RIP Martin Schaedel: 1985–2009
The story of Martin Schaedel’s life is an extraordinary one. He learnt about SEO when he was 15; at 16, he had moved to London to work for a digital agency; by 17, his affiliate sites and consulting were providing him with enough cash-flow to be free; at 18, he began traveling the world full-time. He had no permanent address, flew dozens of times a year, advised hundreds of startups, and charmed thousands of people, many of whom called him a friend. Five years ago today, he died in a tragic airplane crash at the age of 23. Sadly, I first heard about him after he’d passed away and never had the chance to meet him. Over the last couple of months, I’ve been speaking to people who did know him—this is the story they told me.
Martin was born on October 15th, 1985 and raised in Lund, Sweden, by his father, Bertil, who’s an engineer at Tetrapak, and his mother, Charlotta, a doctor. Martin started playing soccer with the bigger boys early on, and consequently he was often injured. During his recuperation days he would keep himself entertained by spending time on the family’s home computer. It wasn’t long before he wanted to upgrade the machine with a better graphics card and larger hard drive. Instead of buying him the parts, Martin’s father encouraged him to learn a valuable skill so he could pay for them himself; his father was aware that the internet was a fast-growing phenomenon and that businesses would need to market themselves online so he nudged Martin in that direction. Martin soon figured out how to build websites that ranked well on Google and then Bertil “contacted companies to ask them if they wanted a homepage with a good position”.
Soon Martin had his first clients and began to get a taste for making money online. He gave these companies extremely favorable credit terms: “you can pay me when I need the money”; this, his father observed, was “very clever marketing”, and he started to get referrals. His appetite for information was insatiable; he scoured forums, chat rooms, and blogs for information on how Google’s algorithm worked. On Webmaster World, a forum where the early SEO community came together, he was known as LazerZubb. He became well-known for predicting the “Google Dance”—an update to Google’s ranking algorithm—and never told anyone how he knew that it was going to change. People started to take note:
He got a call from a headhunter about a job in London when he was 16. He didn’t know what to do so he called me and said: Dad, what should I do? I told him: they are calling you. Why don’t you do the reverse? Who do you want to work for?
Martin decided who he wanted to work for and got in touch with them. Then, on his father’s suggestion, he started searching for a place to rent in Holland Park, a beautiful part of London. He called his future landlord, Martin Marston, a London-based financier, about a room he was renting and said: “I’m coming in 2 days time. Don’t rent it. I will pay 10% more.”—even at 16, this was Martin’s way; he just contacted people and made things happen.
Martin was Mr. Marston’s tenant for several years and watched him transform from a young boy who was still figuring things out into a young businessman who was “streets ahead of people that had blank cheques to write”. Within six months of moving in, “piles of post” started arriving for Martin—cheques from affiliate networks, incorporation certificates, lawyer’s notices, invoices—his web-based businesses, which included a vacation website and online pharmacy, were starting to generate cash; he was doing it all “from a couple of laptops, mobile phone, and my internet connection”. Calum MacLeod, an early member of the SEO community, told me more about his abilities:
There was no way we could find out where Martin’s traffic came from. Our servers would almost fall over. The tech guys would think something had gone wrong.
He became a regular fixture at SEO meet-ups in London and around the world. Dave Naylor, a veteran SEO and long-time friend of Martin, remembers when they first met at PubCon, the conference for the WebMasterWorld community:
When he realised I wasn’t a mod, he didn’t want to know me. Martin was always keen to make influential friends. He wanted to meet people. People wanted to be around him. He had this aura around him.
This was a common theme when I spoke to people about Martin: he didn’t network in the normal way; instead, he was ruthlessly selective about who he wanted to befriend and charm. Soon enough, Dave and Martin were friends; on one occasion, Dave had just arrived at an SEO conference in San Jose and got a call from Martin at 2 AM: “Am I okay to sleep on your floor? So you can get me a free pass? Free bedroom?”—he expected a lot from his friends and in return he “was loyal – like no one else”.
He was obsessed with knowing the best and most-talented people in any field and he would do anything to meet them. Fred Wilson, a New York-based venture capitalist, remembered how he “talked his way into my office” and how “he always called on me” when he was in New York. Morten Lund, one of the early investors in Skype, has similar memories and described how Martin “just showed up at our office and said he wanted to hang out and find interesting business to do”. Morten took Martin under his wing and they ended up doing lots of work together. In his goodbye blog post, Morten describes how Martin “stepped into the biggest companies in the world—100% self confident”.
As Martin’s network expanded, he started to connect people who he thought should talk. His introductions were legendary; he raised money for startups, brokered large deals for media companies, and helped SEO experts land huge contracts. Sometimes he’d email two people with the word ‘TALK’ and other times he’d travel around the world to make sure an introduction went smoothly—he loved helping people who were making things happen. As Peter Kafka put it when he covered Martin’s passing in AllThingsD:
One of the most noteworthy things about Martin was the fact that he knew people everywhere.
His Flickr account tells the story of someone who loved to see new places, learn about new companies, and meet new people. Brett Tabke, the man behind PubCon, described one particular lunch meet on WebMasterWorld’s goodbye thread:
We walked around for about an hour looking for places to eat. I finally picked the place and we sat down. In the middle of lunch, this beautiful woman who was obviously a model, came up and gave Martin a hug and asked why he hadn’t called her in a long time. They chatted/flirted like old friends for a while and she was off. At the time I was surprised at how random that was to run into someone he knew in the middle of New York City; but that was Martin - he knew everyone.
Martin was always flying; as one friend put it, “he seemed to be constantly traveling and enjoying life”, sometimes taking two flights a day. In 2008 he tweeted:
End of the year stats: 93721 miles flown, 13 countries, 72 flight segments, an OK year travelwise
Magnus Alexandersson, who Martin approached for free hosting when he was 15 (but never met in person), said:
One time he called from London the next from New York then from Singapore. The strange thing was that he lived with friends that he met along the way. I would have thought that he would live in hotels, but I don’t think he did. He just lived the fantasy of others.
Martin crafted a persona that fascinated people. He lived the fantasy of others and let their imagination fill in the blanks. As Calum MacLeod put it:
People exaggerated about him. It was never him. If people wanted to do it he would just smirk. He certainly allowed and encouraged mythology.
His tweets capture his energy, passion for business, prodigious networking talent, and love of travel. As Om Malik put it in his tribute:
Disjointed as his words might have read, they encapsulated ideas that pushed the limits and were unconventional.
Here are some of my favorite messages:
- To say it was a good afterparty for the victorias secret show is certainly an understatement!!
- Rupert murdoch called and interupted my meeting….
- People could write a book about a day like this, board, embezlement, coldplay, victorias secret model all in 1 day…
- Justin T called saying he wanted meeting with a tiny biz i’m involved with, would be great to have him as spokes person!
- Only flown 55467 miles so far this year better step it up if i should continue the tradition of cracking 100k every year
- First time I have ever had a personal butler for a meeting, ha ha
- Sitting at investment bank in nyc, listening to 3 guys saying how warren buffett did a good deal for them, a bit surreal
- 10.000 miles in 7 days almost like good old days
- How does one avoid running from a problem,when there is quarter of a million frequent flier points waiting to be used?
- Met Lindsay Lohan yesterday, must suck being surrounded by people who say YES all the time, and always try and please u
- I love knowing people!
- Just got invited to Paris Hilton’s Birthday party :)
- My god I love fashion week! Third show of the day I’m attending :)
- I miss the summer, la. Buenos aires, shanghai, tokyo, sydney, hong kong, bangkok…
- Thinking about buying a round the world ticket, or two…
Money was never Martin’s primary motivation; it was an enabler, it gave him freedom. Martin seemed much more interested in helping others than amassing personal wealth, as Mr. Marston, his former landlord, put it:
A lot of people have a problem giving time to people. He’d be the guy to sit down and give you five or six hours of his time. He didn’t expect anything in return. He befriended people and then he made them feel important. He dealt with people of all ages.
The New York Observer described the accident that killed Martin in their obituary:
He went over to Santa Monica airport, where he planned to go for a ride in a red Italian stunt plane, with his friend, 46-year-old Paulo Emanuele, at the controls. As the single-engine Marchetti climbed during takeoff, the engine suddenly quit. The plane hit the tarmac and burst into flames.
Shakil Khan, a friend of Martin’s, summed him up:
Martin was a very smart young man with a maturity, world understanding and IQ far above most folks his age.
What would Martin be doing today? The responses I’ve heard include “serial entrepreneur”, “angel investor” and “venture capitalist”—everyone agrees he’d be doing something interesting. I think Rick Seaney, the CEO of FareCompare, who worked closely with Martin, put it best in his farewell blog post:
Truth be known, this international man of mystery – this teenage whiz kid – was just like so many other kids his age, trying find out where he fit in and struggling like so many of us do at the end of our college years, wondering what to do with our life.
Martin, you were taken from us way too early. Rest in peace my young friend. You will be missed.
My thanks to the Schaedel family, Martin Marston, Morten Lund, Calum MacLeod, Dave Naylor, Brett Tabke, Shakil Khan, Fred Wilson, Tim O’Shea, and Magnus Alexandersson for taking the time to talk to me about Martin.