(Photo by Juliana Reyes)
The Brand.com office was quiet.
Located toward the end of a narrow hallway on the seventh floor of the Curtis Center’s east wing, its big glass doors were locked. The lights were off. All that was left was a big white “B” cut out of a blue square — the company’s former logo — affixed to a white wall overlooking the receptionist’s desk.
Behind the receptionist’s desk stood an orange superhero, with his fists on his hips and a shit-eating grin on his face. He wore a maroon cape around his chiseled shoulders and a belted pair of underpants to match. The logo on his chest, which bulged steroidally, read “RC.” Reputation Changer. That was Brand.com’s former identity.
But what had happened to Brand.com was unclear. Where did everyone go? We were there to find out.
Let’s start at the spring of 2013.
The future was looking bright for the online reputation management company, which made a splash by nabbing the Brand.com domain from MakerBot VP Chuck Pettis for, reportedly, $500,000. It announced that it was rebranding from Reputation Changer to Brand.com and moving from West Chester into Center City. Its success was built on charging $7,500 or more to clean up a company’s online reputation.
That fall, Mayor Nutter cut the ribbon on the 7,000-square-foot office, celebrating the company moving 120 staffers into the city and its expected growth of 100 more that year alone. The company boasted perks like a chair masseuse and a personal trainer, both of which would come in a few times a week.
Now, the company appears to have shuttered its Philadelphia operations. Its once-prized domain is now for sale, according to to DomainNameWire.com.
President and COO Mike Zammuto left the company in November. He’s now president of Chaikin Analytics. When reached for comment, Zammuto wrote at length about his excitement about joining Chaikin Analytics and how Philly’s finance-technology community is promising. “I think FinTech is going to be the big thing for a while,” he wrote in an email.
He declined to elaborate on the circumstances surrounding his departure from Brand.com, citing a separation agreement.
The company lost 70 staffers in 2014 through layoffs and turnover, a former staffer who asked not to be named told us. Another former exec, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the staff had shrunk to 60 when he left last fall.
No one who still works at Brand.com (at least according to their LinkedIn profile) has returned our messages, the company’s phone numbers have been disconnected and all the emails we’ve sent to Brand.com email addresses have bounced. The company opened a small New York City office in late 2014, said one former sales staffer, but it’s not clear if it’s still open.
Brand.com’s website is still up, however. A lawyer representing Brand.com contacted us after he got word that we were working on a story. He agreed to take questions via email but did not respond to them.
Amid the radio silence from Brand.com reps, we found these clues about the company’s sudden disappearance.
Brand.com left its office in the historic Curtis Center at 601 Walnut Street and did not leave a forwarding address, a receptionist for Keystone Property Group, which manages the Curtis Center, told us. A staffer from Locks Law Firm, which has an office across from Brand.com, said that the company had been gone since January. Keystone Property Group leasing manager Scott Paymer declined to share details on the company’s lease, though a source familiar with the terms who asked not to be named said it was a five-year lease.
It turns out that Brand.com had another office space, too: a 4,500-square-foot space in the nearby Public Ledger building in Old City, for which Brand.com signed a five-year lease in the spring of 2013, months before the flashy Curtis Center ribbon cutting, according to the source familiar with the deal. It was a sales office, said the former sales staffer who asked not to be named. Brand.com was looking into subleasing this office last fall, according to the source familiar with the deal.
A few months later, in December, Brand.com reached out to realtor-to-Philly-founders Dan Gummel, inquiring about office space at the Bourse in Old City, which had recently been public about its mission to attract startups. One week later, a Brand.com staffer told Gummel the company was likely going to move all its staffers into the Public Ledger building office, Gummel told us.
Brand.com did not get any tax incentives to move to the city, said the Commerce Department’s Luke Butler. The company was eligible for job creation tax credits, but Butler said the city could not disclose if those credits were used, citing state and local laws.
What’s more mysterious is that Brand.com appeared to be on some sort of upswing or transformation.
In November, the company got a new CEO: Dave Armon, the New York City-based former COO of PR Newswire. That news came with the launch of a “groundbreaking platform” for content marketing, plus the announced addition of Rendell to the company’s advisory board. (The only other mention of the Rendell news was this article in Metro US, which appears to have been commissioned by Brand.com. “Reporter was commissioned to write this in-depth article,” is the only disclosure.)
Armon’s hiring pointed to Brand.com’s new direction: less online reputation management, more content marketing.
See, Brand.com had been quietly running another arm of the business called News Headquarters since mid-2013, at least according to the company’s Twitter. They landed a flashy three-letter domain for that one, too: nhq.com. News Headquarters billed itself as a service for publishers and PR firms to “commission reporter-written articles.” Its tagline? “Journalism redefined.” (Editor’s note: Could this have been one?)
Why the switch? One exec who spoke on the condition of anonymity said it was because last spring, Google got more aggressive on SEO tactics and that made the SEO and reputation management business harder. Strategies the company had previously used stopped working. Clients were getting angry and demanding their money back. (Most notably, according to an Ars Technica report, a Seattle public utility demanded a $17,500 refund last summer after Brand.com’s services failed to work for its CEO.)
So the company pivoted.
It looked more and more like a “large-scale PR firm,” the anonymous exec said, and it seemed more sustainable than relying on Google and its finicky algorithms.
But it wasn’t without consequences. The company had to downsize.
One former staffer said of the circumstances in late 2014: “Everything was tanking. People were leaving. Morale was really low.” Still, he doesn’t regret the experience, he said.
The sales staffer who asked not to be named also remembered his Brand.com days fondly. He wrote in a LinkedIn message:
Brand was exciting and fast paced – very dot.com in the early 2000’s feel – lots of high energy. Work hard, play hard philosophy. We cranked techno music on the sales floor – and it was a really exciting company. We always had snacks or energy drinks handy – and it was not a 9-5 job, it was work as long as you wanted job because every additional hour you worked could mean more money for you and for the company.
We spoke briefly with News Headquarters Vice President Myles Fuchs last fall, when we called about Brand.com’s Google penalties. Fuchs did not respond to our recent requests for comment about the changes at the company.
This past January, we were in touch with Armon and Chief Operating Officer and Chief Content Officer Jonathan Cooper to set up a meeting to hear the latest about the company’s new direction. But the day before our scheduled meeting, Armon said he had to be in New York City and canceled.
Plans never came together for another meeting and the next time we checked, just four months after he had joined the company, Armon appears to have left Brand.com. The company is no longer listed on his LinkedIn. He’s now the Chief Marketing Officer of a New York City media company called 3BL Media.
Cooper, a former Digital First Media VP who worked at Brand.com for seven months, left the company in January. He’s now working in media consulting and also founded a craft beer card game, according to his LinkedIn. Armon and Cooper did not respond to requests for comment.
Several Brand.com sales execs (they had many) also departed, including VP of Sales Jay Steffey (now at Cint), VP of Sales Strategy Steve Driben (now at Comverge) and Senior VP of Sales Chuck Evans (now at IBM). Brand.com Chief Technology Officer Kinkar Saha, who appeared to have worked remotely from India, left the company in November after almost four years in the role. Ron Gamble, the company’s creative director of two-plus years, also left last summer. None of them responded to a request for comment.
Strange occurrences seemed to follow Brand.com around, including the time the online reputation manager had to do damage control on its own online presence after a series of alleged cyber-attacks got the company penalized on Google. Or the time when former COO Zammuto was the victim of an alleged $500,000 Bitcoin extortion scheme, where the blackmailers “threatened to smear the reputation of Zammuto and his company.”
Even cofounder Rich Gorman doesn’t know what’s going on with the company. Gorman, who said he founded the company with Justin Singletary and one other man he declined to name, said he stepped away from the business in 2013 after the Bitcoin extortion scheme “spooked” him.
“I lost my enthusiasm for the business at that point in time,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday night.
His understanding is that Brand.com was undergoing a “reorganization” but that he didn’t know anything past that.
Two staffers we spoke with said that Gorman was still involved and would come to the office in 2014, though Gorman maintained that this was not the case. Singletary, on the other hand, was hardly ever around, the staffers said. Singletary did not respond to a request for comment via LinkedIn.
Gorman admits to past issues that have dogged him online since. When asked, he said that those issues had nothing to do with the founding of Brand.com. He declined to discuss his other business ventures, though he and Singletary appear to have another company together: the Savannah, Ga.-based fulfillment center business Fulfillment.com. (Singletary lists himself as a “managing member” of Fulfillment.com, while a 2014 Arizona court filing associates Gorman with the company.)
So what now? The exec who asked to remain anonymous said the last he heard, the company was entertaining acquisition deals. Meanwhile, some Brand.com customers are still waiting for justice, so to speak.
“He really pulled a fast one on everyone, including Mayor Nutter,” said disgruntled customer and local entrepreneur Anthony DiMeo, who points the finger at Brand.com’s former COO Zammuto. DiMeo, who says he paid the company $3,000 for online marketing, said the company stopped answering his calls in February.-30-
Philly’s tech industry added 8,000 new jobs since 2013
These Philadelphia tech companies will make waves in 2019: Technical.ly realLIST
Amazon’s new headquarters won’t be in Philly. Here’s what we did win (and lose)
How this Vistar Media software engineer succeeds on an ‘inclusive team’
Can city government use the tech community to lift Philadelphians out of poverty?
Behind Brennan’s ouster at OIT: a longstanding culture rift, and alleged sexism
These are Philly’s top 20 startups: realLIST 2018
Learn to lead digital transformation at Phorum 2019
Sign-up for daily news updates from Technical.ly Philadelphia