Can you go 24 hours without hearing a business associate talk about boosting sales on the Internet? How about 24 minutes?
Often, it’s just talk. Many executives dream about making money on the web, but far fewer actually succeed.
Enter Matt Crenshaw, a web old-timer at 36. Crenshaw was just tapped to become president of Mother Nature Network, the Atlanta-based website that has become No. 1 in environmental news and information since it was launched four years ago. While MNN’s annual revenue has grown to about $5 million, Crenshaw was hired to try to take it to next level by drawing on his experiences. They include high-ranking web jobs at the Chicago History Museum, HowStuffWorks and Discovery Communications.
The Atlanta native and UGA graduate, who earned a master’s degree in educational technology from Harvard, talks about how he got interested in the Internet 15 years ago and what he’s learned along the way.
Q: A high school teacher taught you about leadership. What happened?
A: I grew up in Atlanta and went to Marist. I had an incredibly good English teacher and cross country coach. His sense of excitement came through in entirely different settings.
He was so good in the room teaching. He probably read “The Great Gatsby” 100 times. But that sense of excitement from teaching the book came through and you’d go, “wow.” And then you’d go out to run cross country and he’d be equally exciting, enthusiastic and analytical.
I think that impressed upon me a definition of leadership I had never thought about. Leadership is really about flexibility and knowing how to be good in a variety of circumstances, because you don’t control the circumstances.
He was equally passionate and skilled in both areas. People who have passion and curiosity burning in their gut can be good at multiple things.
Q: How did you become passionate about the Internet?
A: A few days after graduating from the University of Georgia with a journalism degree, I bought a book, “Marketing on the Internet.” It was 1998 and the Internet was basic at that time. I remember reading the book and thinking, “there’s a lot to learn here.” Once I got the formal education, self-education has to happen — reading, talking to folks and getting up to speed on this.
The idea that the Internet was as powerful a journalistic and advertising medium as print and broadcasting was an aha moment for me back then.
I got a job at the Chicago History Museum, which had 20 million artifacts in its collection. I was in charge of the website, making the collection searchable online. This seems shockingly passe now, but it wasn’t in 1999.
One guy back then at work said to me, “hey, check out this amazon.com site.” He laughed and said, “who’s going to buy books on the Internet? You can’t hold them. You can’t read the back covers.”
Not long after that, I was with someone who laughed at the Google search bar. That experience has played out over and over on the Internet. Whenever someone looks at something and it’s either so uncomfortable or so simple that it makes them laugh, watch out.
Q: What are the most important lessons you’ve learned from your Internet experience?
A: You have to do one thing extraordinarily well before you have license to do other things.
Think about Amazon. It had to sell books well before it could be a general retailer. EBay had to do very specific kinds of auctions before people would think of it as a general e-commerce destination.
In the age of the Internet where you have so many options, the smallest sound bite wins — Google does search well. That allowed Google to get into self-driving cars, maps, Gmail, etc.
On day one, they couldn’t do all those ideas. But once they got a foothold doing one thing better than anyone else, they could branch out.
To be successful on the Internet today, you have to be laser focused on solving a problem that people have. You have to start thinking about how to be essential in people’s lives.
Also, execute rapidly and learn from trial and error. You can’t kill anyone on the Internet. The ethos should be get it wrong and get it wrong quickly. The beauty is it can always be changed.
Q: What type of change are you planning to bring to Mother Nature Network?
A: We’re in the business of being in business. We’re not running a volunteer fire department. We can’t spend our time doing things that don’t, in some way, help the bottom line. In the media business, that means attracting an audience, engaging them, engendering loyalty and supplying value to the brands that advertise.
A lot of hype has been given to social media. But it has to be tied to making money.
With respect to Mother Nature Network, there’s a whole green lifestyle that has emerged that no one has quite put their finger on. Talking about electric and hybrid cars is now a mainstream conversation. Look at the boom of farmers’ markets. Many people want to get back to a more simple life. There is a new definition of living well.
There isn’t a No. 1 media company for that kind of person. There is no Oprah. There is no Martha Stewart. There’s just this social movement, but no one has come along and said, “we want to be the go-to media destination for these people.”
I see very plainly that we can create the preferred media company for this type of movement. And we can give the brands that advertise with us a way to connect with these people.
Q: What’s your best career advice?
A: It sounds kind of hokey, but learning how to model the way you behave off of someone who is clearly successful is important.
A lot of success is about mimicry. Beethoven never would have been Beethoven until he first learned how to compose like Haydn. Sometimes, you have to do what successful people are doing to see how it feels before you develop your own style.
Also, if you want a company to succeed, everybody needs to understand sales. The idea that you can build a great product and they will come — well, they don’t come. People have busy lives. In any company that works well, everybody feels like they work in sales.
Crenshaw’s remarks were edited for length and style.
WE GO BEYOND THE HEADLINES
Each week, Sunday Business Editor Henry Unger has a candid conversation with a local leader as part of our commitment to bring you insightful coverage of metro Atlanta’s business scene.