Walking into Native Commerce CEO Keren Kang’s office, at a South Austin space the company has occupied since September, is a study in contrasts.
The chairs that face her desk are adorned with comfy-looking white feather cushions and the office space leading to it is airy, open and sunlit. But you might have also noticed a large crossbow, knives and other hardcore survivalist gear inside and on the way to Kang’s office, as well as the front-and-center nameplate on her desk. It reads, “I’m CEO, BITCH.”
The arsenal is work-related: Native Commerce is part of a close-knit marketing empire that has been going through a major transition over the last year. It split off from SurvivalLife.com, an outdoor blog brand popular among preppers, and is now focusing on about 55 other internal brands in home and garden, DIY, health and beauty, as well as content marketing work it does for external clients.
“It was getting too much for one person to run,” said Kang, who is now overseeing the agency portion of a company with 200 content-creating employees globally and 30 in Native Commerce’s Austin offices. “It was kind of a nice reorganization, and it had to be done.”
It’s unusual for a marketing company to own its own stable of brands in addition to work it does for clients, but Native Commerce isn’t a typical marketing company. It began in 2013 as a testing lab for DigitalMarketer.com, a company founded by Perry Belcher and Ryan Deiss.
In early 2014, the company brought on Kang as a project manager. A year later, she was named CEO, taking the company’s revenue from a projected $10 million to $24 million in 2015. She had a knack for getting complex web projects done quickly, something she picked up in her 10 years working for console and mobile video game companies including True Games Interactive and her own startup, Digital Harmony Games.
“After game development, everything else is easy,” she said with a laugh. “That’s the most difficult thing to manage as a project than any other project out there. You have to think about details that you would never have to think about in any other scenario.”
Kang moved from Irvine, Calif., to Austin in 2010 to work in games, but by 2014, investments in the space were drying up and the transition from console games to an ultra-competitive, hits-driven mobile games market made it a volatile time to try to keep a startup creating small, quirky games afloat.
“My biggest reason for leaving the gaming space was certainly the timing and just wanting a little bit more stability,” she said.
Kang says she found that stability at Native Commerce, which takes a scientific, analytics-driven approach to figuring out what online content people want and how they want to consume it.
That includes social media posts, blogs, podcasts, infographics, and especially quick-hit videos, an area Kang says is essential for brands today. “You have to make videos. If you’re not making videos or making videos the right way, you will be overrun by the loudness of our videos,” she said.
While she said she believes anyone who thinks they can consistently predict what will go viral is “full of it,” there are ways to figure out why content does or doesn’t become popular, and to improve the chances that something will take off, Kang says.
“Every now and then, we’ll do a wildcard, but 80 percent of our time is spent making videos we know people are already interested in,” she said. That could be anything from makeup tutorials that educate and entertain in under two minutes, a video on 36 uses for paracord (parachute cord) for preppers, or one on how to make a resealable chip bag, a video which has to date attracted more than 38 million views on Facebook.
The company will often create a blog brand around a specific trending topic, fill it with easily digestible content, turn blog viewers into subscribers, concert those subscribers into an email list, and then begin direct-response marketing to that audience. (Remember all that survival gear? They’re products sold on the Survival Life store.)
It’s a lot of experimentation and study, and the field of content marketing itself is relatively new, but Kang says the results speak for themselves, especially in relation to how poorly many startups handle content meant to promote their brand.
“Entrepreneurs are very short-staffed and they struggle with their priorities. They’re focused on running a business and earning revenue, they’re kind of blogging as an afterthought in hopes that someone might find it,” she said. “It requires focus and a full team. We think it requires $365,000 a year to do it right.”
Kang’s job managing a large team of content creators working together has its roots in another big passion outside of work: video games. She’s still a gamer (current favorite title: “League of Legends”), and still keeps up with the gaming industry. She credits games with honing her ability to communicate clearly and effectively lead a global team.
“Back in the day, when I was in college, I had a boyfriend who broke up with me because I was playing too much ‘World of Warcraft,’ “ she said.
But the time invested in the game eventually paid off.
In the advanced levels of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game, “You had to get together anywhere from 40 to 50 people at the same time online from different time zone to execute a strategy. If you’re stepping one foot out of line, it could wipe out the whole team,” Kang said.
“I was the raid leader. I think that helps me even today. For me, it’s second nature.”