Earlier this month Vungle co-founder Jack Smith spoke at our Growth Marketing SF meetup. Founded in 2011, Vungle is the leading in-app video platform for performance marketers, with current revenue north of $100M annually. How do two hustlers get a tech startup off the ground without a technical co-founder? Jack Smith let us in on his secret.
Jack believes in giving yourself time to play around with new ideas and platforms. His big break came when he discovered how to target an individual using LinkedIn advertising. Vungle was a struggling startup in London, with very little funding and no engineering resources. While reading TechCrunch —instead of working on his current project — he ran across an article inviting applications to AngelPad. A lightbulb went off in his head, and a legend was born. He created a landing page with a video message to Thomas Korte, one of AngelPad’s partners. The next step was an ad featuring Thomas’s face saying that Vungle was trying to reach him. This ad was shown to all of Thomas’ friends. Unknown to Jack, Thomas was on a flight from New York to San Francisco at the time. By the time he landed, Thomas had 20 messages from friends telling him about this unknown startup that wanted to talk to him. This clever maneuver landed them a spot with AngelPad, along with $120K in funding. For the company, it was a key turning point that came from Jack giving himself time to explore new ideas.
Jack spoke at length about the power of focus. Being efficient is irrelevant if you are working on a bad idea. This is something that I can personally attest to. After successfully building the largest dating site of the 90’s, my next startup was a personal passion project around learning with flashcards. I worked just as hard for three years and spent five times what we had for funding in my first company. You would think the results would be stellar, right. Guess what? I got nowhere. Same guy, same work ethic and completely different results. What was the difference? The quality of the idea and timing. I learned my lesson—and now I’m fanatical about monitoring feedback on new ideas. I don’t ever want to waste time pushing a boulder up a mountain again.
Another theme that came out loud and clear from Jack is the importance of setting aside time for play and exploration.
“Procrastination in the right balance allows you to see stuff, that you’re seeing opportunities when other people aren’t, because the best opportunities are when they are nascent and small.”
This is a theme I have seen over and over in the last 20 years. There was a famous class at Stanford that began building apps when Apple released the first iPhone. They had generated millions of dollars in revenue before the class ended 3 months later! It won’t always work out, but it is always easier to compete before a platform becomes crowded. Jack pointed out the recent release of Facebook Livestreaming. If you started using it from the beginning, you are, by definition, one of the only experts on the planet. Platforms are emerging and changing constantly, giving everyone an equal chance to jump on board.
Back to Jack’s secret for getting his companies off the ground without technical co-founders. Focus on defining the pain points of customers. You don’t have to build anything.
“We had an advantage because we were not engineers. We spoke to our audience face to face. We were selling it before we built it.”
As a matter of fact, building before doing this basic customer discovery is a weakness not a strength. Jack is an example of someone willing to do the hard work of talking to human beings about their problems instead of trying to shove your own ideas down their throats. His advice was, “Don’t build a business that cures a customer’s itch, build something that cures their cancer.” By de-risking the idea and finding the right problems to solve, you can get engineers who want to join you and investors who want to fund you. Again, picking the right problem to solve versus working faster might be the right skill to master.