Friday, December 02, 2005

No. 4 of the top 100 fastest growing private companies in the bay area.

WebMama: Bringing a woman's touch to the Internet

You might call Barbara Coll a mother of search-engine marketing.

Coll didn't invent the industry, but she got in early with her company, WebMama.com. And now that search marketing is starting to explode, WebMama is pulling in big-time bucks. Revenue has jumped nearly 600 percent in two years from $557,000 in 2002 to $3.7 million in 2004. Coll said WebMama.com has been profitable since its birth in 1996.

WebMama, which counts Coll as its only full-time employee, in addition to half-a-dozen subcontractors, competes against much larger rivals such as Fathom Online and iProspect, but it's Coll's personal attention and measurable results that keep clients coming back.

Companies hire WebMama to help them drive visitors to their web sites through ads on search engines such as Google and Yahoo, using key word searches, pay-per-click and other strategies. WebMama helps clients figure out how much to pay for the ads and how to design them to attract their desired audience. Advertisers intent on capturing eyeballs -- and wallets -- in an increasingly connected world are increasing their spending on Internet fare. Forrester Research found that half of the advertisers in a May survey were cutting spending on traditional channels, such as TV and print, to pay for online ads. Search engine marketing, in particular, was to nearly triple from $4.3 billion in 2004 to $11.6 billion by 2010.

About 80 percent of WebMama's revenue is from about eight large corporations that include Hewlett-Packard, WebEx Communications and Salesforce.com, doing business-to-business work. H-P, which first hired WebMama in 1999, accounts for much of the company's growth, Coll said.

"I own the search-engine optimization package for whole company, which is in 27 languages," she said, referring to the function of using key words to make sure H-P shows up high in the free non-sponsored results section. She does optimization for her smaller consumer clients such as Shoes.com and WeddingChannel.com, who she recommended use the term "wedding dresses" rather than "gowns" to attract more visitors.

Coll, an engineer and former Sun Microsystems executive, ran WebMama from her Menlo Park home until last year. As business grew along with her need to change environments, she moved into a converted carriage house office in 2002 in downtown Palo Alto. Overhead expenses have risen as Coll also increased the number of commission-based subcontractors who work for her remotely from five in 2003 to seven in 2005. (One of them earned a larger salary than she did last year, Coll said.) Coll finds balancing cash flow to be one of the most challenging aspects of running the company.

"If clients don't pay me on time, I still owe my subcontractors," Coll said. "And getting lines of credit when you're a virtual company is hard -- maybe because we're a services company and don't have anything physical. I think it's dumb."

Coll said she's running into another challenge, but this one others might envy: turning potential clients away. She deliberately limits her company's client roster, but as a founding member of the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization and frequent speaker on the conference circuit, she digs up plenty of interest.

Rather than turn them away altogether, Coll offers brief consulting sessions, where she jumps in, looks at a client's web site cold and makes quick hit suggestions -- for $300 to $500 an hour.

"It's the most exciting thing I do."

Adrienne Sanders covers technology for the San Francisco Business Times.

posted by Barbara 'webmama' Coll @ 1:42 PM     Permanent Link