Clark Benson is the founder and CEO of Ranker, the #1 digital media company for opinion-based, crowdsourced rankings on just about everything. Launched in 2009, Ranker is Benson’s fifth startup which he created with a simple concept: the wisdom of the crowd is better than one expert’s opinion. Today, Ranker creates votable editorial lists on virtually every topic, and its audiences’ opinions determine definitive rankings.
Prior to Ranker, Benson founded eCrush, the parent company to some of the first teen and millennial-oriented social networking and online communities. eCrush.com was sold to the Hearst Corporation in 2006.
A serial entrepreneur and music fanatic, Benson previously-founded Almighty Music Marketing, a music marketing and promotions agency serving the music industry since 1995. He also co-owned the Southern California music store, Off/Beat Music, from 1996-2001. He began his career in business affairs at Virgin Records America.
In his spare time, you can find Benson traveling to concerts and festivals to see many new and emerging artists – as well as his favorites such as the Rolling Stones, Phish, and Radiohead. He saw more than 100 bands perform in both 2015 and 2018. A published author, Benson co-wrote the book College: Your Guide To The Best Five Years of Your Life. He resides in Los Angeles with his wife, Jenifer, and twins, Austin and Zani.
How did the concept for Ranker come about?
I love to make lists. I also strongly believe in the “wisdom of crowds.” My whole life, I’ve been making lists of things. I’m a big music fan, and I’d make my end of the year album lists, the list of concerts I went to, those kinds of things. Obviously, other people are just as nerdy about movies, video games, or cars. The concept for Ranker came out of the idea of using any kind of topic that makes sense to rank, via leveraging a massive database with metadata to pivot on, and turn this into lists, that users can then vote on. The idea was to allow people to vote on items on lists to shape the rankings, and use that to generate meaningful content as a recommendation engine, for trivia, for fun – whatever.
How was the first year in business?
The first year of Ranker was pretty brutal. I was a guy with an idea, not an engineer, and didn’t have a proper team in place. I had to do a lot of hiring, and needless to say, there were mistakes made. Really wanting to hit the ground running, I was too ambitious with what I would first take to market (this was before all the MVP, “lean product” intel was out there). I was self-funding and had leased too much office space. And then…boom! Halfway through the first year, the economy utterly-collapsed (September 2008), wiping out chances of even remotely-easy fundraising, even though I just had a prior Internet exit.
What was your marketing strategy?
Ranker’s marketing strategy was search engine optimization, almost entirely. In the beginning, I found the company to be far more financially-constrained than expected – in other words, no marketing budget. So, after my long days at the office, I spent countless hours every night learning as much as I could about SEO, then deploying tactics and testing them myself.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
The company grew slower than I would have liked in the first few years, although it did grow enough to get noticed. Search engine optimization does not drive immediate results, but we did get quite good at it and built content using data at a reasonable cost structure. Once we got our SEO in place, things started to scale nicely, but this took about two years from launch of the site to get to millions of unique visitors a month and the right metrics to raise more outside capital.
How do you define success?
Obviously, any entrepreneur wants to have financial success. To me, I also have always started businesses that I had a personal passion for. Success is defined as Ranker bringing a unique value in the way that we crowdsource content in list form and answer questions via the wisdom of crowds, which gives you a better answer than one person’s opinion. To be completely honest with you, Ranker even now, ten years into the business, has not quite achieved my definition of success. I can’t say we haven’t been making great progress over the last few years as our traffic and revenues have grown and we’ve been able to staff up accordingly. I still think that there’s a lot that our platform can and should do, including some off-shoot business angles involving our unique opinion data that haven’t fully seen the light of day. That said, the company is certainly financially successful – a rare, profitable, digital media company who never raised huge venture capital amounts (we’ve never had more than $2 million of investment infusion at any one time to play with). We’ve basically doubled our headcount (to 90) in the last two years off of cash flow, while also putting money in the bank to support some bigger initiatives that are coming.
What is the key to success?
Honestly, I’ve been called a grinder before – meaning that I doggedly just keep at it. Sometimes with a startup, you pick the wrong thing to do that doesn’t have a chance of succeeding, regardless of how hard you work. Other times, you catch the zeitgeist and hit something that resonates for whatever reason; those are a lot of the entrepreneurs you read about. But the rest of the time, entrepreneurs succeed by grinding it out and putting in the long hours to get a self-sustaining, growing business.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Probably the single-most important thing is you need a great team. It takes a long time to build to a strong, capable team who can understand the business and work well together; there is certainly a good amount of trial and error. But, I think that although you are only as good as your team, being in the office, hands on, day-to-day, is the single-most important thing you can do as a founder.
What are some of your favorite books?
Like everybody else, I got hooked on the A Game of Thrones series and read all of those. Another fiction book I just read was Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. For non-fiction, I loved all of Robert Caro’s LBJ biographical series (The Years of Lyndon Johnson), as well as his seminal The Power Broker, which I would recommend to anybody, looking at understanding how 20th century America was built and the use of power.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
When you’ve worked for yourself for over twenty years, it’s hard to imagine just packing it in and taking a corporate gig to pay the bills. Add that to the fact that I put a decent amount of my own net worth into my company and you’ve got a recipe for moving forward even on the hardest of days!
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
The most important thing as a young entrepreneur is to put at least a year or two into working at a company in the sector where you want to build your own startup. I’ve seen so many bright, high-energy entrepreneurs fail miserably by having good ideas but not truly understanding the true underlying dynamics of how things work in a given business.
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This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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