Robb Fulcher

Wpromote and Mike Mothner are on top of the world [wide web]

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Mike Mothner relaxes in his office overlooking LAX. Photo by Robb Fulcher

It’s Friday morning, and Mike Mothner is beginning to segue from the work-hard half of his life to the play-hard half.

The blue-jeaned 29-year-old glides through his busy office suite overlooking LAX, touching base with skinny young employees wearing hip eyeglasses as he guides his $10 million-a-year, web-based corporation that has landed him on the cover of “Entrepreneur” magazine, earned him a spot on the Inc. 500 list of fastest growing companies for four years, and made him the man the New York Times calls for analysis when Google and Yahoo threaten to merge.

When Mothner touches down for a moment Mike Stone, an old Mira Costa High School friend and a vice president of the corporation, tracks down his boss to update him on the weekend itinerary – the first leg of a jaunt to London, Barcelona and Ibiza.

It’s good to be the founder and CEO of Wpromote, a leader in the internet marketing world of search engine positioning and pay-per-click revenue streams.

Mothner’s outfit is sought out by giants such as Hewlett-Packard, and small companies as well, who want their brands and products to rank high in Google searches, desire mass traffic for their “click-through” web ads, and want the rapidly changing social media to promote their wares to the best of their Twittery, Facebooky ability.

The Manhattan Beach-raised Mothner opened the first Wpromote office in Redondo Beach, where he also lives, but soon Wpromote outgrew the digs and moved to a spacious suite in an El Segundo business tower, where the wide windows of Mothner’s corner office overlook LAX.

Wpromote’s growth was so rapid he had no choice but to walk away from the Redondo offices long before the end of his lease, and continue paying for office space he was no longer using.

With continued growth to 60-plus employees, the El Segundo suite has gotten a little too shoulder-to-shoulder, and Wpromote is going to have to move again.

“We’re exploding,” he said. “We have people piled on top of each other.”

As Wpromote celebrates its 10th anniversary, it is serving 2,300 clients.

Open source

If Mothner is a wizard of Search Engine Optimization – the art of placing a website atop the Google and Yahoo searches – he does not keep his spells and incantations to himself. He’ll tell you his secrets for the asking. He wrote about the highlights of his approach in Inc. magazine, and he regularly gives away his secrets when he speaks at conferences.

Mothner said his openness doesn’t cost him any business, because his clients would rather do whatever it is they do than spend time and resources plunging into SEO services.

“At the end of the day their time is better spent – whether they’re big or small – being lawyers, or selling their products, whatever it is, than doing Search Engine Optimization,” he said. “I don’t have the capability to do my taxes, and I don’t want to spend the time to learn that, and I don’t want to risk messing it up.”

Not surprisingly, he said a key to SEO is found in the keywords people use when they search the internet. But a keyword chosen solely for its SEO value might winding up doing little to market a company’s product or service, so the selection becomes a more nuanced matter.

Wpromote actually concentrates on many “keyphrases” – a word Mothner hopes will gain broad currency – rather than keywords when considering a business’ website.

Mothner said smaller and narrower is sometimes better. In Inc. he wrote that only a large, authoritative jewelry website might hope to top the list of searches for the broad term “jewelry,” while a narrower focus on “silver necklace” or “women’s Rolex watch” might climb closer to the top of those less competitive search lists.

Wpromote has found again and again that multitudes of specific search terms do more to help companies attract customers.

Mothner said the internet’s obsession with comparison and review features can also be exploited on clients’ websites.

In the end, the expertise in the changing ways of the web, and the way it organizes itself for searchers, is something best provided by Wpromote, despite all the education Mothner can give a client.

Double life

He got his first computer when he was 9 or 10, and was drawn to it like a Mothner to a flame.

“I loved computers,” he said.

Using what is now the technology of the computer dinosaur, Mothner had fun playing around with bulletin board systems. While he was at Costa he wrote calendar programs for computers, and sold quite a few, enjoying the $15 checks that would turn up in the mailbox of his family’s tree section home.

But Mothner was a stereotypical 1990s computer geek on a part-time basis only. The rest of the time he was a jock, playing water polo throughout his high school years and in college.

“I led a double life,” he joked.

Take this job…

Mothner graduated from Costa in 1999 and took off to Dartmouth University, where he started Wpromote in his sophomore dorm room and began helping companies climb up the search engines.

“It was making about $1,000 a month. It was a lucrative hobby, but I didn’t quite grasp where it could go,” he said.

While he was at Dartmouth he applied for an analyst job at Goldman Sachs in New York, where he had a professional epiphany during a final-round interview. It happened when the interviewer sniffed at the place on Mothner’s resume where he listed Wpromote and the growth it had enjoyed.

“He basically asked me, if this is true, why do you want to come work for Goldman Sachs,” Mothner said. “I think he was kind of being a dick. I think he expected me to retreat a bit.”

Instead, the man made Mothner reconsider his options.

“I said ‘Hey, you’ve got a good point. Why would I work for Goldman Sachs if this is true? And it is.’ At that point the die was cast,” Mothner said.

Getting with Google

He graduated from Dartmouth and threw himself into Wpromote, while at the same time Google was growing up fast and strong, with its first public offering in 2004. Mothner was perfectly positioned for the mouse-clicking future, and he parlayed his knowledge and skills into work on some Google ventures “as, in their eyes, an online ad agency.” Along the way he learned how websites climbed onto the top of Google searches.

He sees his success as mere good fortune, and he’s grateful for it.

“I was in the right industry at the right time,” he said. “It was more luck than foresight, riding Google’s coattails.”

A three-Mike team heads Wpromote. Early on Mike Mothner enlisted friends and fellow Costa graduates Mike Stone and Mike Block as vice presidents. Both had been pursuing other plans, including law school attendance, when they were roped them into Wpromote.

“My first two employees were friends of mine for nine years or so,” Mothner said.

Added ‘Plundr’

A visit to the Wpromote offices reveals a hum and buzz of activity, work attire as causal as shorts and flip flops, and a noticeably companionable vibe.

Many of the Wpromote employees were brought on board by their friends, and there are entire sets of roommates that all go to work in the morning at Wpromote. On off-hours the work gang might get together at a Dodgers game, or an Oktoberfest event, or the Medieval Times dinner and tournament show.

“We work hard and play hard, and play often,” Mothner.

With Wpromote in hand, Mothner has launched a company called ScanDigital that turns people’s old-school photos, slides, negatives or VHS tapes digital. The company was born after his mom got a digital camera for Christmas four years ago and realized how inconvenient her numerous old prints had suddenly become.

Mothner also launched Plundr.com, a shopping-by-auction site that has afforded shoppers up to 98 percent discounts on new consumer items.

Shoppers buy packs of “bids” to use in the online auctions, with the initial sale price for an item starting at one penny and rising by one penny with each bid. A loser in an auction can still buy the item at its regular purchase price minus the bids already spent, to recoup the cost of the bids.

A successful approach to using Plundr includes bidding only on items that are truly desired, Mothner said. That’s different from eBay auctions, at which a prudent strategy could involve bidding a set amount on an item that might be only moderately desirable, and pulling out when the price rises too high. A Plundr-er uses up bids, and so wants to spend them on highly desired items.

Recent winners of Plundr auctions copped Sennheiser stereo headphones for 34 cents, a Cuisinart 10-piece cookware set for $1.74, Amazon Kindle Wi-Fi for $14.79, and a $50 Sears card plus 50 Plundr bids for $5.07.

“I want to have Plundr become a verb,” Mothner mused, “like people say they’re going to Google something, I want them to say I’m going to Plundr that.”

With a reporter’s visit at an end, Mothner turns his attention to the rest of a busy Friday doing what he loves, and then – London, Barcelona and Ibiza. ER

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