@ EconAffinity: Scott Kurnit: If You Have My Attention, You Will Make Money

This story was written by David Kaplan.
The problems and potential of display advertising and what's the best exit strategy were some of the areas explored by Scott Kurnit, one of the founders of About.com and now Chairman, Kurnit Inc., in a Q&A with Staci D. Kramer, EVP and Co-Editor of paidContent parent ContentNext at the company's EconAffinity conference. As an ideal, the best kind of exit generally involves a company that doesn't need one. "It would be great to be able to pay investors dividends for 20-, 30 years," he said. (MashLogic announced Monday it had raised $500,000 from several high-profile investors, including Kurnit).

As for About.com, Kurnit is particularly proud that the online guide, which is now owned by the New York Times Co. (NYSE: NYT), has managed to survive three owners and five CEOs. Kurnit is also on a new About.com advisory board, which is fairly atypical considering how long he has been removed from its daily operations. "I'm involved in it because I love it. It has the kind of sustainability that it will be here in 20 years. With search engines becoming more popular, it's about articles and traffic, as opposed to being about a destination. For example, Sphere, which [Kurnit invested in and] was sold to AOL (NYSE: TWX), we didn't care if anyone ever came to our web page. We were completely distributed with our widget and that was fine." More after the jump

That sentiment seemed to contradict Kurnit's earlier stated aversion to doing anything that would send readers away from a site that he was behind. But if you can hold on to readers as they go elsewhere, such as with a widget, that makes it different. "About.com in the early days sent the traffic to government sites for things like weights and measures. And as a result, we lost their attention. But take something like Twitter. The minute Twitter wants to make money, they're a go. If you have my attention, you will make money. And they have attention."

The ad sales problem: "Historically, we had 750 sites. That went down during the last downturn but it's back up at that level now. We quickly realized we couldn't have a sales force to sell against all those sites. We developed a vertical ad system similar to Google's AdSense. You can't steal business processes, but you can steal ideas all day long. Anyway, that vertical ad selling ability worked but it's not perfect, especially for display. The display sales are tougher, because you need to go to so many categories. You need more automation and we'll eventually get there."

By David Kaplan