On March 6, 2018, I stood in front of every Conductor employee to announce some exciting, surreal news: we had sold the business to WeWork.
People cheered. I myself happy-cried; after all, as CEO, the company was my baby in many ways, and the people of Conductor were (and continue to be) my community.
I was ready for the next chapter, even though it was hard to believe that I would never own a share of Conductor again. But I convinced myself that it wasn’t about any of us owning shares. We were all completely committed to our mission: to enable companies to acquire customers using SEO and content, and ultimately change marketing for the better. And, with the WeWork platform behind us, we could invest in our business and build technology for our customers like never before.
Today, we bought our company back.
The world works in mysterious ways.
From 2 To 40 Co-Founders
A little history: Jeremy Duboys & I planted the seed of Conductor as a side business back in 2006, when it was called LinkExperts. This business grew fast to $25mm in revenue, but the assets were eventually sold for almost nothing in 2010.
40 people remained at the company with a pre-revenue product called Conductor.
I didn't come up with the name “Conductor.” I didn't write our first lines of code. I didn't design our logo. The people of Conductor did. So in April 2011, we made that group of people our co-founders. And, as 40 co-founders, we marched into a new future.
The road started off really bumpy. We had 40 people and almost no revenue, with not many months of cash to go.
After many years of struggling, things started to click. We learned that success is about helping others--and our ability to learn and grow in the process. Fortunately for us, there were a lot of people to help. Millions of people search every minute for answers to the biggest and smallest issues of their lives: “how to get a good night’s rest,” “which is the safest minivan,” “where can I find my birth mother?” Each of these questions was an opportunity for us to help someone. We helped our clients deeply understand their customers’ needs and, as a result, provide the best content and answers. We began to have a massive impact - not just on marketing results, but on the role marketing plays in people’s lives.
We brought that mindset into the business, and by 2018, on a base of already-solid revenue, we experienced 12 straight quarters of accelerating revenue growth.
And just like that, out of nowhere, our largest customer, WeWork, made us an offer we couldn’t refuse—a chance to do it all on a much bigger playing field—and we jumped in headfirst.
Conductor Joins WeWork
Our 20 months at WeWork were never boring. But it was an entirely new experience for me and most of Conductor.
We were still running independently, as a part of their “venture group.” As part of WeWork, we could make massive investments in our product with an eye on the long-term.
There were also many once-in-a-lifetime experiences. We all flew to the outskirts of London for WeWork’s annual summer camp retreat. It was the first time every Conductor from around the world was able to actually meet in person. I remember being in the crowd, watching many Conductors celebrating together and thinking, “is this really happening?”
That was also the first time we really understood the true scale of WeWork. The rate of growth at WeWork was breathtaking-- and could sometimes be chaotic. We had agreed upon a strategic direction for Conductor with WeWork, and they trusted us to execute on that plan. At first, having very little oversight was empowering and a relief. But, as an entrepreneur, eventually it could become deflating and demotivating.
As much as I fought it, I realized that my relationship with Conductor had changed since we joined WeWork. Before, as an owner, I was directly impacted by the results of every decision made in Conductor. It was raw, and real: every high felt incredible, the lows left deep bruises. Everything you do feels like it has actual weight and impact. As an entrepreneur, it’s simply impossible to replicate that feeling as part of a 10,000+ person company.
In late September, news leaked that Conductor was officially being divested. Text messages were coming in from Conductors everywhere asking what was going on. I never imagined our people would find out something so important that way. But like almost all things, where there are challenges, there are also opportunities. At that point, we had long been exploring a way to spin Conductor out into an independent business, and the rumors created an opportunity to expedite the process.
With WeWork’s desire to focus on their rapidly growing core business, and our desire to bring back a culture of true ownership, we collaborated to figure out a way to win on all sides.
Fast forward to today: Conductor is now majority-owned by the people at the heart of the company.
From 40 To 250+ Co-Founders
I’ve always hated the word employee: it literally means “a non-executive who works for wages.” That legacy mentality in business (which is still pervasive today) — where the relationship between a company and its people is solely transactional, labor for money — leaves so much on the table. After all, companies are really just made up of groups of people. Why are people so often left out of the equation?
We have always sought to operate Conductor differently. Our vision is to create an environment in which every stakeholder, every person that makes up the company, feels valuable. Where each person truly matters and has the chance to meaningfully grow as an individual. A company where, perhaps, your salary isn't the only or even the most valuable thing you're getting from your job.
So, with a clean slate, we asked ourselves how we could take our people-first culture and approach, and ground it in our legal structure and ownership. That’s how, in collaboration with our long-time advisor and Conductor advocate Jason Finger, who stepped up to support the company alongside all of our employees, our COO Selina Eizik, and myself, we bought Conductor back.
Every Conductor will become a real co-founder. All of our shareholders will have the same and senior-most class of stock—from me as CEO, to each of the other people at the company who serve their own critical role, to investors. Our co-founder employees will have the right to appoint an employee member to our Board of Directors and a host of other benefits and protections we’ll share at a later date. We even structured the business in a way to minimize taxes for our team versus stock options. We tried to think of everything.
From We to Us: Conductor Into the Future
Now, looking back over the decade that Conductor has been in existence, it’s overwhelming to know that we’ve invested more than $100mm into the business to build cutting-edge tools that enable more than 400 enterprise customers (and growing) to improve billions of searches that affect real lives. We’re #1 in our category, and, now, the people of Conductor own Conductor. It seems surreal.
Our ability to embrace the tough times that help us grow is what got Conductor this far. And now we welcome another cohort of co-founders to the table. We’re now harnessing our truly massive amount of energy and focus directly to meeting the needs of our customers -- and future customers.
We are ready to go, fired up, and looking forward to this next chapter. Thank you so much to everyone who has supported us on this wild ride. Thank you to WeWork for your support and making this possible. And from me to the amazing people of Conductor, thank you so much for your unwavering belief in and commitment to Conductor; I am so lucky to have co-founded this company with each of you.
Here are some pictures from Conductor's journey: