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Startup Grind: Mike Ballantyne from Online Republic

By Mikela Dennison, Senior Account Exec at The Clarity Business

With the Startup Grind NZ chapter now a key event in Auckland's entrepreneur and business diaries, another great talk was held at Generator on Tuesday 26th November, with Online Republic co-founder and President Mike Ballantyne in the hot seat with interviewer and MC Helena McAlpine.

Online Republic is a collection of niche cruise, motorhome, RV and car rental sites, with a global network of offerings. Some examples of the specialist nature of Online Republic's offerings include cruises targeted to Kiwis and Aussies and car rentals for senior drivers.

Here are some of Ballantyne's comments about what it took to get Online Republic cranking worldwide and the lessons for success he's picked up along the way.

Go niche and verify demand

A key element of Online Republic's success has been the company's drive to provide highly specific, niche websites for travellers and adventurers. Ballantyne spoke about an early mistake which saw a cruise booking site set up for the whole of the UK – he says minutes after the site went live, his team realised the mistake they had made in going so wide with their offering.

Now, Online Republic prides itself on its tightly targeted offerings, which means the right kind of interest is attracted, resulting in higher conversion rates. This point is very useful for businesses to keep in mind: the more you can define and target your audience, the better you understand what motivates them, and therefore you can hone and tailor your message to suit them.

Online is measurable

"Online commerce is very measurable – and I love that". The value of the rich data that comes from working in the online space cannot be understated. For an online search and sale business like Online Republic, being able to track traffic, visitor flow, sales, and return visits is gold.

Even for businesses that aren't selling a product or service online, knowing where your traffic is coming from, what devices your audience is using to access the site, and how they are engaging and moving around your site can be very useful when you are trying to attract interest and highlight key services and the value you offer.

For example, if you know that most of your website traffic comes from LinkedIn, you might want to invest more time in engaging with groups or sharing content, or if your traffic comes primarily from organic or Google searches, maybe it's time to invest in some Google Ad Words to strengthen your position and search ranking in that area. On the other side of things, if you are only receiving a small portion of clicks from social media channels like Twitter or Facebook, but you see the value in the audiences there, maybe you could increase your frequency of tweets or posts to attract more interest from users.

PR and profile

An interesting point Ballantyne made was that while he's kept a relatively low profile over the years since founding Online Republic, he was featured on the cover of Marketing Magazine and then on the back of the New Zealand Herald, and from there his business and personal profile exploded. In Ballantyne's words, after that exposure to the local NZ market, he promptly "went back into his hole".

This lesson is quite revealing, in that for some startups and businesses a few big hits of positive publicity and profile can be all it takes to be catapulted into the consciousness of business audiences, media and consumers. Ballantyne was quite unique in his approach to being less interested in widespread publicity, which is rather uncommon in this day and age when most businesses would love that level of profile – particularly in the early stages of a new business.

Active involvement in the business

Ballantyne noted that as the founder and President of Online Republic, he never wants to be an armchair or Boardroom manager – to grow your business you have to be active, involved, engaged and leading by example. If you don't care about the day to day successes and challenges of your business, then who will?

At Clarity, we are always telling clients that the best way to achieve a good reputation is to be as you wish to appear; if you want a thriving, hungry business that people want to be part of and utilise, then make sure you are all over operations, finances, client expectations, and communications. Take Ballantyne's advice: don't be an armchair manager!

Sometimes the 'glam' account isn't everything

One of the most resonant points Ballantyne made was that when he was working in the advertising industry pre-Online Republic, he noticed other agencies would vie for glamorous accounts worth $500k. While his competitors were all fighting to win that kind of account, Ballantyne would walk out the back door with a $1m account for the dairy industry - perhaps less 'glam', but of considerably more value than its trendier counterparts. Certainly food for thought.

Your tips and tricks for online business success

Do you have any tips or suggestions to add to these lessons? Whether your business is in its start-up phase, or you've been going for years, it can always be useful to refresh your thinking and actions in the online space so you are continually evolving and engaging the people that matter to your success.

If you want the full run down of Mike Ballantyne's Startup Grind talk, check out the Storify story we've created, capturing all the tweets from the event.