Raj Lahoti of Online Guru – Podcast Transcript

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Shaun Ryan: [0:00] Hi. I’m Shaun Ryan from SLI Systems, and today I’m talking to Raj Lahoti from Online Guru. Raj, can you give me a little bit of background about yourself and your company, and what you do and how you came to be there?

Raj Lahoti: [0:13] Sure, sure, sure. So, our company is called Online Guru. We’re Internet marketing and web publishing company. That’s what we call ourselves, I guess. Personally, my background has been, I’ve been online since I was like 12 or 13 and been on computers since I was like 5. I’m 26 years old, so pretty much half my life I’ve been on the Internet, and got interested in web development-or web design, I should say… Back when I was like 13, 14 started a website. I’ve just really been playing around since then.

[0:55] I started my first company right out of high school. And basically, we were going to focus on taking domain names of my brother’s and basically figuring out a way to monetize them. He had traffic to them, and at that time, there was no Google AdSense or anything like that, at that time. So, we had to figure out a way, through affiliate programs or through click-through traffic or some sort, to generate some revenue streams through his domains. And in that process, we learned a ton about web publishing, software development, domains, traffic, all that stuff.

[1:34] And I guess, you could say, since the last eight years or so, I’ve just been involved in my own business. In 2003 of June, we started a company called Online Guru, which I’m still running today; I’m the CEO of the company. And I guess, that’s the story. [laughs]

Shaun: [1:57] Your brother was involved early on. Is he still involved with the company?

Raj: [2:01] Yes, he is. He’s not involved in the day-to-day operations here, but he pretty much continues to do the same thing he’s been doing for the last 10 or 12 years, which is continuing to look for new domain names. He buys and sells domains. Mostly, we’re buying and acquiring new domains for building on them in the future. We want to take the same model that we’ve done with DMV.org and continue to do it, from site to site, in the future. And so, he’s continuing to do that, but he’s not running anything in the day-to-day operations here.

Shaun: [2:36] Right. That’s good. I’m in a very similar situation. My brother’s involved in our business as well.

Raj: [2:42] OK.

Shaun: [2:42] But, not in the day-to-day operations. And I think, that’s probably a good thing.

Raj: [2:45] Yeah. What we realized is that my brother was the kind of person who, he comes up with the concepts and, if there’s a new idea, he comes up with those things from the get-go. And then I’m the type of person that I can see that opportunity and figure out how we can turn that into something for real and really take the initial stages to a point where it’s profitable, it’s revenue-strong, all that stuff.

[3:15] And then, there’s going to be a point where I’m going to have to step aside. Which I’m sort of getting to that point right now, [laughs] where I’m realizing that I’m looking for, potentially, somebody else to come in and help take it to the next level, with me just stepping to the side a little bit – not necessarily leaving, but stepping to the side and letting that person kind of handle the day-to-day operations while I continue to focus on the vision and the direction of the organization. So, I guess, it’s just a different strength for each stage, I guess.

Shaun: [3:47] Now, can you talk a little bit about the DMV site? That’s the main site that you guys are working on at the moment. And you have a few others as well, I believe.

Raj: [3:56] Yes, yes. We have thousands of domain names, and not that many of them are of the same quality as DMV.org . There are a few other domain names that we do have, which I’ll mention in a little bit.

[4:09] But, DMV.org is the main breadwinner of this company. It’s the main site. My brother started it back in 1999 as a single-page website, where he realized that people were looking for DMV information, and he put up a website that linked to all the different states’ DMVs. And he made some money through a couple of ads here and there on the site, and that was there for possibly about four years or so.

[4:38] And then, in June 2003, when I partnered up with my brother to create this company of Online Guru and, at the same time, to take his main website, DMV.org , with the most amount of potential-it was generating about 5000 visitors a day at that time-and take those visitors, monetize them, and grow the business. And so, for the last five years, I’ve been pretty much completely focused on that, while growing the company. And the site now is close to about 200,000 visitors a day. So, about 40 times that of when we started it in ’03. And it’s doing nearly like 60 to 70 million visitors per year.

Shaun: [5:25] Wow. That’s phenomenal.

Raj: [5:27] Yeah. [laughs]

Shaun: [5:28] It must be sort of in the top few hundred sites in the US, is it?

Raj: [5:32] That’s right. In the US, according to Quantcast, I guess, it’s ranked, I believe, like 258. It fluctuates every now and then, but definitely in the top 300 of all the sites in the US, which is kind of cool.

Shaun: [5:48] That’s a fantastic achievement. And is it still growing? How much have you grown over the last year?

Raj: [5:54] So, over the last year, we’ve grown, I think, in traffic, maybe around 10 percent. But, in the first three or four years, I was doing most of the stuff myself. So, I was mining that site every single day, 24/7 pretty much, coming up with new ways to generate traffic and new ways to generate revenue and expand the product. And I was pretty much doing all that myself, with one or two employees, but more so with a lot of freelancers, and just handling that myself.

[6:25] And over the last two years, some of that’s slowed down because I’ve been really concentrated on building an infrastructure, building an organization that, really, we can scale up.

[6:36] And so, over the last year, we grew more organically, only about 10 percent or so, while we’re really concentrating on just building a team, building an infrastructure, building systems. A lot of the stuff that I did by myself, I didn’t have any systems to do them. I was just kind of doing a lot of things by hand. And now, we need a project management information system. We need this, that, and everything else to run a company. We have nearly 20 people now.

[7:04] So, I’ve been really concentrated on that. And now, we’ve reached a certain point where we can now get that. We’ve kind of passed that hump a little bit, you know what I mean? Where we can go to the next level. So, it’s kind of an exciting time for us right now.

Shaun: [7:20] How do you mainly attract visitors to your site, and then how do you get them coming back?

Raj: [7:24] Sure. So, the site itself, it’s a useful site for finding information on locating your nearest DMV, getting information on DMV forms, driver’s license, renewals, all that type of stuff. We have other automotive things on our site as well, like you can switch car insurance providers through our car insurance center, and you could get enrolled in an online driving school or traffic school. You can learn about a bunch of different resources that are not necessarily DMV, but related services.

[7:59] And so, the site definitely gets a fair amount of word-of-mouth and type-in traffic, just through people coming to the site and telling others about it. But, generally, our strategy is very much direct-marketing strategy to consumers who are searching for that information. And typically, search is one of the biggest generators of our traffic, both organic and paid search.

Shaun: [8:29] Excellent. And how do you monetize the traffic? I think, you’ve started to touch on it, when you were talking about some of the insurance and driving schools.

Raj: [8:36] Exactly. So, our site, I guess, you could say it’s sort of similar to a publisher, in that that’s displaying contextually related advertising on the site. We’re not AdSense partners, but we have ads that are a very similar look and feel of like a Google or a Yahoo ad on the Internet. So, we have ads like that that appear next to the content.

[9:06] So, if somebody, for example, is looking for information on registering their vehicle, definitely one of the requirements in most or all states is some form of car insurance, right? So that would be a perfect sort of advertisement, or product or service placement, to place next to that content on our site.

[9:30] But, we’re also similar to an e-commerce site because many people come specifically to our site to buy a product or service. They might come to our site to learn how to enroll in a driving school, for example, and the purpose of the content on our site is to actually link that person to the driving school. It’s a combination of contextually relevant advertising plus some products and services that people actually come to our site for, to purchase. But, we do not sell any products and services from our site. Everything has been done through strategic partners and third-party relationships. We don’t even have a merchant account here. It’s all about leveraging the relationships with other companies.

Shaun: [10:27] Right, I was just going to ask you about that. So, I assume part of your growth is to continue to find better advertisers that more closely match the users that you have coming to the site, as well as growing the number of people that are coming to the site.

Raj: [10:44] That’s right. We want to continue to bring on new partners and new advertisers to the site. At the same time, one of the biggest strategies for us though is very much expanding the product offering. What we’ve found is once we’ve hit a certain point where we’re comfortable with the traffic, the revenues, and those kinds of things, we really want to concentrate on expanding the product offering and bringing things to the users that they would never expect.

[11:16] That way, in this day and age of the Internet, it’s amazing what sites are doing. As long as you can create something that’s useable, that has a great experience, if it has value to the user, it is going to spread, like wildfire. We’ve seen with community being the new web – web 2.0, and entering almost into 3.0 – where everything is based on user-generated content and reviews and interaction between others, we’re really concentrating right now on developing products and services that can grow through the users. We do not have anything like that. That was not our strategy for the last so many years. So, that’s an exciting push that we’re working on right now, which is sort of a UGC strategy – web 2.0 strategy – expanding the product offering to figure out how we can leverage the community to make the site better.

[12:22] I want to give you one example of what one thing we’re looking to do which is sort of a natural thing what the US needs. When you go to the DMV, a lot of times people have to call the DMV offices for questions that are so common, but maybe not popular enough to reach the website.

[12:51] There might be maybe a thousand people want to know that, but it’s too small to create a website or page on the site and do all that. They have never posted it on the site. For us, with the users, with us having a concentration on search with our site, if users start typing in information with our site, if we don’t have this information, and neither does the DMV have that, then what we can do is send users to a user question and answer site. It will allow people to post a question about this topic and get answers from other DMV.org members.

[13:34] We’re going to be launching with a few months actually DMV.org answers. What’s going to happen is somebody searches, they’re not going to find it, they get to post that question, and other users will answer that. Next time somebody searches that through our search engine, we’re going to find that question that that user already posted and therefore the DMV’s are going to save money because they’re not going to have to get useless calls to the DMV, tying up phone lines. The lines will shorten at the actual DMV because people won’t walk into the DMV to get those questions answered. So, a lot of cool things that are going to happen out of this concept of just empowering the community to help create a better experience for everybody. I don’t know if that makes total sense, but it makes a lot sense in our mind. We’re really excited about it.

Shaun: [14:30] It makes a lot of sense and it sounds like a sensible approach.

Raj: [14:35] I know. I appreciate it. I think, it’s going to work because it’s a niche site. The whole play with vertical search is what’s really allowing people to do this. I don’t know if Google necessarily could do such a job like this, because somebody might type in "locations." What exactly does that mean to Google? "Locations" could mean locations for the nearest McDonalds. It could mean locations for whatever. But, on our website when somebody types in "locations," we know exactly what they’re talking about; they’re looking for DMV office locations.

[15:11] So, the whole play with vertical search and how that applies into the whole community strategy is really cool. There’s going to be some cool things coming soon.

Shaun: [15:21] That’s exciting. Do you have relationships with the DMVs?

Raj: [15:26] We have communication with the DMVs. We’ve had probably communications with maybe a third of the states on a number of issues. For example, some of contacted as saying, "Hey we’ve changed our website, our domain here, and you’re linking to some of the older content. Can you please update your links?" Or there’s been times where some of the information on our site, we didn’t cover all the information that was pertinent to how if your license was suspended for the following reasons, we might not have included every reasons. So, they’ve contacted us to say, "Hey, please add these to your site." We actually have formal relationships with one state at this point, the state of Pennsylvania. We have a linking agreement with them and we’re looking to create more relationships in the future.

[16:19] But, the relationships are really more so for them to understand what we do, what we’re all about, and that if there’s any information that we’re missing or incorrect or they just want to reach out to us to learn about some of the users and their interaction with the website, that ‘s really what the relationship’s all about.

[16:39] Right now, at this time, we don’t have any intention to power anything for the states. We still want to maintain ourselves as the unofficial guide to the DMV, which is independent and powered by the consumer for the consumer. So, that’s kind of our stance. But, at the same time, we still want to have a positive relationship with them so they understand that if there is something, or that they want to communicate to us, they can.

Shaun: [17:06] Yep, that makes sense. I was thinking if the information changes much then it could become a mission to keep it up-to-date.

Raj: [17:15] Exactly, exactly.

Shaun: [17:17] Relationships with them will help with that. So, what are your plans for the site? What are your immediate plans with the social networking or the user-generated content that you’re looking to do? In the longer term what would you like to do with it? Do you plan to hang onto it or do you think someone might want to come and buy it?

Raj: [17:37] A couple of things. There are a couple of holes in your question. What are plans are with the actual site in itself is some of the social stuff; get the user-generated stuff a little bit better. Not just to do it just because it’s cool, but to do it in a way like I explained to you where there’s obvious value to the user, to the DMV, to everything. We want to launch some of those things, which we already got started on it. Literally we already got the design started and it’s being built. I believe it’s supposed to launch the end, maybe middle, of July. So, we’re not that far away, maybe a month-and-a-half, maybe two months.

[18:26] One of the things though, some of these cool new features, will only be able to be used through understanding what people are searching for on the site and being able to provide the people that are searching some of the most obscure things, being able to provide them with the information they’re looking for. We’ve been talking about this internally, but we’re actually looking to make search the new navigation for us. We’re finding that there are just too many things that somebody might be searching for from a particular page on the site. There’s no way we can create a navigation that actually covers all those items. I guess, that’s why Google has done so well in their sites and why Yahoo, with their directory strategy, didn’t really work.

[19:26] Because Google, right, it’s a free text input box, whereas Yahoo! When they went with a directory style… You cannot drill down to any site in the Internet with a directory. I don’t know how many degrees of separation you would be, but you know what I mean? You would have to drill down so many levels.

[19:47] And we’re finding that as an issue even with the DMV vertical information. It’s impossible for us to create a navigation that satisfies everybody. So, we’re finding more and more every day that the more we concentrate on making search a much better experience, the better we’re going to be able to satisfy almost everyone.

[20:10] It’s kind of funny, because I know I’m talking to you as a search guy, but it’s funny how it actually… One of our project managers, he keeps saying search is the new navigation. He just says that all the time and he’s kind of coined that phrase here. Because we’re finding, when we study what the users are doing, there’s just no way that we can create a static navigation.

[20:34] That’s what’s cool about search, is you can create some dynamic navigation that basically takes some people, I guess, or suggests certain searches to users that could help them. But, at least search can be the main focus of the site so that people know whatever they’re looking for, they can type it in here and find the answer.

Shaun: [20:58] Yeah, and I think, the other part of that is, people themselves are getting used to doing more and more searching. With Google working so well, people know that they can just search and find stuff. So, when they get a site, they’re also expecting to be able to search to find stuff within that site.

Raj: [21:15] Exactly.

Shaun: [21:16] So, individuals are getting more and more used to searching.

Raj: [21:21] Exactly.

Shaun: [21:21] It’s a trend. I mean, you’re preaching to the converted here of course.

Raj: [21:25] Exactly. Well, you know, I guess, what it is that users spend 99 plus percent time of theirs on other websites. So, we don’t want to create a website that is so different than what they’re used to. And I you said, I couldn’t agree more related to Google. Everyone is so used to Google or Yahoo! Or whatever, where the search is becoming more and more as the first step.

[21:56] Some of the search engines, though, once the person searches, and then they start saying, OK here’s some related searches and maybe suggest this. Here are some sponsors. So, the search gets the user engaged, right? And it gets them to a page that the user is looking for, but then from there, you have opportunity to market some products and services.

[22:16] You’ve got opportunities to show them related searches and take them down different paths. So, it’s still a lot of options for the publisher for the site to really get the user down that conversion flow. But, it’s not always necessarily you have to do that. There’s the old ways of just static navigation.

Shaun: [22:36] Yeah. I hear you. [laughs]

Raj: [22:37] I know, I’m preaching to the guy that loves search. [laughs]

Shaun: [22:42] So, let’s talk a little bit about the other sites that you have that you’re working on and that are coming out. What else are you working on?

Raj: [22:50] I wouldn’t say we’re so much working on. They are sort of in the near future, in the wish list I should say. And some of those sites include unitedstates.org . So, we want to take the same concept as DMV information, and bring it down to just US information in general.

Shaun: [23:15] Wow.

Raj: [23:16] It could be anything from immigration, to passports, to travel, to birth certificates and records, and the local government, city government, state government, taxes. It could be so huge that I would never even be able to cover all of the things that we can talk about. It’s just going to be so huge. So, that’s something that’s sort of on the radar.

[23:48] Some of the other sites include socialnetworking.com , and that’s totally unrelated to the existing business type of model that we have, but we found that it broadens the scope of what Online Guru really does.

[24:04] We want to create multiple verticals, multiple sites in a variety of industries, but the one underlying, fundamental thing is that we want to simplify the users’ ability to find information. Simplify. And that’s really what we’re all about, so whether it’s dmv.org , unitedstates.org , socialnetworking.com or others, we want to do that.

[24:28] Another site we launched recently that’s still sort of in a beta mode is classified.org . It searches through thousands of different sources in one site. It’s kind of like a meta-engine for classified ads.

[24:47] So, we’re doing a lot of cool things, but dmv.org is the number one site for us that we’re focusing on. It’s the site that all the users really go to, or 99% of them. Rather than just creating other sites and just diversifying that way, we’re really trying to create dmv.org and all the different components of it, like search, local, answers.

[25:14] We’re going to do other community elements. We’re going to continue to expand that site, because it’s just so much potential there. I hope we can get to the other sites, but dmv.org is keeping us pretty busy.

Shaun: [25:25] You have so much opportunity just for that one site, and then you’ve got such great domain names with those other sites.

Raj: [25:33] Yeah.

Shaun: [25:33] You’re not going to run out of work any time soon, are you?

Raj: [25:36] That’s right.

[25:37] [laughter]

Shaun: [25:39] Now, you’re obviously using SLI to power the search on DMV. How have you found working with SLI for that?

Raj: [25:46] It’s pretty good. You know, the first year or so, it’s kind of interesting. The first year or so that we were running it, we were sort of just on autopilot. We did leverage a few of the different capabilities of it, and we did make some changes here and there. But, we were just pretty much in autopilot. And it was working for us.

[26:05] It was working, and I think, in the last three or four months, and a lot of this came when we went to Search Engine Strategies in New York. It was the first time that I actually took a couple people with me. I usually went by myself in the past so many times. And I took a couple of people with me, our project manager and our director of technology.

[26:24] And it was just the greatest experience to take those two with be, because we were able to strategize on so many things, pay attention to a lot of the different seminars and speakers. And we found that search is so much more than what we thought.

[26:41] And at the same time, we were studying analytics. We were studying a lot of user pads, and we were finding that people are searching for so many things. Information that we don’t even have, necessarily, on our site. Most of the top stuff, we have everything, but it’s that long tail where I’m like, oh my God.

[27:03] So, we started coming up with some ideas, and we’re going to be really taking search to the next level. We’re going to be integrating web results with it, and just doing a lot of cool things to supplement the search engine even more.

[27:17] But, we found that the search is just so powerful, and we’re really excited to work with SLI because of the capabilities that you guys have. You guys are really up to speed on where the Internet’s really going and where the web is going in general. So, it’s been a great experience so far.

Shaun: [27:33] I’m pleased to hear that, and hopefully we can keep that up for you. Just to finish off, I saw on the website that you got an award last year from Ernst and Young, an entrepreneurial award.

Raj: [27:45] That’s right. So, last year, I was actually a finalist for Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year. I didn’t make it all the way. I was in the top three in our category in San Diego, and that was a cool experience.

Shaun: [28:02] Yeah, that sounds very cool. Congratulations on that. I can see why you made the finals.

Raj: [28:06] [laughs] Yeah, I appreciate that. One other cool thing that happened last year, too. I was actually in "Ink Magazine." I was like number nine for the under 30 America’s Coolest Entrepreneurs, so that was a nice couple months where my head kind of got really big.

[28:28] [laughter]

Shaun: [28:28] I mean, that’s very cool.

Raj: [28:29] That was actually a pretty cool thing. Yeah, it just got us more on the radar for what we’re doing. Before, a lot of people were like, who’s Online Guru, and who’s dmv.org ? Now, at least when we’re creating partnerships with companies or recruiting great talent, a lot of people have heard of us now, and it just makes things so much easier just from a branding perspective. So, it’s been a cool thing.

Shaun: [28:55] Yeah, that is very cool. I love hearing stories like this. So, thanks very much for your time today. I do really appreciate it.

Raj: [29:02] Oh yeah. My pleasure.

Shaun: [29:03] I’m sure the listeners will appreciate hearing your stories and will be inspired by you. Thank you and good luck.

Raj: Yes, thank you again, and I’m looking forward to continuing our relationship.