- Players: Gil Sperling, Daniel Levy, Ryan Silberman
- Company: Popimedia
- Established: 2007
- Visit: popimedia.com and www.meedee8.com
“’What is Facebook?’ This was a question that often came up during the early days of Popimedia. Ad agencies didn’t know anything about it,” says company CEO Daniel Levy. “We even started putting a slide into our presentations just to give people a basic understanding of what Facebook was.”
Eight or nine years ago — a veritable eternity in technological terms – the whole ‘Facebook thing’ hadn’t quite caught on yet. Sure, people had created profiles on the platform — they were sharing pictures, stalking exes and sending each other Facebook Gifts (remember those?), but the site hadn’t become the digital leviathan it is today.
Today, Facebook is deeply embedded into our global culture, with more than a billion people using the site every day. Back then, though, things were very different.
Interestingly, South Africans were eager adopters of the platform, with the country quickly showing a very high number of users relative to its size. But what you couldn’t find on Facebook, were brands.
This wasn’t a purely South African phenomenon. For a long time, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was very reticent about allowing brands onto the platform. This would obviously change, but change would be slow.
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Yet, even before Facebook had decided to take the plunge, Popimedia had found a way to post interaction with a brand in a Facebook news feed. The hacker amongst the trio of founders, Gil Sperling, had found a way during the Dark Ages of 2007 to cobble a few lines of code together that would allow this.
Fast-forward to 2016, and Popimedia boasts a cutting-edge ad-tech platform and a long list of blue-chip clients. Moreover, the company has recently been acquired by advertising juggernaut Publicis — making it the first ad-tech company to ever be purchased by a traditional ad network.
How did the founders of Popimedia accomplish this? And what lessons did they learn along the way?
Find your niche
“We had some great early successes,” says company COO Ryan Silberman. “So, we were pretty impressed with ourselves. However, when we went looking for funding, everyone turned us down. No one wanted to invest.”
Why didn’t VCs want to invest, despite the fact that the Popimedia team had clearly struck upon a very promising concept?
“Someone who we approached for funding eventually levelled with us and explained that we were too scattered. At that time, we hadn’t really defined who we were and what we did. We had all sorts of interests — from magazine distribution to vehicle wrapping,” says Levy. “We were hedging our bets, not truly committing to anything.”
The Popimedia team realised that they needed to find focus. They were throwing the net wide. Instead, they needed to focus and refine their business model. Growth would lie not in expanding their interests, but instead by focusing on what they did best.
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Bootstrap your way to success
Popimedia is a tech company that created a great piece of software, grew quickly, and was then sold to a large company. So, at first glance, it seems like a perfect local example of the sort of Silicon Valley start-up that’s often lauded by the likes of Y Combinator and TechCrunch.
But the founders of Popimedia warn against buying into fables of angel investors, gargantuan valuations and bullish venture capitalists.
“I often go to California on business, and I’m always amazed by the start-up culture there,” says Sperling. “The focus is purely on software and coding, not on running a viable business. The aim is to build something quickly that can be sold at a huge profit.”
According to the Popimedia founders, this isn’t a model that can easily be transplanted to South Africa.
“We don’t have the culture of VCs and angel investors and huge valuations that you see in Silicon Valley. Building a company with the sole aim of selling it as quickly as you can doesn’t work as easily here. You need to find a viable business model and usually bootstrap quite a lot,” says Levy.
Popimedia’s meedee8 — a social platform for agencies and brands — is the engine that has driven a lot of the company’s success. In the early days, it was very simple, but today it is a powerful tool that allows clients to manage social media campaigns easily and track results reliably.
“When I conceived of the new and improved platform, I initially thought it would cost loads of money to develop. By working hard, however, I realised we could develop it with the limited resources that we had. I worked with our developers, juggling projects and freeing up time that could be used to work on the project. It wasn’t easy, but we managed to create the platform with the relatively small team that we had. It showed us what you can do when you don’t just throw money at a problem,” says Sperling.
What has made the platform so successful?
“When it came to ad tech, a lot of our competitors were charging a massive fee for their services, meaning that clients received very little for their money,” says Silberman. “A lot of agencies and brands didn’t really understand the technology, which made it easy to take advantage of them. Our platform provided value. Clients were suddenly getting a lot more for a R100 000 spend, which meant that the platform was very enticing.”
But it wasn’t just the value on offer that made meedee8 so attractive. Right from the start, Popimedia knew how to demonstrate that value in terms that would impress clients.
“We realised that clients love graphs and shiny dashboards. Right from the start, we created an interface that would excite clients. A cleverly-designed dashboard allows a client to get a real understanding of the impact a campaign is having,” says Sperling. “Offering real value is obviously important, but it is equally important to demonstrate that value in terms that are easily understood.”
Hire slow, fire fast
With success came growth, and before long, Popimedia needed to start hiring more staff. As three founders who had spent most of their time developing a platform and bootstrapping a business, functioning as managers was new to them. Hiring competent staff turned out to be particularly tricky, with many of their hires ending in disaster.
“We grew too quickly and hired the wrong people,” says Levy. “We hired young people who had no experience and couldn’t be relied upon. We suddenly had a team of 40, but they weren’t being terribly productive.”
Learning from their mistakes, the founders started being more selective in who they hired.
“We took more time when interviewing and hiring someone, and started focusing on people who had good track records at reputable institutions,” says Silberman. “We became very selective in who we would allow into the company.”
They also started thinning the herd. “Today, we have a team of 35, yet our turnover has grown 10-fold,” says Levy. “The difference is, everyone who’s working here now is making a real impact — everyone is adding real value.”
An added benefit of being highly selective during the hiring process is that it has created a self-policing system. “Our staff is very protective of the culture that’s been created here, which means that they are quick to weed out the people who don’t fit in. We rarely need to fire anyone these days.”
Hiring the right staff has been one part of the battle, empowering them to do their best has been the other. Like many founders, the owners of Popimedia were reluctant to let go of the reins and adopt a more hands-off approach.
“Staff can’t be truly productive and add real value if you don’t empower them to do so. At some stage, you need to stop trying to do everything yourself and allow your staff to take over,” says Silberman.
“Even if someone can’t do something precisely as well as you can, you need to let go,” adds Sperling. “If they can do it 80% as well as you can, that’s good enough.”
“Your staff will surprise you,” says Levy. “If you place your trust in them, they will rise to the challenge.”