Role and company:
In under 50 words, what makes your business distinctive in its marketplace:
Respond gives advertisers a way to amplify digital advertising campaigns with in-content brand engagement, and offers premium publishers incremental revenue without compromising user experience. It uses contextual and behavioural targeting to display a button above and below editorial. When the button is clicked, a full screen campaign is instantly displayed.
What’s the big vision for your business?
Our vision is to become the Intel of ad campaigns – when any brand wants that extra ingredient to get the best possible performance from their spend, they will add Respond. Why? Because eye-tracking studies show that people focus on the editorial content on web pages, and yet most ads are either in the margins or very interruptive. Respond solves this problem by offering the best of both worlds – ads that are noticed, but that don’t spoil the user experience.
Current level of international business, and future aspirations:
My co-founder, Andrew Dobson, and I have just returned from an international digital publisher event in Berlin – we plan to introduce Respond to several new markets in the months ahead.
Biggest career setback and what you learned from it:
Around 12 years ago, after I left university, I co-founded a magazine. We featured emerging artists, designers and writers. It did pretty well, we had it sold in places like Waterstones and niche stores in 11 countries around the world, but ultimately we closed it. It felt like a major set-back at the time, but in retrospect I learnt so much, both personally and professionally.
What makes you mad in business today?
The thing I find frustrating is meeting so many people with great ideas, and finding they are focussed on elaborate plans and projections, when their time would be much better spent in testing the validity of their ideas. Stop planning and start speaking with the people that will be your customers. Build a minimally viable product – the simplest possible version of your offering – and start measuring performance so you learn from this and incorporate it into what you build next.
This continuous build-measure-learn feedback loop means you are far more likely to create a product or service that actually solves a problem and meets a demand. Yes, you ultimately will need a plan and projections in order to get funding, but the first thing an investor will ask for is evidence, and with rapid iterations you’ll quickly have the data to support what real customers want, which is way more credible than a bunch of untested assumptions in a spreadsheet.
What will be the biggest change in your market in the next three years?
In a word: mobile. Every publisher is trying to figure out how they’re going to generate the kind of revenue they make now from a fraction of the real estate, and every advertiser is trying to discover how they capture people’s attention in this environment. When we designed Respond, it was built with mobile in mind from the start.
Can businesses in your sector/industry access the finance they need to grow? If not, what can be done to improve things?
We’ve actually been through three rounds of funding with a combination of VCs and private investors, so yes, it can be done, but it’s not easy. The single biggest thing that would improve things is actually a cultural change in the UK.
At the moment you can quite easily get funding for a new pizza takeaway because you can point to all the other successful pizza places, all you have to demonstrate is your ability to execute a tried and tested plan. In technology it’s different, the concept you have one day one will almost certainly not be what you have in 12 months, which may be different to what you have in year three.
Your concept will continuously evolve until you find what works through multiple iterations. Every successful internet business has followed this path. Groupon started as a way to raise money for charity, Instagram began as a way to earn points based on checking into locations, Flickr was a role playing game, YouTube was a video dating site, and so it goes on. As a culture we need to promote experimentation, embrace change, and accept risk.
How would others describe your leadership style?
My Co-Founder Andrew and I lead Azullo together, so I would say “collaborate”. I think it works because we have such different backgrounds. Andrew is a software engineer, my background is in marketing and publishing. We look at the same issue from two very different perspectives.
Of course, that means we don’t always agree, and that’s great because it means we’re forced to build a case for decisions rather than suffer from the kind of group think you can get when everyone is similar, and after doing that it’s usually apparent which is the best way forward.
Your biggest personal extravagance?
I’ve got two boys under five, so when I’m not working I’m usually trying to keep them busy. My greatest personal extravagance is taking a little time out for myself once in a while to explore new music.
You’ve got two minutes with the prime minister. Tell him how best to set the UK’s independent, entrepreneurial businesses free to prosper:
Firstly, do more to raise awareness of how businesses succeed by following lean startup principles, as perhaps best articulated by Eric Reiss. There is a reason why so many great UK tech companies are relocating to the US, and the way to stop it is to make access to finance easier for companies in new sectors that banks won’t support.
Secondly, invest in education. You only have to look at the proportion of people with private education that have excelled in everything from industry to the arts, politics to technology. Even Team GB at the Olympics had a way above average representation from public schools.
Is that because the kids of rich parents are smarter? Of course not. It’s because they have opportunities children from less well off families do not. But it’s also more than that, it’s a state of mind, a confidence that comes from knowing you can stand up and get your point across. Education is the best competitive advantage we have, we need to do more to ensure we have the skills necessary to invent the technologies and create the ideas that will move things forward.
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