, I knew that I wanted SharpNet to remain a small and more personable company. Having turned down investors, buy-out options, IPOs offerings, and other fast-growth resources numerous times, we rely on only our marketing efforts to grow organically. Over two decades later, SharpNet employs 38 talented team members with gross sales of over $4 million/yr.
We are focused outwardly to provide an uncommonly good experience for our clients, with a considerable effort toward customer satisfaction, and bottom-line results. We are focused inwardly to provide an exceptional work environment and a strong work-life balance. Because people spend 1/3rd of their lives at work, we do our best to make that investment of one’s time well worth it.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I have always been a science nut and received my B.S. in Chemical Engineering. I chose chemical engineering because I liked chemistry and processes, but I didn’t want to be a chemist.
After graduating, I landed my first job at Micron Semiconductor as a process engineer. I was promoted quickly at Micron, and in three years I became a lead engineer (managing 5 other technicians and engineers). After three years with Micron, I then took a new position with Hewlett Packard, still in the semiconductor industry, and still as a process engineer.
As a process engineer, I learned how to optimize processes to maximize yield, minimize product defects, lower production costs, debug complex problems, and understand statistical data at a high level. While these skills seem completely unrelated to digital marketing, I would later learn that there were considerable similarities.
While still employed with Hewlett Packard (HP), the mega-corporation began to shut down different factories, which led to massive layoffs, restructuring, and job transfers. Many of the job transfers were to the HP facility in Fort Collins. I had befriended one of the engineers who was transferred to Fort Collins. One day, he swung by my desk, carrying a box, and looking scared. He simply said “Chris, I just got laid off. I’ve only been here for two months. I just closed on a new house yesterday.”
At that time, my wife and I were raising three boys under the age of 4 years, including identical twins. I just remember thinking “I don’t want to be the guy that gets laid off, with three kids.” I was our family's only income source at that time, and I didn’t like my fate being in someone else’s hands. It was time to rethink my future.
I’ve always had an affinity with computers and considered myself a decent programmer. One day my wife mentioned to me that she had built a small website that had photos of our family. It was something that got photos of our kids and family updates to grandparents. It was 1998 and the internet was brand-new. There was no Google yet, and Yahoo was the top-dog search engine at the time.
The idea hit me that I could launch a business on the internet. Being comfortable with programming and techie things, I could figure out how to build a website, and then drive business to it. I came up with two ideas to help secure my future. (1) Launch an internet-based business and (2) take software engineering classes.
The next week, I started self-training how to build websites, and then enrolled in master's degree classes for software engineering. I figured that one or the other of these ideas would take off, and I could better secure my family's future.
Working harder is more important than working smarter in the beginning. Smart comes later as you begin to learn what business is
I was successful in building my first website, but nothing happened. Lots of work, but no visitors. It was clear that I needed website visitors, and the only way to get them was from the search engines.
There were no social media yet, which wouldn’t solidify for six more years. I began to reverse engineer the search engines. Making test web pages, and seeing how the search engines responded. My process engineering skills started to kick in: Running tests, reverse engineering, and seeing how the search engines responded to changes I made to my website. It was very technical and very fun.
I read as much as I could about other people doing the same thing. I started to get good at it, and people started visiting my website. And then… the big idea hit me. The internet would launch a new era of businesses, and these businesses would need a special kind of marketing. That night, I changed my business model, and launched my “internet marketing company.” We wouldn’t call it “digital marketing” for another decade.
I never did get laid off at HP, but my budding internet marketing business started to take off. I worked ridiculous hours, getting home at 6 pm from HP, and then working for my businesses after hours. I used to joke that my office hours were 6 pm to 6 am. I toughed it out, but you have to fight for those dreams.
I wasn’t willing to quit my HP job while building my new company, so I just worked more than the next guy. I learned that you can build an empire on the time that most people spend watching stupid TV shows. Within six months, I was making 70% of my income as an engineer. I resigned from my job at HP, and 23 years later, I am still running this same business.
Take us through the process of designing your first service.
While I was testing and learning about Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and what made the search engines tick, a new search engine hit the marketing… Google. It was amazing to see how fast Google took over the marketplace.
Another technology also hit the internet at the same time, called Pay Per Click (PPC). PPC is what puts ads at the top of the search results of Google and other search engines. When I launched SharpNet, SEO and PPC were the two services that we sold.
Our product development was entirely based on customer demand. While we started offering SEO and PPC management services, new technologies started to emerge, leading to customer demand to help with new client interests.
The internet was like the wild, wild west. There were no rules, there were no classes to take, there were no mentors. Every piece of information we gained was through experimentation, speculation, failure, observation. New technologies were being released almost daily, and we had to decide what would “be a thing” or what would “be a bust.” We had to keep up with the pace.
In time, due to customer demand, we started to design websites, adding a third service to our portfolio. Some of the new inventions, like social media, and Facebook, also began to emerge as permanent internet features. Social media posts were then added to our list of services, and a few years later, paid social advertising management. Content also became very important, so we started building a team of content writers. Wherever we saw a gold vein, we started mining.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Launching a business is simply one of the easiest parts of starting a business. You can sign up through the Secretary of State, online, and usually for under $100. It doesn’t seem simple when you launch your first business, but it is. Secure your business identity online, get your EIN through the IRS, then get your bank account with that EIN.
When I launched SharpNet, I was naive about the process and was intimidated by it. But as a one-man-show, I didn't have to worry about employees, partners, investors, or things like that. I recommend starting simple and increasing the complexity of your operations based on success.
After about 18 months, and with the business doing well, I changed the company from a Sole Proprietorship to an S-Corp. But today, I recommend starting from the get-go as either an LLC or S-Corp, depending on what best fits your long-term objectives.
In addition to starting small (just me), I started very conservatively. I built my website, created my process and client management software, and did things myself rather than hiring someone else. Money only went one way, in and not out, with a few necessary exceptions. We have no partners, investors, loans, or other ties that can hold a business down.
Getting your employees to buy into your mission is also very important. Make your mission very clear, talk about it at every meeting, and let there be no mistake about your company’s identity.
When you launch a company, be conservative in every way by minimizing every expense, doing things yourself even if you don’t yet know-how, and keeping operations very simple. You’ll have time to get complex as you learn and grow. Right now, you are only 1% of what you can be, but you have to make it up as you go for now.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
As SharpNet grew, and the digital marketing industry solidified, I learned a few very simple things. The most important was that the digital marketing industry was very dirty. Today, it is filled with incredible salespeople, but lousy fulfillment. Customer service stinks and results stink even more. It is embarrassing really.
It is in my nature to be accommodating, and competitive, so I guided SharpNet to be a bright light in an otherwise dirty industry. We started focusing heavily on providing strong customer support. We answer the phone, we respond to email quickly, and we own the mistakes we make. While we’re not perfect, we do our best to right any wrong.
Sincere customer support is a foundation of our company and a big part of our identity. However, customer support alone is not good enough. The quality of the service and bottom-line results must also be top-notch. This is where my competitive nature kicks in. I hate the idea of another company being better at digital marketing than SharpNet, so the training and development of our team are constant and abundant.
The bottom line for SharpNet is to provide superior results while making the experience as pleasant as possible for our clients. All the while, remaining affordable. It is hard to hit all of these marks, but it is possible, and you won’t feel good as a business owner if you don’t. Once you dial it in, business comes easy. Sales rates improve, reviews improve, referrals for existing clients flow in, and your reputation becomes a thing. So aim high, and chip away at it every day.
You need to institutionalize these key points for your employees: Competence (you can do the work), Integrity (you will do it well), and Affordability (clients can afford to do it). At SharpNet, this is our MO and we talk about it every day. Build a positive company culture that understands that their paycheck comes from clients, and not from thin air.
As a digital marketing company, the “marketing” side comes easily. This is a benefit that SharpNet has that other company, doing other things, do not have. Our growth is 100% based on our work.
We build our marketing strategies, websites, SEO campaigns, PPC campaigns, social media campaigns, etc. At the same time, we remained conservative and invested in marketing based on success. SEO and social media posts were free, apart from the cost of employees, but other expenses like PPC (Google Ads) could be quite expensive.
No one is responsible for our growth other than ourselves. We take an omnichannel approach to digital marketing, which is a fancy way of saying that we try lots of different things.
Knowing Google Ads, we started small, at about $300/mo. It drove business, and I would put those profits back into a bigger Google Ads campaign. That $300/mo budget grew to $1,000/mo, which then grew to $10,000/mo, and then to $30,000/mo which is where we are today. But, it took a full decade to get from $300/mo to $30,000/mo.
I would never recommend starting at $30,000/mo from the beginning. Rather, start conservative and based on success, reinvest into yourself, and scale the budget up. We are shrewd in the sense of tracking where our money is going, how well the marketing performs, and that neverending pursuit of optimizing the performance of our marketing efforts.
Marketing is one of the biggest challenges that most businesses face. Business owners can tackle marketing by learning how to on their own, hiring an employee, or outsourcing the work. However you pursue marketing, take it seriously, and do it well. You need charged batteries if you want that light to shine.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Over two decades after SharpNet launched, we have grown to 38 employees and have gross revenues of just over $4 million. We were one of the benefactors of the COVID craze because as storefronts shut down, the need to sell over the internet increased. We have hired 15 employees since COVID hit the USA.
Today, SharpNet provides services of one sort or another for over 1,000 websites. We have over 200 agencies who resell our services to their customers under our “white label marketing” program. White Label is where our work holds another business’ brand as if they did the work. We provide SEO for 900 websites, PPC for 300, Social Media for 200, and we’ll build about 100 websites by year’s end. Our content team punches out over 300 pieces of content each month!
Growth overall has been very consistent, averaging about 20%-30% per year for this last decade. Though as we grow, 30% of our current income was more than our gross income a few years back. That 30% gets bigger every year. This is largely due to our marketing efforts, customer referrals, and dedication to our internal client retention program. Each year we strive to be a better version of ourselves, and we take that concept seriously.
Profitability remains good, simply because we remain conservative and rely on ourselves as much as possible. We spend money wisely and we don’t forget that hard times can always be right around the corner. We got lucky with COVID, but we also survived the DOT-COM bust of 2002, the recession of 2008, 9/11, and other business hardships. Our foundation is strong, by design.
As the owner, president, and CEO of SharpNet, I am also the biggest reason why our company is not larger. Having been a part of the corporate world, I knew that I wanted SharpNet to remain small and specialized. We have had dozens of opportunities to become a big corporation, but I’ve always looked the other way. Several serious offers have been made to purchase SharpNet, or inject investment funds, launch an IPO, add a call center, etc. That isn’t what I want, nor what our employees want.
We hold healthy, fun work relationships with staff and even clients, and we’re in a good place. We are large enough to do a lot of things well but small enough to still have a soul.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
From a business owner's perspective, you have to invest in big concepts that provide big returns. Get the right focus, and things will fall into place. Those big concepts are:
- The customer experience - connect with your clients, listen, own up.
- Your employees' experience - they will spend 1/3rd of their lives at your business. You better make it a good experience, because you are going nowhere without them.
- The value of your service/product - what is your purpose if the value isn’t there?
- Running lean and mean - hard times will hit, you need to survive when competitors fail. Focus on your bottom-line profitability. Cut costs where you can, without stifling growth. Don’t let money replace laziness.
Getting your employees to buy into your mission is also very important. Make your mission very clear, talk about it at every meeting, and let there be no mistake about your company’s identity. Then defend it if things stray. This is leadership, and your ship will crash if you don’t lead it.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We are big fans of WordPress for building websites. It is the most popular platform in the world, for a reason. As a company, we want to build amazing websites, and to do that, we need to get good at one platform, rather than kind-of-good at a dozen platforms. Also, it is easy to train our clients on how to interact with it. Installing and building becomes a process, and we are more efficient if we focus on one major website infrastructure. It does everything well, so no matter what comes our way, we can get it done with WordPress.
For paid advertising, we tend to get the best results with the Google Ads platform. However, there are many types of businesses or goals that can be better achieved with Facebook. In general, Google Ads works better, except for those exceptions.
For most needs relating to business operations, client management, client reporting, and other business functions, SharpNet has created its software. We affectionately refer to it as SharpReports, but it does much more than just reporting. Unfortunately, it is proprietary and not for sale. Our competitive advantage!
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Because SharpNet was a pioneer in the digital marketing industry, we had no books or mentors. We intended just about everything we do. I’ve followed a few influential players, like Neil Patel and Matt Cutts when he still worked with Google. But apart from those two individuals, SharpNet is the innovator and relies on our own devices.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
If you are not willing to do the work, including long days for long periods, then it just isn’t going to happen for you. Working harder is more important than working smarter in the beginning. Smart comes later as you begin to learn what business is, and where your business fits in with all other businesses. Everyone wants to be a business owner, until that first 80 hr work week hits. Despite these start-up sacrifices, the long-term reward can be well worth it. You just need the resilience to get there.
Focus on core fundamentals, while keeping things simple. Happy clients, happy employees, and quality products/services, all while keeping conservative with expenses. Don’t lose sight of these fundamentals and make sure that your employees understand them and follow through as you envision it.
It is going to get hard, but don’t worry about that. You will learn and bend and rebuild to accommodate. Jump without looking and figure it out from there. If you look too hard and see what all it will take, you will never jump.
Do your best to get started while keeping your current job. Only one-third of all businesses survive past their second year. This means that you will have to work a lot of late nights and miss a lot of fun weekends. But, your entrepreneurship won’t end in bankruptcy either. Besides, if you’re not willing to work that hard in the first place, it probably isn’t going to work for you anyhow.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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