Web.com Group Earns 'Net' Income
A dozen years ago, the owners of a website-services company summoned David Brown out of retirement to shut down the firm. Brown had other ideas.
CEO David Brown staffs Web.com with liberal arts grads, not techies. "We hire people for character, and for whether they can write well, and then it's very easy to train them on the technology side." [Photo: Jon M. Fletcher]
Services rendered: Creates and operates websites, from initial design to e-commerce, for small businesses, which pay monthly subscription fees.
Subscribers: 954,000 (year end 2010)
Employees: 1,150 in 14 offices in the U.S., Canada and the U.K., including 350 in Jacksonville
David L. Brown
Grew up and lives in: Ponte Vedra Beach
Family: Brown's wife and daughter co-own a small business in Ponte Vedra, and his son
is a professional golfer there.
Favorite websites: Fox News and CNBC
Website Pros' business plan was based on the assumption that a website would become as essential to a small business as a telephone number. The firm assembled a heavy-hitting management team, well-funded with $65 million from the likes of Dell, Office Depot and Bell Atlantic/Verizon. The strategy: Capitalize on firms' growing awareness of the need for their own websites and build Website Pros into the top website-service firm in the nation for small businesses. Then, take the company public within a year.
Brown figured he would spend time with his family and travel, while watching his stake in Website Pros boom along with the dot-com economy. He was enjoying a break from the Florida heat with his family in Cashiers, N.C., the following summer when a ringing telephone shattered that delusion. Norwest's senior partner called to say the investors were giving up on Website Pros. The dot-com bust had drained their cash and confidence. No more money was forthcoming.
"The investors needed someone to come in and shut it down orderly," says Brown, now 57. "They believed closure was inevitable."
Returning to Jacksonville to shut down Website Pros, Brown found a company on life support. Revenue had plunged from about $1 million a month to $50,000. Senior managers had bailed. About 200 of 300 employees remained.
Brown's first order of business was to let go of about half of them. But he was not so sure the company needed to close. Despite the dot-com collapse, he reasoned, businesses would still need websites. The investors had already recouped their initial investment, and since they had nothing to lose, it didn't take much to convince them to keep a leaner version of the company going and let him try to turn it around as CEO. Brown began by contacting each of Atlantic Teleservices' former clients to let them know he was back — and wanted their business.
As he grew customers and revenue organically, Brown began to make acquisitions, often in exchange for stock; the company has averaged an acquisition a year for 10 years. The biggest included NetObjects, a cash-generating software company whose primary product, Fusion, was one of the most commonly used site-builder platforms.
In 2002, Brown partnered with his most serious competitor, Spokane-based Innuity. That acquisition turned out to be critical because it changed Website Pros' business model from upfront web-design fees to monthly subscriptions. Small businesses couldn't afford high upfront costs, but they were responsive to low monthly subscription fees, particularly when it meant they could get help with their website any time. "We exist to serve small businesses on the internet," says Brown, "so we had to become what small businesses needed."
By 2003, the company was growing by 40% annually. The following year, Brown tapped new venture capital partners and old supporters, including Norwest, to dress up the balance sheet and ready the company for an IPO. Website Pros went public in 2005.
Two years later, in June 2007, Brown led another merger, this time with Atlanta-based Web.com, more than tripling paid subscriptions and creating the market leader in an otherwise fragmented field.
The combined company retaineda Jacksonville headquarters and kept Brown as chairman and CEO but took the name Web.com.