It’s February 2013, I am working at CitiGroup advising FTSE100 clients in the Technology, Media and Telecoms space, and witnessing the huge shift in business models. Digital was becoming an increasingly key revenue opportunity. Pearson had successfully transitioned print readers of The Financial Times and The Economist to being paying digital subscribers.
They also achieved it without offering a significant discount, but it is worth noting this financial content has a very dedicated but niche following. The MailOnline was implementing the exact opposite strategy: growing its readership as quickly as possible with as few barriers to customer adoption as possible (such as a paywall) and planning to monetise this scale.
At the same time Sir Martin Sorrell was highlighting that consumers were now spending over a third of their time on digital devices but brand budgets did not reflect this. Mobile devices were getting more advanced and 4G auction results had just been announced; mobile was only becoming more dominant and now the bandwidth could support the tech.
So sitting in the bank watching from the sidelines, the problem facing Media Owners and Media Agencies was obvious. I was not alone in seeing the challenges — all boardrooms had spotted the same problem and nobody had the answers. In fact, once upon a time, people thought Google Consumer Surveys could be the answer.
I needed to get in the game. I needed to build or join the right team with a game changing execution. Banking gave me access to big publishers but I was lacking the tech network and crucially a true understanding of the complexity of agencies. So, as good as I think I am, I knew alone I was not the complete package.
The next couple of months were spent attending networking events, ‘co-founder speed-dating’ events, tapping up contacts, and trying to do as much as I could without getting fired. Armed with some fantastic advice from my future wife “There is no point talking to anyone in finance or anyone super loud, else what do you bring to the partnership?!”.
I met several founders with great tech but nothing that solved the challenge of keeping premium content free, but well funded. These startups ranged from micropayment companies, including an app that acted as a portal, to magazine content where you paid per article. There were several e-commerce solutions which were founded in the belief that consumers would be inspired by the content they were reading and go on to immediately purchase a product. I met several famous companies from Yplan (now sold to TimeOut), HouseTrip (now sold to TripAdvisor) and some less famous, such as Flooved (Netflix for text books).
Every unsuccessful event filled me with more confidence; no one else was solving or looking to solve the same problem within the UK startup community and I knew the big corporate world was calling out for an answer. Then, at one of the startup events my girlfriend thought would be perfect for me (“How to finance your startup” at Google campus), because it would be full of tech founders who know nothing about finance… I met Prash.
The event was full of noisy people like me, all using the same jargon from EIS, SEIS, Entrepreneur relief, startup loans, government grants. So I ignored them, worked the room, and in one corner I found Prash, who was typing away on his computer (turned out he was trying to do some real work as, like me, his day time was still spent employed at a bank). I kindly interrupted him and started to proclaim what great “founder stock” I had, and there was a huge problem in digital that no one had really spotted which I was out to solve. To which he calmly and politely responded, he had already solved the problem and would I like to see the answer? Obviously my answer was yes please, and his was “great, let’s catch up in three months’ time”. Prash was having his first child, exiting himself from his job and had not quite filed all the patent work.
My first thought was “wow, he has the answer but won’t show me, who is this guy”? My second thought was, “this guy is from one of the best banks in the world, and has one of the smartest jobs (a quant), he is filing all the legal patents (not easy or cheap) and giving up his job” this idea must be good! In the immortal words of Guinness — “all good things come to those who wait”.
As I would learn over the next couple of months, in Prash I had a found an amazing combination that is so rare to find (and why people have such high regard for Mark Zuckerberg and Suranga Chandratillake): an ability to transcend commercial and tech. Prash could not only build code, but command a boardroom.
He was unhappy with just making money through financial markets, and wanted to put his training to improving the world. Prash not only saw the same problem I saw in media, but the wider ramifications. If media was not funded, and editorial desks continued to shrink then who would hold government and society to account? Who would own the news cycle, if not the independent media?
So while we extracted ourselves from jobs, he had his first baby, and the patents were filed we went about getting to know each other. As he always likes to say “you don’t get married on a first date”, and so we went about dating before we got “professionally married”. We compared notes on what the company’s values would be, what roles we would take, what our personal aspirations were. I think we even completed the lean canvas, and shared reading lists from the likes of Lean Start Up to The Hard Things About Hard Things.
The Big Reveal
Prash finally revealed his solution (the initial FreeWall), and my goodness it was simple! It took me sometime to think through all the ramifications; in a world where everyone likes to over-complicate, here was something blindingly obvious. The easiest way to prove a digital impression was actually seen and understood by a human and not a bot, was to just ask them as much. How had no one thought of this? Was it so obvious that it had been hiding in plain sight? After all, two thousand years of the evolution of education had firmly understood the value of asking its pupils questions, why had advertising not? Simply put until the internet, the only way to ask questions was in focus groups, and this was get their opinion rather than confirm their understanding of a brand message.
Turns out the big reveal was not only the product but also the third musketeer!
Prash had been “seeing” someone else, and a good thing I did not get married on that first date, otherwise I would have felt wholly cheated on. He had managed to connect to a member of the media inner circle, someone who had a run a media agency and worked for a media owner, so knew the challenges on both side, from the coal face to the board room, and wanted it to change it for the better… in Tim, Prash had the perfect partner.
Bugger, Prash and Tim would surely spot this for themselves, and that I would be a third wheel. We all shared a common purpose, but arrived via three different paths.
So I went into overdrive “Rowly mode”, as I was not going to miss out on the perfect storm of opportunity of: an industry in crisis, a perfect solution, an awesome team, a common purpose to make the world better. The fact that I am writing this blog shows overdrive “Rowly mode” must have worked.
The Early Meetings
The next few months involved running around like crazy people, trying to see if the super simple solution we thought was the answer to the industry’s problems was in fact just that, or whether we were just ‘crazy people’, thinking we could solve such a massive industry problem with something so simple.
There were certainly one or two people in that camp, who thought we should go back to banking. And there were of course issues with various pieces of the jigsaw.
But the over-arching feeling was that we were onto something. We had a solution that everyone we spoke to could see working within their existing portfolios.
And so it began! Three years of fitness classes later (turns out it’s more sustainable to meet over a spin than four pints!) and a conference for those of us that were NFI’d to Cannes, we three musketeers have found the rest of The Guard. And together, we are fighting back against the GAFA empire, and making sure our publishers get the funding they need to keep the world in check, and our content free!
Oh and by the way, those people who told us to go back to banking… they are now our clients.