When you start think about making serious money at the innocent age of 14, there is a strong chance you will grow into being a full time entrepreneur later in life. Ankit Oberoi and Atul Agarwal, Founders of AdPushup have had quite a journey leading to where they are today. While Ankit started ‘Tamranda’, a server solutions company by himself in 2004 and sold it later, he joined hands with his old friend Atul to create Innobuzz Solutions in 2007. After some years of being in the service industry where they used to offer offline trainings in various domains among other services, they realised scaling Innobuzz up wasn’t going to be easy.
That’s when AdPushup came to life. With a strong background in digital, content and monetising, these two decided to create a product to help publishers make more money from the ads displayed on their website. AdPushup is a an advertising optimiser, that uses A/B Testing among other technologies to help publishers. After an year of operations, the duo raised $632,000 for their product from multiple investors including Wingify founder Paras Chopra, SlideShare co-founder Amit Ranjan, LinkedIn director of technology Jonathan Boutelle, CouponDunia founder Sameer Parwani and others.
The company that operates out of an office in New Delhi’s has grown steadily in size and stature and is well known in startup circles, tech industry and among publishers. We were fortunate to catch up with their Co Founders and bring to you excerpts from an exclusive Digital Defynd interview.
Q. The overnight success story that people witness today actually began with an entrepreneurial venture when both of you were quite young. What did you really sell during school time and when did the business bug truly bit you as time passed?
A. As a kid, I was fascinated by technology and business. I wanted to learn about web businesses and make enough money to pay for the internet and get some pocket money.
I was initially planning to sell some digital products (around a game called The Sims), but while setting up the website I realized, how exciting it was to setup and manage a web server. The web store never saw the light of day and I started a web hosting company instead. I was 14 years old back then. I hustled for a free server, and soon enough, started selling paid hosting. The revenue allowed me to buy more servers and pay for them.
Similarly at that time, Atul was learning to build websites, built some user generated content websites, and monetized them through AdSense.
Q. While there is scalability that makes every entrepreneur pivot, at what exact point did you guys feel the need to do something beyond Innobuzz. Was it the success of Tamranda and Innobuzz that gave you enough confidence to take the next leap?
A. Tamranda was mostly a one man show, I never hired any employees. I had little to no business knowledge then – I was so naive that even my email to customers would be filled with spelling and grammatical mistakes. So It was more of a personal technical journey, where I learned about networks,
servers and security. I also made mistakes, which brought wisdom. While the business was very scaleable, after 3 years, it became monotonous for me. Around the same time, I got out of school, had more time and was looking to do something else. Atul and I co-founded Innobuzz.
In our early days, we had built an MVP to test out online training, but this was 2007 and
we gave up too soon on that and focused on offline training instead. It went on to do well until we hit about half a million dollars in revenues, after which we realized how difficult it was to scale an offline business.
To the second part of your question, yes, both the startups have helped us immensely in learning. We also had access to great technical talent (specifically Dhiraj and Shreyas) through the products division at Innobuzz, without whom we wouldn’t be able to build AdPushup.
Q. The world is full of products, but India seems to be lagging behind in the race somewhere. We have Slideshare, Wingify, InMobi, Vidooly, AdPushup and just some more names which have got global recognition. What stops us from innovating? Is it the easy money which draws people towards services, or is it more about the lack of innovation at a core level that prevents us from creating?
A. I think people have plenty of ideas. It’s the execution that is stopping them. It is their disbelief that they can’t score big.
Do you know what makes silicon valley different from the rest of the world? The ecosystem, which mostly means people who think big, take big bets and people who believe in them and back them.
Being in India, our education system, parents, immediate environment and ecosystem has taught us to play it safe. The system discourages you to make mistakes.
But I believe this trend is quickly fading away and a new wave of fresh blood is seeping in.
We are also seeing the much needed support coming in from the policy makers. If we want to see India as a big product nation, the government and its bodies will need to relax a lot of its policies. Recurring payments is a big issue for example.
Seeing the success of Indian startups, more young entrepreneurs are coming up with unique ways to tackle day to day and large scale problems with applications and services. It’s not just the change in attitude but also the environment that has matured with many well known venture capital firms looking to invest in startups borne in India.
Q. Entrepreneurship is not easy, and it can get more difficult when you operate in a space that not many easily understand. What are some of the biggest personal and professional challenges you guys have faced while building these companies up? What are the most important factors that makes things work in the long run?
A. Putting it succinctly, the following things:
1. Understanding your users
2. Hiring the right people
3. Shipping product
4. Providing an environment of growth and ideas
5. Keeping your eye on the ball (the vision)
6. Maintaining a work ethic
In the end, what matters is your persistence and the drive for perfection.
Q. Did you have to go hunting for investors or was a few phone calls and emails all it took? How tough was it helping people understand the potential of your game changing product?
A. Well our product offers a unique solution to the problem of ad layout optimization, but if you break it down, it’s not that difficult to explain. Nevertheless, it wasn’t easy raising external funding as first timers, but it surely was fun. I clearly remember that during that period, there was at least two instances when we were almost about to give up. But like I said before, persistence helps.
Furthermore, to do justice to this question and to understand how eventful the ride has been, it would be better if you read our article dedicated to how we’ve raised our angel investment.
Q. Paras Chopra (Wingify) is an investor in AdPushup, while his company stays bootstrapped. How and why do you think getting funded by the right people can help propel an idea, a product and thus a company.
A. I can’t speak for Paras, but from what I know, Wingify was profitable from day zero. They never needed the money. Our strategies are different and so were our decisions with respect to fundraising.
I don’t think Paras and Sparsh are opposed to raising external funds but their success clearly shows that fundraising is not the only way to be successful and our ecosystem has clearly over glorified fundraising.
Answering the later part of your question, getting funded by the right people is clearly an advantage because they know what a business needs. Right people bring much more than just money. Paras and Sparsh, understand how to create scalable products, and build teams which can deliver them. It’s because of their experience and knowledge that they saw potential in AdPushup.
Q. The environment in Asia is slowly changing and becoming more conducive for new and interesting ideas. While you guys were self starters, what role do you see incubation centres and startup hubs playing in helping companies grow?
A. They play a quite a sizable role since they provide advantages like –
Environment – the company of similar-minded hungry go-getters
Access to Mentors, Investors, Customers and discounts
When you network with a lot of fellow entrepreneurs, there’s always a lot to learn from each other
Q. What is the culture at AdPushup like? What attracts employees to work with a startup like yours? Do you guys notice a change in the employees’ mindset from just ‘working for a brand’ to ‘working on something interesting’ over time?
A. Well in three words – “Open and transparent”. These qualities make for an agile workplace environment and allow quick collaboration among teammates
And this is not just a cultural thing but is embedded in our office’s design too (open office) –
If I was to venture a guess on what drives people to look for a position at AdPushup then it would be the fact that they have, within reason, complete freedom on how they want to reach their goals, as long as they are achieved.
Couple this with the fact that we have a very humble and homely environment courtesy of our current team. This is not by mistake and we have worked hard to consciously build such a culture. We firmly believe in hiring the best but the best who are also great people personally.
And to top it all, we have a crazy party scene. In fact we wrote a whole post about it.
On the topic of employee mindsets – I agree that today quite a number of job seekers struggle between the ‘start big with big brands’ or ‘start small with startups’ dilemma. While the big brands may have the financial resources to give out fat salaries, you just become another bolt in the machine; whereas startups provide the opportunity to build something from scratch where your presence matters. It’s a space that gives a shot at learning skills at an exponential rate and the opportunity to showcase your true potential.
But it’s incorrect to say one is better than the other. Truthfully, it’s just dependent on the personal situation of each individual and how they want to grow their career.
Q. While AdPushup helps publishers earn more through their ads, how is it that you went about promoting AdPushup yourself? What are some of the smart strategies you used to spread word about the company and the product?
A. Well we’ve tried a number of strategies and channels but I’ll share the ones with which we struck gold early.
1. We are heavily invested in content marketing. In fact, the AdPushup blog is the heart and soul of our marketing. It has facilitated in organically acquiring most our customers and brand building. The key here is to keep an even mix of – content written to get shares and engagement vs keyword based content for SEO.
In either case, it has to be actionable, enable our audience to solve a painpoint or help them meet their goals.
2. We also run search and paid marketing campaigns through Google Adwords and social media channels like Facebook and Twitter. These have helped in generating leads and spreading AdPushup high and wide.
Q. While you are tackling Banner Blindness, there is a whole crop of people who are banning them completely. Do you think more publishers and websites will try different types of native ads in the time to come?
A. It’s a business necessity that they do.
PageFair has reported that as much as $22 billion in ad revenue has been lost during 2015 and this figure is likely to double in 2016.
Now while I do understand the plight of the average ad blocker user, they should be wary of the change that they are fueling. Monetizing a website through ads is one of the primary sources of revenue generation for businesses and which is how they are able to keep their content free and available to everyone. If this model fails them then they, for the lack of options, will have to switch to subscription based models and start locking their content behind paywalls or remove the line between content and ads, promoting advertorials.
Q. Its wordpress sites and Google Ads right now and you are doing extremely well in the space. When do we see this expanding?
A. We’ve already started to support all types of websites (not just WordPress) and plan to start supporting many more ad networks soon.
Q. What’s next in store in the world of AdPushup?
A. Well we’re rigorously working towards improving AdPushup’s algorithms to ensure that the revenue uplift is never at the cost of user experience. Meanwhile on an organizational scale we’re gearing up to expand our sales operations and looking for someone who can adopt these cute little fellows:
Q. What would your advice be for product developers out there?
A. Product-market fit and validation. It’s great to create something because you feel their is a need in the market for it but it’s prudent to rely on data rather than intuition. Also maintain a continuous feedback loop which basically just means to quickly collect feedback from a few customers/mentor and keep shipping.