By Chris Pummer
With 75 percent of his business coming through the Internet, Cliff Hodges knows he needs to learn every trick possible to draw people to his outdoor-excursions site, Adventure Out.
But despite holding a master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from MIT, he feels ill equipped to exploit what is known in the industry as search engine optimization (SEO). “I don’t get SEO,” says Hodges, 26. “I went through a class where I read and wrote papers on [Web] page-ranking algorithms, yet I still don’t know 100 percent how to get listed on Google.”
No Free Lunch
Hodges recognizes his company’s fortunes will rise or fall with its Internet marketing efforts. “For the services we offer, most people look online,” he says. “If you’re visiting San Francisco and want to take a surf lesson, you’re not going to wait until you get here to set it up.
“Right now, we have decent rankings on Google, but tomorrow someone flips a switch and we don’t pop up. You can do all the optimization you want, and sometimes, it’s still not enough. It’s an aspect of my marketing I need more control over.”
Hodges also wants to build a Web site that’s easy to use, is trustworthy, and encourages visitors to buy his services and goods. He learned from studying user-interface design that people’s usage patterns are different, and he hopes to fashion a site with broad appeal.
“I come from a technical background, and I don’t have a good feel for how my site looks to someone who didn’t major in engineering.”
The Call of the Wild
Born and raised in Santa Cruz, Calif., a liberal university town on the state’s central coast, Hodges grew up an avid surfer and backpacker. The summer before finishing his master’s, he gave in to a last bit of escapism by “slacking off and teaching surf lessons” for a new, local company called Girlsadventureout.com.
After graduating in 2003, Hodges went to work in technical marketing and product development in nearby Silicon Valley — and walked away from a promising career after barely a year. He was essentially a well-paid translator between customers and design engineers, albeit on multimillion-dollar deals.
“The field I studied was so exciting, and then I got into industry and there was no challenge or job satisfaction,” Hodges says. “It was a lot of hand holding.”
While working through his lingering discontent, Hodges discovered that the two women who launched Girlsadventureout in 2002 were struggling to grow the business. The pair, whom he considers mentors and friends, took in about $100,000 in revenue in 2004 on fees for lessons and outings, and a limited amount of wet suit sales through their online store.
“I knew the company was small, but I saw a lot of opportunity there,” he says. “It had a strong market niche, and the economy was moving into a place where people would start spending money again. I just saw it as a greater challenge.”
Contraction and Expansion