In the world of entrepreneurship, a universally accepted doctrine is doing more with less. In this case study series, I bring you an entrepreneur who has done exactly that. Cree Lawson, founder and CEO of Travel Ad Network (TAN), is our guest this time, and will share his story with all its blood, sweat and tears. Cree’s venture also aligns with the Vertical Ad Network trend that we have been discussing here.
SM: Cree, please tell us about your personal background.
CL: I guess I’m the product of suburban America circa 1980—a time when there really wasn’t anything more to life than contact sports, loud music and the knowledge that the Russians really were coming at any moment. At least that’s all I knew. When I wasn’t dreaming, reading or knocking the crap out of my friends on a field behind the school, you’d find me cleaning floors at cookie stores and pet shops to buy parts for my exceptionally loud car stereo. Yeah—I was that guy. At one point my stereo was worth more than my car, in fact. But the car was only worth $1,000 so that wasn’t hard to beat.
There was nothing wrong with the suburbs of Nashville in the 70s. In fact, it was a good time. Johny Cash and Roy Orbison would occasionally come to the football games and famous songwriters were always around and sometimes even sober. But my parents were never happy unless we were on the road or going somewhere.
My parents are community college teachers, so the high point of my childhood was summer. And summer meant traveling. By the time I was 18 I’d seen over 40 states—most of them from the backseat of a lime green Dodge Colt station wagon. We were campers. The only thing more important than sports, reading and loud music was traveling. I only really thought about money when the tent was broken and we couldn’t find a hotel we could afford.
I really didn’t excel at anything except sports, dreaming and blowing out my eardrums until I went to Belmont University on a cross country scholarship. I won a few rewards for sports reporting and writing in the college newspaper, and by the time I was a senior, I was running a 32-person team at the paper. Then the Internet hit. In late December 1993, The Belmont Vision was the fifth college newspaper to go completely online. It came out before the print version. The only thing I couldn’t get online—ironically—was the ads.
After college I was a business reporter for the Nashville Banner for about two years before I accepted a fellowship to NYU’s Center for Publishing. I came to New York and found my way to a job at Fodor’s Travel Guides, writing them a business plan to put online advertising on their site in 1997. They didn’t listen. I went on to be a business editor on the Associate Press website and an online marketing manager at Time Warner. Enter the Internet again. In 1999 I joined Bookface—a San Francisco-based startup that featured complete book content in browser-based reading experience supported by advertising. Sound like Google print? You bet. Anyway—it closed. And so did the next start-up that I joined.
I didn’t have good timing in those days, especially when I returned to online travel advertising in September 2001 to take a job at Rough Guides. There was no online travel advertising after 9/11. Rough Guides—the travel guidebook publisher—was kind enough to keep me on board nonetheless, selling online travel advertising. Rough Guides had much the same online advertising opportunity as Fodors.com, only Rough Guides was one-tenth the size. I knew we had an audience of international travel planners each considering spending $1,000-$5,000 each on a trip. We just didn’t have enough of them.
So in December 2003, I put RoughGuides.com together with Igougo.com and four other travel websites run by Michael Thomas, and Travel Ad Network was born. I’d managed to aggregate an audience of 1 million travelers across six websites and we’d hit critical mass.
SM: Beautiful storytelling, Cree. We’ll discuss Travel Ad Network in more detail tomorrow.