What is your startup and what does it do?
ProGrids is a native product advertising platform. We match products to the content of a particular page, so that users who are reading about a particular topic are presented with highly relevant products to browse and buy. A great example would be if you were reading travel blogs about Maui. We would recognize that you are likely to be considering or planning a trip to Maui, and so we might present a lineup of relevant products, such as a travel guide, sandals, board shorts, or sunscreen. Our advertisers pay us on a cost-per-click basis to help drive new visitors to their sites.
At whom is your startup aimed?
We are really trying to serve two audiences. First, we want to help publishers who are very brand conscious about their sites. These publishers often forgo some advertising revenue because they do not want to spoil the quality of their brand and their user’s experience. To serve the needs of these publishers, we created an advertising unit that automatically matches the styling of their site. The second audience we built ProGrids to serve are the advertisers. Traditionally for advertisers to work with the kinds of premium publishers we focus on, the advertisers would need to strike 1:1 deals with each publisher, which simply isn’t scalable. In making a very clean native and programmatic advertising unit, we have finally managed to bridge the divide between premium publishers and advertisers.
How does your startup stand out against its competitors?
There are a couple of other companies that have tried to solve the same problem. I think the biggest difference between us and all of the competitors out there is that we give our advertisers complete control. We provide them with individual publisher level and product level information, so that they can optimize their campaigns or use the data in any other way they choose. Many of our competitors restrict this data because they are worried that the advertisers will cut them out and go direct to the publishers, but our philosophy is that if we aren’t adding any value than the advertisers are free to look elsewhere. It all comes down to confidence in ourselves and a genuine desire to serve our advertising partners.
Where did the idea for the startup come from?
My co-founders and I were discussing one day that towards the end of every month, we would receive emails from advertisers basically saying that they had budget left for placements on premium publisher sites, but that they needed the placements to go live ASAP. We knew that most of those emails were never answered, and that advertising budgets were actually going unspent. It dawned on us that this was a huge inefficiency so we set out to build a solution for these advertisers.
Did you have any concerns when starting your business, if so what were they?
Failure is always a concern of course and we were concerned about how advertisers and publishers would react. We thought we had a good idea, but until you float it out there you never know. We talked with some publishers and advertisers early on, but hypothetical conversations where you receive validation aren’t the same as actually having happy customers.
What is your business background, and what got you interested in startups?
I started out as an attorney working for VCs. I helped them start their funds and invest in interesting tech companies. I discovered early on that I was much more interested in the business side of things than the legal side. As an investor or an entrepreneur, you have a direct hand in shaping the future. Every day is challenging but it is also extremely exciting. As an attorney you facilitate all of this, but you really have no hand in the shaping.
How did you initially raise funding for your company?
We were fortunate enough to work for Sazze, Inc., which is a tech company incubator. My co-founders and I all worked in different departments, but when we came up with the idea it was relatively straightforward for us to pitch a pilot project to Sazze.
What has been your greatest achievement so far?
I think one of the greatest experiences so far has been seeing the in-bound interest. We have publishers signing up all the time who heard about us through their blogging networks. Similarly, we now have major brands cold calling us to set up meetings. It is a far cry from how things were at the beginning.
How have you kept your business relevant and engaged with your audience over the last year?
This is a great question. I can tell you that the community of premium publishers/bloggers does not let you disengage. We hear from them all the time. Customer service is really critical for us so we are in a constant dialogue with all of our stakeholders.
How long has your business been in making, and who is the team behind the business?
As a concept, ProGrids has been around for about two years but as a real product we’ve been operating for less than a year. Janghwan Lee is our CTO. He is the brilliant mind that makes ProGrids actually function. We also have a rock solid publisher team and front end developer. At the end of the day though, we owe everything to Sazze both for investing in us when we were just an idea and for giving us support/mentorship in all aspects of running our business.
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
Communication was an early challenge for us. As an example we had been operating for about a month and we were working on a new feature we were prepping to roll out. It got pushed live before we told all of the users and it created mass confusion. I think we learned right then and there how important communication with your users is. The dialogue is critical.
In the coming year, what would you like to achieve with your business?
There are so many things that a young business like ProGrids needs to accomplish before we can call ourselves successful, but for 2015 I think one of our core challenges will be to scale. While we are a technology business, at the end of the day publisher development is still about personal relationships and it takes time.
What has been your most valuable lesson so far since starting your business?
Perseverance. Nothing, and I mean nothing, works as planned or is as easy as you think its going to be. The only way to succeed is through intelligent iteration.
Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to someone thinking about starting a business, what would it be?
Ask yourself why you’re doing it. If its because you want to be the next WhatsApp or Instagram than you are in the wrong business. Do the math, statistically, whether you’re a high performer or not, the expected value of your career is much higher at a big established company. You don’t do startups to get rich, you do them because its in your blood and there is nothing else you want to do with your life.