I had lunch with one of my favorite Internet entrepreneurs today, Mark Sawyier, the CEO of Off Campus Media. The company provides college students with apartment listings near their schools, and what started out as an idea five years ago is now a multi-million dollar business. Sawyier came to this business without any formal training in computer science, business, management, or other technology training, yet he is a natural when it comes to running a modern-day Internet business. In the short time we spent today, he came up with a few bon mots and wise thoughts that I want to share with those of you that are thinking about starting your own businesses.

  1. Know your site demographics. Sawyier checks Google Analytics and other website tools daily and understands how his search rankings and traffic patterns change and what he has to do to keep the page views coming.
  2. Know your business plan is wrong and keep tweaking it in real time. Anyone who tells you that they have things figured out right off the bat is just plain lying. Don't be afraid to make your biz plan a living, breathing entity.
  3. Don't be afraid to leave town to get more money. St. Louis is not the hotbed of VC activity and especially not for Internet firms. Sawyier went to New York City to get investment capital and is most likely to go there for additional rounds.
  4. Understand your distribution channel, or how you reach your customers. Sawyier early on hired college students on different campuses to promote his service and get landlords and property owners involved in listing their properties. Having feet on the street was a good complement to gaining market share and attention, especially for an Internet business. Don't just rely on Facebook friends and other virtual methods in building your channel.
  5. Take risks, innovate constantly and learn from your mistakes. You aren't selling soap or machine tools. If you have an online business, you need to be continually trying out new ideas and seeing how they fail and figure out what the next tweak will be. Think of this as akin to agile management and don't be afraid to take small risks to learn how to improve your offerings.
  6. Organic search is more art than science. But you need to understand how the daily tweaks that Google makes to its algorithm will influence your rankings and what you have to do to adjust your page content accordingly. If you don't know how to use these tools, watch some videos and learn, and more importantly, figure out what metrics and stats you need to know to be effective. As Mark has told me before, "at the end of the day, the most important thing is having a website that provides the right answers and information to the searchers."
  7. It is all about your content. Moving Off Campus, his major venture, has tons of content - some 80,000 individual pages, let alone hundreds of thousands of apartment listings. But the content is relevant to one particular audience and one only: college students who want to move out of the dorm, and listings for just their immediate geographic area surrounding the campus. And because the firm is so laser-focused on this content and his audience, he can charge a higher premium for his search traffic than general real-estate want-ad listings.