Matthew: Hi, this is Matthew Wise with FounderLY. We empower entrepreneurs to have a voice and share their story with the world, enabling others to learn about building products and starting companies. It’s with great pleasure that I’m here today with Oliver Roup. Oliver is the founder and CEO of VigLink. VigLink is unintrusive content monetization for publishers. With that said, Oliver, we’d love for you to give our audience a brief bio.
Oliver: Absolutely. I’m Canadian, I grew up in Toronto and was definitely one of those kids who was into computers from birth. I always had a hard time with handwriting and was typing essays on a Commodore 64 in first grade.
I went to MIT undergrad. I knew that was where I wanted to go and was a developer, and actually was here in San Francisco for the first boom. I worked as an engineer for a startup called Echo Networks which was sort of the Pandora of its day. I spent four years at Microsoft. I went to business school but I knew I always wanted to start a company at some point.
Matthew: What makes VigLink unique? Who is it for and why are you so passionate about it?
Oliver: To start with who it’s for, VigLink is content monetization for publishers. It’s unintrusive. The experiment that I did to start the company was I wrote a crawler to go look around the web and count links to Amazon and just count how many were enrolled in the affiliate program. If you don’t know, the affiliate program is what gets you paid for sending traffic to merchants. The interesting answer was less than 50% were enrolled. People were already going to all the trouble of sticking links to Amazon in their content and they weren’t adding ten bytes to the URL that would have gotten them paid.
We wrote a java script library that publishers put in their page that identifies outbound links, not just to Amazon but to any of 2,000 merchants, and automatically monetizes them. We now also use clever tricks to maximize that payment using middle parties. We can also insert links into the content if the publisher wants.
So that’s the ‘who is it for and what does it do’. What makes it unique? We have a unique focus on really great analytics. The downstream impact of what people do after they read your content is really useful. We can tell you what products they’re buying and what they’re shopping for, and publishers generally find that really interesting.
Probably our canonical publishers are forums and communities. A lot of those conversations are off the forum, “I have $1000 in my hand and I’m thinking about product A or product B. What do you guys think?” Conversation ensues. That stuff ranks really well on Google and a lot of downstream purchases are made as a result of that conversation. We help the publisher monetize it totally and seamlessly.
It’s not just forums, though. Content sites, product blogs, even link shorteners and email systems and IM systems. Anywhere where links are flying around, those links can be monetized.
Matthew: 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?
Oliver: I think the macro trend that’s helping us is that the fight for pixels onscreen in a zero-sum game. As the advertising grows the content shrinks, and you really have reached a point of diminishing returns where the advertising can’t get any bigger or the content goes away. Google actually just announced yesterday that they’re punishing publishers who have too much ad space and not enough content space.
Also, yield optimization has done a great job of driving up revenue for the ad space but that’s also at diminishing returns. If you want incremental revenue from your content you really have to start thinking about the content itself. Companies like Vibrant and Kontera have been around for a decade or more, but they really appeal to a certain kind of publisher that doesn’t mind this very intrusive ad unit popping up in the content. We take a much less intrusive approach. Basically, they’re selling a display ad unit and we’re selling a click.
Matthew: What inspired you to start VigLink? How did you come across the idea and how did you discover the opportunity?
Oliver: I was in business school and I was really looking for a business to start. One of the big lessons for me is I think a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs think, “I’ll go start a company when I have an idea.” and I think it almost never works that way. People decide they want to start a company and they go find something interesting. Usually that’s not the thing that actually is interesting but it’s the first step.
I talked to a lot of different people. One conversation I had with a mentor of mine, Neil Robertson, and somehow we used the phrase ‘bitly plus Commission Junction’. The original idea was an affiliating link shortener. Then as I was thinking about it, I realized that the links aren’t really in link shorteners but are on pages. I came up with the idea of a java script library and wrote this crawler, as I mentioned, to go find links and affiliate them. I really just plunged in. I had probably 100 ideas that I considered and I shot holes in all of them. This was the one that I couldn’t shoot any obvious holes in so it seemed like the one to go with.
Matthew: You’re the sole cofounder, but I imagine there’s an interesting story behind that. How did that work out and what’s that experience been like for you?
Oliver: I was a little older at business school. I started at 32 which was unusually older and so I was looking for someone, but I think a mistake that is often made in business school is people hire themselves as their cofounder. Their cofounder also went to Dartmouth and did private equity, and they sat next to each other.
I was looking for someone and actually did at one point offer someone to be my cofounder. It didn’t work out with her just for reasons that happen sometimes. That left me a little upset, so I thought I can do this myself, and I did it on my own. I would definitely recommend against that. The cap table looks different with one founder.
I think the disadvantages of being a sole founder definitely outweigh the advantages. Having the wrong cofounder is a terrible situation but I think having the right cofounder really can help a lot. It’s not so much that you’re slower making decisions, it that sometimes you don’t even know the decisions you’re not making until a month later. I think that is definitely something I would probably change if I did it again.
Matthew: From idea to product launch, how long did it take and when did you actually launch the product?
Oliver: It was about a year, but I was in business school when I first had the idea. I spent four months fundraising. I actually pitched to 96 investors before someone said yes. That was Josh Kopelman from First Round Capital. I was a business school student with a technical background, but I was one guy with a PowerPoint deck and no code and no customers and no website, so obviously he took a pretty big leap there. It ended up forming coalition [inaudible 7:25] investors, Google Ventures, Reid Hoffman, a bunch of great guys. I graduated in June and raised the money right as I graduated. I moved out to San Francisco and the product was in market by January of 2010.
Matthew: Are there any unique metrics or social proof about VigLink that you’d like to share with the audience?
Oliver: Absolutely. We do five billion page views a month for our network. It’s growing pretty substantially. What’s great about it is that it’s totally incremental to everything people were doing before. The display ad business is super-crowded. If you go look at a company called LUMA Partners, they have has this great graph called LUMAscape which is landscape of all the companies in the display ad business and there are hundreds of them. For one of them to gain whole traction on a site they’ve got to display someone else.
It’s not like that for us. For us it’s basically a clean field. Often our biggest competitor is ignorance, just explaining what we do and that it’s incremental and it doesn’t interfere with anything else you do. We’ve grown to that in about 18 month in the market, coming up to two years. We feel great about the future. Revenue is trending well and things are looking good.