I’ve been running the Praetorian Group – the company I helped start in 1999 – as CEO since 2000. As a company, we’re on a very short list of dotcoms that has not only survived but has thrived. We’re profitable, approaching $10 million in revenue with 60 employees and are growing in excess of 10% per year. We’ve been profitable since 2005 and count one million first responders – police officers, firefighters, EMTs and paramedics – and military service men and women as members of our sites. It’s been an exciting ride full of ups and downs.
Yet through it all, our company has always grown and evolved as a business and correspondingly, I’ve had the opportunity to grow and evolve as an entrepreneur and business leader. I’ve also been able to experience first-hand not only the constantly evolving internet and technology landscape in the San Francisco Bay Area, but also the response and impact of each of the major public safety-related incidents we’ve faced as a nation such as 9/11 and Katrina.
The intersection of Internet technology and public safety has been fascinating. We‘ve revolutionized online media for safety and security by providing content and tools that help those who protect us stay informed, better protect their communities and save lives. I’ve dabbled in other projects – including launching San Francisco Wine Week and angel investing in start-ups – but Praetorian has been my primary passion.
Here’s my story:
Starting a Company
I am from Salem, Massachusetts, born on a street that Comcast Fearnet named the 5th scariest in the world. I’ve always had a wide range of interests – business, art, language, literature, technology, cooking, wine, the Red Sox and writing. Even after nearly 15 years of Internet business experience and more than 10 as a CEO, I’m not sure of the exact recipe required to become an entrepreneur, but I do know that a diverse set of interests is important to be able to analyze problems from all angles and to see the big picture.
I graduated from Dartmouth College as a French and Economics major. Out of school, I joined a consulting firm called Corporate Decisions, Inc. (CDI) that focused on business strategy for Fortune 500 companies and was staffed on projects for IBM, GM and Harley-Davidson. There is nothing like consulting to give you a crash course in business and it being 1997, the business world was alive with talk of how the Internet was going to change the world. It was an amazing time and everyone wanted to know how to configure their business to maximize value creation in what was quickly becoming a new world filled with opportunity.
The year of 1999 was part of a unique period in the history of business. With the advent of the Internet, it was one of the few times and perhaps the only time where the younger you were, the more likely you’d land funding for an idea. I was 24 and it was the gold rush of my generation. Armed with PowerPoint templates, excel models, the four p’s and the five c’s, I was ready to conquer the world!
A high school friend of mine had started a web design firm that happened to be above my laundromat. One of his clients was operating a police website for which he was doing some design work and advertising sales. It was receiving an incredible amount of traffic, but had barely anything of substance on it. If there was a light bulb moment, this was it. We immediately thought if there could be sites for pets or people with allergies, why not first responders? And we were still young enough to remember dreaming about becoming police officers or firefighters as kids.
Now you might be thinking as we did, ‘wouldn’t government be providing deep resources for first responders at the state or Federal level?’ We were shocked to find out that wasn’t the case then and it’s generally still not the case now. Too much was at stake. We felt the need to jump in and fill the gap. If the Internet was going to change the world, safety and security was the place for us to do it.
You also might be wondering how I knew how to start a company. I didn’t. But there is a certain beauty in not knowing what you don’t know. To make a long story short, we went about starting a company – attending trade shows, building PowerPoints and pitching investors – all while juggling our day jobs.
Through contacts we had made during our research, we were put in touch with a group of neighbors living in Burlingame that had put together an angel investment fund and Mike Herning, an experienced Bay Area businessman with a couple of investments in the public safety market. Yes, the dotcom boom was in full effect. We flew out to San Francisco, packing our new suits and our shorts, for our first trip to San Francisco and our first investor meetings.
The angel investor group offered us a million dollars investment to start the company offering us cash but little else. We were concerned we had almost no idea what we were doing. So when Mike Herning said ‘I love the idea and I’ll give you a car, apartment office and my experience. Let’s do it’, we knew it was the right move. We started the company on a handshake and moved to San Francisco a week later leaving Boston behind.
Peaks and Valleys
It took us six months to launch PoliceOne and really get going. We were a typical dotcom, raising funding from multiple sources and completing a $2.5 million dollar round of funding in 2000 lead by Chess Ventures – Schwab family investment fund. We did what we were supposed to do. We hired a team and a CEO, sent out a lot of press releases, built technology and didn’t worry about revenue. Why worry about revenue when you were going to be a $700 million dollar company in 3 years?
With our round of funding completed in January of 2000, we had just enough time to scale the team and spend the money we raised and then some. In June, at the height of the bubble, we took the company on a boat trip to celebrate our future and everyone on the team had their caricature drawn. We hung forty drawings on a wall at the office. Two months later, there were only three of the forty were left.
Though we had a second round of funding committed from our investors, the dotcom bubble had burst and the bay area tech market was in a free fall. No one was going to invest in a police website. It was a gut check moment and we evaluated all options. Inherently, we knew something was there. PoliceOne was growing and counted 60,000 police officers as members and they were sharing information as never before. We knew we were making a difference, but we didn’t have a business model. My co-founder, one of the best salespeople I know, joined McAfee and quickly became the youngest executives in the history of the company. We didn’t have anything to sell nor enough money to pay both of us. I was tapped to be CEO and to figure out what to do.
We recapitalized the company in early 2001 raising $600,000, a small sum considering we had nearly $500,000 in debt, and I got to work testing business models. From late 2000 through 2003, San Francisco was a wasteland for Internet start-ups, and the dream of that the Internet would change the world had faded. I remember the first time I heard the joke ‘What do you do when a dotcom CEO shows up at your door? Tip them for the pizza and send them on their way.’
There were too many tough moments to count during that period from dealing with creditors to a rat infestation in our office to fixing crashed servers without a tech team on what seemed like a weekly basis. We were working out of a meager office near Hunter’s Point in San Francisco above a fruit wholesaler and next to a fish market. There was a recycling plant down the street and you could hear the homeless wheeling their carts back and forth outside all day. The smell was not that of success. But I credit Mike Herning, who joined Chess Ventures in recapitalizing the company, for keeping me focused on the bigger picture. Not one to give up either, he had been through ups and downs in his career and knew there was something there.
9/11 was a major factor as well. It underscored the importance of our mission and the difference we were making as well as the impact the Internet could have in saving lives by facilitating information sharing and keeping first responders informed. I remember vividly a call I received just after 9/11 thanking us for PoliceOne and asking us for help. His spouse kept updating him on the latest terrorism alerts when he got home from the department based on what she was seeing on CNN. He desperately needed a way to stay better informed and we quickly launched a mobile messaging service for terrorism alerts and signed up 10,000 officers in 3 months.
But we still needed a business model and a source of revenue. I tested ideas from e-Commerce to content subscriptions to creating web applications for law enforcement recruiting finally settling on a recurring revenue-driven advertising model based on product category sponsorships and loosely modeled after CNET. We hired our first salesperson in late 2003 and finally broke even in 2005. We were out of the woods.
Building a Business
PoliceOne was firmly installed in the law enforcement community and it was time to grow the business and extend our model across other public safety verticals as we had originally planned. I launched FireRescue1 in 2005, EMS1 in 2007, CorrectionsOne and Military1 in 2012. We now operate more than 30 web sites across police, fire, ems, corrections, private security and military. We have an online training business and a video filming division. Through that process, we’ve gone from 3 to 60 employees, scaling the company without additional funding by reinvesting net income. We’ve vetted multiple business model both online and offline. We have built an exceptional culture and the best team in our industry.
It’s been a real world MBA and then some. Every week presents its challenges and opportunities, each different than the last. As CEO, I’ve worn every hat you could imagine from HTML coder to salesperson to HR administrator to accountant and have both the advantage and challenge of having done most jobs in the company. I’ve made lots of small bets, experienced more ups and downs than one could count and put in an incredible amount of hard work. As a company, we’ve made acquisitions and divestitures, launched new divisions, gone through law suits, experienced turnover and both lost and won clients. We’ve weathered two economic downturns and attacks from larger traditional media players to come out on top.
Currently, I’m working on the next growth stage for the business and am in the process of raising our first round of outside fund since 2001 with plans double the size of the business in three years. With the infrastructure we’ve built, we have an incredible opportunity to be the premier digital platform for safety and security worldwide. Upward and onward.