This week my female founder is Sarah Wood. Sarah is the COO and co-founder of video ad tech company Unruly. I was incredibly excited to interview Sarah as I have heard her speak several times and always been in awe, she didn't disappoint! Unruly have had an incredible few years, from tripling its annual revenue to raising $25million. Sarah has some great stories to tell, lessons learnt and fantastic advice for future entrepreneurs. Read well and take notes!
Unruly - The Journey
How did you come up with Unruly and where did you meet your co-founders? Take us back to the beginning!
The co-founder question is really key, it’s the most important decision that any founder is going to make - who their co-founders are going to be. For Unruly we had 3 founders. There is Matt who is the CTO, Scott who is the CEO and then I’m the COO. We all have very different skillsets; Matt builds the technology, Scott builds the business vision and I deliver on the promises. I make sure that we’re building the most awesome campaigns, I build the teams, I help with the organisational structure and the culture, which is immensely important. I help find people who are talented, driven, but also enjoy being part of the company and are a good cultural fit. Matt and Scott worked together at another startup which was an ad-serving technology startup and Scott and I have known each other since we were at University, so we all have strong relationships which is really important.
Back in 2006, we were based in the Truman Brewery and we didn’t know what we wanted to do. We knew that social was big and we could see this big communications shift taking place on the internet. It was moving from being an information highway to being web 2.0, where people were talking to each other and conversing. We started off by being the first site ever to collect, and rank, the most shared videos on the internet. Before then it was really hard to see what was actually popular, you could count views but that didn’t account for shares.
Pretty much within a day of launching that site we had Google on the phone asking why there were no Google videos in the chart, we had media agencies bugging us on the phone saying “how do we get our videos into the top 10!?”, “how do we make great content that’s going to be shared!?”, “how do we get our videos seen!?” and that was then the starting point.
The problem was that there wasn’t a business model. We had this great site but we didn’t have enough traffic to be generating advertising revenue but we did have advertising agencies who wanted to get their brand content shared and seen, so at that point we built an ad-serving platform. Well, it was kind of an ad-serving platform/CMS/social analytics platform; a bit of a hybrid between all those things and it was a scalable distribution platform so it allowed lots of other sites to become network buyers and whenever they had campaigns we could distribute across lots of other sites on the web to help brands get their content out there. We were one of the first to do that and before we did it, it was just Excel sheets, huge Excel sheets and contact sites. We were the first people to make viral videos trackable, measurable, deliverable and we really put the rigour, and technology, behind it.
At the start you didn’t have a business model but at what point did it click and you all thought ‘this is it’?
Well we built out the front end, we built a page and we had traction but we were struggling to work out what the business model was. We thought about being a distribution platform so we tested it; we’ve always been a lean startup. It wasn’t called the lean startup back then, it didn’t have a name but let’s try shit really fast and see what works. So that’s what we did.
We built a front page and all it said was ‘contact us if you’re interested in becoming an Unruly partner - sign up here. Brands and agencies, if you’re interested in distributing your content then sign up here’. We then set ourselves tests; what do we want to see at the end of the first two weeks? Something like 25 publishers to sign up and at least 5 expressions of interest from potential clients. We ended up smashing those figures and at that point we said ‘right, let’s build this thing!’. We’ve been building it out ever since.
Growth & Funding
So you’re now in 13 offices in 10 countries, how did you manage to grow a very small initial idea to that massive scale?
Our first overseas office was in France, in Paris. The reason we chose Paris was because firstly, it was the least daunting, and secondly, France was good for us; we could get there quickly, we spoke a bit of French, we had been running campaigns in France using French publishers for French brands so we knew that the product could work in the French market. We then hired a French MD; it was very easy to do interviews because we were so close.
Beyond that we then went across Europe but the US was our biggest step, in 2011. It was a tough call because we probably should have gone to the US earlier. We have been profitable since 2009 and we were self-funded, all bootstrapped and funded by cash flow, which meant that it was high-risk. It’s risky for a bootstrapped company to be setting up in the US but we did it, we set up offices in New York and then within six months we were getting lots of inbound expressions of interest from various VC’s so we closed a series A in 2012 of $25million.
Achievements & Learnings
How did that feel after launching in America and raising a series A, surely you must look back on what you’ve done and be a bit astounded by your achievements?
If I could change something I would spend more time celebrating the things that we have done well. You’ve asked me that question but I don’t have any sense of enjoyment thinking about those moments because it’s hard to appreciate it at the time. I remember closing the funding round and thinking this is how it must feel to win an election. You’ve only actually been through the campaign and now the real work starts. But we had closed the round and that gave us the capital we needed to further grow our geographical footprint, and also to build out our product set. I knew there was a lot of work to be done and a big job ahead of us so it felt surreal; like we were beginning something rather than closing something.
I think whatever it is, you have to pick the earliest moment and celebrate it. There is never a perfect moment to celebrate and you can wait and wait. It’s like when we open new offices, we would say “let’s wait until we’ve closed our first quarter of sales”, “let’s wait until we’ve got more hires in place”. But there is always next moments and there is always more to be done. Now I think we’ve got much better at this as a company and we celebrate as soon as something has happened. Even if it doesn’t work out in 6 months it doesn’t matter; we had a celebration and it’s better to celebrate it than to not celebrate at all.
What do you think the biggest learning curve was that you went through?
For me personally, it was working with clients and how to deliver wow. I had come out of academia, I had studied video culture at Cambridge, and that was very much my passion, but I have never worked in the kind of role where I was growing and managing an Ops team. I had never worked with Ad-Ops before. I was building an Ad-Ops process and a tech platform that delivers social video campaigns into brand advertisers. I had not done that before so I suppose everything was learning. There was a lot to learn and that’s where having a great team is really important, being able to learn from each other.
Building a Team
How did you hire your first employees?
Early employees are a real opportunity; it’s a once in a business lifetime opportunity when you take on your first employees because you have equity you can offer them, there is all the promise and excitement of a new venture in a cool new space. That was very much the approach when we started hiring, social video was just taking off, everyone was talking about youtube and about brands getting in on the act but nobody else was actually able to deliver any distribution for brands at that moment. There was a real opportunity to say “we are doing something new and fun. Who knows what the future holds but we’d love to have other people who are driven to come along for the ride.” Our first employees were very entrepreneurial and comfortable with the chaos.
In the very early days, how did you get to realise who was the right fit?
We knew we needed a developer so that was our first hire. The first developer we hired wasn’t a good fit, he wanted to join a startup but didn’t really want to join a startup when it came down to it. He stayed with us for about 3 months and then went off to join a bank because he thought it was safer; that was in 2006. So you just never know do you? There’s this myth that if you work for a startup it’s riskier but actually if you work for a big business today it is just as risky. There are many big businesses who will lay off 1,000 staff without thinking twice about it. If you’re the founder of a startup you don’t ever lay off a member of staff without it being a huge struggle of conscience. I think if you are someone who enjoys having an impact and being part of an exciting project then it’s not risky being in a startup. It’s a huge opportunity to have an impact, make a difference and build something that can have a lasting impression; and build serious personal wealth as well.
Any other tips for hiring?
Any startup that is looking to hire rapidly should have a ‘virtual bench’. This is a group of people that you really rate and that you could see in a particular role within the team, but maybe you’re not quite ready to hire them yet. But it is great to have a relationship with them for them to feel that they are part of the mission even if they aren’t working for you formally. Then as and when you do have a role you’ll have a much better chance of bringing them on board.
What was your biggest challenge in Unruly so far and how did you tackle that?
Challenges change with every stage, I think having a company is like having children; it is intense, emotionally tiring, time consuming. In the same way that children change so quickly, so does your company. Whatever problem you have today you probably won’t have in 6 months time because it will be a whole different set of problems.
When we were very small the challenges were knowing what to do, feeling that we had a purpose. Then once we had our very early stage product it was a challenge for us to get customer feedback, which is often something small companies face, wanting clients to take us seriously and spend time giving feedback on what was working. As we grew we built up those relationships with clients and media agencies which was incredibly helpful because we were then able to build their feedback into our product. There has been huge strides made with this area if I look back now compared to where we were in 2006. If you think about projects like the Collider, which is where you have Unilever and other brands really investing time and money in small startups that are working in media related, marketing and advertising related fields, that is enormously helpful. We also give our time on that project and work with the startups. Giving encouragement, suggestions and what would work/what wouldn’t work, that can really help.
Now, since we’ve been bigger, and in multiple offices, communication is our biggest challenge.
Communication & Culture
How do you manage that communication and, alongside that, how do you manage the culture across all the different countries?
Communication and culture are very closely related, but taking communication directly first. We have an approach I’m calling extreme communication. We talk a lot, each team has daily standups and often they’ll be dialling in from the other territories. There is a small window of time when we are all at work at the same time so we try and schedule meetings when everyone can join on hangout. We do a lot of hangouts, we communicate a lot by email, IM and face to face whenever we can.
We’ve got our annual Unruly-fest, this is where everybody from across the company comes together at our HQ. They will have team by team, cross territory training and then we’ll also party together, we’ll spend some time reminding ourselves who we all are.
Something else that we do that helps our culture is having flats. We have a London flat, a New York flat and we’re looking to have a flat in Singapore so that Unruly’s who are visiting have somewhere to stay. We’ve pretty much, on rotation, had someone from London staying in New York, someone from New York staying in London. That way you know there is cross pollination of ideas, best practices and relationships can be built.
Do you find the cultural nuances of a country will affect the type of culture you will have in that office?
I’m a big believer in the positive power of diversity and I think you see that in all different levels across the organisation. Our founding team is diverse in terms of gender, the exec team is quite diverse in terms of gender, race and age and when you look across the whole company there is a very diverse team. Not just in terms of demographics but in terms of lifestyle choices and passions.
How have you gone about building that diversity? It’s in the press a lot that the industry suffers from a diversity problem but you’re testament that it can be done so how did you do that?
First of all we celebrate diversity and we’re explicit about the fact that we want a diverse team. The nature of our work is really helpful because we’re servicing global clients, running global campaigns here out of London so by necessity our workforce is very international. We need people who speak French, German, Italian, Chinese and all kinds of different languages; they’re all right here in London. So right from the start we have been very international and also we often take people who have just finished university courses on our internship program and they’re very open minded, keen to have new experiences, welcome to embracing different types of people and that has helped to build a diverse culture. We have so many different offices and that has also helped.
I think if you have shared values, you can have a diverse set of people coalescing around those shared values and that’s crucial. Our values are very important, we hire by them, we fire by them and the company will succeed or fail in places depending on how well we abide by them. They are to share the love, to embrace change and to deliver wow. As long as people can do all three of those things then that’s all we need. To deliver wow for clients, to share the love with each other and to embrace change as needed to move on as a company and we’ll be fine. It’s not for everybody though, being realistic, not everybody is as dedicated or as driven. We do demand as much of ourselves as we do of our staff so some people do arrive and might get a shock. We have a very thorough hiring process which involves onsite interviews but also involves doing the job. Developers will pair together and once you have sat and worked together with someone for a day you can have a pretty good idea about whether or not they’re the right fit or not.
What we have found is that if you end up only listening to what people say you end up giving the roles to great talkers but not necessarily people who can walk the walk. Conversely, you can often overlook the quieter, who are often more considered, but who might not be so good in an interview situation but if you give them an hour to do a task they will knock your socks off!
Tell me about your Unrulyversity. How did that come about?
So there is two. There is Unrulyversity, which is our internal development program. We have a lot of graduates coming through and this our program to educate them in things like emotional intelligence, working with clients, project management and presentation skills. They really enjoyed it so we thought it would be good to extend it. At that point I was working with Caroline, a professor in the Business School at Cass University. We’ve worked together for a long time - she works with the marketing academics and she uses our data for writing marketing papers, so we said ‘why not do something together?’. We can have the rigour of the academic, the experience of the entrepreneur and we can bring those two together and potentially we can have a pop-up university which inspires the next generation of Tech City entrepreneurs. That was the mission; to inspire the next generation. It’s quite unusual because you don’t usually have the academic perspective and the practitioner perspective alongside each other, almost commenting and reflecting on each other’s approaches at the same time. They deal with very different issues and that’s why it’s good to bring them both together. That’s been fantastic. It found funding in its second year, has just found a new sponsor for the third year and so that’s going to be kicking off next September. There is a real focus on getting your hands dirty and practical exercises. More importantly it builds a community, because it’s free. It can be very lonely being an entrepreneur so having a network of like-minded people who are also at similar stages and probably facing similar problems can be really helpful.
Advice & Final Thoughts
So what advice do you have for people who want to start their own business? What are the key things that people need to bear in mind when they’re looking to set up?
Choose co-founders that you trust and that will make the journey a lot more pleasurable and a lot less likely to fail. Build a business around an area that you have a lot of passion about because you are going to be making a lot of sacrifices. You will have to work harder than you have ever imagined in your life so it’s really important that you are working towards something that you really enjoy doing. And enjoy the ride - take the time to enjoy the ride. There will be many ups and downs but take a moment to take in the view when you’re at the top because you might not be there for long. It consumes you. I think it’s human nature and we’re much more likely to focus on the negative rather than the positive and that’s why we have to be very disciplined with ourselves to make sure we focus enough on the positives.
What’s your vision for the future of Unruly?
We are continuing to scale. We launched in Asia Pacific in April and we’ve grown there much faster than anticipated. We’re moving into our third office out there. We’ve just hired the MD, he hired some people and then we outgrew the second office so we’re moving into a new one. So we’re continuing to grow there. It’s a huge emerging market and lots of opportunity for us.
I just love running my own business. I want to see it continue to thrive and continue to grow. The more we grow the more I appreciate the impact that we have and the larger we grow the more impact we can continue to have. One of our values is ‘share the love’ and we have a program called Share The Love where we do pro-bono work and charity campaigns. We’re also just working out how much value we can provide back into the community and causes through donations and free media; it was £175,000 this year. We always knew that we wanted to have a value and an impact beyond the company. We always perceived that as being a legacy value. We’ll create a business, the business will be successful and we’ll create an ‘Unruly Mafia’ where all the people who work for us will then go out and start their own amazing businesses. So right from the start we have wanted to have that long term impact on London. I love the city and I’m so proud to be apart of it but we didn’t quite appreciate that we have the impact until we realised that we had this huge reach. We have an audience of over a billion worldwide, we have sent videos viral for lots of top brands and so we thought, ‘why don’t we do this for other good causes as well’, so that’s what we’ve been doing for the last couple of years and I really enjoy that. Also, I enjoy having an impact on our staff. The more staff we have, the more people we’re helping to lead a fulfilled life. We’re helping them to stay interested and giving them a safe workplace where they can grow, support their families and that kind of stuff is pretty cool. That’s why I want to grow bigger so that we can help staff, more other good businesses and bring more value. But I’m such a worrier, it doesn’t matter whether the business is three people or three hundred people, it will keep me awake just the same. That was the biggest thing I learnt about myself; whatever I’m doing, I will throw myself in 110% so I may as well be doing - I owe it to myself to be doing - something that it is important, worth worrying about and can have a huge impact.
Our superpower that everyone knows us for is our predictive technology but really our super weapon is our people. They’re passionate, they want to deliver wow and when things go wrong, that’s when you appreciate the people even more.