Online reputation management is a litigious industry that many would rather avoid. But where others see a risk, Zach Featherstone sees an opportunity. His business, Internet Removals, is an Australian startup that makes online reputation management accessible for businesses that can’t afford legal services. Read on to learn how Zach combined tenacity and technology to disrupt a daunting market.
Q: How did Internet Removals come to exist?
A: “Internet Removals came to exist through the unintentional identification of a niche within the legal market. Working with businesses, my advice was commonly sought on resolving online issues, such as rogue websites and highly defamatory Facebook pages. Initially, I would refer these clients to lawyers.
Within about six months of doing this, I noticed a lot of the issues weren’t being resolved, rather steered towards court. I figured there must be an immediate solution, rather than 12 months of litigating.
With this in mind I began researching and testing different methodology and avenues to remove content. In approximately 2012 I was gaining major success and began the journey to incorporating Internet Removals.”
Q: What obstacles did you face when starting Internet Removals?
A: “There were two major obstacles in starting Internet Removals. The first obstacle was awareness.
Typically, individuals and businesses affected sought legal advice immediately, with the view that the only solution could be found through mediation with the offending party or litigation. It was a major struggle to overcome this common belief. Furthermore, we were often likened to an SEO or marketing company and therefore had the stigma attached of the overcharging, outsourced and under-delivering SEO salesman.
Through word of mouth, advertising and brand promotion we have been able to overcome this roadblock. We now believe that a lot of Australians better understand their options due to Internet Removals.
The second obstacle was demand, i.e. coping with it. At one point or another, it felt like the problem just exploded — like all of a sudden millions of people were suffering internet/online defamation and all headed our way.
At first we struggled to keep up, however it was a major catalyst for further improvement and business development. We overcame these teething issues through hard work and the investment in systems and processes that increased efficiency and productivity. Now we’re scaling up to meet the needs of international markets.”
Finding a niche
Q: Online reputation management seems like a very specialized niche. Why did you choose to commit to it?
A: “I never gave much thought to the ‘Online Reputation Management’ industry. Typically, I found that a high percentage of my clients came directly from reputation management agencies that oversold and under-delivered. The more clients like this that we gained, the more I feel like I consciously tried to steer away from that industry.
Obviously, we are a cog in the machine in respect to being a part of that industry. However my vision since recognising the fundamental floors for a vast majority of ORM companies was to create an industry all on it’s own — the industry of Content Removal.”
Q: Content removal sounds difficult. I wouldn’t know where to begin. What challenges do you face in day-to-day operations?
A: “We really don’t have enough time, or space — it’s an absolute battle. The major challenge is the uncontrollable and volatile nature of third parties.
Ultimately, our IP and systems are what make us successful, but this only goes so far. A major factor in our success has been our ability to manage third parties to comply with our requests. This is unbelievably difficult, as these third parties are generally inconsistent and not willing to comply.
The most frustrating challenge in the content removal space would have to be, without doubt, receiving templated email responses time after time, that do not assess any information you have provided, rather get the file off someone’s desk.”
Q: What’s the Internet Removals business model?
A: “Internet Removals generates revenue by providing content removal services. This type of service is typically billed on an hourly basis by lawyers, in contrast to our lower cost, fixed-fee service. Our clients come through various marketing activities, lead generation, direct selling, and subscriptions.”
Q: What are the goals for your business?
A: “Our goals, in priority order:
- Affect change in the way or law that internet publications can be anonymously made and damage business brands.
- Give businesses the correct tools and leadership to communicate with customers and manage customer problems.
- Provide businesses with the power to take action against persons who unlawfully damage their brand.
- Capture the Australian market.
- Expand into New Zealand, UK and Indonesia.
- Expand into Europe.
- Represent a NFP/Charity as a brand ambassador.”
Q: What keeps you pointed in the right direction?
A: “I don’t have a specific business philosophy, rather guiding philosophies about life that influence the way I do business:
Work smart, and hard. We don’t buy into the singular choice of smart or hard. We believe there is no substitute for applying maximum effort during every waking hour of the day. We find the harder we work, the smarter we get. The smarter we get, the harder we can work.
Excuses don’t solve problems.
Improvements not excuses. Excuses don’t solve problems, but a focus on improvement does. We focus on problem solving through gradual improvement, rather than overnight solutions.
Satisfaction is found in never being satisfied. We are never satisfied with ‘good enough’ or ‘close enough’ or even ‘great enough.’ We find satisfaction in challenging, improving, redesigning and out-achieving.
Work hard in silence and keep your success to yourself. We aren’t interested in fame and glory. We are focused on success for our clients and for ourselves, not for anyone else.”
Q: What strengths do you bring to the table as an entrepreneur?
A: “Everyone has strengths and weaknesses that they bring to the table. I think my biggest strength is my ability to identify my weaknesses and improve upon them.
It’s this process of continual development that enables me to identify areas of improvement and ultimately act on them.
For example, I originally felt our branding wasn’t spot on. We had a kick-ass logo and branding kit, but it wasn’t being used to its potential. I knew that I wanted some e-brochures, along the lines of ‘all you need to know about Internet Removals.’ The problem was, I had no idea how to design them and didn’t have the time to engage a firm, provide direction and manage the project.
One week later I created our Company Overview. I taught myself InDesign and Photoshop and made something that filled my needs. While not perfect, we’re on our way.”
Looking to the future
Q: Where do you see your business in five years? Ten years?
A: “In five years’ time I see Internet Removals dominating the Australian market and establishing solid footholds in New Zealand, the UK and Indonesia. We would continue to operate with small business roots — lean and efficient, rather than over-capitalised and top-heavy.
In 10 years’ time I see the business dominating markets in New Zealand, the UK and Indonesia and establishing a solid foothold in Europe.
The beauty of our business is that it’s online.
This makes growth more about market retention, operational efficiency, and finding our optimum economy of scale.”
Q: You’ve mentioned that systems and processes have helped you meet demand. What tools have aided you in that?
A: “Our choice of tools are a significant factor in our success. We are always on the hunt for ways to increase efficiency and deliver improvements that benefit our clients. Without these tools, I could not see our business performing at our current level of efficiency, or completing the high volume of work. These tools are invaluable:
GoDaddy Ultimate Linux Hosting
We use GoDaddy hosting for our websites and emails. It has been, by far, the most reliable and effective hosting solution for my business. The reliability is key, as we cannot afford for systems to be offline.
Purchasing domains through GoDaddy is easy and cost-effective.
Cloud storage: Box.com
We use Box.com for all of our files. Not only is it invaluable for computer failures or office fires, it makes it possible to work from any location with an internet connection. Our files are with us wherever we are — at the airport, visiting clients, and even on holiday.
Cloud-based CRM: Agile CRM
Agile CRM holds all of our client information and communication records. Additionally, our CRM allows us to:
- Set tasks, jobs, appointments and reminders.
- Record proposals and deals.
- Manage enquiries.
- Automate marketing and communication.
One of the major benefits of the CRM is the maintenance of client records. All of our communications are included within a contact card. Agile CRM has delivered significant improvements in efficiency and reliability for us. In the first month of integration, our business grew 270 percent.
Online payment solutions: PayPal
PayPal integrates with every aspect of our sales process. Clients often want to pay immediately to start the process, or pay through methods other than bank transfer.
Website building technology: WordPress and Elegant Themes
The website building technology we utilise has allowed me to build all Internet Removals websites, delivering more personalised design and significant cost savings. Additionally, I can edit or build anything on the website at any time or construct concepts quickly.
Online Forms: Wufoo
We use online forms to handle website enquiries, sign agreements, take payment, and collect information from our clients. Online forms increase our efficiency by segmenting information and increase the rate of agreements and payments by streamlining the process for clients.”
Lessons and advice
Q: What's the most valuable lesson you've learned since starting your business?
A: “My mother has always promoted continual personal development, and my father always told me to ‘never stop learning, never stop gaining qualifications.’ These lessons have been a major part of my success. I have never said ‘I don’t know that,’ rather ‘I haven’t learned that yet.’
Continual improvement is as essential to me as oxygen for both business development and personal satisfaction.
Because of this, I now have skills in content removal, website design, graphic design, marketing, public speaking, advertising, management, goal setting and performance, website administration and several other invaluable skills — all of which I wasn’t born with or taught.”
Q: What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?
A: “As young entrepreneurs you will always be on the end of someone's speech that goes a little like this: ‘Be patient, you are young and there is no need to rush. I didn’t gain success until I was 42, and look at me now.’
I have never identified with this advice. Your age should not dissuade you from succeeding in your pursuits, and just because others don’t gain success until their mid-forties is no reason or excuse for you not to succeed tomorrow, in a month or in a year.
If you want success, you must centre your entire life around success, not just with business but also with your health, your family, and your mind.
You must refuse to accept failure as a final destination, and treat it as a process of elimination along your path to success. As Thomas Edison so eloquently put it, ‘I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.’
Failure is part of the process. Enjoy it, because it’s not only character-building, but an essential part of your journey to success.”
Finding time for squash
Q: Let’s set work aside for a moment. How do you unwind?
A: “The perk of loving what you do is that I (generally) enjoy every minute of my day, so I rarely need to ‘unwind.’ That said, I will head to the gym Monday through Saturday. I also play squash once a week, box at home, play golf as often as I can, and head to the beach for a swim where the weather permits."
Q: Was there a turning point in your life that led you to where you are today?
"For me, there’s no option to succeed or not to succeed. There is no safety net, only the goals I’ve set for myself and the visions I have for the future. The pressure, stress, anxiety, and every other negative emotion I have faced through life only served as a driving factor along the path to success that Internet Removals is now on."
Q: How do you balance the needs of your business with your personal life?
A: "The work-life balance can be tough. I am lucky enough to work in close proximity to family, which helps, but there are times where I’ve been at work for 12 hours and still have to get to the gym before heading home and spending time with my fiancé.
At the end of the day, everyone goes through periods where either business or personal life is all-consuming. I have found that it’s the little things that help keep the balance. For example, I take advantage of driving time to catch up with Mum on the phone, or starting work at 5 a.m. to get home to my fiancé sooner.
It’s all about give and take. Sometimes you can’t satisfy every aspect of your life but you can bend and flex to find a balance that works for everyone.”