Matthew Wise: Hi this is Matthew Wise with FounderLY.com, we empower entrepreneurs to have a voice and share their story with the world enabling others to learn about building products and starting companies.
I’m really excited today because I’m with Alicia Navarro, founder of Skimlinks. Skimlinks is a free web service that recognizes product references in editorial and user-generated content turning these into unobtrusive shopping links helping website owners monetize their content in a seamless and easy way.
So with that said, we’d love for you to give our audience a brief bio.
Alicia Navarro: Sure. So my name’s Alicia, I am a strange hybrid of different nationalities. My parents are Spanish and Cuban. They immigrated to Australia where I was born in Sydney and they moved to London for four years then traveled around the world, then went back to Australia, then went back to London and I now live in San Francisco.
I started Skimlinks four years ago, although it’s gone through a lot of transitions in that time. Originally I set up the company in London and now have headquarters in San Francisco as well.
Matthew: What makes Skimlinks unique? Who is it for and why are you so passionate about it?
Alicia: So when we first started the company affiliate marketing was not a very well-known form of monetization. If you wanted to make money from your website generally you had the option of banner ads or sponsored links.
If you wanted to get into affiliate marketing it was just a massively manual time-consuming process. You would have to sign up for loads of different affiliate networks. You’d have to manually sign up for each merchant’s affiliate programs, you’d have to then manually create all those links yourself and your content, keep them maintained, do all the optimization yourself and then log into to loads of different interfaces in order to get your metrics.
What we wanted to do was make affiliate marketing a ubiquitous kind of mainstream revenue source for all types of publishers. And so what we wanted to do is make it a complete no-brainer, make it something that every website would do just as a matter of course. And we’ve succeeded in that.
In the background we’ve aggregated about 12,000 different merchants from around the world and we bring all the reporting into one place and all the payments into one place so it just becomes a monthly check that a publisher will earn that they don’t do any effort to achieve and that they wouldn’t have had before.
Matthew: Excellent. And so given your domain expertise, what are some of the technology and market trends that currently exist and where do you see things developing in the future for your space?
Alicia: I think that what’s been really exciting to see is that affiliate marketing has kind of gone from being a very peripheral, non-mainstream type of monetization to being something that a normal website now thinks about and does. We really even two years ago nobody really even knew what affiliate marketing was unless you did a kind of e-book store or, you know, resold other people’s cosmetics products, for example.
But now everyone really thinks about it and what we’re increasingly seeing are a lot of new types of websites being created with, right from the outset thinking that they’re going to monetize through affiliate marketing. That’s something that is a lot more common than it was a few years ago. I think there’s a lot of interesting developments in affiliate marketing as well. We’re seeing companies like eBay bringing in cost-per-click and a variable cost-per-click.
We’re seeing companies like TagMan and Convertro bring in technologies to do multi-extribution [sic], which means not just paying the most recent referrer, but splitting that commission across more than one referrer along the string of referrals.
I think that as it becomes more mainstream there’s going to be a lot more technologies that enter the market in order to make it both more lucrative, increase the yield and business models that will sit on top of it. Same kind of thing that we saw in the banner advertising space and the text ad space. I think now there’s going to be a wave of technical innovations in the affiliate marketing space.
Matthew: So we covered your background and an overview of your market, we’d like to dig into your story. Was there an ‘Aha!’ moment or did you did a bunch of research that led you to the opportunity? What’s the story behind how you conceived the idea to start Skimlinks?
Alicia: Yeah, it was quite interesting. So when I, at the very, very, very beginning what we started wasn’t even Skimlinks. What I originally started was a company called Skimbit because it skimmed the best bits of sites that you liked. It was a social decision making tool that helped people collaborate and make group decisions, like where they’re going to go for a holiday or what kind of sofa that they would buy with their partner.
I came up with that idea, strangely enough, during a Google job interview. I was in Australia and had been brought in for a job interview as a product manager. I’d gone through the whole series of interviews. I think it was interview number six. And then it was a day of intense interviews. One of the kind of crazy questions they just throw at you is, ‘Come up with a product idea and say how you would market it.’
So I’m there thinking and I remembered this idea that I’d had two years ago which I’d kind of written a quick business plan two years previously but had never done anything with because the technology didn’t exist at the time to make that idea work. There was no business model at the time that would be relevant.
In that moment in the Google job interview it all kind of clicked and I was like oh but Ajax technologies would now enable that and there’s a [??] model in affiliate marketing that would work. So in that moment I was like, ‘Oh.’
So I just started talking and had this, and started talking about this business idea that I had conceived of but now kind of understood. And as I’m talking I’m thinking to myself, ‘I don’t want this Google job interview. I want to do this business.’ And thankfully I screwed up the next interview and I didn’t get the job but the next day I went and registered the company and Skimbit was born.
So I did that for a year in Sydney while working full time. I hired a team of developers in Romania and just worked nights and weekends to kind of build the first prototype. Then a year on I’m kind of stuck. I’m in Sydney, there’s no start-up scene, what do I do?
So I did what any self-respecting Australian does and went backpacking. So I just went backpacking for six weeks and sought a revelation. And it came in the form of a lunch in London when my friend gave me the idea to turn it into a white label business and gave me my first client.
So I’m on vacation, I’m in shorts and flip flops and I have to borrow my friend’s business suit, I have to do a Power Point presentation, I have to call up my team in Romania to help me build a prototype in two days and I had to pretend that I actually live in London rather than backpacking around the world.
But I did it. I walked into this presentation with a big wedding publisher and just winged it. I pretended I’d already built the application, I pretended I lived in the UK and at the end of it they signed me up for a year’s contract.
The money that they paid was enough to build the product from scratch and to sustain me for several months. So I went back to Australia, quit my job, sold my car, sold all my furniture, gave up my apartment, said goodbye to my parents, dealt with my mother’s guilt, said goodbye to my friends, built the specification and built the product from scratch and moved back to London in the space of one month.
Matthew: Wow, that’s an incredible story.
Alicia: And then moved back to London and spent a year trying to raise funding for this version of the business which was like a white labelled version of a social bookmarking site. And during that time we realized that affiliate marketing was a really powerful way to monetize this type of user-generated content. So we built this auto-affiliatization [sic] technology, initially for ourselves and then the recession hit.
And I still hadn’t gotten funding, we still hadn’t had that breakthrough with this white label social bookmarking function. So I had my ‘Aha!’ moment at ten o’clock at night on a Friday when I called up randomly, I cold called this forum in the U.K. and I said, ‘I have an idea. We’ve got this monetization technology. If we make that available for you, would you use it?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I would. I’ve been thinking about that for some time.’
So I called up my CTO at ten o’clock at night and I said, his name’s Kieran, I said, ‘Keiran, I have an idea. I think we should dump everything else we’ve built to date and just commercialize this one little monetization technology and see how it goes.’ And he was like, ‘Yep, I think that’s a great idea. Let’s do it.’
So he worked day and night to get it ready for a stand-alone productization [sic] and I went and pitched it to every publisher I knew in the U.K. Signed up three clients in the next two weeks and got funding a week after that. So that’s how Skimlinks was born. That was in 2008 and from them on it’s just been really exciting.
We get to innovate every day. It’s a really new space with very few players in it and so the opportunity to create something really new and really innovative and really listen to clients about what they need, what powers them, what they need, what their community needs is a really exciting process because I’m a product manager by background.
So it’s been great and we’ve went from one very basic monetization technology to a whole family of different types of products, different types of customizations, different APIs, different widgets to suit a whole breadth of different types of publishers all with the goal of helping them make the money that they deserve for their content.
Because that content creates a purchase intent and they’re driving people to make purchases on other sites. So what we just want to do is reward those publishers for the role that their content plays in creating that purchase intent.
And that’s Skimlinks.