After 12 years and endless fights with Google, start-up HubPages finds a buyer

Key Points
  • HubPages struggled for over a decade as an independent publisher.
  • The company raised $8 million between 2007 and 2008 but that was it.
  • Selling to Maven gives HubPages' investors a mild payout and allows employees to get stock in a publicly traded company.
HubPages CEO Paul Edmondson

Silicon Valley celebrates the massive exits and the brilliant entrepreneurs behind them. There's Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Snap's Evan Spiegel, Salesforce's Marc Benioff and Twitter's Evan Williams, just to name a few.

But the overwhelming majority of start-up founders are a lot more like Paul Edmondson than any of the aforementioned celebrities.

Edmondson poured 12 years of money, sweat and tears into HubPages. He raised $8 million from venture capitalists in the early days before hitting a wall — and then another wall — and then falling out of favor with tech's financiers.

On Friday morning, Edmondson finally got his exit. HubPages, a collection of websites that cover topics ranging from pets and cars to healthy living, was acquired by a Seattle-based content company named Maven, which has a market value below $70 million and a stock that trades over-the-counter (OTC).

Terms of the deal weren't fully disclosed, but the general structure calls for HubPages' investors to get $5 million and for company founders and employees to receive a combination of cash and shares that could be worth another $10 million to $15 million, based on performance metrics and stock appreciation over the next three years.

Existential threats

The story didn't get any pickup, not even from the reliable tech blogs. Edmondson called to tell me about the deal, not so much because he wanted a story, but because we've spoken many times in recent years about the deep existential challenges that companies like his face in a world where so much traffic comes from Google search.

Edmondson was excited because he'd found a home for himself and his 32 employees (including eight that start on Monday) and he's giving them a chance to own stock with potential upside.

"When you're trapped inside small private companies, you don't have a way for you or your employees to get liquid," Edmondson said. He added that he's been paying himself a "below-market salary."

Edmondson's team will double the size of Maven, which similarly operates a network of websites on topics from chocolate to economics. Both companies have been trying to build a business that can survive without reliance on Google and Facebook, which control about two-thirds of the U.S. digital ad market, according to eMarketer.

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HubPages attracts more than 35 million visitors a month through its 27 domains. Close to 70 percent of that traffic is now on mobile, Edmondson said.

The business has stabilized since 2016, when HubPages narrowed its focus to those 27 particular subjects and committed to obtaining premium content that could be edited by in-house professionals.

In previous years, HubPages' success was tied to Google and fluctuated based on whatever the web giant did with its search engine. For example, in May 2015, HubPages saw its traffic plunge 22 percent in one week after Google suddenly lowered the visibility of how-to sites. Like with most of Google's algorithm changes, there was no warning and no explanation.

"Imagine how hard it is to run a business when you see 22 percent of your traffic evaporate overnight," Edmondson told CNBC for a story about that change, which was dubbed "Phantom 2" by one analyst.

It was just the latest in a series of hits that HubPages had faced over the years. Building an independent online media company has mostly been a losing model, as ad dollars have concentrated in the hands of the giant internet and entertainment businesses.

HubPages was able to raise venture money in 2007 and 2008, and then never again.

Far from taking a breather, Edmondson is now likely to be working even harder. The company has performance targets it has to meet for him to maximize his pay, and he also wants to do what he can to help Maven's stock.

As an OTC company, Maven shares are highly volatile and thinly traded. After the announcement on Friday, the stock jumped as much as 32 percent to $2.57, before closing up 6.6 percent at $1.95.

Maven CEO James Heckman knows the internet ad and content market, having previously served as the chief media strategist at Yahoo and chief strategy officer at Fox Interactive Media. He said that Maven's goal is to build a publishing business that's not beholden to the Google-Facebook duopoly. That requires acquiring premium content sites with a technology platform that allows advertisers to promote across the network.

"Paul and I are aligned because we both agree that mom-and-pop or small publishers no longer have a sustainable business," Heckman said in an interview. "It's over."