Adam Berke one of the founders and the former Chief Marketing Officer of Adroll, the world’s largest retargeting platform shares the story of how AdRoll grew from a startup to 700 + employees. Together, he and his partners started Adroll as a way to provide world-class digital advertising options and opportunities to businesses of all size.
Welcome back to another great conversation and today we have Adam Berke, the cofounder and global president of the world’s largest retargeting platform ad role. He’s now an angel investor who is focused on helping companies with their strategic marketing. Adam, welcome to the thrive time show. How are you my friend?
I’m doing really well. Thanks for having me.
Adam. We. I’m super excited to have you on the show. I’ve read your book or retargeting playbook. I’ve paid ad roll or spent a lot of money with ad roll over the years and I’ve always been very happy with the purchases and I want to ask you my friend, what would you guys, I guess you decided to leave the company about over a year ago and you brought in a very qualified successor by the name of Toby to be the president and the CEO of ad role. So I’d like to ask you, why did you decide to start ad roll and, and maybe why did you decide it was time to move on to Adam Berke?
Yeah, I mean the decision at the outset for, for me anyway was, was really all about all about the people. I’m jared and Erin who, who, who were the founders, a guy were friends of mine for seven or so years living in San Francisco and people who I had gotten to know I’m super well over the years and really it came to like really enjoy spending time with and also respect, um, on a, on a professional level. So the decrease that I, I knew them professionally, but, you know, they were just always do people that I just, for whatever reason, just wanted to do something with entrepreneurial entrepreneur entrepreneurially. And they actually ended up then coming, coming to me about this concept, a bad role. And um, I had been in the marketing technology and advertising space for um, you know, already quite a few years at that point.
So they, they, they came to me with that context. Um, if anything, I was interested in doing something that was a little bit further afield from what I had already been doing, but because it was those two people specifically, it was sort of a no brainer for me to join, join, join up with them at that point. Um, and that was, you know, that was back in 2007 and then, you know, I, it was along a road and working together for, for 10 years, um, which, which, uh, you know, only recently, um, you know, I made that transition, um, and it was just, you know, a situation where I’m after 10 years, it was time for me to do the next thing in, in, in my life and my career. Um, and, you know, I think with a little bit of distance, now I can, I can wait say that, uh, you know, the right person for that role that I was in.
You know, it’s really tough to be the best possible person for a company at, at, you know, three people and then 30 people and 300 people. And, you know, we were 700 or so people when I left and, you know, just a combination of just having, you know, been working at those problems for a long time. Um, and then also, you know, the company changing a lot, uh, around me, I am, you know, I think, I think it was time for a clean slate. It was the right thing for me and the right thing for the company. Um, and that, you know, toby was obviously someone we knew and you know, it was just the ideal a pick to come in and, and, you know, bring a fresh perspective to the company and it, so it all sort of at all just lined up and, you know, and this is a conversation I’ve been having with, with Aaron for probably, you know, a year that, you know, at some point, um, you know, there should be a transition, um, you know, at some point we should find someone to um, to, to take on that role that I described.
And it all sort of fell into place over the course of a year. So, um, and so that freed me up, um, as, as you mentioned,
you’re a marketers, if I’m correct using the platform, but before you became a big success, I mean, before you became a, a, a name that a lot of marketers and advertisers knew, uh, you obviously had to start somewhere. Where did you physically start ad role? Did you start out of a condominium somewhere? Did you start out of a house and we start in a garage? What was your San Francisco Startup story?
Cliche? I would have to say, yeah, it was back of the door, opened up an underground garage actually that was in, yeah, that was in a, a condominium in Soma. Um, we were actually renting the back room of a, of another startup which was founded by Neval robuchon actually, so kind of a notable name increasingly these days in the, in the crypto world. But yeah, so it was a startup company called basf, um, and we were renting their back room and you know, that was in 2007 and it was certainly an auspicious time, founding a company in 2007. We raised our series day in August of 2008, which, you know, if you do the math was like three weeks before I’m Lehman and bear stearns. Uh, it was a scary time, but you know, with, with some good revision of history, it was also a very opportune time to start a company. Um, there were, there wasn’t a lot of competition, right?
after that point, I’m trying to build a marketing technology product during the midst of an economic downturn is very difficult marketer and marketing is one of the first things that companies pull back on an economic downturn. So we were getting and it was very hard to find product market fit, but we also got a lot of very clear feedback, you know, no one was spending money on anything that wasn’t driving very clear results. Um, so it allowed us to actually iterate quickly and you know, we weren’t, we, there was no opportunity for us to dilute ourselves to think, oh yeah, we’re doing something awesome when, when we really weren’t, because you know, there was no excess budget to go around for those kinds of things. So if we were doing something that wasn’t adding value, you know, customers would turn out very quickly and get that feedback. So although in many respects it was, it was, uh, a bit of a, a nail biter type time to be trying to build a company. In retrospect, it was actually a really powerful crucible to get really good customer feedback to really focus our energy to really figure out a product that added value and, you know, as things started to turn around and the economy had had all that, you know, great learning under our belt and you know, Ben, we were well positioned to, to grow really rapidly, which, which we did.
Uh, one of the things I’ve enjoyed about listening to some of your previous interviews is I love the language that you use and we have hundreds of thousands of people that download this podcast on a consistent, on a consistent basis. And a lot of them aren’t familiar with some of the language. I mean, because you’ve lived in San Francisco, you started your business there. Can you share with some of the folks out there, some of the plumbers, some of the doctors from the dentist who say series a, I think I do it. That means, can you kind of explain what is series a funding all about?
Well, man, honestly, you know, I think people who are in the silicon valley itself probably get a pretty confused about these terms because they’re constantly shifting. I mean, when we, um, you know, raised our quote unquote series back in 2007. It meant something extremely different than it means today. Um, you know, in generally, you know, the age of the series of the letter is sort of a sequential round of funding for business. So a is earlier and now we’re even at this place where, um, you know, there’s multiple rounds of funding that often happened before you even get to a, because there’s been this proliferation of early, early stage investors. Um, and uh, a formalizing of, um, you know, what we would call seed investing. That’s become sort of a, a, a professional activity. Whereas, you know, a decade ago you might raise a small amount from friends and family or an angel investor or something of that nature and then you would raise your first, you know, quote unquote institutional round from a professional, a firmed at your series a.
Now there’s been more and more firms like y and 500 startups and sv angel that have emerged to professionalize that seed stage round. And so people are, you know, all of this has kind of been pushed back a little bit and people are doing more quote unquote seeds. So I’ve heard terminology like pre priest there, like preceded then see institutional seed is definitely and series a. and so by the time you were in serious and the series a rounds have gotten. No used to be series a rounds where were were, you know, relatively small. It could be like one to three, one to $4 million. And now you know, series a’s are often, you know, five to 10 million because people have raised, you know, various rounds of seed preceded. I heard, I heard, I’ve heard the term pre company use recently where, you know, people just want to certain entrepreneur who they really believe in and say, okay, well you’ll figure out what, what even the company is as you go and, you know, wanting to get in earlier and earlier dynamics at play there. But yeah,
no, Adam, another word that you said is, I break it down, the definitions of Adam Berke here. Before we get back at this, you said the word crucible and the crucible. I mean there’s, that’s a great word to describe the path of starting a business that’s a, a situation of severe trial. Um, when you, how long did it take you to push through that crucible where the situation of severe trials before you felt like you were gaining any traction because you hear about espn struggling for over a decade. Fedex taking nine years. You hear Amazon, you hear facebook, these companies like in three years, four years. How many years did it take you with ad roll to gain some traction?
It was certainly one of those situations where it’s the cliche where they’re an overnight success that takes like five years on the outside it seems like, oh wow. You just kind of like pop, you know, you popped up and all that. All of a sudden you were everywhere. And it’s like, well, there were quite a few years that, that went into it before that to get to that point. And that was certainly the case with us. You know, as I mentioned, we started the company in 2007 and I wouldn’t say we really, we, we didn’t even figure out the, what was the sort of winning products for us until 2009. So there was at least two years or so of just iterating and iterating and trial and error. I’m trying to figure out the product that really solves the problem that we were trying to solve, which was, you know, bringing um, sophisticated performance marketing technology to a broad market that was sort of a high level, a high level thought process that we thought there was an underserved market, um, of, of mid and small businesses that didn’t have a good tools and all the sophisticated technology was built for larger brands and we wanted to build something that would bring those technologies to a broader audience and, you know, but what exactly that was and how you actually did was, was still a big question.
And it took a lot of trial and error to figure that out. And, you know, we, we, we, we didn’t even realize we didn’t even hit on the product for about two years. And then once we sort of did that, it still took us, you know, I would say at least another year to really have conviction that, that we had hit on the thing. And, you know, we’re, we’re, we’re, you know, could double down on what was at the time, the retargeting product, um, that we, that, you know, it took us a few years to get to um, and then scale out from there.
Do you feel like kind of when you felt solid about what was happening when you were no longer eating a diet consisting entirely of leftovers, you could find a local dumpsters and ramen noodles?
Yeah, there, there was definitely a turning point around them. I mean, look, I’ll never, I’ll never say no to ramen. It depends where the dumpster is located. But uh, yeah, so yeah, I would say three years or so, probably 2010, 2011. We definitely had turned a corner and I was doing a lot of the early sales myself. And is that, that’s where it got to the point where I felt like, you know, if someone’s, if someone signed up with us, I felt like really confident that they were going to stick around because we were solving a real problem for them and, and really helping them out. And so I didn’t constantly need to worry about, I’m sort of filling a leaky bucket, um, and, and you know, that I knew I could have a conversation with a new customer and be like, um, you know, this, this really is going to solve a problem that you have.
And then once they tested it, you know, we knew that they would stick around for a long time because it just worked. And so then it became like a witch, how can we get this into as many people’s hands as possible. Um, and so it became more about, okay, well what do free trials and you know, how long of a free trial and how and how, how else can we just create awareness because we know now that we have somebody that works and that people will, will keep using, you know, month after month, quarter after quarter, year after year.
So you built this business, it took you three years to get that traction. And then you decided to open up offices in Dublin, New York, London, Tokyo in Sydney while keeping the headquarters as you informed us earlier in San Francisco. Why did you decide to open up offices in these additional locations? What, why these locations?
Yeah. Well, broadly speaking, this, this was around, let’s see, 2013 or so, um, it was very clear that a, we had a product that worked, that the market, uh, that, that solved the problem in the market, you know, that that quintessential product market fit. But we, we thought we also had a very broad market to go after. Basically anyone who sold anything online was a plausible lead for us. Um, so there was a lot of potential customers out there. Um, and we knew there was sort of a limited amount of time to go out and win the market because in technology, you know, as soon as you’re doing something that works, there’s going to be people that are going to try to replicate what you’re doing. And you know, of course you all know that’s from the low end. You know, you have people that are starting startups that are seeing what you’re doing is successful and are going to try to disrupt you and, and, and innovate on what you’re doing.
And then of course, you know, you’re playing in the sandbox of some of the big boys, you know, Google and facebook and whatnot. And if you don’t move quickly, um, you know, they’ll, they’ll, they could roll out things here or there that could really, um, you know, uh, put up roadblocks. And so we knew we had to move quickly and we wanted to go after a large market and a large market existed. And the challenges that marketers have in the US are not dissimilar to the problem that marketers have online and other parts of the world. Um, so, you know, of course we did our due diligence and we, we, we went to these markets and, you know, and also one of the benefits that we have is because, you know, because adderall role is a self service tool that anybody can go to the website and sign up for and used.
We could get all this data and see, oh wow, you know, there’s people, there’s people coming in from this country and that country. And so, um, you know, before we were even present physically in those markets, we had customers. Um, so that kind of gave us a good data point to say, hey, you know, this is a good place to go or, or, or that’s a good place to go. And that, you know, there’s other, there’s other criteria that comes into the thought process with respect to what is the cost to operate in these markets relative to the market opportunity. Are there regular, what’s the regulatory environment like? What’s the culture like? What kind of impact is this gonna have on our organization when we’re no longer all able to sit in the same office? And that was spread across time zones and this was a big learning for sure as we grew about how you make sure that everyone who’s working at the same company and all these different offices, um, is up to date on everything that’s happening with the product. Um, everything that you know is happening with respect to how you’re positioning yourself and how you’re marketing the company, various decisions that might have been made. And how do you make sure that communication, um, run smoothly, um, across the global organization, which is a, not a trivial challenge.
Live nation. If you enjoyed our conversation with one of the founders of ad roll a, these, these guys started and they grew it to be over $350, million dollars in size in terms of annual revenue. They grew the company from a startup to a company that had over 700 employees, which means that he knows a little bit about advertising, so if you love today’s podcast, you’re definitely not going to want to miss our next interview with Mr Adam Berke, where he shares the ad roll story part two and the next phase of his career and he shares about advertising. How do you advertise? What’s the proper mindset for advertising and marketing and how do you grow a company from a pretty small to over 700 employees? How do you grow? How do you grow from startup to startup? How do you bet you build a company? How do you scale it? Well, one of the essential components, one of the essential ingredients to growing a successful company is you must be to be committed to ongoing marketing and advertising. So you do not want to miss the advertising expert. And one of the cofounders of ad role as he joins us on an upcoming podcast, be looking for it. And now with any further, I do three, two, one boom.