In the Weeds: The Story of SharpNet Solutions, Celebrating 25 Years
Chris Sharp has shaped his digital marketing company from a blueprint of personal philosophy.
“I realized that everyone is here, at work, a third of their lives, and I don’t like the idea of having that much commitment without trying to have some fun element to it,” Sharp chuckled. “But with 50 different people, there are 50 different opinions of what fun is.”
Working at SharpNet Solutions, I can say there is a definitive but fine line between having fun and actually getting work done, but both feel equally important. That, I’ve been able to sense within a few months here, is a tribute to what Chris has built. But like most good things, the company he steps into each day was hardly preordained. It took more than two decades of risk, sacrifice, self-work, and grit—plus help from his family and growing staff—to make SharpNet the agency it is today.
The Charm of SharpNet
Driving north on U.S. Highway 287 into downtown Fort Collins, anyone can overlook the location of SharpNet Solutions. The century-old building blends right in with the whole charm and setting of Old Town, the city’s historic downtown that inspired the iconic Main Street, U.S.A., in Disneyland.
Chris and his wife, Amie, who has helped him run the company from the beginning, have a great appreciation for Colonial architecture. When the time came to look for office space, they were drawn to the stately columns and historic charm of the Darrah House, a landmark building right off Highway 287 at the southern edge of Old Town. According to the building’s website, the motto of its original owners, the eclectic Darrahs, was “We build the ladder by which we rise.” It’s a slogan that could easily be applied to Chris Sharp and the company that now calls the Darrah House home.
At the time the Sharps bought the Darrah House, SharpNet had only 16 employees, not enough to even fill one floor. To fill the entire house, they rented other office space. But as the company began to expand, the Sharps chose to not renew leases because they needed more space.
“We grew faster than we could acquire the remaining space in Darrah. When COVID hit, we had exponential growth. I felt like I was hiring for a year and a half,” he said, noting that he had to acquire another building in the process. “Once we finally get the whole of Darrah in November, we’ll be five years into it.”
“We build the ladder by which we rise.”
Older Than Google
It was a long road just to get to Darrah. Chris Sharp had always been a programmer, and graduated from the University of Idaho as a chemical engineer. He worked a brief stint for a minor company, and then was eventually recruited by Hewlett-Packard. But that tour of duty took a downturn.
HP started to lay people off, and many of Sharp’s co-workers were handed their walking papers.
“They were shutting [locations] down, and the people who got shut down at one location came to us, but they were there for only two months before they got laid off.”
Sharp had befriended a co-worker who was transferred from Corvallis, Oregon. The friend walked up to Chris one day with a box and said he had just been laid off, one day after closing on his new house.
Sharp gripped the arm of his office chair as he remembered his thoughts that day.
“He had been there only two months, found his house, bought it, closed it and signed the papers, and the next day got laid off. At that time I had my kids, and I just thought, I don’t want to be that guy, and so I decided to put my fate in my own hands.”
Sharp began taking classes in software engineering and started building the foundation of what is now SharpNet Solutions.
“That weekend I started to do my homework to figure out how to do the coding to build a website, and domains, and hosting, and all that stuff. And there really wasn’t any place to figure this out—no classes to take, no training.”
At that time, the internet was still dial-up. The main search engines were AltaVista, Lycos, WebCrawler, and Yahoo!. Algorithms and rankings were years away. But Sharp had impetus.
“I didn’t want to be going from place to place like other engineers were.”
And so, in the final week of September 1997, Chris Sharp outlined his business plan and set out to create the best white label marketing company on the World Wide Web.
“You can build an empire at the same time most people just watch TV.”
Making an Industry
In the beginning, it was long days, long weeks, and even longer nights, because Sharp still had his job at HP while he built his ladder to the future. He and Amie used to joke that his office hours were 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. He continued to work at HP for almost another year, but when he finally received from budding SharpNet 70% of his HP income, that was close enough to quitting his job.
“Plus I had the double paycheck at that time, so I had the cash flow to get me through.”
Once he launched his new marketing venture, he worked at home for seven months before finally moving into an office. At that time, the company had just one employee: Chris.
At the inception of SharpNet, there was no industry called digital marketing. No one knew what to call it when you were trying to get people’s attention online. Eventually, the world seemed to settle on “digital marketing,” but as the internet became a more significant part of society and more businesses went online, many tasks associated with digital marketing became simply part of “marketing.” Today, digital marketing is just the way marketing is done, as businesses of all sizes are using high-return investments like pay-per-click (PPC) advertising and search engine optimization (SEO) to drive growth.
Before all those acronyms, though, there was SharpNet Solutions and its helmsman, Chris, leading the pack when it all began to take off. Looking back from our all-digital present, it might be easy to see exactly where things were headed, but back in the late 90s, it wasn’t. Although Sharp knew he was on to something, he wasn’t entirely clear what that something was.
“It was one of those things where I knew the industry was going to go, and I also knew at that time, when I was 26 just barely 27…I had the stamina to work the full-time engineer job and do this at night. And there wasn’t any risk because I could do the work until it happened, and if it did fail, I would just remain that full-time engineer.
“I used to say to people, ‘You can build an empire at the same time most people just watch TV.’ I wasn’t watching TV, and I wasn’t golfing or doing the fun things because I was building a company on the side. I had no idea where this was going to go.”
The internet had begun to take off, and Sharp had the foresight to know it would continue, although he did not quite know exactly what that would look like. He recognized that businesses were being launched on the internet, and that commerce was beginning to happen there. GoTo.com became the first pay-per-placement search engine. Later the company changed its name to Overture and sold itself to Yahoo!, which was one of the first companies to develop and offer pay-per-click advertising.
“When I saw PPC go, I knew that meant there had to be advertisers, and if there were advertisers, people were paying to get themselves on the internet, and that meant there was money here.” Sharp said. “So I thought, Let’s create a marketing company.”
Originally, Sharp had the idea to create a website that “advertised things”—a platform on which he could sell ad space to local businesses. But an idea nagged at him.
“I didn’t want to go door to door and just sell advertising space for a website.”
Sharp wanted something much bigger, which meant he had to teach himself how to do search engine optimization. And while learning SEO, he had an epiphany.
“I realized that’s the service—SEO, not selling ad space,” he said. Because of the ads he saw on GoTo and Yahoo!, Sharp also got the idea to add PPC to his list of marketing services, along with building and hosting websites.
How long did this epiphany take to flourish?
“All of 10 minutes,” Sharp laughs. “That whole new vision of what SharpNet’s going to be, I had that vision all in one sudden moment.” That realization quickly transformed SharpNet Solutions into a marketing agency that uses a deep understanding of search engines to grow businesses rather than just selling ads on a single website.
The company’s locations in Fort Collins have ranged from Chris’s house in the early days to a mall-type office on Oak Street for four years. The fledgling company then moved back and forth between those two locales before the Sharps acquired the Darrah House.
“That whole new vision of what SharpNet’s going to be, I had that vision all in one sudden moment.”
Molding a Culture
As he brought on employees, Sharp had to learn another new set of skills—how to support a viable company atmosphere.
“The main thing is having mutual respect for one another, and enjoying that everyone has a great personality and a great work ethic,” Sharp said. “So you’re among people who don’t mind being around other people. We’re engaged in working together and with helping each other. If one person is struggling, then someone will help them.”
Building a culture of mutual respect and a willingness to help each other is one thing, but Sharp also recognized the importance of self-expression and having employees feel comfortable in their work environment.
“If they’re goofy and zany, they can be goofy and zany,” quipped Sharp. “If they’re serious and just want to concentrate on work, they can do that.”
Encouraged by Sharp, co-workers get together for beers after work, or to play Dungeons & Dragons in the basement, or play basketball or disc golf. Quiet Friday afternoons occasionally erupt into full-blown Nerf combat between the two Houses of SharpNet: The Darrah House and the Steele Building, separated by barely a block in downtown Fort Collins. And Sharp makes sure he’s part of all the cultural elements that make up the SharpNet environment.
“I wanted a culture where friendships can happen and an environment where folks could go nuts at Halloween to decorate their offices, to basically turn the place into a haunted house,” Sharp said. “We have a culture that stretches beyond just another work environment. We need to be efficient and we need to get our work done, but we do spend a third of our lives here, and I just want it to be bearable.”
“I wanted a culture where friendships can happen and an environment where folks could go nuts at Halloween to decorate their offices, to basically turn the place into a haunted house.”
“For me, one of the biggest changes is how the company has matured, from just me to a handful of people, and now to 50 people…” Sharp says. He pauses to reflect. “And what it takes to manage them. It’s really become a lot more about structure, planning, and leadership. That’s what I have to focus on now. Before, I was the boss and there wasn’t much structure to it. There’s now lots of structure and cohesiveness, and trying to accommodate the personalities of 50 different people, not just five or 10 people.”
He leans back in his chair, fingertips pressed together. “Delegation was the hardest thing. It wasn’t even learning how to do it; it was more just accepting it and letting things go. Even today, only recently did I give up doing reports, and then felt tremendous relief when I found out it was working. It was amazing. And now I’m bewildered that I didn’t do this five years ago.”
But as Sharp has learned to let go, he knows he still wants to be “in the weeds,” involved in the production side of things, because he doesn’t want to lose touch with the company’s everyday operations.
“If I don’t stay in the weeds, I don’t feel like I can effectively keep the culture going here, or understand workloads and have reasonable expectations. It’s easy to say on paper we’re falling behind and I need everyone to work with 15% more productivity. But what does that even mean?” he mused. “Does that mean everyone’s working 30 minutes longer, or working on Saturdays and Sundays? Keeping a foot on the production side of things, inside the weeds, I know what that means and I know its impact on lives, what has to be given up to do that. So, I think the culture that we’re trying to hit [is] having this be a place where overtime is extremely rare, where you go home and work is done—those things are lost if I pull myself out of the weeds.”
And with growth have come more weed patches to be in. In addition to the historic Darrah House, SharpNet now has another office in Fort Collins, barely a block away from Darrah, as well as a location in Challis, Idaho, that opened in 2019.
“We’ve had a family house in Challis since 1912; it was my great-great-grandmother’s,” Sharp said. “ I love the town, they needed jobs badly because it’s a poor, poor town, and I thought I could always fly up to Challis in the summer and work out of that office.”
Sharp raised his gaze wistfully toward the ceiling. “It hasn’t turned out that way, yet.”
“If I don’t stay in the weeds, I don’t feel like I can effectively keep the culture going here.”
Looking Toward the Future
Now that Sharp has created the company he wanted, he has plans. He wants SharpNet to become bigger, but in a certain way.
“I want us to become a better version of what we already are. I don’t have the ambition of selling the company or merging with another company, or pulling venture capital into the company, because that just pulls me back into that HP model that I ran away from—a big, over-bloated corporation…I don’t want to lose touch with people’s everyday lives, or have to make the decision that profits are down 15% so we need to lay off 15% of our people. I just want us to basically be what we are now. Let’s just go with the wind and become bigger and better. Just do what we’re doing and become a 75-employee or a 100-employee company. We can grow as big as we can, just so long as we don’t lose our soul. Take our model as far as we can collectively take it and still keep the character that we have; that’s all the bigger I want to get.”
Despite the three locations and additional space opening up in the Darrah House this fall, Sharp admits that soon it will be time to add more space.
“We always have our eyes on things,” Sharp said. “It’s just deciding when to pull the trigger.”
“I appreciate everyone who is on this journey with me, because for a long time, SharpNet has been a story of just one person; now it’s the story of us, not just the story of me. And as we progress, it becomes less and less my story. Five years from now, very little will be my story.”
While that may be true, the company still bears his name, and the ladder he built has helped not only himself, but many others rise. No doubt the Darrahs are looking down fondly on the house that Sharp built.