As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Genge.
After a year of experimenting on his own, in January 1997 (around the same time eBay launched) Chris Genge founded 1st on the List Promotion. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) was not even an industry word at the time. With a background in mechanical engineering, Chris Genge had a very methodical and analytical approach to SEO. Over the last 20+ years, the search marketing industry has changed quite literally tens of thousands of times over, with a staggering 4,000+ Google algorithm changes in the past year alone. Genge has made a career out of keeping up with the this very fluid industry.
Thank you so much for your time Chris! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
In 1996 I was working full time as an engineer and became fascinated by the World Wide Web, which was barely 5 years young. So, in my spare time, I built a few websites and began experimenting on the search engines like Infoseek, Lycos, Netscape, and Alta Vista. I wanted to figure out how these search engines worked and why some websites ranked higher than others. Back then, I could make one simple change on my website, resubmit, and within minutes it would jump to the #1 spot. It didn’t take me long to reverse engineer nearly all the search engines. I could see how this was the future and how businesses could use the Internet to make money. Sure enough, I was soon earning more in my spare time working on my new hobby than I was as an engineer. It was a no brainer. In January of 1997, I founded my SEO company out of my basement and called it 1st on the List, since that’s where every website owner wanted to be found on the search engines.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take-aways’ you learned from that?
In the beginning I underestimated how fast this industry was going to explode. At first, I was a 1-man-band. I did everything. But the Internet was constantly evolving at such a phenomenal pace. I knew that in order to stay at the forefront of such rapid changes I would have to build a team that would be willing and able to adjust and change along with it. So, I hired 2 more people. Then I hired 2 more people. It was unbelievable, I could barely keep up. Within 6 months I had 7 employees and 10 computers crammed into my 500 sq. foot basement suite. The City Bylaw officer came knocking because we had so many cars parked outside, and I couldn’t believe how much heat our computers were generating. I could have heated the whole house for the entire winter! I should have leased an office space as soon as I hired my first 2 employees. Search engine optimization (SEO) was still brand new but it was such an explosive industry. Like my own company, so many online businesses were seeing double digit growth inside of a year. It taught me to keep looking ahead…way ahead and be prepared. It was a good lesson to learn before Google entered the scene in September of 1998 and changed everything.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill has been called a “Bible for Success” for anyone in business, and I agree. If you look at almost any book on the subject of success that followed, nearly all of them pay homage to or try to expand upon the ideas first introduced in this book. It’s a book worth reading more than once, and it helped convince me that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
My initial vision when I started my company was to utilize the Internet to fuel business as opposed to relying on advertising or business location. This was unheard of in the late 1990s and felt I was at the forefront of a new and exciting industry. Following the dot com bubble burst in 2001 our mission needed to be revised. As an SEO company, it is essential that we keep our client’s websites current with the market so they can achieve sustainable long-term visibility on the Internet and transform a necessary business expense into a very profitable investment.
Between 1994 and 2000, companies like Google, eBay, Yahoo, and Amazon all rode this incredible dot com wave and experienced massive growth, at least until the dot com bubble burst. By October of 2002 the Nasdaq index for dot com companies had fallen nearly 80%. We were lucky though. Our business remained stable only because most of our clients were solely online and knew the importance of SEO to their bottom line. Because of that, we were able to retain most of our clients throughout the dot com crisis. However, for at least two years it was really difficult to find any new clients…not until people started to get back a little confidence that the economy was recovering.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Our #1 principle is “Honesty.” It isn’t always what people want to hear but it is crucial in this business because SEO today is very complicated, and we can only control parts of the process. Every client has their own set of goals, objectives, timelines, expectations, and budgets. Some are more realistic than most. My job is to help clients align their expectations and budget with what their competitors are doing. If they seriously want to compete online, they must compete on the same level or higher. The David and Goliath story rarely works online. If your top competitor has a 100-page website and is spending $3000 a month on SEO and your budget is less than $500 a month and you only have a 10-page website, how can you beat them and be #1 on Google? It’s nearly impossible. The reality is, if you want to beat out the competition online, you need to be doing as much if not more than what they are doing. In the SEO business, honesty also encourages loyalty. Most of our clients are long term and have been with us for more than 5 years and several have been with us since the early 2000s.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
In early March, my wife Marie and I left for Punta Cana, Dominican Republic for our Honeymoon. We had a great vacation but before our return we heard that the Canadian government may be closing the borders and not allowing international travelers to enter into Canada. At that time no clear details were announced so we thought for sure we might be stranded and not be able to get back home. My family was really worried as well. We managed to get through customs only a week before restrictions were enforced. As we were waiting for our luggage, we were informed that due to Covid-19 pandemic, most of the baggage handlers were not working. We sat and waited at the luggage carousel for close to 2 hours before our bags finally showed up. Then we heard that anyone returning from outside Canada would have to self-quarantine for 14 days, which of course, we did.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The biggest challenge was in helping our clients realize that staying visible during the pandemic is crucial to their future success. Our 1st on the List team has been actively connecting with current, past, and prospective clients to help instill confidence in their online marketing strategies. Thankfully, most of our clients are either online businesses or their online sales had outpaced their brick and mortar sales long before this pandemic. In essence, they understand the importance of maintaining their online visibility.
As for our own company, the SEO business is quite unique. We all work online so the majority of our staff were already working remotely from their homes. After my honeymoon I had to self-quarantine, so I sent my two in-office people home to work remotely as well, and we temporally closed the physical office. It’s heartbreaking to see so many wonderful and successful businesses being brought to their knees because of this pandemic. So many companies are now undergoing corporate restructuring and conducting in-depth budgetary audits that have resulted in marketing budgets being considered a “non-essential expense” at this time. This is definitely having an effect on our industry, but we are adjusting along with our clients as best we can.
If this pandemic had happened even 10 years ago it might have been catastrophic for our industry since at that time, most North Americans were still nervous about online security and very cautious about online purchasing. With this pandemic, many non-essential businesses were forced to close their brick and mortar stores. This has resulted in drastic overnight changes in how people shop. Society is quickly adapting and changing what they buy, how they buy, and when they buy. Consumers have gone online to find what they need…and online businesses have responded, offering affordable pricing and perks like free delivery and even next day delivery. As a result, consumer confidence for online shopping has improved exponentially. Even older baby boomers who have generally shied away from online purchasing have discovered the convenience of online shopping. Even though we understand this shift, it is taking a bit of effort to help our clients to recognize this. We all still have a lot more adjusting to do. In many cases, we’ve had to completely rethink some strategies that simply wouldn’t work in our current marketplace.
Many of our small business clients were greatly affected by COVID-19 shelter-in-place protocols including restaurants, retail stores, and those involved in tourism. As a result of these unfortunate circumstances these clients could no longer afford to continue with online marketing services but would need them more than ever once things return back to normal. We did not want them to lose traction on their campaigns, so we agreed to maintain their campaigns free of charge. It was a costly decision for us as a company, but one that we feel confident was the right thing to do.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
This is an unprecedented time we live in and I know so many people who have lost their jobs and have had to adjust to a new and different reality. I have been working with my daughter and my wife to help them reinvent themselves and be more entrepreneurial. My daughter lost her job in childcare, so I am currently helping her to set up a home-based business, including building her a new website and helping her to gain online exposure. My wife Marie is also self-employed and runs several businesses that previously required in-person consultations. I was able to help her set up 3-way telephone conference calling and taught her how to run her business without meeting her clients in person so she can continue to run her business and meet with her clients online.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
We all know that Covid-19 has dramatically changed the world forever. It has forced us to think differently and thinking differently will have a direct and profound effect on behavior. This makes it imperative for online businesses to adjust as well. If you have an online business, you may have the same or similar audience, but they are now thinking and behaving differently…so you need to look at this as an opportunity and adjust accordingly.
It is really important for online businesses to understand their customers and how different consumers behave and make purchasing decisions differently. Your approach to Millennial’s (between 26 and 40 years of age) might not be the same as for Generation X (the 41–55 crowd) or for Baby Boomers (anyone older than 55).
That said, some demographics are now more approachable than they were pre-Covid-19.
For instance, Baby Boomers. Prior to Covid-19 most Baby Boomers preferred to shop in person. They would shy away from online purchasing, so it was difficult to market to them online. Since Covid-19, Boomers have discovered the convenience of online shopping, especially online grocery shopping. It’s much easier and a lot safer for them. Inevitably, this new-found confidence in online shopping will trickle over to other major online purchases. If your business caters to this segment of the public, you now have a wonderful opportunity to expand your reach into this market.
While many businesses like restaurants and microbreweries do have websites, prior to Covid-19 many of their websites were nothing more than online menus and brochures. Online orders, call ins, food pick-ups, and deliveries have since increased by as much as 400%. For many of these types of businesses, their websites have now become highly important and essential to their success.
There are also greater opportunities for those in the professional services sector including doctors, counselors, consultants, and even professional financial services such as banks. Phone meetings and video conferencing are now normal business practices and since this pandemic, they have been completely accepted by the general public. Business can be conducted much quicker. It’s convenient and saves both time and money for everyone involved.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Businesses have always had to adapt to the changing times, and this is no different. COVID has been a real wake up call for most brick and mortar businesses. They can see how shopping has forever changed and they now understand the importance of developing a solid and stable online presence if they want to weather any similar crisis in the future. Newspapers and bus stop advertising, plus banner ads at airports and other forms of traditional advertising are a lot less appealing now. Businesses know that they need to be where people are looking, and most people are looking online. Many businesses that were otherwise skeptical of online marketing will be forced to adapt with these fast-changing times.
We also think that businesses will rely less and less on physical documents and filing systems and go paperless. We’ve already seen insurance companies that have thousands of clients upping their efforts to have everything digitized. I think we will see a bigger push across the board towards cloud-based solutions. COVID has compressed the timespan for this from a 5, 10, or 20-year objective into “How can we accomplish this is a matter of weeks.”
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
The short answer; keep learning and keep adapting. SEO has always been an ever-shifting, constantly evolving business. The Internet is extremely dynamic, and the search engines are constantly changing how they do things. Change and adaptation is the very nature of our SEO business and we thrive on it. It’s also the very reason many of our clients have stayed with us through thick and thin. They trust us to help them weather through all the ups and downs of an ever-changing market.
Each year our core staff members attend various conferences across North America in order to learn the latest SEO strategies and to keep up to date with what is considered current industry best practices. All in-person conference events have since been suspended due to Covid-19, however in June, our entire stall will be tuned in to the newly formatted online Search Marketing Expo & Conference Series (SMX). Every year we learn something new and we get a better perspective on how our industry is changing overall. This is valuable knowledge that we can bring back to our clients to help ensure their continued online success.
In recent years, the majority of our efforts have also been towards conversion rate optimization. Independent studies have proven that websites that are extremely user friendly and provide a great user experience also have better conversions. This is something that does require a little more homework from our clients, and most have embraced this strategy because they trust us and know that it is a necessity.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Each new era brings a new way of doing business. If you are a business owner that clings to “the old way of doing things” and the “old way” just can’t equal the demands of the new era, you could very well be in trouble.
My advice; don’t wait until the pandemic is over. As a business owner you need to act quickly, yet strategically. Marketing is an essential component of every successful organization and should not be underestimated. Speak with your marketing team and encourage open conversation to spur new ideas. Be willing to invest adequate time and money into your newly created marketing strategies. If you have accurate data and analytics, dive-deep into your metrics to determine what marketing initiatives are driving your sales, and which ones are not.
As hard as it may seem, the first step to recovering your business is to accept that it has happened and that its likely not going back to 100% of what it was like before. Only then can you objectively look at how to make it better going forward and embrace the new normal.
Also, continue to engage your staff in the decision-making process…they are the people that know your business best. History has repeatedly shown that during natural disasters, when businesses engage their staff and the people that work for or with them, they are often able to recover and positively transform very quickly. The people that worked for you before Covid-19 crisis are the very people that can generate ideas on how the business can be rebuilt and improved upon.
I’ll give you an example of how engaging your staff will help.
Back when I was still an engineer, I was helping a manufacturing company that wanted to move to a bigger location. Their goal was to increase production. Unfortunately, the process couldn’t be automated because they manufactured low volume custom built parts where the component designs often changed monthly.
With the old process, parts would cycle forwards and backwards through the manufacturing and the components would be handled multiple times. The process was very inefficient and would not support higher volume efficiency.
My goal was to enable the same person to build more parts with less effort, plus less repetition and less frustration. So, I walked through the entire manufacturing process in detail with each employee. I asked what each of them thought would help to make the manufacturing process easier and faster for them. They already knew best where the bottle necks and inefficiencies were. I just needed to take the time to listen.
I then built flow charts for each manufacturing area. I wanted the raw materials to come in one end and be fed along the manufacturing process until the products were completed and stacked on racks, ready to be taken to the shipping area for storage prior to shipping. With insights from those that actually do the work, we were able to improve our processes and increase production 10-fold within a couple months of opening the new location. The employees found the work to be much easier despite the increase in production. Their jobs became more fulfilling and many of those people still work there today.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Maya Angelou once said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” It truly is the people that make a company great. When you believe in your staff, they in turn believe in the company and together anything is possible. In light of this Covid-19 pandemic however, I also like this quote by CS Lewis, “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
How can our readers further follow your work?
If people want to learn more about myself or the SEO industry they can check out my website 1st on the List. Our entire team writes actionable articles every week on the latest online marketing strategies. We also update our website regularly with new case studies of our clients and I highly recommend people read through some of the testimonials.
Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn as well.