70 Hours in the Bay Area

By Sean Fenlon on June 3, 2013


It has been years since my last visit to one of my favorite parts of the planet, the San Francisco Bay Area. Even if this was not considered the Lead Gen Capital of the World, I would still be long overdue for a visit. The centerpiece for planning this trip was to attend the debut show of www.RampUp2013.com, presented by LiveRamp and my friend (LiveRamp Founder/CEO) Auren Hoffman (follow him at @Auren).

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I first met Auren over coffee at a LeadsCon years ago while he was still running the previous business he founded, Rapleaf. Auren is a data guy, pure and simple, and an impressive/inspiring one at that. Both Rapleaf and LiveRamp are businesses that are all about data. Rapleaf helps online/email marketers append data attributes by using an email address as a primary key. Rapleaf aggregates the data via several methods, one of which includes the aggregating of publicly-available social data. This particular approach found its way into an article in The Wall Street Journal back in 2010 and stirred up a lot of debate – especially in the ad tech community. To many that play in this space, it was clear that business was misunderstood. Others were more dubious, but Rapleaf is here to stay and their numbers are astounding (they have data on 80% of domestic email addresses).

Auren’s current business LiveRamp is another highly-disruptive game-changer. LiveRamp allows marketers to use their own offline database/CRM to build customized audiences and port those audiences online for targeted advertising via RTB display ads. This strategy has gleaned a great deal of attention since Facebook announced a similar offering for marketers and advertisers (appropriately named Facebook Custom Audiences) last fall. But Auren’s LiveRamp offering was available for non-Facebook RTB display channels more than a year before Facebook’s release. Impressive.

There are many examples of how marketers and advertisers employ LiveRamp and Facebook Custom Audiences to gain a performance advantage in display media-buying. Here’s a hypothetical example…

Your business sells widget contracts that expire after 12-months. You want to encourage your customers who are up for renewal in the next 45-days to renew their contract with you. So, you build a custom audience every day/week/month via LiveRamp or Facebook Custom Audiences of your customers (their email, their phone number, or – in the case of specifically Facebook – their Facebook User ID) and show them ads to get them thinking about their upcoming renewal.

Because the typical record count of custom audience builds is relatively small (typically thousands, not millions), the cost of this type of hyper-targeted campaign is incredibly cost-effective in terms of absolute dollars. If the display media costs on average $1 CPM (which is probably on the high side for most RTB inventory), you are only paying $1 for every 1,000 users in your custom audience per impression. If you want to hit each of those 1,000 users with 100 impressions in a month, it costs a total of only $100. That’s about the same cost as the entrance to Disney World for one day.

Facebook requires uploading a file containing email addresses and/or phone numbers in order to be matched with Facebook Users. However, LiveRamp can achieve the same function via API and then target the same users via FBX in real-time rather than using Facebook’s manual web-based system. Advantage: LiveRamp (notwithstanding the LiveRamp fee for facilitating the targeting above and beyond the cost of the Facebook media).

It is safe to say that both Rapleaf and LiveRamp are important businesses for marketers. However, since DoublePositive has been light in the email channel, my attention recently is much more focused on Auren’s LiveRamp offering.

In early April, I stumbled upon his announcement for RampUp and was blown away at the Who’s Who of ad tech executives that he already had committed as speakers, panelists, and attendees. I counted over 80 CEO’s from online ad businesses that I know and admire. Thus, I immediately registered.

My next step was to book travel. Even though RampUp was on a Thursday, I decided to come in Tuesday night and schedule meetings for all day Wednesday.

Tuesday night I met with two of my favorite entrepreneurs, Nick Shah and Jesse Pujji from Ampush. These two young twenty-something Wharton grads decided to flee the shackles of Wall Street several years ago and self-fund a Lead Gen startup in downtown San Fran. Going the self-funding route, they observed Education to be the biggest Lead Gen vertical so they focused their early days on EDU Lead Gen and built an impressive name for themselves in the space. Everyone loved learning about and working with Ampush – they were smart, driven, energetic, positive folks with a great story about bootstrapping a Lead Gen startup after escaping the tyranny of the Wall St. corporate ladder. At one point (but still very early on) they added the Social channel to their media mix (mostly Facebook at first) and were able to yield promising results. This led to the birth of Ampush Social as a sort of Facebook/Social Agency that would run in parallel to their Lead Gen pure play (now called Ampush Actions). Ad Age Top 50 advertisers began using their tech/service solutions to happy results. They’re extremely bullish about the potential of this Social channels and it’s easy to see why. It’s big. REALLY big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it really is.

Although I had shared many meals with Nick and Jesse, and they had paid our offices a few visits in the past, I had never seen their office. Thus, I was graced with a tour of the Ampush office at 450 9th St. Loved it – classic loft-style tech startup environment.

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Afterwards we enjoyed Sushi at their favorite spot Kama Sushi. I tried to wrestle the dinner check away from them but I lost –insisting their heritage required them to pick up the check. :-)

Tuesday I was scheduled to meet another highly-admired pair of skilled EDU Lead Gen entrepreneurs – Ben Wilson and Adrian Ridner of Remilon.

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Like Nick and Jesse, Remilon never raised outside capital, but unlike Ampush, they began well over a decade ago and focused purely on SEO and the natural search channel to build their primary consumer brand www.Education-Portal.com. Brick-by-brick, these two entrepreneurs built a highly-engaging and useful site for potential higher-ed students. Their business model has always been to sell exclusive leads to schools that typically convert higher than any other source at scale. Ben and Adrian grew Remilon into a profitable powerhouse in the industry and then re-invested their time and resources into a building a free online learning academy (not unlike Kahn Academy). I was able be one the first viewers of a promotional video showing how this academy can address the massive problem of the 95-99% of non-converted (non-enrolled) EDU leads. Remilon is slowly/privately rolling this new solution out so I shouldn’t reveal too many details of the plan. But in a word, I was blown-away. I believe what they are doing is a game-changer. Stay tuned and watch this space.

Remilon’s freshly-expanded office is in the backyard of the Googleplex in Mountain View. We walked to Cascal for lunch – a lovely Tapas restaurant in the heart of Mountain View. I admitted to the Remilon team several times that I fully-intended to experience a Larry/Sergey sighting while I was there. :-)

From there I headed North to Adchemy in Foster City to see my long-time friend and Adchemy Founder/CEO Murthy Nukala. This was my second time visiting Adchemy HQ but the first since 2010.

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Murthy is diligently executing a herculean path of pivoting Adchemy from a Performance-based Media/Lead Gen company into an Enterprise SaaS offering focused in driving SEM efficiencies. Murthy has always positioned Adchemy as a data-driven high-science business. He is applying this philosophy into the nebulous world of interpreting the true intent of users vis-à-vis their search queries and Adchemy-developed “Intent Maps” and Product Listing Ads for retailers. I admire Murthy’s missions to build software for the enterprise with a UI that is simple enough for consumers.

Adchemy’s next-door neighbor in Foster City is QuinStreet, but I was unable to connect with my good friend Doug Valenti on this trip. Very disappointing – Doug is one of my favorite people on the planet to have conversations with. Thus, I continued North on my sojourn – back to downtown San Francisco.

seansblog6I arrived early, so I walked to 225 Bush St. – the former (second) home of my previous business TheLoanPage.com. Just six-months after the purchase of TheLoanPage.com by Battery Ventures, the HQ moved out to the bay area. I remember flying out to SF in 2004 to help spin up the new home. Just seeing the building brought back a flood of nostalgic memories.

I had dinner at one the finest Italian restaurants in San Fran with my friend Rob Leathern, Founder/CEO of Optimal. Rob is a really REALLY smart dude with a fascinating background – from his birthplace of South Africa to Dartmouth to Investment Banking to being a dot com Analyst for Jupiter, to Nextag (building one of the first display real-time media buying optimization engines ever in the early 2000’s), to LinkedIn to Root Markets and eventually to starting his own business. Similar to Ampush, Rob has been able to gain significant traction in the Social channel via Facebook in particular. His technology functions like a Demand Side Platform (DSP) to access the Social channel for media buying and analytics. I am looking forward to partnering with Rob and his tech on a number of initiatives in the future.

Later in the evening I got the opportunity to learn more from a newly-minted Bay Area tech entrepreneur (and Ampush alum) Kim Taylor. I first met Kim when she was the Sales Exec for Ampush while she was forging strong relationships with biggest EDU Lead Buyers and all the players in the LeadsCon ecosystem. Kim’s departure from Ampush and birth as an entrepreneur was well-documented (literally) on Randi Zuckerberg’s reality show Startups Silicon Valley which aired on the Bravo Channel late last year. I’ve heard that the Silicon Valley population quickly un-friended the show, but I’ll confess that I watched every episode and loved it. Perhaps I’m biased because of personal relationships, but I thought Kim was the most grounded character portrayed on the show. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Kim in the Ampush office – even during what appeared to be a very amicable and dignified parting of ways with Nick and Jesse. I learned from the show that Kim was starting a business she named Shonova at the intersection of tech and fashion – her two biggest passions. However, I learned that Kim still has lingering passions for Education and has many ambitious ideas on how to make a dent in the universe. I’m cheering her on.

We met at Local Edition – a downtown pub Kim referred to as one of the many startup speakeasy watering holes in the area.

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This isn’t a figure of speech – it was literally like a speakeasy – little-to-no-signage, a massively understated lobby, and a hip bar scene downstairs in a basement without windows. Definitely good energy in the place, but I think the San Fran startup scene may be a bit self-indulgent by embracing this peculiar retro-style along with a vast array of exotic (weird?) drinks. Fortunately, no nasty glares for ordering a boring old glass of wine. :-)

Thursday morning I headed over bright and early to RampUp to get registered for the show. I immediately bumped in to the Impresario himself – Auren Hoffman. I gave Auren grief for not being invited to the CEO Summit section of the show, but he appropriately explained that it was for the CEOs of LiveRamp customers. So I explained to Auren that I intend to fix that and pitched Auren on the idea of how DoublePositive and LiveRamp could build a joint offering that would allow the Lead Gen world to enjoy significant benefits from the LiveRamp platform. I think Auren took the bait. Stay tuned and watch this space.

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The opening keynote panel was moderated by Auren himself and included Omar Tawakoi (BlueKai CEO), Joe Zawadzki (MediaMath CEO), and Tod Sacerdoti (BrightRoll CEO) – certainly a high-octane panel. The panel focused on the blessings and curses of cookies as the centerpiece of all targeted and data-driven online advertising. The explosion of multi-device, multi-user, and multi-browser usage was repeated emphatically along with the incredibly complex challenge it presents in trying to make smart data-driven optimization decisions about what ad to show which user and when. As much as we all covet the potential, the “uber cookie” that tracks across all devices and handsets is nowhere in sight.

While not discussed specifically on the panel, Drawbridge is working on a technology that essentially infers the “uber cookie” by the digital fingerprints left behind by users, their computers, and their devices. However, concern surrounding consumer privacy, cross-device tracking, and regulations is front-and-center in the dialog. The industry has not yet really scratched the surface, so the industry has not yet raised the ire of consumers and regulators, but everyone on the panel is well-aware that regulators are watching closely and are ready to pounce at the first sight of black-hat behavior from the ad tech community. One of the panelists noted that the one and only issue that the right and the left both agree to on Capitol Hill is consumer privacy. Thus the leaders in the room seemed adamant in their desires for the industry to watch its step, always wear a white hat with the tech and data management, and always gives consumers explicit opportunities to opt-out (else we’ll all be left with a relatively useless paradigm of consumer opt-ins).

The panels were divided into two simultaneous presentation rooms so the attendee was compelled to read about each upcoming panel topic and upcoming panelists to determine which room was best suited for them. Overall, there appeared to be approximately 1,000 attendees total which is an astounding feat for a debut show. Bravo to Auren and his team for pulling off the logistics and knocking it out of the park in terms of attendance.

I was humbled by the fact that this was the first tradeshow I had attended in years where I did not know the vast majority of the players and businesses – I suppose that I have settled into a comfort zone of LeadsCon, APSCU, Neustar (formerly TARGUSinfo) Summits, etc. I was, however, thrilled to see some familiar faces from these communities including Dennis Ainge (Neustar), Craig Pentz (Neustar), Fred Goff (Percipio Media), Jonathan Shaprio (Cogo Labs), James Walker (Inadco), Chris Moore (Redpoint), Zach Coelius (Triggit CEO), etc.

I enjoyed a sunny outdoor box lunch at the show with Entrepreneur/Investor Patrick McKenna (HighRidge Global). I first met Patrick many years ago when he was a senior exec with LiveOps. I stalked him, tracked him down, and pitched him on doing a deal with DoublePositive. We never put the wheels on that deal but we always stayed in touch. Patrick is involved in a number of tech and marketing businesses these days including sitting on the board of LiveRamp, and a new call center with some great promise in Jamaica, servicing clients including AT&T and Netflix using high-tech solutions. Not a bad place to go for QBRs either. ;-)

I enjoyed the chance to meet Founder/CEO of Lotame Andy Monfried for the first time. It’s surprising that I have never met Andy before because he spent years at Advertising.com before starting Lotame and Lotame has a big office in our backyard (Columbia, MD). We didn’t talk shop much, but I did get a chance to see Andy’s panel – I found his to be the most engaging and colorful tradeshow panelist I have observed in recent history. At one point, he confessed his “biggest business mistake of the past year” (slow to react to International), and then challenged his fellow-panelists to do the same. When the fellow-panelist reacted a bit coy and demure to the challenge, he bellowed out “Come on guys… these panels are SOOOO dry.” Great moment. Andy also introduced a new concept (new to me, at least) – Second Party Data (rather than First Party or Third Party). The concept of Second Party data is data sharing/swapping using venn diagrams between two parties that are bring their First Party Data to the table. These swaps/shares could be facilitated by Data Management Platforms (DMPs) like Lotame. Interesting.

For dinner on Thursday night, I hiked back up into downtown San Fran to enjoy a steak with my new good friend Peter Kim, Founder/CEO of MightyHive. Pete is one of the most driven and energetic entrepreneurs I have ever met. The force is with him. Blue chip VC firm Andreesen Horowitz obviously agrees as they led the seed round of funding for MightyHive. Pete has an amazing and unique perspective from his days as a Product Manager at Yahoo! and as a Sales and BD executive for Google (focused on their acquisition of Teracent – dynamic ad serving). At the risk of sounding significantly less than modest, I believe I am one of the few people that can keep up with Pete while he describes his business at full-speed. I learned a lot about first-party data, dynamic creative ad serving, and automated predictive models. I would characterize Pete’s technology as a mashup of many powerful online marketing technologies. Wow. Keep your eye on Pete – he has seen it all and he is going to change the world with this product.

I’ll wrap this long account of my 70-hours in the Bay Area with a shout out to Uber. This app-controlled taxi/car-service is a game-changer. I have used it before in Baltimore, DC, Boston, and NYC, but Uber was born in the Bay Area. I was able to shoot up and down 101 to all the meetings, shows, and meals on-demand in a vehicle (SUV, Black Town Car, Sedan, or Taxi) of my choosing. Bravo to Uber Founder/CEO Travis Kalanick. The service was THE killer app of the 70-hours. All the drivers told me that they love it too. I met Travis over a decade ago when we both had online music startups. His was Scour.net (an online music search engine before Napster) and mine was ListenSmart. Online music startups didn’t fare so well in the early 2000’s. Thus, I felt as though we were kindred spirits whenever I used the Uber service.

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Closing note:

Many have asked how I find the time to write these 10-page blog posts. The answer is easy – it gives me something to do on the plane ride home from the West Coast. :-)


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