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Once-promising digital marketing agency closes core business

November 17, 2016

Relevance Inc., a digital marketing agency that grew at a breakneck pace in the 2000s, has closed its flagship business and laid off most of its workforce, one of its co-founders told IBJ Thursday.

The company, formerly known as Slingshot SEO, once employed more than 100 people but that count dwindled to nine full-time employees and a handful of part-time workers, most of whom were let go Tuesday, co-founder Jeremy Dearringer said. At one point, the company leased more than 7,000 square feet on the fifth floor in Allen Plaza downtown, according to real estate records, but recently moved out and intends to sub-lease that space.

Relevance's core business was an agency that helped corporate clients build and track a digital presence, offering services including search-engine optimization, pay-per-click, content promotion and analytics. That operation has closed.

It also ran a revenue-generating, online publication that covers the content marketing and promotion industry. That business will continue operating with one full-time employee and two part-time employees, who will work remotely.

Dearringer co-founded the company in late 2006, served as chief research officer and spent about a year as CEO until February 2014, when he left to start another business. The most recent CEO, Marty Muse, declined to comment and referred interview requests to Dearringer.

Dearringer spoke with IBJ via phone, but he also released a statement from Relevance offering a slight glimpse into the decision to mothball a business that grew from zero to $11 million in revenue just five years after launching.

"In November of 2016 the original founders and board of Relevance, Inc., formerly, Slingshot SEO, made the decision to greatly reduce expenses on the agency side of the business," the statement said.

"This was a difficult decision for the board and our CEO, Marty Muse, who was more than willing to take the agency business forward into what was forecasted to be a difficult end-of-year customer renewal cycle. The board is now going to focus efforts on growing the other side of the business, which is Relevance.com ... ."

Dearringer has not been intimately involved in the business lately but is a small stakeholder and an advisor. He said revenues on the agency side have stagnated, and that the company's "passion" appears to have shifted away from the agency and toward the publication.

He also said trends in the digital marketing industry probably did more harm than good to Relevance, which billed itself as a one-stop shop.

"I think companies are less loyal to their agencies than they used to be historically," he said.

Slingshot was incorporated in 2007 and it primarily helped businesses improve their search-result rankings with search-engine optimization, or SEO, services. Revenue skyrocketed 700 percent between 2009 and 2011 without any outside funding, and headcount swelled to 100 people from 18 over that span.

But in 2011, the company underwent a major culture shift that seemed to linger over the following years, Dearringer said. Until that point, its founders had fostered a transparent, easy-going environment, but that changed when the company entered a months-long process of selling itself for $60 million.

The executives couldn't be as free and open about sharing information, including the fact that they were engaged in a sale. The suitor, a public company that Dearringer declined to name, was so overbearing that "it was hurting our culture." So about eight months in the process Slingshot essentially told the suitor to close the deal now or never.

The suitor chose never.

Slingshot laid off about 15 people in summer 2012 and saw a CEO depart before Dearringer took the helm. It changed its name to DigitalRelevance in 2013 to reflect its broader services beyond SEO, but it couldn't quite return to the growth and jubilation of yesteryear. 

"To have the skills as a leader, to be able to bring an entire company who's used to the expectations of ... 1,500 percent year over year growth," he said. "To make them feel special and excited and get them that same adrenaline rush across the board, that vibe, that feeling is difficult to bring back when you go through a tough patch.

"And that 2011, 2012, 2013-ish time was that tough patch."

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