Jesse Lakes was a whitewater “raft-guide bum” working in Colorado when he left for a job at Apple in Silicon Valley. “I traded in my flip flops for a cubicle and a commute,” he said.
His next trade was the Bay Area for Seattle, and almost eight years later the co-founder and CEO of Geniuslink continues to help customers navigate the internet’s rough waters, as his startup provides an intelligent link management platform with a focus on e-commerce and affiliate marketing.
Originally founded as GeoRiot in 2009, Lakes teamed with his girlfriend at the time and now wife Shannon McGuire, the COO, and best friend and college roommate Jesse Pasichnyk, now CTO. The mission started with fixing “broken” affiliate links for the iTunes ecosystem, then included Amazon’s ecosystem, and then the Microsoft Store after that, according to Lakes.
Now they’re working on leveraging a proven ability to boost conversions by providing tools to marketers that give their shoppers a choice via Geniuslink Choice Pages.
“By doing this, we are helping our clients become less dependent on a single affiliate program or revenue stream,” Lakes said, adding that smart links “send people to different destinations based off of different logic, geography being probably the most important one. The whole idea is to really help facilitate more seamless commerce. If there’s less hurdles, your conversion rate should increase.”
With just 11 employees, Geniuslink is scrappy and bootstrapped, but it’s not shying from big acquisitions. In September, the startup scooped up the assets of Kit from Patreon, a social platform where creators recommend stuff they like so others can go shop for it. With some 300,000 accounts, Lakes said Kit has done a great job grabbing an audience, and that the stars aligned to allow Geniuslink to take on what he called a “massive, VC-backed, big-audience property.”
“There’s just a ton of synergies there where a lot of what’s happy on Kit is the same thing that we’re helping facilitate with Geniuslink,” Lakes said. “If you want to promote, say, a standing desk that you use, well, a Geniuslink will probably help you because you can promote that on social media or wherever you want to be. But if you want to promote or recommend all the different products you have in your office that are part of your productivity suite or whatever you want to call it, then a Kit makes sense.”
Kit has a large international audience and a ton of Amazon links across the platform. Amazon is very important to the success of Geniuslink’s business.
“So where Kit and Geniuslink intersect is making sure that that global audience, when they click to look at a product that another influencer/creator has recommended, we need to make sure that that is as frictionless of a buyer’s journey as possible,” Lakes said, adding that his startup now has Kit as a sandbox to try out new technologies to facilitate smarter e-commerce, which helps Geniuslink move and build faster.
We caught up with Lakes for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
What does your company do? Geniuslink helps affiliate marketers, social media marketers, and retailers automatically boost sales and commissions through intelligent links.
Inspiration hit us when: In 2009, I was running a series of websites that would list the soundtracks to extreme sports videos and earn an affiliate commission from iTunes and Amazon when someone bought a song. It had been a few years, and I was noticing an odd trend where my site’s traffic was growing exponentially, but my revenue was relatively flat.
My “ah-ha” moment came when I realized that my site’s traffic had grown to be mostly international and my “oh-no” moment came immediately afterward when I realized that I was sending the vast majority of my visitors to what was essentially a broken link — international visitors can’t buy digital products from the U.S. iTunes Store or Amazon.com due to digital rights licensing.
I realized then that I needed an “intelligent” link. A single link that was smart enough to send each visitor to the correct item in their local storefront so they could easily buy it in their local language and currency. Further, it meant they wouldn’t have to think about digital rights licensing, foreign taxes or wait for long shipping times.
VC, Angel or Bootstrap (And Why): Bootstrapped!
It’s been slow going at times, and we live and die by our profit and loss reports, but at this point, I’m pleased with the choices we have made in funding growth.
We were fortunate that we were profitable early on and liked to hold onto our cash. As a result, we’ve had the money we needed during periods of growth or contraction. Further, I believe that having a limited budget has forced us to be more focused than if we had access to more cash.
A couple of years back, we attended Jason Calacanis’s LAUNCH Incubator, as we thought we wanted to raise a series A round. After many interesting conversations with investors, we realized that it was ultimately the network connections and insights we wanted from the angels and VCs we were talking to and not their money.
Through the incubator, we had several investors who expressed interest, and I started sending them monthly email updates even though we had decided against the round. Now I send out my monthly “Friends of Geniuslink” update to an even larger group of investors and founders. The email includes our highs/lows from the month as well as where we are going and what we are being challenged with. I then get back some great feedback and often the intros or help that I had requested.
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: From a technology perspective, it’s our product matching process (you give me the link to a product in one store, and I’ll programmatically find the same product in another store even when the IDs don’t match, etc.).
We’ve been working on this for over a decade now, have multiple patents, and continue to innovate around the process. I’m happy to report that we’ve gone head to head with AI / ML solutions numerous times now, and I’m excited to say we’ve been significantly more accurate each time (not to say that we won’t incorporate these technologies when/where they make sense).
From the “people” perspective, it’s our resilience. We’ve been called cockroaches multiple times now, and while it’s not a glamorous name, I’m starting to appreciate the term.
Over the last decade, we’ve had four significant shifts that have drastically affected us (e.g., losing half of our revenue in a matter of days/weeks due to a policy change), and each time we’ve been able to rebuild ourselves as a better and stronger company. I think that it is due in considerable part to the grit of the people we work with.
The smartest move we’ve made so far: Our first acquisition was of a competitor (BookLinker.net) in the author + Amazon space. That turned out to be good for us as there were a lot of similarities in the functionality required but by two utterly different user groups, so we drastically increased our client base and volume with minimal engineering work.
While it is too early to say, our recent (second) acquisition of Kit is looking similar to this BookLinker experience but on a 100X scale. Only time will tell if this was our “smartest” move yet.
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: Traditionally, we’ve been very focused on building specifically for one ecosystem. Doing this has created an “all the eggs in one basket” situation, and we’ve been majorly burned multiple times by changes in that ecosystem.
It’s a double-edged sword, though. A focus on one ecosystem allowed for focused work and fast growth, but it’s risky.
Which leading entrepreneur or executive would you most want working in your corner? A few minutes of having Jeff Bezos in our corner could be exciting due to our shared focus around global retail and the problem we solve for Amazon (and numerous other major global brands and retailers) with their affiliate and/or product links not “working” for an international shopper.
Our favorite team-building activity is: Lunch.
We are still a small enough team that we can all get around a single table and spend a little time, most every day, being friends instead of just co-workers.
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: A combination of hustle and attention to detail. If someone is willing to put in the work and is paying attention, then there is no limit to what they can be taught or what we can learn from their experiences.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Pay close attention to time. If you are profitable, then time is (mostly) on your side; if you are losing money, then time is (mostly) against you. On this note, I would encourage entrepreneurs to work on their ideas as a side hustle for as long as they can before going full time on them. It may be slow getting started, but at least you are starting on the right foot before you dive in head first.