- 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.
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.”
7 Cannabis Industry Millionaires Making It Big In The Marijuana Business
These entrepreneurs have capitalised on a new market set to continue to grow rapidly as more countries legalise marijuana across the world.
1. Brendan Kennedy
- Company: Tilray
- Website: https://www.tilray.com/
Brendan Kennedy worked on job sites as a carpenter to pay his way through university, with his eyes set firmly on becoming an architect, until the allure of Silicon Valley changed the course of his direction. While working at technology start-ups Kennedy began thinking about the possibilities that medical marijuana provided.
“I was really sceptical of medical cannabis,” he says. “It took a year of having conversations with patients and physicians and hearing the same story, repackaged but essentially the same, over and over and over again, where my scepticism eroded and I became a believer.”
In 2013, Kennedy and his partners applied for a licence from Health Canada and launched Lafitte Ventures, which was later renamed Tilray. Today, the company is a global leader in medical cannabis research, cultivation, processing and distribution.
Scaleup Learnings From Our Top Clients – What The Most Successful Entrepreneurs Do Right
So, how do our successful clients move through these constraints to scaling up? We see four key drivers of success, and they are: people, strategy, flawless execution and finance.
You’re out of your start-up boots, staff is increasing, your client base is growing, revenue is up and you’ve proven your case to the market. Now it’s time to scale up. The challenges of this vital growth phase are different and it’s a time that demands different mindsets and different actions. In a world littered with small business failures, it helps to be well-prepared for scaling up using a proven methodology. At Outsourced CFO, we get an inside look at the success factors of our clients who are mastering the transition.
On the one hand, scaling up is a really exciting phase; this is what moves you into real job creation and making an impactful contribution to economic growth. On the other hand, it is really hard to scale up successfully. We see three major constraints that limit companies’ transition from start-up to scale-up:
The business has to have the leadership that can take it to the next level. When you start scaling up, especially rapidly, the founders can no longer do everything themselves. The team must grow and include new leadership talent that can take charge and execute so that the founders are working on the business instead of in the business.
The processes, procedures, networks, systems and workflows of the business all need to be scalable. This is imperative when it comes to your infrastructure for the financial management of your business. You’re only ready for growth when your infrastructure can seamlessly keep pace.
Scaling up demands more innovative marketing and storytelling so that you can more easily connect and engage with the new employees, clients, network partners, investors and mentors that need to come along with you on your scale-up journey.
Businesses that build a market conversation and a compelling brand narrative during their start-up phase are better positioned to have this kind of market access when they need to scale up.
It is critical to have the right people on your team. Our successful entrepreneurs have what it takes to attract, inspire and retain top talent. A strong team of smart, ambitious and purpose-driven people who love the company and want to see it succeed contribute greatly to a world class company culture. They are adept at communicating a compelling vision and establishing core values that people can take on. These entrepreneurs are tuned into the aspirations of their people and focus on developing leaders in their teams who can in turn develop more leaders.
It is planning that ensures that the right things are happening at the right times. At successful scale-ups strategies and action plans are devised to ensure that the most important thing always remains the most important thing.
Strategy includes input from all team members and setting of good priorities for the short, medium and long term. Goals are clear and everyone always knows what they are working towards. The needle is continuously moved because 90-day action plans are implemented each quarter to achieve targets and goals that are over and above people doing their daily jobs.
Top entrepreneurs are not just focused on what operations need to achieve, but how the business operates. They have the right procedures, processes and tools in place so that everyone can deliver along the line on the company’s brand promise. Frequent, quick successive meetings ensure the rapid flow of effective communication. Problems are solved without drama. There is no chaos in the office environment. Everyone is empowered to execute flawlessly to an array of consistently happy clients.
Everyone knows that growth burns cash. A rapidly scaling business faces the challenge of needing a scalable financial infrastructure to keep the company healthy. Our successful entrepreneurs pay close attention to finance as the heartbeat of the business, ensuring that everything else functions. They look at the tech they are using for financial management and for the ways that their financial systems can be automated so that they can be brought rapidly to scale. The capital to grow is another vital finance issue.
The best way to finance a business is through paying clients on the shortest possible cash flow cycle. However, when you are scaling up and making heavier investments in the resources you need for growth, it is likely that you will need a workable plan for raising capital. Our scale-up clients know the value of accessing innovative financial management that provides high level services to drive their business growth.
Navigating the scale-up journey of a growing private company is one of the hardest but most rewarding of careers to pursue. Having people in your corner who have been through this journey before helps take a lot of pain out of the process. No growth journey looks the same, but there are tried and tested methods that will – if applied diligently – lead to definite success. Happy scaling!
That Time Jeff Bezos Was The Stupidest Person In The Room
Everyone can benefit from simple advice, no matter who they are.
When you think of Jeff Bezos, a lot of things probably come to your mind.
You likely think of Amazon.com, a company he founded more than twenty years ago, that’s completely disrupted retail and online commerce as we know it. You probably also think of his entrepreneurial genius. Or the immense wealth that he’s built for himself and others. You may also think of drones, Alexa and same-day delivery. Bezos is a visionary, an entrepreneur, a cutthroat competitor and a game changer. He’s unquestionably a very, very smart man. But sometimes, he can be…well…stupid, too.
Like that time back in 1995.
That was when Amazon was just a startup operating from a 2,000 square foot basement in Seattle. During that period, Bezos and most of the handful of employees working for him had other day jobs. They gathered in the office after hours to print and pack up the orders that their fast-growing bookselling site was receiving each day from around the world. It was tough, grueling work.
The company at the time, according to a speech Bezos gave, had no real organisation or distribution. Worse yet, the process of filling orders was physically demanding.
“We were packing on our hands and knees on a hard concrete floor,” Bezos recalled. “I said to the person next to me ‘this packing is killing me! My back hurts, it’s killing my knees’ and the person said ‘yeah, I know what you mean.'”
Bezos, our hero, the entrepreneurial genius, the CEO of a now 600,000-employee company that’s worth around a trillion dollars and one of the richest men in the world today then came up with what he thought was a brilliant idea. “You know what we need,” he said to the employee as they packed boxes together. “What we need is…kneepads!”
The employee (Nicholas Lovejoy, who worked at Amazon for three years before founding his own philanthropic organisation financed by the millions he made from the company’s stock) looked at Bezos like he was — in Bezos’ words — the “stupidest guy in the room.”
“What we need, Jeff,” Lovejoy said, “are a few packing tables.” Duh.
So the next day Bezos – after acknowledging Lovejoy’s brilliance – bought a few inexpensive packing tables. The result? An almost immediate doubling in productivity. In his speech, Bezos said that the story is just one of many examples how Amazon built its customer-centered service culture from the company’s very early days. Perhaps that’s true. Then again, it could mean something else.
It could mean that sometimes, just sometimes, those successful, smart, wealthy and powerful people may not be as brilliant as you may think. Nor do they always have the right answers. Sometimes, just sometimes, they may actually be the stupidest guy in the room. So keep that in mind the next time you’re doing business with an intimidating customer, supplier or partner who appears to know it all. You might be the one with the brilliant idea.
This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.
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