The Story of Raven Tools – An Interview with Jon Henshaw

by on May 18, 2011 | posted in Marketing

There exists an interesting dichotomy between the two largest SEO Tool providers, SEOMoz and Raven Internet Marketing Tools. On one side, SEOMoz is a promotional machine – it’s hard to not notice the many legs of their company, constantly speaking, constantly creating blog posts, and constantly tweeting – while on the other end, Raven Tools does little to none of that. But they seem to be approaching a similar success as SEOMoz, even without it – and definitely with a more scalable solution that doesn’t require constant, manual work on a blog and traveling place to place to speak, constantly. I’m not sure which one I like more (perhaps I’d have to see the balance sheets), but they have each proven their own model to be successful, and both are worthy companies to model any business after.

Raven Tools’ quiet demeanor makes for a company that is largely a mystery. While Rand has basically spelled out the complete history of SEOMoz, I knew, previous to this interview, not a thing about Raven’s past, a company that does things their own way, keeps their mouth shut, and still gets things done. But I wanted to know – and I knew others did too. So I prodded their co-founder, Jon Henshaw, over Twitter, and he was very willing to spill the beans. Jon is someone I respect for all the aforementioned characteristics that have made Raven unique, non-in-your-face software solution they are today – but he, like their company, I knew very little about. Somehow, I knew learning about Raven, and more about him, would help piece together the ideology, history and coming future of the company as well – while also, perhaps, shedding a little insight into how we can build a great business like Raven ourselves.

I was right.

1. How did you get started in internet marketing/SEO in general before Raven? Has search always been an interest for you, or is it something you stumbled into?

My education and my career path ended up being two very different things. My undergraduate degree was in Human Development and Family Studies, which qualified me for an excellent job in landscaping. After graduating and working a summer outside in the searing heat of Birmingham, AL, I got extremely motivated to do something different, and to also do something inside…with air conditioning! I ended up landing a job at New Horizons Computer Learning center.

They had opened up a new office and were desperate for anyone with Internet experience. This was in 1995, a time when most people still thought the Internet was AOL. I had started to become intensely interested in the Internet around 1994 while still in school, and had also been dabbling in HTML. Even though I didn’t have any experience, I passed their presentation skill tests, so they gave me a shot. I ended up excelling at the job, and became one of their top teachers.

About nine months later, I left that job to start my very first company, JH Web Design. During that time I made the most horrendously ugly websites ever devised. However, it was 1996, so everything looked like crap back then. Soon after starting that business, I moved to Denver to go to graduate school for counseling psychology.

I continued my business throughout graduate school, which culminated into bringing on a business partner, and running our own hosting service and doing custom programming. By then it was called Henshaw Consulting, and we got to work on some very good projects, like sites for Iomega and Coors. We eventually sold our business to (at the time) the largest privately owned ISP in Denver. I lasted about six months there, and then I quit.

Unfortunately, I quit at the wrong time…during the start of the dot com bust. That led to one of the toughest years of my life. I had a ton of knowledge and experience in Web and interactive design, but couldn’t get past any HR department with my educational background. Not only were jobs scarce, if I did get my resume in front of someone, they probably thought my application was a joke because of my education.

After surviving an extremely depressing year of not having a job, two things happened. First, I started a part-time counseling practice, and second, I got a consulting break working for a new startup. That gig turned into a full-time job, which required me to commute from Denver to Colorado Springs everyday. It didn’t matter to me though, because when you haven’t had a job for a year, you’ll pretty much do whatever you need to do for work.

I ended up staying at that startup for three years, and was in charge of the UI and overall design of the product. I then left that job for a position at Visa as an interaction designer. I was on a small team in charge of creating the UIs for consumer and corporate websites. It was a position that I excelled at, but also became quickly bored with. It was then that I discovered SEO.

My job at Visa required that I become familiar with accessibility standards. As I dove deeper into accessibility and HTML standards, and started to apply them to my personal sites, the tight relationship between standards and search engine performance became very obvious.

With my new found love of SEO, my extreme boredom of corporate life at Visa, and a waining interest in my part-time counseling practice (which I did in the evening), I wanted something very different. I felt like everything was perfect on paper, but I absolutely hated my life. I felt like my creativity was completely blocked at Visa and the cubicle walls were literally starting to suck my soul away from me.

I wanted one last chance to do my own business again, and to do it on my own terms…to feel alive again.

That led me to one of the most illogical and insane decisions I’ve ever made in my life. I managed to talk my six month pregnant wife (along with our 1-year-old daughter) to let me quit my job and move us to Nashville, TN. What was I going to do there? I was going to go work with a tiny two person company that worked in a small apartment, and I was taking a giant pay cut with no real guarantee that I would actually get paid each month. Looking back now, it’s the absolute dumbest and best decision I’ve ever made in my life.

When I got there, I went to work. I helped introduce SEO to the Nashville web design and tech community, and also helped grow Sitening (the company behind Raven) into a successful web design and internet marketing company.

2. Can you describe how you and Raven’s other two founders, Scott Holdren and Patrick Keeble, met? How was the idea for Raven formed? Can you describe the early times at Raven as opposed to now, where you’re a much larger, extremely successful company?

One of the many hats I wore when I first came to Sitening was Sales. I was in charge of bringing exposure to our company, and bringing in new clients. I wanted to make a tool to help me with sales. So Scott Holdren helped me make what was called the SEO Analyzer. I describe it as the original Website Grader. It parsed any web page, ran some SEO-oriented logic, and gave it a score between 0-100. We also had a score badge that people could put on their site.

The SEO Analyzer was incredibly successful! People all over the world were using it, and were placing the badges on their site which linked back to us. We even got business from around the country, because of people stumbling onto this tool.

With the success of the SEO Analyzer, we decided to make more tools. We created one of the first automated ranking results trackers called SERP Tracker, and other tools like a PageRank Checker. The tools – especially the backlinks created by the tools – helped drive a lot of new clients to our company. There was only one problem, giving away these tools was starting to become very expensive. Our costs soon became several thousand dollars a month, and climbing. We knew we had to make a change.

That change was Raven.

If we were going to charge for SEO tools – something most people were not accustomed to doing – we would have to provide something significant and different. We basically looked at ourselves as a services company, and asked “what would we pay for?” The answer was efficiency.

The original vision for Raven, which hasn’t changed to this day, was to centralize our research, data management, monitoring and reporting in one place. We were tired of using tools all over the Internet that didn’t talk to each other, and we were sick of using spreadsheets and spending countless hours creating end-of-month reports for our clients. We also told ourselves that we would pay for tools that would help us accomplish that.

Building a product while also being a services company was always difficult. It was certainly a labor of love, and we would work on it whenever we could, but there were months that would go by where we wouldn’t even touch the code, because we were too busy with client work.

During the early stages of Raven, Scott Holdren and I courted Patrick Keeble to join Sitening. Even with steady business, we were struggling financially, and were looking for an Angel investor who would also be an active investor. We were basically looking for a president to steer our ship, and to help us grow services and Raven. With all of us having very bad experiences with past business partners, we took our time getting to know each other. After several months, Patrick fully committed and joined Sitening. It should be known that Raven would not exist today without his investment and leadership.

3. I remember the first time I used Raven, I was not a fan of the UI. It was tough getting around and my initial trial led to a bounce and I didn’t sign up. Eventually, enough brand impressions from other blogs/improvements in the product made me sign back up, and now I’ve gone from non-user to evangelist. Your most recent iteration, in my opinion, is nearly perfect and makes Raven a clear 1A-1B with SEOMoz. Can you explain those early times with Raven – were there any tumultuous periods where you weren’t sure it was going to work? Has there always been hockey stick type growth? Is where you are now with the product/growth where you expected to be at in the beginning?

Making a good product is difficult, and being an innovator means almost everything you do is an experiment. What you’ve witnessed (and continue to witness) with Raven is an evolution. Our approach has been to solve problems, and then to constantly refine what we built.

There are several reasons our product has gotten better.

First, early adopters didn’t give up on us, and we didn’t give up on them. Instead we worked like partners as we developed Raven. We listened to their feedback, and engaged several of them in discussion, and this still goes on today. The result has been tools like the Link Manager, where our customer’s input helped shape and define how it works today.

Second, we reinvest everything. The revenue that comes into the company goes directly back into the product. Scott, Patrick and I don’t pay ourselves a lot of money. Instead, we reinvest it into crazy talented people, better technology, and marketing.

Third, it’s the only thing we do. We dropped services completely so we could be 100% focused on building out the Raven platform. Unlike other companies competing in the same space, we do not provide services, and we do not focus on education, we only focus on building the best product possible, period.

As far as tough times, I don’t remember a time when it hasn’t been tough. Finding the right team, keeping company finances under control, and staying ahead of the curve is a full-time job. With that being said, Raven is experiencing explosive growth, and I’ve never worked with a better team of people in my life (and I’m not just saying that). We have built a ridiculously talented team here in Nashville, and I’m continually honored by their loyalty to the company, and how hard they work to make Raven a better product. The entire thing has happened organically, and it’s amazing to experience. I hope it lasts well into the future.

4. As an outside observer, it is clear to me, now, that Raven is doing extremely well. Can you give any revenue/user numbers? Is Raven profitable, and if so, how long has it been profitable?

We’re a privately held company, and Patrick has chosen to keep our financial information private for the time being. The most I can say publicly is that we are a very, very healthy company, and are growing rapidly.

5. Is there any SEO/social media work being done inside Raven? SEOMoz has publicized their transition from stopping consultancy completely to focus on the software side – is it the same at Raven? Do you have anybody purely focused on moving the needle with SEO keywords?

What’s funny is that we announced the end of services first, but many people don’t know that. It was actually a week later that Rand announced the discontinuation of their services, and to his credit, he linked back to our announcement at the end of his blog entry. For the record, we haven’t done any services since January, 2010.

We had always planned to stop services if and when Raven became self-sustainable. While we had a few reasons for doing that, the main one had to do with ethics. We felt it was unethical to provide services and tools. The idea that our competitors used our tools and saved their campaign data with us never sat well with me. I feared that one day someone in my company might try to access and use their data to create an unfair advantage, regardless of the existing safeguards we already have in place.

It’s funny that you ask about us doing our own SEO campaigning for Raven. We actually haven’t had anyone doing that, and I think our SERPs are a good reflection of that ;) We kind of suck for a lot of terms we should be targeting. There has been such a heads-down focus on growing and improving the product, that we’ve kind of ignored it. We really only care about making the product better right now. The rate of our customer growth has also made it a none issue.

With that being said, we are starting to focus more on marketing. We have a new Community Director, Courtney Seiter, who will be in charge of monitoring and engaging people in the social sphere. We have our Communications Director, Arienne Holland, who is actively reaching out to guest bloggers, and has greatly improved the frequency and quality of our content publishing (blogging). There’s also Taylor Pratt, our VP of Product Marketing, who is managing a ton of marketing efforts for us right now. So our efforts are starting to pick up significantly, but we still don’t have or use a link builder :)

6. What does the future hold for Raven? Do you have any future plans you can shed some light on? What goals does Raven have as a company? Hubspot got a recent huge VC investment and SEOMoz is venture backed, so it seems both aim for large exits at some point. Raven, as far as I know, has no venture capital backing. Do you want to a massive software solution, or is the internal philosophy more a la to 37signals – be happy making a very profitable software company and staying that way, instead of needing to be Salesforce or Microsoft?

The thing that makes Raven unique is that we are not venture backed, and we’re not building it to sell. We have a simple goal: to make the best damn internet marketing platform available, and to have fun doing it. Our company culture is really about quality of life. We want to make something that helps other people, and we want it to be something we can be proud of.

Raven is a true bootstrapped company, and we have refused to let our dream be interfered by investor demands. We get contacted by VCs almost daily, but we’re profitable enough that it doesn’t make sense for us to engage them right now. However, there may come a time in the future when it makes sense to work with VCs, so it’s not completely out of the question.

Regarding the type of company we are, I think you said it perfectly when you mentioned 37signals. If you want to have insight into the type of company we are (or who we want to be), you should know that the two companies we admire the most are 37signals and Apple.

7. One of the only things I found myself put off by with Raven is your approach on Twitter. Your team all has “@RavenNAME” handles, which means that through building their accounts, they’re basically building equity that will be lost if they leave the company or rebrand themselves. This is of course understandable if everyone stays there forever, but that’s not realistic. Is this an internal requirement or just something that has organically happened as the first Raven employees began to use that format?

I have a big problem with hiring people with the expectation they will have to use their “personal” social network handle to promote my company. I think it crosses a boundary that shouldn’t be crossed, is disrespectful and puts the employee in an awkward position. It already pisses me off that neither I nor my employees have much of a choice when it comes to Facebook.

This is a policy that also extends to myself. I have two handles on Twitter, @RavenJon and @henshaw. I use @RavenJon for company and industry communication, and I use @henshaw to make as big of an ass of myself as I want. People are not the companies they work for, and they shouldn’t have to drag their online social equity to the business as a prerequisite for being hired. The respect of their personal lives away from the office is more important to me than how much I use them for my company’s self gain.

I also think it sets a dangerous precedent for companies. What happens if things go sour with that employee? You have no control over that account, because it’s not your account. The majority of your customers may follow that account, and that person can tweet whatever they want, whenever they want.

Our policy is about mutual respect and privacy. On the surface it may appear draconian, but it’s actually quite the opposite. I can assure you that all of our employees appreciate these boundaries.

8. Is there any particularly interesting stories about Raven’s history/growth that you can share? Maybe a moment where you thought “hey, this is going to make it” or some other interesting stories about hiring, firing, or company culture?

PubCon in Las Vegas last year was intense. Hosting our own party, and seeing our logo on just about every piece of signage was surreal. It was hard to believe that just two years ago many people in the industry hadn’t even heard of us. It was then that I knew this was really happening.

As far as our company culture goes, I would describe us as a really smart motley crew. We keep our team as flat as possible, encourage everyone to take full ownership of their responsibilities, and try to have fun along the way. We also reward  our employees for excellence, which includes giving everyone raises when we hit our monthly goals. That makes everyone happy, because even though we make the goals tougher each month, we usually hit them.

I know from past experiences (mainly failures) that what we have at Raven is very rare and special. I’m just excited and proud to be a part of it.

Many thanks to Jon for this interview and for helping create a toolset that makes life a lot easier for SEOs (and many others!). You’d do yourself a favor by following Jon on Twitter here and also by signing up for Raven Tools here (affiliate link).

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