With our recent announcement of exceeding a $100M run-rate with over 10,000 active customers in more than a 100 countries, the question of how we got there is one that we get a lot these days. It’s been said that “high-growth companies always seem like an overnight success,” but that’s almost never the case in real life, and certainly wasn’t with us.

As with most successful companies, there isn’t one thing that led to us getting traction and growing into a durable enterprise. It was a combination of factors including a few good decisions, focusing on the right problem, good timing, a great team, and, of course, some luck. There’s a whole other piece that could be written about how and why we’ve been able to sustain growth, but if I had to narrow down the factors that led to our initial traction, these are the ones that I think had the biggest impact.

Sometimes You Should Go Into Business With Your Friends

I was friends with Aaron and Jared for about 7 years before the topic of “AdRoll” ever came up. I knew they were both extremely successful in their professional lives: Aaron as a technical prodigy who developed software at Microsoft when he was 15, and Jared as a proven entrepreneur who had been involved at the early stages of many successful companies like Paypal, Yelp, and Slide. To me, however, they were, first and foremost, people whom I liked to hang out with. So, when they approached me about working on a startup in ad tech, an industry in which I had deep experience over the past 5 years, jumping in with two feet was a no-brainer. If I could have picked two people to build a company with, these were literally the two people.

Little did I know, Aaron had struck up a relationship with another technical wonder via the Twisted Matrix open-source project. Valentino, affectionately known as Dialtone, was over in Italy helping with some of AdRoll’s initial development on a contract basis while still a graduate student. Once we met him in person, we knew he’d be the perfect permanent addition to the team — not only because of his technical acumen (he’s now one of the most prominent figures in the Python community), but also for his ability to take our jokes in stride which usually revolved around Olive Garden and Pizza Hut being the best Italian food in the world.

When I met PK (current COO and friend of Jared’s), we hit it off in a similar fashion. Holding an MBA from Harvard, he brought a unique skill set to the team, ensuring that we didn’t make stupid mistakes or pursuing business models that weren’t viable. He also assumed the “utility player” role that’s critical in a super early-stage startup. He did everything in the beginning from managing our finances, to hiring a sales team, to ensuring we always had a place to work, to wrangling contractors and vendors.

TheATeam

From left to right: Peter Krivkovich, Aaron Bell, Suresh Khanna, Adam Berke.
Bottom: Valentino Volonghi

As the company evolved and roles changed, it was really important to have this mutual respect and basis of friendship to avoid a total meltdown. We could have “spirited” debates without anyone taking it personally, and immediately shift gears to be friends after those tough conversations were done. As we’ve grown, we’ve continued to prioritize hiring the most intelligent and qualified people we can find, but also people that we genuinely like and want to spend time with. Assembling the right team is critical to any startup’s success, and one that I feel is sometimes overlooked in today’s incubator-driven early-stage environment. At over 250 employees today, the lines between coworkers and friends are continually blurred. “Take your work seriously, but not yourself” is one of our core values and is one of the primary reasons we were selected as one of the best places to work in the Bay Area.

Identify the Right Opportunity and Tackle the Right Problem

We didn’t start off saying, “let’s build a retargeting company,” and I’d say that it’s still not our mantra today – even though it’s what we’re best known for. At the start, we just generally saw an opportunity in display advertising. It was ubiquitous, as the primary monetization channel for every content publisher, and gave advertisers a nice canvas to work with, but was always an afterthought to the breakout marketing channel of the internet era, Search.

We also knew that everyone was focused on winning big deals from traditional brands and agencies – deals conducted through black box ad networks – not on bringing display solutions to mid-sized and smaller businesses. We thought there was an opportunity to build a more scalable platform for executing display. It would have to involve great UX, transparent reporting, extensive control over your campaigns, and perform a lot like search. Since we were building the company in the midst of the worst economic climate in recent memory, the performance requirement became the crucial element. This is where we spent a lot of time experimenting and iterating, which brings us to…

Stay Nimble, But Know When To Go Big

There are two somewhat conflicting points of view on product development. The first says to listen to your customers and build stuff that solves their problems. The second is the more Jobsian view that customers don’t know what they want until you show it to them. Our trick was finding a balance between the two.

Because of the difficult economic climate during the early stages of the company – there was no “dumb money” floating around – we had to work closely with our small set of customers and take their feedback seriously. This provided a clear view into what worked, and what didn’t.

For example, our retargeting product started as an add-on (code name “S’mores”) that we would give customers for free if they tried our other products. However, as campaigns ran, we quickly saw that the retargeting piece was the only part that met our customer’s requirements (ie. performed as well or better than search). Also, at the time, retargeting was far from the well-known marketing tactic that it is today. So, we had to combine customer feedback with the Jobsian approach and tackle the problem of educating the market. We had to develop new ways to make the concept and technology easy-to-use and to understand. Again, many of these concepts have been mimicked and seem second nature today, but in reality, they took a lot of thought and experimentation.

Today, as the global leader in retargeting with over 10,000 advertisers in over 100 countries, it seems that the education challenge has paid off.

It’s Going To Take Longer Than You Think

Some of our executive team were out having drinks the other night with a few people from the investment community, and one of them commented, “congrats on everything with AdRoll, did you ever imagine it would get this far?” To which Aaron quickly quipped, “yes, I just didn’t believe it would take this long.”

Though AdRoll was founded in 2007, we didn’t go to market with our retargeting offering until 2009, and now we’re being asked the question about “how we did it” a full six years later. All in all, it took a really long time to get traction and involved a lot of experimentation and hard work on R&D. We toyed with a range of imaginative targeting methods before we hit on something our customers really wanted – something that they’d buy without much selling and that would lead to high renewal rates and increasing budgets.

Fortunately, we developed valuable core technology that gave us a tremendous competitive advantage when our product finally clicked in the market during our experimentation. For example, all of the work we were doing on UX and reporting applied to whatever targeting methodology we employed. We were the first to bring transparent reporting and true self-service tools to the retargeting space. Also, we recognized the disruptive power of exchanges and RTB very early. I remember Aaron coming back from a conversation with Mike Nolet back in 2008 (before Appnexus was Appnexus) and Aaron saying, “forget about publishers. All inventory is eventually going to exchanges. Let’s double down on that.”

This turned out to be a key decision as, at the time, we were trying to both build a publisher network and figure out tools for advertisers. When it came to navigating this balance and prioritization, my saying was “I’ve never gotten a check from a publisher,” so the approach of doing deep integrations with a few exchanges and focusing solely on advertiser tools resonated strongly with me.

Present Day

All in all, we started with a great team that worked well together, identified a big opportunity, had good timing and knew when to go big. You take those ingredients and add six years of hard work and you end up with what the world sees as an overnight success.