The rise and fall of RushmoreDrive

In a Qcitymetro exclusive, Johnny Taylor talks about walking away from the Internet company he helped create.

Johnny Taylor, founder and former CEO of the now-defunct RushmoreDrive.com, says he has no regrets.

Taking the company from concept to reality was an incredible ride, he says. And although RushmoreDrive was shut down in June, Taylor says the experience has left him wiser — and in greater demand professionally.

When RushmoreDrive was launched in April 2008, it was hailed as the next big thing in Internet search companies. Owned by Barry Diller’s IAC Corp. in New York and based in Charlotte, the Web site was designed to give blacks searching for information on the Internet a Google-plus experience — all the information they’d find in a Google search, plus content that was highly relevant to a black audience.

It was Taylor, IAC’s chief human resources officer at the time, who went to Diller with the vision for RushmoreDrive. Operating under a unit called Black Web Enterprises (BWE), which Taylor headed, it was to be the first of many IAC-owned affinity search engines. But on June 12, after months of rumors and speculation, RushmoreDrive went dark.

In his first interview since the Web site folded, Taylor, 40, currently living in the Lake Wylie area, sat down with Qcitymetro.com to talk about what happened. What follows is a transcript of that interview, edited for brevity and clarity:

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When RushmoreDrive was announced, it caused quite a buzz. What was that like?
I tell you, we had everyone from the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, international media, everyone. First of all, we had kept it a secret. We didn’t tell a soul what we were doing. When we announced in April 2007 that we were building this business, we didn’t tell them what the name of it was. We didn’t tell them what it was, in part because we didn’t know what it was going to be. We had a really close-knit group of people working on it, and we called it Project Black. So when we did this unveiling in New York, everyone was shocked. They thought we were going to create another black news, sports-entertainment, celebrity-news site, or they thought it was going to be another dating site, because really that’s all the black community had seen. So this thing of search just took everyone by surprise, and it was just written about everywhere.

And for you, personally?
“I gotta tell you, it was the most gratifying experience, in part because I’m not a technology guy. So when you hear people say you can do anything if you put your mind to it, to me this was a realization of that fact. To take a trained lawyer, converted to an HR guy, who now is running a technology company, that was a little deep, even for me. And it was fun to see it come together, to take this concept that had been given to me by no one — this was something I had thought of – and to bring it from conception to product.

So, what went wrong?
Nothing. Nothing went wrong with the business. We had, in a year, become a top-five black site, top-five new site period. Numbers were phenomenal. We had 600,000 uniques in our first year. We had just shy of two million searches a month. We were syndicating the business and it was beginning to generate revenue. So nothing went wrong according to our plan. What happened was IAC began to change its focus. Anyone can see that IAC was nearly a $7 billion company seven months ago. Now it is a $1.6 billion company. It sold the Home Shopping Network. Nothing wrong with Home Shopping Network. It sold LendingTree. It sold TicketMaster. I shouldn’t say sold; it spun off all these businesses and began, as it uses the term, to “rationalize” all of its businesses. It sold the European operations of Match.com after Match.com had its best quarter ever. So the direction of the company changed from what was going to be a huge interactive conglomerate to something that was far smaller and more focused, and I’m not sure what the ultimate endgame is, and we were in the middle of that.

Is it true that a potential buyer emerged?
Yes, I went to Barry and said I’d like to go find us a home. It made sense when it was 65 brands for us to be housed at IAC, but now that it’s a much smaller company we needed to be somewhere else. So I went to the market to find a buyer in what is an ugly economic environment. And we found someone. We found a company, publicly traded. And this is where it gets interesting. You ask me what went wrong. What went wrong is we had a buyer and IAC would not close the deal with this buyer. And that’s as simple as it is. And when that decision was made — I’m a believer that one has to manage one’s career and not the other way — when I decided in my own mind that we were not going to be in an environment where (RushmoreDrive) was going to be very successful, then I was not going to spend my time pursuing something that wasn’t. So I decided then that I was going to do something else.

Can you tell us anything about the potential buyer?
We signed an NDA ( Nondisclosure agreement), so technically I can’t disclose the name, but I will say to you that if you go online that information is out there.

Why do you think IAC refused to close the deal? Was the offer too low?
I don’t know. I really do not know, because at least in my opinion it was a fair deal.

Had they been able to close the deal, would you have wanted to stay?
Oh, yes, and that was part of the deal. My entire management team.

That must have been hard for you? This was, after all, your baby.
When I get my head wrapped around something — I hate to analogize this and probably shouldn’t, but I will — once I emotionally disengage from something, it really doesn’t mater to me what happens to it. That’s just real. Maybe from my lawyering days, but when the case is won or lost it’s done, I have to go on to the next one. And that literally is what happened. I don’t spend a lot of time, and have never spent a lot of time in my life, in the past. When something happens, it happens for a reason and I move forward. And so literally the day that I came in and talked with my team — I said ‘Guys, the deal was not accepted by IAC.’ — I was in that office by 11:30 and I met with my team at about 12 and I was gone at 12:30, literally, and I haven’t gone back, haven’t thought back, haven’t done anything. I made the decision the Friday before and really prayed on it over the weekend, and after I left church Sunday morning, I went to the office and cleared my office out to make sure that I really was going to do this.

Had you already told IAC officials of your decision to leave?
Yes. I’m pretty open and transparent about these things. I had said, ‘We have a deal. God hopes you all take it, because if you don’t, that’s OK, but I’m not going to do this anymore.’ It was that simple.

Did they ask you to stay?
No. Not at all.

Were you interested in staying?
No. Not even close.

How long had you been there?
Since October 2005, so three and a half years.

What was the big lesson from that experience?
(Long pause) I guess I’d have to think about that. I didn’t have a big ah-ha lesson from this. Life is, I don’t mean to get philosophical, but it’s kind of iterative. I had more fun in these last two years, taking something from concept to market. I learned a lot. I learned how to run a P&L (profit and loss analysis), how to create a marketing plan. I learned a lot about our black community as well and how to get messages to the community, if it’s a faith-based community versus a youth community. All of that. I learned a lot about technology. I tell you, I would not redo it. I wouldn’t undo this or somehow regret doing it. I had the best experience. And it is the result of those experiences now that I’m far more marketable than I was two years ago, and I was already pretty darn marketable. The headhunters call once a week, and that was always the case. But before, it was if you had a chief administrative officer position or an HR position or a top legal job my name would be on that list. Now it’s on businesses. Now people who are investing are calling me up saying ‘ You’re an ideas guy.’

So you have no regrets?
A really good friend of mine, to whom I absolutely would bear my soul, said, ‘Tell me how this makes you feel.’ The Monday I left, I was on cloud nine. If I were angry about something, I would tell you. If I were disappointed about something, I would tell you. Would it have been nice if RushmoreDrive and BWE became the vision of four or five identity search businesses, yeah, maybe. But it didn’t, and there’s a reason why the deal wasn’t accepted, and I’m fine with that. There’s really nothing to take personally, in the sense that I’m an executive with a contract. So, I collect a paycheck everyday, just like I did a month ago. It wasn’t a situation where someone fired me or they decided I don’t want to do this or this was a bad idea. Someone asked me, ‘So, how is your relationship with Barry?’ It’s fine, and if I come up with another idea that I think I want him to invest in, I’d have no problem writing him, calling him, saying ‘Hey, I’ve got this new thing. What do you think about this?’

What would you do different next time?
What I would do is, in my next deal — and there will be one — I’ll spend more time being very very clear about how we get out of this thing. How we’re going to get out, when we’re going to get out, and on what terms are we going to get out, on the front end.

So, what now for you?
I don’t know. I’ve had major companies call me about senior HR roles. I’ve had major organizations call about going back to being a general counsel. I’m going to New York to meet with two groups who are trying to get me to run Internet businesses. They want me to start them. They have concepts. I want to explore. My natural inclination is — I have worked since I was 12, no exaggeration — my inclination would be to jump and go to another job. I’m in no rush because I’m not gong back to work until at least Labor Day. I’m taking the summer off if it kills me.

Editor’s Note: Taylor has an entertainment law practice and is active on the speakers circuit. He recently co-authored a book, “The Trouble with HR,” which is scheduled for release in August.

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