July 6, 2023

Transition From Being A Lawyer To A Business Guy - Kurt Donnell | BCL #300

Kurt Donnell has been the President and CEO of Freestar since January 2019. Prior to Freestar, Kurt was EVP, Corporate Development, and General Counsel for YogaWorks where he helped the company complete the first IPO of a boutique fitness company. He previously held a similar role at SheKnows Media, where he cut his teeth in digital media leading a variety of teams, including business development, corporate development, audience development, and legal. Kurt started his career at large law firms including Ballard Spahr and Jones Day. He graduated from Miami University with a BS and an MS in Accountancy and has a JD from the University of Virginia Law School.

Kurt:  I naively believedwhen you went to go be a corporate lawyer, you actually got to be part ofstructuring the deals and putting together these transactions and everything.Very shortly in my career I realized the business people actually do all ofthat.  

Julian:Hey everyone. Thank you so much for joining the Behind Company Lines podcast.Today we have Kurt Donnell, president and CEO of Freestar. Freestar helpspublishers and e-commerce sites and app developers maximize ad revenue. Kurt,I'm so excited to chat with you, not only because you know you're uniqueexperience joining Freestar, not as the founder, but someone kind of later in,in, in the development stage in, in the building stage of the company.

It's sointeresting, in those experiences, you know how you manage those, how you setexpectations, how you make it smooth. But also, your experience at yourprevious role at Yoga Works and kind of love to break down the, the, thedifference honestly of the expansion between, online service companies andbusinesses and, SAS platforms and things like that, versus like actual physicalservice locations that, I, I feel are a little bit more complex.

But before we getinto, all the, the good stuff with Freestar, what were you doing before youstarted the company and, and what led you to Freestar?  

Kurt:Thanks so much for having me, Julian. Appreciate it. So I joined Freestar atthe beginning of 2019, I guess. Hired Gunn, c e o. Had known the foundersthough for a few years before this, I'd actually almost joined the companyalmost exactly two years before I did.

It was a very youngcompany at that time. I dunno, eight or 10 people, something like that. Andsort of at the same time, I had the chance to potentially join Yoga Works,which was gonna do an I P O and do a roll up of yoga studio. So there was aweekend where I was kind of back and forth, do I go to this like.

Crazy little tinystartup that was in Ad Tech, which I'd been at a couple companies ago. Or do Igo do something different, do an I P O, scratch that itch and ultimatelydecided to do the yoga works thing. Yeah. But stayed in touch with the foundersand sort of was cheering from the sidelines for a couple years and honestlythey went and kind of did all of the things that they had indicated they mightbe able to do and, and more frankly, and so, When I got back in touch withDavid, one of the founders, late 2018 I guess, and they were sort of indicatingthey were ready to, to have somebody come in and lead the next stage of growth.

I was lucky enoughto get tapped to do that, but it was, yeah, like most good relationships,something that kind of nurtured over time and we had the chance to build thetrust and I got to see what they were doing. So it was. Just one of thosethings that, yeah. Followed along for a while and the timing was just right.

I feel like thathappens a lot. We've had a number of really great folks join the company afterwe've known them for years and kinda give 'em the pitch for a while and thenthey, there's that right moment when the universe pushes it in front of you ata time when you're ready to listen and kinda happen for me in this one.

Julian:Yeah. Yeah.

I feel like a lot of founders will describe,and, and people who join companies that are in that stage of growth willdescribe the same experience and just finding the right timing when thingsalign and. And a lot of that is really, yeah, understanding when your, skillsetset is actually needed for that stage of the company.

Cuz some, you canfit in in different pieces and obviously I want to jump into the transition atFreestar, but just taking a step back to yoga work, it was so fascinatinglearning about, being the first boutique fitness company to actually I p O.What was the purpose behind the I P O?

What was, why, whywas it such an important milestone for the company? Being that, you could havejust sustained a profitable private business? Sure. What behind it was, wasmotivating to do that.  

Kurt:Yeah, I think, I think there's a couple elements to it. The company actuallyhad been around for a long time.

It was 30 yearsold, but had really kind of picked up, picked up its growth in the few yearsbefore I joined. A couple different private equity firms had been involved,but. Then, yeah, great Hill Partners, which had bought at that point in timereally accelerated the growth through doing some acquisitions.

Did so verycreatively and so the thesis kind of held together that by raising additionalcapital and potentially being able to use the public company currency as partof the acquisition proceeds if you will, to the seller, there might be able tobe an acceleration of that. There was also a time, if you remember, this was20, 20 17, something like that, 20 16, 20 17.

Boutique Fitnesswas really on the rise. And yoga was having a time and so I think there was abelief also that the market wanted this. Like you said, there was no otherboutique fitness companies that were public at that moment, so seeminglyinvestor sentiment liked the idea of being able to play that sector a littlebit.

And so ultimatelywe did take it public. It was probably. A little too small. In hindsight, whenyou look at that and just having now had the experience of running a publiccompany, it's way more expensive than anybody ever thinks about between yourlisting fees and the lawyer fees and investor relations and directors andofficers insurance and all of those things, it's just expensive to be publicand it adds just a level of complexity to everything you do.

Cause you're alwaysthinking about what is the, the market. Gonna react to this or whatever it maybe. So, in hindsight, maybe a little bit too small to have done it, but thefactors in the market seem to play in favor of investors wanting to do this.Good timing in the market to grow boutique fitness business.

There was acompetitor called Core Power Yoga that probably seen around that was building amore national chain. It was a little more. Fitnessy yoga, if you will, a littlemore kind of sweaty, partially lo yoga fitness mix versus yoga, which is alittle more on the traditional yoga side of things. And so we were findingstudios that were maybe a little more of the, I don't know meditative side ofyoga, if you will, or something like that.

Mm-hmm. And so itwas kind of the juxtaposition between, yoga works and core power a little bitat the time. So yeah. Interesting. Couple years of my life for sure.  

Julian:When you mentioned you were refining the studios, was there some kind of,acquisition or acquihire type of partnership?

What, what did thatlook like? And was that a, was that essentially what allowed the expansion toreally grow so quickly to to, kind of create that mass adoption?  

Kurt:Yeah, it was a, a stated rollup of yoga studios. Yeah. I was leading corp devand general counsel as well at the time, but I was literally flying around thecountry meeting yoga studio owners, taking yoga class and then going out todinner with them, convincing 'em to sell me their studios.

It was ainteresting couple years. Like I said, I, I got to. Meet some characters, gotto do a bunch of yoga, which was fun at the time. But yeah, it was allacquisitions. We weren't doing greenfield openings at that point in time. Ithink we acquired 21 studios and 13 acquisitions in 12 months or something inthat range.

So it was movingquickly and it was working. The, the frustrating part, I suppose, the entirethesis of the I P O was that it was a roll up and every day we announced anacquisition, our stock price went down. It just made no sense. At all, giventhat was what the purpose of the deal was. But yeah, as is life, sometimesthings don't work out as anticipated.

Julian:Yeah. Well, thinking also, you,  

you come from aninteresting background as well, being that you were an attorney for a whileand, and then, got into the startup life. What, what was that decisiontransition like? What, what kind of piqued your interest at about startuplights?

Were you workingwith startups at the time? What? Give us the story behind, you as the attorneyturning, into, you, you as a startup and, and being in this environment as anentrepreneur.  

Kurt:Sure. I think naive is a piece of it. I naively believed when you went to go bea corporate lawyer, you actually got to be part of structuring the deals andputting together these transactions and everything.

And yeah, veryshortly in my career I realized the business people actually do all of that.They strike the deal and everything and the lawyers just write it down and youhave to be wildly risk averse and all of those things just. From personalitystandpoint, I'm not very risk averse. I prefer doing things where there's ahigh degree of consequence, I suppose, and and things that are fun and fastmoving, and for better or worse, working at a law firm is just not the rightfit for me.

I did get thechance to work on some incredible deals, big small companies. Startups, publiccompanies, all sorts of things. So I got a good lay of the land. Mm-hmm. I was,I can say pretty miserable when I was a law firm, but in hindsight, now beingout of it for, a decade plus, I did learn so much from it because I did get tosee.

Hundreds of dealsdone by different companies and different industries and got these little miniMBAs and so many different business models. Yeah, that, I always thought, I'lltake this lesson from that. I would never do it that way, but I would do itthis way. And so in hindsight, it was one of the best things I could do.

Cause I got to seeso many businesses. And yeah, I guess it was 2012, had the chance to goin-house at a digital media company with the specific goal of switching over tothe business side, or at least combining both of them technically. My group jobwas general counsel, but within a couple months was running the businessdevelopment team and then audience development, corporate development.

Bunch of differentthings sort of ended up in a co oish. Role there. So it was very much my goalto get outta mall.  

Julian:That's not a smooth, you can't just skate over that transition. That's not asmooth, I was like, oh, general counsel. And then I ran business development.And then what was that? Did you join the company and was that an expressed,kind of interest of yours to, to, the leadership team at the time and were theyopen to that?

Was there anyfriction there?  

Kurt:Yeah, so my, my undergrad and master's degree are both in accounting, so likethe business side of things has always been interesting to me. And even when Iwas on the lawyer side, I kind of leaned in as much as I could on helping someof the business things. And my old boss would like jokingly whenever they crazyearn out.

Things you had towrite. It was more like writing down this business deal, but it's hard to do inlegal language. So I'd always get those. So I always liked the business side ofthings. That company I joined, which is called She Media, subsequently sold toPenske Media, was getting spun out of its old parent company and randomly therewas a guy that was sort of friend of, a friend of mine that was hiring for thisrole inside of the company to be spun out.

That was a lawyerhad switched over the business side. And so, interestingly enough, the PE folksthat were. Kind of doing this spin out one way or another, maybe liked thiscombo legal corp dev, biz dev role. Yeah. And so there was a little bit of ablueprint of seeing somebody do this in the past that mm-hmm.

I just drafted offof or something. I mean, I certainly was clear that I wanted to get moreinvolved in the. Business side when I was interviewing. Yeah, it happened alittle more quickly than anticipated, and I think it's an element of if there'ssomething you wanna do in life, raise your hand and give it a shot.

There was a bit ofa hole on the BD side, and so I leaned in with my legal hat on first of like,well, why are we doing this? Why are we doing this? And then quickly, I guess,showed. Attitude and aptitude to be able to actually help lead that team. Andalways a bit of a salesman at heart. Like, I love getting a deal done.

And yeah, so oneway or another it kind of happened, but it was definitely internally my goal tomake that happen. I think I had said it somewhat expressly and there was anexample of somebody doing it that I could point to of like, see, you can workand look, see, see that guy right over there. And so there was all of thosethings.

My buddy Keith, I,I guess I owe him. I do a, a debt of gratitude. You helped me get the job, butalso paved the path a little bit.  

Julian:Yeah, I mean, it makes sense, being, coming from the legal side, it's almostlike full cycle sales individual, right? I mean, I don't VP you, you canliterally director, you put any title on it because there's so much legalitythat is involved at the end of the deal process, but also on the accountingside.

I mean, so much ofthe business development process is just creating a funnel and being so.Analytical analytics based and, and, and not for any reason, but to know what'sworking,

what's not. And and I feel like those skillsets along with some charisma, I guess, make for, make for a good make for asolid, salesperson for a lot of times when companies are bringing on, their fursales hire and, I guess being kind of the, the, this, this overall founder.

What's beenchallenging for you, kind of in that hiring process, being that you can kind oftackle all these little elements of, of the company. Do you find it challengingto find people to, to pick up, tasks, objective, things off your plate?  

Kurt:So I came into Freestar. I was an employee probably 25 ish, 25 or 26 at thetime, and they had had a lot of success, had grown the company.

It was veryengineering heavy and pretty light on kind of the customer success side ofthings and the business development side. David, one of the two. Co-founders,he's still involved in the business, all the time, is one of the best BD peopleI've ever met in my life. And so he really took care of the sales side and tothis day has been far closer to that side of the business than I have.

He, prefers theactual selling piece and the management. So we do have woman that kind of leadsall of the supply side of our business, which is our publisher relationshipsand runs sort of the business of business development, if you will. I'll saywe've had. Different success over time.

It's a veryinteresting solution. We sell, it basically is the publisher creates thecontent, gets the audience, and they outsource the entire revenue function tous. So from a sales standpoint, it's a pretty collaborative and consultativesale cuz they've gotta trust you that. You're gonna make more money for themand cut 'em a check at the end of the month, and it's kind of putting all theeggs in one basket so it takes the right person to be able to build thoserelationships.

And so it is apretty technical sale to some extent. Yeah. It depends on, obviously thecomplexity of the individual publisher, their experience and all of thosethings. But it's not something that's super easy to throw anybody into. So overthe years we've had sort of BDR programs to help open doors.

We've. Figured outways that we can bring in people that really don't know ad tech at all, andsort of train them from, from the ground up. We have something called our adtech associate program where every six months or so we bring in a class of fourto six folks that are either looking to change careers, kinda straight outtacollege, whatever that may be.

And train them.They don't. They rotate through all of our different groups in these two tothree week sort of stints. Almost like internships, sort of, but they're fullpaid employees. And then after that, figure out kinda where they want theforever home to be. And so that actually came out of. Starting with businessdevelopment reps, learning the business, multiple of those folks ended up goingto other places.

And so we've builtthis kind of pipeline of folks from very junior and some of 'em are veryexperienced, but new to ad tech people. And some of those have gone into sales.Some of 'em have gone into publisher support or engineering or bi or all overthe place. So it's been a learning curve for us.

Certainly in themore senior roles we brought in people from the industry that have shown greatsuccess at. Related companies that have a specific skillset set and it'schanged over time. I think a big part of the people we needed when we were 25people versus the people we need now that we're 200, is process matters alittle bit more.

Right now. Buildingscalable systems matters a little more, whereas that sort of jack of all tradesthat can wear multiple hats is the most useful thing you can have at 30 people.And that's changed. And sometimes people outgrow companies, sometimes companiesoutgrow people. But I think it's that.

Sort of change inwhat you need out of the systems and everything. That dictates a lot ofthat.  

Julian:Yeah. What, what change came with Freestar that that kind of signaled you, thatit was the right time to, to come in and actually scale the different components,create some operational sophistication around them, or maturity, I guess.

Sure. W what wasthat signal when you saw, obviously you were a fan for a while and, and, whenwas the time to jump in? When, when did you felt, when did you feel like it wasready?  

Kurt: Ithink it was clear that there was product market fit. There was a need for whatwas happening right now.

I knew a number ofthe people inside the company cuz I used to work with them. So I had someinsights on where things were going well and where there was just opportunitiesto get a lot more efficient. Mm-hmm. I don't mean this as a slight, cuz it wasa startup and everybody was hustling, doing everything, but there wasn't a lotof process and procedure.

There was a focuson just engineering and building new things and a little bit of chasing shinyobjects, which you kind of need to do. At the outset, sometimes I, I guess Isaw an opportunity for us to really hone in on going to be the best at thething we could be the best at. I'm a big believer and companies should do that.

And only onceyou've done that, do you move one swim lane over? I've said it on manypodcasts, but I'll repeat that. Cause I think it's something that people make amistake of doing. They're. Get pretty good at one thing and then they see thisother thing that's five swim lanes over and they're like, well, I can do thattoo.

The moment you dothat, you're kind of bifurcating your company's time because some people aregonna like that product better than your existing product or whatever it is,and you're gonna split your time, energy, resources and probably hurt your corebusiness. So that was something that I saw. If we kind of narrow the offeringand go be really great.

Where we had foundwhere Freestar found a niche we could double down on that. I saw lack ofcustomer service really. I think it was 15 engineers and one account manager.Like that's not gonna work. Even in a tech business, the customer service sideof things really can help you win. And I would say it's a differentiator thatwe've had over the years as we've really provided white glove service and beena little more custom in our solutions than cookie cutter.

And so that was abit of the differentiation that I, it's easy to, in hindsight now that. Grownthe company five or six x or whatever it is. It's easy to say like, well, ofcourse I saw that back then. I probably didn't see it all back then. But yeah,just sort of got a little, little sniff of, okay, if we fix this, this and this,it feels like we could probably accelerate things.

And the company wasjust ready to put on. It's big boy, big girl pants and, and grow up a littlebit. And so it's just kind of the right time. And I did have a bit of a weirdbackground where I could help on the accounting side and the legal side and thesales side and had run a public company. And so kind of understood what it tookto get to that level of sophistication at some point.

Not that's wherewe're heading, but it just let me kind of flex all the different muscles I'vebuilt over the years.  


When you talkabout, kind of growing that customer service, department and, I guess componentof your business. How do you do that nowadays, when we, outsource a lot ofcustomer search service agents or add, numerous amount of automated tools tominimize the amount of work that one account manager has.

How are you able todo that as a company in today's age when there's so many options and there's,there's caveats to a lot of them, right? If you outsource, then there's somekind of, friction there and, and, and vice versa in other ways. Sure. How doyou, how do you make that decision?

Kurt: Ithink it's evolved over time in the almost five years I've been here for sure.We didn't have things automated. I think the important thing is to automate thethings that computers are really good at and that people continue to do thethings that people are really good at doing. And having that human touch wherethere's a relationship that's built over time is gonna help you get over thebumps in the road.

And there's alwaysbumps in the road. No computer can do that. And so I think it's figuring out.The mix of, we've automated this. Cause it's actually more efficient for youcustomer. Yeah. And you're getting better service as a result of it. But hey,I'm here for you whenever there's a one-off or we need to make somerecommendations on X, Y, Z, or there's a problem that you've identified that wecaused, or we've identified that you caused, or whatever that is, that's gonnatake that human element.

And so I think it'sfinding that that really, that mix of. What is best suited to do this? Is thisan automateable task or, or should it be automated because it's actually moreefficient? Or are we just trying to save some costs? And I think that's alwaysa balance and it's not always easy to figure out what the ROI is on customersuccess spend, but if you figure your retention rate goes up a little bit, asalways, it's a hell of a lot easier to keep your existing customers than go getnew ones.

And if you save onecustomer, it probably pays for that person over the course of the year.Extrapolate that out. So not afraid to throw some people at problems at times.It is obviously a balance of when you do that, but trying to automateeverything is not a good call. People still want a person on the other end ofthe line. They really do.  

Julian:Yeah. Yeah, and I mean, also I think more so than ever, even in today's,Climate when, when companies aren't thinking about scaling at all costs, it,it's thinking about creating, big sustainable sophisticated businesses who havemaybe even a human touching component to it and really focusing on customerretention and Yeah.

That, that touchesso many different parts of the business. And how as a founder do you make, Iguess, do you make sure that every. Part of the business, you're focusing onthat retention or that experience rather than, kind of building for what youthink is necessary.

How do you maintainthat, I guess, that consistent, intimate relationship with your customer while,while you continue to grow and, and things get larger?  

Kurt:Yeah, it's something that was just really woven into the fabric of our company.Literally our company name, Freestar, we do business, but our actual formalentity name is Publisher First, Inc.

And oh yeah, ournumber one sort of core value inside of the company is publisher first. And itis the idea partly because of our business model, but cuz we wouldn't want set outto do that. We sit on the same side of the table as the publisher. It's arevenue share model, so we really do only win when they win, but kind ofinstilling that from the outset that we put the publisher first in what we do,and if we kind of keep that in the back of our minds, we're going to be moresuccessful over time.

Yeah, from a moretactical standpoint, We're very transparent with the team. Net promoter scoreis something we focus on quite a bit, and we literally pipe it into our Slack.Every single net promoter score, good, bad, or ugly, goes straight into a Slackchannel so the entire company can read it from, the most entry level engineerto the cfo, to everybody in between is able to see that and feels it.

And there's a lotof. Commenting in that channel and we take it very seriously. So it's a pieceof that focusing on retention is a big thing, both in sort of logo retention,but then net revenue retention. We talk about that and are very transparentabout that with the company every month. So it's just kind of woven into whatwe do, how we think, how we make decisions, all of that stuff.

And it has beenfrom the outset. I was very lucky to come into the company with that sort ofmindset of publisher first being instilled. There were some things I was ableto probably help push forward a little bit on how do we double down on thecustomer success side to make sure we're living up to that.

But it was alreadypart of the ethos of the company, which. I was very lucky to see. Yeah, so it'sjust kind of everything you do, every interaction, the way you talk to yourinternal team, the way you talk externally, it kind of builds that flywheelaround that concept getting bigger and stronger and, and helping.

Julian:Yeah. Yeah.  

Describe tractionyou, you've seen up to this point. What's been exciting, since you've joinedthe company, up till now, and what's particularly exciting about what's on thenext frontier for Freestar.  

Kurt:Sure. So when I joined we were about 25 people and 35 million in revenue.

Now we're 200 andwell north of 200 in revenue. So it's been a pretty wild ride just from agrowth standpoint. And so that's been a lot of fun. It comes with itschallenges. I think there's an element of. Always pushing and setting highergoals, even if you know they're gonna be a stretch that keeps people hustlingand working a little harder.

And I think stayingappropriately unsatisfied is important and never getting complacent. Like wealways believe we can do better. And we end up saying at the beginning of everyyear when we kind of do the recaps, it feels like we're just getting startedevery year. Cause we see so much opportunity in front of us.

A big thing overthe course of the last. 12 to 18 months we've been focusing on is really ourdata science team and what they're doing on the machine learning side. It's notsort of as much ai, but really machine learning on how do we optimize everyauction so it tips the scale in favor of the publisher, and that is who are thebidders that we bring into the auction for every impression based on geoconnection type.

Device type, all ofthose things where, you know, a 3G connection in India is gonna be a differentauction than a 5G connection in Manhattan where you're sitting right nowbecause of the speed at which things load and can come back. And so we've done,yeah, some really interesting things there and have so much more to do on thatfront.

So I'm excitedabout that sort of. Technically, I also am sort of joking. We're in Freestar3.0 now as we've gotten to be a much bigger company and building thatadditional process, procedure, some more of those automations of things thatreally computers should be doing and not people is something we've beenspending a lot of time on.

And just sort offurther honing in on your exact target market and how do we create stickierrelationships with our partners by offering additional services. Again, notchasing shiny objects that are way off in the distance, but you know, we usedto only do desktop and mobile web, and now we do in-app monetization, and itused to be heavily display and now we've got full suites of video products andjust.

Doing those thingswe can help with email newsletters now and just kind of expanding thatconcentric circle of services that are around our client, I think is, isexciting as well. And making sure that we're as kind of one stop shop as we canbe for people. So, The future, right. Always does feel like we're just gettingstarted every time and you're like, God, that was broken, or the still isbroken.

I know we can dobetter. I know we can better, yeah. We keep doing that and then as you grow youeither find or create new problems and so it's this kind of very good cyclethat continues over time.  

Julian:Yeah. It's Amma. I think, focusing on the right things is, is so key. To, thatsuccess and, and it sounds like you, you and your team are, which is,  

how can youcontinue to deliver value to the customer?

How can youcontinue to allow them to monetize on the ads that they're promoting and, andcontinue to, to increase their ability to do that? Obviously I'm always excitedabout Rev, rev share models as I think they, they create this really I guessfair relationship between, company or service and, practitioner or actor.

How is that modelversus, taking a fee or taking, something up front? How do you think that hasboth? Been advantageous, but also, has its disadvantages when you're thinkingabout, scaling and, and growing your company and, and bringing on morecustomers.  

Kurt:So I always think if you can figure out in any business how you can positionyourself as a partner, not a vendor, it it's really beneficial and the factit's sort of upside down the way our model works, but we actually cut a checkto the people that we're trying to bring on as customers.

We're trying tofind new digital media publishers that wanna outsource this monetizationfunction to us versus them doing it themselves. I don't think we've touched onit yet. Most ads are sold in a realtime auction now, so in a matter ofmilliseconds, An auction is run to see who's willing to pay the most for youreyeballs at that moment.

Yeah. And itchanges over time based on your browsing history context of the page, whetheryou left something in a cart that you didn't check out on all of these things.So it's increasingly complex as privacy and a host of different things becomemore important and there's a, a bunch to this, so publishers are looking tooutsource this here more and more over time.

So it's been aninteresting sort of change as we've seen that. Market mature, I guess. Andthen, I'm sorry, here where, what was the specific question again? I was lost alittle bit in the train of thought there about the industry itself. No.Yeah,  

Yes. So the, thebeauty in that is these publishers are, should I do this in-house? Should I dothis out? I'll outsource this. And being on a rev share. They have some faiththat we're incentivized to make this better. Mm-hmm. And we cut our customers acheck. So it kind of flips that relationship where they're actually gettingsomething from us not having to pay it.

And that issomething that we've seen other folks in the ad tech space, even though they'reoffering services that increase revenue, the publishers actually collectingthat revenue and that has to pay. The person is a vendor. And even gettingapproval from finance departments to have to cut a check is really challengingat times versus cutting them a check.

So there's anelegance to that whole thing. And I really think it is sitting on the same sideof the table. So you're both incentivized to work with each other as partnersto grow revenue, to grow traffic, any of those things. Cause we both see upsidefrom it. So I think that alignment is great in terms of any downsides to it.

Obviously it doesfluctuate a bit from a forecasting standpoint. If a site, for instance, doessomething that hurts their s e o and their traffic goes way down, we feel thepain with them, much like we see the gain with them. If things go wellinvestors don't quite understand rev share models as much as SaaS, but once youshow them that the retention metrics are very SaaS like, yeah, and we canactually grow customers year over year and have done so consistently.

It actually. Can bea better model, but it's just less understood than the sort of repetitivenature of a SaaS fee.  

Julian:Right. Which was bizarre because if you think about, where's your, where do younot have a ceiling in terms of budget? Right? If, if you, if you. Charge withthe publishers, then you'll always be subject to what they're gonna be paid at,whatever marking condition they're gonna be paid at versus yeah, what arepeople willing to spend for, that, that space and then just splitting that.

And so then youjust, you get better as they get better. And so, and as they're able to capturemore and then you don't have to adapt as, as a company, which is awesome cuzthe publishers are adapting for you and you just handle all those servicesbehind, behind the scenes. It's, it, it, I mean, it's brilliant and I, and Ialways love to discuss those because, It's they're hard.

They're notscalable when you start building them out. But once the flywheel starts going,they really become really, really powerful machines. Hard, hard, hard to beimpacted by external, factors, which is what you want as a, as ceo. And thinkingabout just like,  

whether it'sexternal, internal, at this point in time, what do you view as some of the.

Biggest risk thatthe company faces today.  

Kurt: Ithink the world is just changing in terms of how people find and consumecontent. It's been interesting to see the shifts. Even from sort of desktop,mobile web to social in some ways over the years and then even in the lastyear, I heard a statistic the other day that Facebook and Twitter are sending60% less traffic to external websites than they were a year ago.

I think they arefocused on keeping things inside of their walled gardens even more than theyhave in the past. I think what happens with AI search is gonna be reallyinteresting here. So I think just following the trends of kind of. Websitetraffic and how people are consuming information is gonna be reallyinteresting.

There's a lot ofchanges in the privacy front. Third party cookies you may have heard of, sortof how people are tracked as they interact with websites. There's some changescoming there. It gets a lot of. Press ultimately we'll figure out solutions tothose things. So I'm not as worried. And then more from an internal standpointis how do we keep maintaining culture as we grow the business?

And we're a hundredpercent remote, which is somewhat unique in, in that we've done it very much bydesign versus defaulting into it during Covid. So we've been able to, I think.Be better about that than some, but anytime you go from 25 people to 200 andthen 200 to 300 to 500, you gotta manage that.

And how do you makesure everybody's still feels the same way and is acting the same way? I'mreally proud of how kind our team is, how hard working and passionate andreally willing to help each other, which we've managed to do as we've gone from25 to 200, but. We gotta keep that going as we grow.

Cause I think it'skind of a hallmark of our business and has allowed us to be successful in a lotof, in a lot of ways.  


If everything goeswell, what's the long term vision?  

Kurt: Idon't know. And it sounds like a non-answer. Both David, our founder and I, arewildly focused on really two things. It's building objectively great business.

It's veryprofitable. And after you do those two things, you can worry about the outcome,but the outcome will become clear when it's time for the outcome to happen. Wedo have private equity investors. They would had a co-founder that. Kinda leftthe business operationally when I came in and ultimately sort of left from a, asales standpoint at the end of 2020.

So, we've gotprivate equity investors that of course, would like a return at some point intime. And so I imagine we'll have an exit here in the next few years at somepoint. But what exactly that looks like, I don't know. And genuinely don't.Care. I want it to be wildly lucrative, of course, but it could take a numberof different shapes, whether it's another private equity firm or strategic as,I guess I alluded to earlier, I don't like the idea of two small publiccompanies, so, and IPO is probably a little ways out, but you know, you neverknow what's in the cards.

And we've beenacquisitive, we've bought three or four companies in the last few years and so,we're growing mainly organically, but have the ability to grow inorganicallytoo. And so always keep the door open for that of. Potential opportunities toget better through combinations as well.

Julian:Yeah, I always love this next section

I call my founder faq.

So I'm gonna hityou with some rapid fire questions and we'll see. We go. So, my first questionI always like to open it up with is, what's particularly hard about your jobday to day?  

Kurt: Ithink it just, it varies so much and the zooming in and out from 30,000 feetdown to 5,000 feet, back to 30,000.

I, I like to be inthe weeds and understand things, but specifically making sure that you'redelegating things are not your highest and best. Use, I think is just tough attimes. I think it is for anybody, but as I've, the team's gotten bigger and thelayers between myself and some of the more junior folks on the team aredifferent.

Making sure you'redelegating and setting up the process and everything so that it is reallyefficient, but we're still getting the message conveyed the same way versus agame of telephone I think can be challenging at times, but it is that kind ofup and down. And as c e o, you play therapist a lot.

Let's not lie, likea big chunk of it is the people management. And how do we get people moving inthe right direction and the whole, the whole company moving in the rightdirection, the exec team doing the right things, when we gotta restructuresomething or move one group from the other place. How do you make sure you geteverybody on board and bought into that?

So the therapistpart. Takes a lot of time, I would say.  

Julian:Yeah, yeah, yeah. You echo a lot of things that, that founders express, whichis, that the people and that emotional component that's so critical not only toto building your team, but even to yourself. And what are some ways as afounder that you would recommend to other founders that they should kind of,extract themselves from the business, recharge and, not be so, subject to, tothe, the ups and downs of, what goes on day to day.

Kurt:Yeah, I would certainly recommend organizations like Y P O or eo. I've been inYPO O for a couple years, and it's very nice to have the opportunity to have avery close group of your peers that you can be wildly open and honest about thechallenges that sort of you uniquely face, either as an entrepreneur or.

A ceo, it's just adifferent set of challenges. It's easy for people to be like, oh, those areeasy, that's not a big deal, whatever. But it is like we all have our differentstresses in life one way or the other. And having folks around you that are ina similar situation where you can be very honest about the challenges you'refacing, I think is wildly important.

You've also had thechance recently. I'm in the midst of it right now, to participate in this groupof 2025. CEOs doing this concert business leadership program that actuallycomes with an executive coach. It's the first time I've had a formal executive coach.Yeah. And I've gotta say, it's incredible.

It's kinda likebusiness therapy, I guess sticking with the therapy vein here, but it's really,it's really good to make you zoom out, look at yourself, and then hold yourselfaccountable to things. I was part of a different CEO group before I had joinedY P O. That was really interesting as well. So I would say figuring out ways tosurround yourself with folks that are going through similar challenges.

It makes you feelsane to some extent. Yeah. But the people have probably already been throughand solved a lot of the challenges you have, so you can kind of draft off ofwhat they've learned a little bit. So I would recommend finding a peer groupand potentially a coach as well.  

Julian:Yeah. What, what what group is the coaches like the Maari method? Is itsomething similar? I'm curious.  

Kurt: Idon't know the formal method actually. I, oh no, I'm sorry.  

Julian: II was wondering if it was a company. The ARI method is like, they famously dolike the Airbnb ceo, OpenAI they do coaching for, for CEOs.  

Kurt:Yeah, I, it is through this sort of holistic program. I was lucky enough to getsponsored to do so.

It wasn't somethingwhere I actually went and engaged the coach directly. I'm sure I could figureit out and we could drop it in the show notes or something like that. But Yeah,I don't know it off the top of my head. Probably should, huh?  

Julian:Yeah, yeah. No, it's all good. Being that,

one thing, I was researching your company thatI, I was curious would have an effect or if, you think about it a lot is justthe changes that Web three brings into advertisement.

And, and also, withthat privacy and those cooking, the information, being able as a, consumer toopt in and opt out in those different platforms. Do you think about how, theeffect of that has on your company or is it. Pretty far out that it, it won'thave an immediate effect, but you, you do think about it.

Where, where, whereis your thoughts about its impact on your company and your business?  

Kurt:I, I mean, it's always evolving and there's elements of it that get woven intoeven the more traditional models, as I mentioned, like AI search and ai contentcreation is an element of things. I guess true web three more metaverse style.

There isadvertising there. We have not yet gone to play there. I, I think we do need tosee what really unfolds in terms of usage. It seems very cool. I just, at leastanecdotally, have not seen the rush of people to it maybe as much as it getsheadlines, and that's just maybe the folks that I hang out with and talk to.

So maybe I'm, I'mnot a representative group here. There's definitely a play there. I think someof the things you're gonna see become more interesting as programmatic advertisinginto gaming. For instance, you're playing a, a racing game in the billboard. Upon the side of the track actually is being sold programmatically based on thatuser's history and all of those things.

I think that'spretty interesting. There's ways that into even tv, they can dynamically insertdifferent ads into the picture frame behind the actor. Like some of thosethings I think are pretty fascinating, the different formats the advertising isgonna take and adapt. So whether it's truly Web three Metaverse style thingsversus some different formats we're seeing, I think there's gonna be massivechanges that are.

Very interestingpresent opportunities. Even digital out of home advertising is getting, yeah, alot more impactful and prevalent as you see second screens on all sorts ofthings, whether it's, the gas pump or whatever it is. Bridge. Yeah. Moreopportunities to engage with people and try to figure out.

Obviously how toentice them one way or the other to support the local business, whatever thatis. I think it's gonna be an interesting time here as digital just becomesYeah. An even bigger part of our lives. It's hard to think, it could be more apart of our lives, but it, it is woven in, in just more ways every single day.

Julian:Yeah, I mean, I, I'm, not just because you're a guest on my show, but I amtruly impressed with how you've structured the, the business because it does,stated earlier, you don't have to adapt as much as, as the publishers and thatrelationship and, and their relationship with their audience adapts.

But you're probablythe, the biggest challenge is, is just staying up to date with the technologyand Yeah. How to track and how to continue to monetize and adding more featuresthat, focus on that value. And thinking about, what's been impactful in, in, inyour career, being a CEO now,  

what's been hawhat's had a lasting impact, whether it's a book or a person, what, what'ssomething that has, has had a lasting impact even today?

Kurt:Maybe cheesy, but I think my parents, both of them have had the attitude thatthey can sort of do anything their entire lives. Like my dad was a dentist, butwe also, he, he was building a house. My first job, I was a carpenter and wejust wired the entire house. Our ourself, like he, I dunno, he kind of knew howto be an electrician and so we just became electrician and like did that.

I ultimately workedfor an electrician for a while and wasn't an electrician, but the willingnessto just go do that or. Build anything, take on any challenge. My mom,similarly, has done a host of different things, entrepreneurial side of things,worked for different companies, run food banks, worked in sort of.

Equity investing ina host of different things. And so I think the willingness to just go tryanything and figure it out was something that was instilled in me at a youngage, which I was grateful for. And to this day, I believe curiosity is one ofthe best traits you can have at work where. You kinda go pull on that stringand you're like, oh, that's interesting, and you go dig in and just try tofigure it out.

I think it's gonnahelp anybody in their career. As a result, I've built, thankfully, a lot ofskills in a lot of different areas, whether it's working on, the corporatefinance side of things, managing a cap table to how do we motivate employeesand that side of things to building a budget to the technical elements of howdo we optimize serving ads.

I just. But luckyenough to get to dig in on all of them. And then it really came from justasking questions and finding people that were kind enough to give me answersand spend the time. But I always ask why. Like that annoying kid thing of like,well, why explain it to me? And if I ever ran into a brick wall of like, well,because we've always done it that way.

I was like, no,it's the wrong answer. We have to like dig in and figure out how do we make itmore efficient? All of those things. But just I guess all roots. Back tocuriosity, and that probably goes back to my childhood.  

Julian:Yeah. I love that. I, I know we could continue on this conversation for, forprobably two or three more episodes, but we're coming to the close here, and soI wanna make sure that we, we didn't leave anything on the table.

Is there anyquestion I didn't ask you that I should have? Anything that we left on thetable today?  

Kurt:Geez. No. I mean, I think we, we covered most of it.  

I would just doubledown on the fact that. Every business should really focus on taking care of itspeople and taking care of its customers, and the rest will kind of take care ofitself.

It's something thatgets lost here is the people side of things, particularly as we think about webthree and automation and all of that stuff. Like don't underestimate howimportant Yeah. People are in the long run because they are the ones that aregonna be there when there's a challenge and they'll, they'll get you over thehumps.

That's, I guess thelast thing I would, I would leave here is don't forget about your people.  


And Kurt lastlittle bit is where can we find you? Where can we be a fan? Give us yourTwitter, your LinkedIn. Where can we be a big supporter of you as a ceo?  

Kurt:Yeah, not huge on social media, but LinkedIn I think it's linkedin.com/kurtDonnel or something like that.

You can go find itthere. And then just restart.com if you've got a website and need some help,even if it's just a conversation about, what are traffic trends look like herein the future? How can I. Optimize that side of it. And of course themonetization side, we're happy to help. So look us up on Freestar.com and yeah,drop us a line.

Julian:Amazing. Kurt, it's been such a pleasure learning about your background andwhat's really driven your success all these years, but also, what's excitingabout Freestar, how you've built such an incredible business with, as a fan,but now as a CEO and, and really kind of thinking about, how to create asophisticated, really scalable company.

It's alwaysexciting, when, when your founders reach that point and CEOs get to that pointand the transitions that come along with that. So, Anyways, we covered a lot ofstuff here, but ultimately thank you for being on the show. I hope you enjoyedyourself today.  

Kurt:Absolutely, Julian. It was great, man. Appreciate you having me.  

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