Vegan Food, Education and Prison Maths: What the Ad Tech Founders Did Next

So you’ve found your space in the crowded ad tech market, built out a viable product, caught the eye of one of the big boys and completed a sale. What comes next?

Some founders are eager to dive right back into ad tech, looking for the next niche area poised for explosive growth. But others pack their bags, say their goodbyes, and head off for pastures new.

As niche as ad tech is, we’ve seen a number of founders who’ve managed to take what they’ve learned in our industry and build something completely new elsewhere. VAN caught up with a few of these founders to hear what life is like on the other side, and how they feel about the ad tech world now they’re looking in as outsiders.

Gilles Chetelat,

Gilles Chetelat helped found, an early pioneer in programmatic video trading, back in 2009. The French startup was acquired by Comcast-owned FreeWheel in 2016 in a deal reported to be worth more than $100 million, where Chetelat worked until late 2018. In March last year Chetelat founded Clind, an edtech startup which aims to counteract social media algorithms’ heavy influence on the media we consume..

What led you in this new direction?

Clind is a portmanteau of ‘clever’ and ‘mind’, and the idea is to create technology that can help any human being on earth to learn better and faster. Clind is a mobile app where you can upload your favourite content, and then share your knowledge with people who are close to you and who you share interests with.

On Clind you can write your short takeaways from articles you’ve read, videos you’ve watched and podcasts you’ve listened to, and you can come back to those later and share them with your friends. And I think that’s a new way of learning. On the web at the moment, you can find basically anything, but it’s very difficult to find what you need when you really want it.

I wanted to go into this space because I think we’re entering a new era of the internet. We have more and more content which is accessible for free, but it can be difficult to find what you need depending on your level of expertise and interest. And if you use Google or YouTube to find content, those platforms are based on the attention economy. It’s not necessarily in their interest to show you what you want straight away, it’s better for them to show you sponsored results, or content which isn’t exactly what you’re looking for, so that they keep your attention. They weren’t built as platforms for learning.

I’m really thankful for what I learned in ad tech. But I think the world of the attention economy, or the eyeballs economy as some advertisers might call it, is changing very quickly. Netflix’s recent documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ has exposed a lot of people to the problems with that system.

We created the first version of ad tech based on the idea that anyone can be a product, and that we provide things for free in exchange for their attention, but without them necessarily being aware of that or consenting to it. And now we’re entering a new era where we can change that.

Are there any similarities with the ad tech world in what you’re doing now, or any lessons from StickyADS you can apply at Clind?

There are definitely some similarities. When we started StickyADS back in 2009, the ad tech world was growing, and the tech giants weren’t as giant as they are today! That’s why we were able to carve out space for ourselves at StickyADS, becoming a strong European player in programmatic video. We were working in the right space at the right time, and that allowed us to grow.

So Clind is similar. China and the US are the world’s epicenters of education, but in Europe there’s a consensus that we can create our own thing and make an impact on education too. And we need to, because the way education works in the US or China might be different from what we want in Europe

So with education in Europe, as it was with programmatic video in 2009, there’s plenty of room to create something different.

In terms of starting the company, StickyADS was all about the business-to-business model. Clind is more focused on the consumer, so it’s very centred on customer experience. It’s more focused on transparency and ethics, and we’re trying to create technology which is a bit more human.

Do you still keep up to date with the ad tech space?

I spent almost ten years in that space, and made many friends who I’m very close to. So I’m still interested in what’s happening there, and my friends keep me up to date on what’s changing!

It seems to me it’s a very difficult world. It’s an area of the economy where everything is moving so fast. There’s still a lot of innovation, but it’s an area where one day you’re a king, and then six months later you’ve been almost wiped out.

Since I’ve left, I think there’s been increased dominance from the big platforms. And what we often forget about Google and Facebook is that they weren’t created based on a specific business model, they built scale and then advertising came later. They’ve been very successful obviously, but now we’re understanding that we’ve created something we can’t necessarily control very well.

I think there’s still room to do good things with advertising. People still need to buy products, to know what the best deals are and where they can buy products. But we’re becoming conscious now that individuals need to have more control over the ads they look at, and things like GDPR are good first steps in terms of tackling the impact of the ad economy.

Ad tech seems to be a very tough world to live in nowadays, so I look at my friends still in ad tech with a lot of admiration!

Sorosh Tavakoli, Videoplaza

Sorosh Tavakoli founded and ran video ad tech startup Videoplaza in 2008, and worked as CEO at the company until it was bought by Ooyala for an undisclosed fee in 2014. He continued on at Ooyala until leaving the industry in 2016. Now he runs Noquo Foods, a plant-based food startup he founded last year.

What led you in this new direction?

After selling the company and taking some time off, I wanted to start something new. But knowing how bloody hard it is to start and run a company, I knew it had to be something really meaningful for me to want to take on all of that work and responsibility!

The climate crisis is a very urgent and quite existential problem, so it was kind of a no brainer to try to build a business that could help in that fight. I looked at a number of different industries, like how to capture carbon from the air, and how to grow microalgae at scale. And that eventually led me towards the protein shift, and helping to facilitate the move towards plant-based diets. That led me to start Noquo Foods, and I’ve had to completely reeducate myself in the world of food!

Are there any similarities with the ad tech world, or any lessons from Videoplaza you can apply at Noquo?

At Videoplaza we started up at the beginning of a big shift in the industry, where people were talking about the old TV and the new TV, and that transition towards on-demand experiences had just started. And we wanted to help facilitate those new business models.

Noquo Foods is quite similar. Lots of people want to move towards a more plant-based diet, but there are limited good alternatives available at the moment. If you look at milk, a lot of people have shifted their consumption towards dairy-free products, but when you look at something like cheese, there aren’t really any viable options.

So that’s where we come in, we want to make products that are really tasty and nutritious, and eventually more affordable.

There are some big differences working in food. For a start, scaling a fresh food product, which is perishable, is very different from scaling software. And in terms of talent, there’s very limited talent in the world of food scientists versus software engineers. The barriers are definitely a lot higher to starting something in the world of food than in software, you can’t be nearly as fast.

But at the end of the day, in both worlds you’re a business which has customers that need to be kept happy. And things like building a team and raising money are fundamental to running a startup, and those are things I really know from Videoplaza.

Do you still keep up to date with the ad tech space?

I’ve been shockingly uninterested in it! I was done with it after I left the company, it had been my life for ten years, and there was so much else I’d ignored in that time.

I still have friends in the industry, and the perception I have is it’s the same as when I was there, that the big guys are still eating everyone’s lunch. Or even more so now! It’s a shame because the media and local media in particular play such an important part in society. And I worry that we’ll lose accountability for local politicians who are corrupt or make bad decisions. That’s quite problematic for democracy in general!

But when you’re in ad tech you don’t really think about those things so much, you’re thinking more about cookies and about Facebook!

I do keep up with a lot of the people who worked at Videoplaza, but I don’t follow what happened with Ooyala so much. It wasn’t a hard breakup at all, it was a nice handover!

Jack Smith, Vungle

Jack Smith is still relatively fresh out of the ad tech world, having sold mobile monetisation startup Vungle to Blackstone for $750 million just over a year ago. Since then, Smith has taken on a variety of advisory roles, and is working on several new charitable projects.

What led you in this new direction?

Once we’d completed the sale of Vungle, because it was such a big sum [a cool $750 million], it meant I was able to work on more impact-driven stuff, rather than trying to build a big company.

When I left Vungle, a lot of people asked me if I wanted to stay in advertising. But for my friends and I who started Vungle, we never set out to do something or advertising, and we didn’t even really know anything at all about advertising specifically!

We just started Vungle about a year after mobile apps were launched on iPhone, and by speaking to mobile app developers we heard their challengers around user acquisition and monetisation. And that’s how we ended up in advertising, not because that was always our dream space to work in.

So now that I’m able to, I’m focusing more on impact-driven work. At the moment I’m starting a charity which is still in its early stages. I’m filing the paperwork for that at the moment, so there’s not too much I can say on that one.

But there’s another nonprofit I’ve been working on called the Prison Mathematics Project, which was actually started by a guy in prison. He became very passionate about maths while in prison, and he’s started an organisation which is all about helping people in prison get better at maths. There are maths professors on the outside who are involved, and they cover pretty advanced mathematics.

I read about this guy and thought it was pretty cool – you hear about people running gangs inside prison, but it’s very inspiring to see someone who’s instead running maths classes inside prison! So I reached out and have helped him out with setting up his organisation.

Are there any similarities with the ad tech world, or any lessons from Vungle that you’re using in your various advisory roles?

The advertising industry is essentially a two-side marketplace. You’ve got publishers and advertisers, and it’s about balancing those two sides. That’s applicable in a lot of industries, it doesn’t matter if it’s publishers and advertisers in this market, or say drivers and passengers for a company like Uber, that dynamic is the same.

Just being the founder of a startup company in general is also fairly transferable. Learning about fundraising, creating pitch decks, dealing with the press, all those sorts of things are very similar for any startup, no matter which industry you’re in. And a lot about Vungle was not necessarily specific to advertising. And we saw ourselves as partners to app developers rather than as an advertising company.

That was actually one of the main things I learned from Vungle – how to do proper customer development. It helped me understand that rather than trying to pitch customers on what you think they need, you should ask them what their biggest challenges are in running their businesses.

Do you still keep up to date with the ad tech space?

I do keep up to date with it, I think it’s good to do when you’ve been working in the space for a while. I’ve done a bit of work through consulting sites like GLG, which match consultants up with investment banks to help them understand ad tech stocks and IPOs. And even though I’m not plugged into the day-to-day of it anymore, I think I do still have insights into that world!

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