SIPA Member Profile: Nicholas Follows Lighthouse to Smooth Sailing

Don Nicholas, CEO, Mequoda Group, Hopkinton, Mass.

What was your first job out of college and how did you get into this business?
I was 27 when I graduated from college. As my sons, Scott and Ryan, like to say, I was on the 10-year plan. I had gone back to school full-time two years earlier, after spending four years in the Navy and about four years in publishing and marketing. Once I did graduate, I did what all my friends were doing in 1983 and started a software company. Lighthouse Software created and supported a financial forecasting system for magazine and newsletter publishers. Within five years, ours was the number one product in the industry. With more than 800 clients, I made a lot of relationships that have lasted my entire career.

Has there been a defining moment in your career? Perhaps when you knew you were on the right road.
After coding and testing the first version of the Lighthouse Publishing Model, I went to San Francisco to see my mentor, John Klingel. I asked John if he thought my new software program could be the core of a successful service business. He told me he did and offered to be chairman of Lighthouse Software, if I decided to go through with the launch. I spent the afternoon sitting on the clips that overlook the Golden Gate Bridge trying to decide what to do. Until that time, I had always thought of myself as a writer, editor and publisher. On that day, I decided to become a consultant and launch Lighthouse Software.

In brief, describe your business/company?
Mequoda Group teaches organizations how to start and leverage digital content marketing systems. In 2011, Kim Mateus and I will lead about 50 private and public training programs around the world. I also do one-on-one coaching and consulting with about 25 organizations, and our support staff will back me up with everything from analytics and copywriting, to system development and data center management. Our clients create content on topics that range from crafting and cooking to investing and management. We also produce a free daily email newsletter about digital content marketing, which helps satisfy my personal need to write and publish.

What are two or three important concepts or rules that have helped you to succeed in business?
My number one business rule is to do what you love. When I was still in high school, my dad told me to not worry about making money and to focus on doing something I love to do. “If you’re good at it,” my dad told me, “you’ll do just fine.” It took me a while to discover that learning and teaching is what I do best, and what I love to do. Once I figured that out, I’ve been a pretty happy guy.

What is the single-most successful thing that your company is doing now?
A couple of years back, we started morphing our Mequoda Summit from a digital content marketing introductory program into a more advanced symposium for our more experienced clients. We now run the program twice a year, and I think it is the most interesting thing we do. Facilitating direct communication between our clients is incredibly rewarding for me on every level. We’ve created a common terminology around digital content marketing. The system construct comes to life at this kind of peer-to-peer networking event. This is driving both technical and operational improvements in performance to all our client systems, faster than anything else we do. It’s really quite amazing.

Do you see a trend or path that you have to lock onto as we look to 2012?
Over the past few months, it’s become clear to me that Twitter marketing and Facebook marketing will rival email marketing in terms of pure revenue generation, much sooner than we had originally thought. It’s much easier to build a huge list of fans and followers than email subscribers. Our recent Digital Native Study makes it clear that people under 30 are much more willing to follow brands they trust on Facebook and Twitter. They reserve email for the brands they are most passionate about. So, email will always have a higher yield per relationship, but savvy brands will have at least 10 times more people following them on social media channels than via email. Building and monetizing social media relationships is the new, new thing for 2012.

What are the key benefits of SIPA membership for you and your team?
SIPA is home for us. I’ve been a member since 1985. SIPA publishers are the most entrepreneurial media people I know. They were among the first to experiment with and adopt digital content marketing back in the late 1990s. The members are among the best and brightest our industry has to offer. It’s a genuine privilege to hang out with guys like Phil Ash, Bob Brady, Ed Coburn and so many others. I think someone once said, if you want to be a top performer, hang out with top performers.

Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Sacramento, California.

What college did you attend? Is there a moment from that time that stands out?
I went to a lot of different colleges and schools, both civilian and military. While I was in Enable Nuclear Power School, I remember the first time I took a reactor critical, like it was yesterday. Since then, I’ve driven a lot of different powerful machines on land and water. The experience driving most of them doesn’t come close to the feeling of power you get from driving the reactor for a nuclear powered submarine.

Are you married? Do you have children?
I met my wife Gail back in 1984 when she was running direct marketing for International Data Group. She was the client and I was a consultant. Today, she runs direct marketing for the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. She is still the client, and I’m still the consultant. Apparently, some things were meant to be. Gail and I have two fantastic sons, and my daughter, Michelle, has already presented me with three terrific grandchildren.

What is your favorite hobby and how did it develop in your life?
I have loved boating since I was a kid in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where my parents had a cabin on Donner Lake. This year, Gail and I purchased a 34-foot Gemini catamaran, and named her Blue Bell. We keep the boat in Boston Harbor, which allows us to reach as far south as Block Island, and as far north as the Maine coast. I am happiest on the open water under full sail, with a boat full of good friends and family. Life does not get any better than that for me.

Is there a book you recently read or movie you saw that you would recommend?
Free: The Future of a Radical Price is the book that has stuck with me the most over the past couple of years. I keep going back to reference it, reread it and quote it to students, colleagues and friends. Chris Anderson is a great writer and thinker who has the ability to put the chaos that surrounds us into useful constructs and context. The lessons it contains and implications for the future of media and marketing are deep and far-reaching. For fun, I just finished rereading all of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels. It took me about 18 months, and was my little way of noting the passing of my favorite author.

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As Don said, “[SIPA] members are among the
best and brightest our industry has to offer.
It’s a genuine privilege to hang out with [them].”

That privilege will come in just over two weeks at
SIPA’s 28th Annual Marketing Conference
in Miami Beach, Dec. 7-9.

There’s still time for you to join in!
Check the agenda and sign up now!

Download a FREE copy of 7 Ways to Monetize your Portal Audience, and discover how today's top publishers are generating revenue through memberships, events, clubs, sponsorships, and more.

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