Team, Vision and Culture: Picking a Winner in an Emerging Space

From time to time, Trinity partners host the management team of one of our portfolio companies to an appreciation dinner. It’s our way of honoring their hard work, and gives us a chance to recognize and connect with the extended team that is driving their success. Recently it was my pleasure to invite Brett Wilson, CEO of TubeMogul, and his executives to such an event. Part way through the dinner Brett held up his wine glass to toast the gathering and in his comments joked: “I’m not sure Ajay knew what he was investing in back in 2009 because TubeMogul is such a different company now.”

It’s true — the company I had invested in had transformed rather radically, and because I had been part of this transformation at each step along the way I had forgotten how much had changed. But I also knew at the time of my early investment that the company would have to find its way in the emerging online video ad landscape which was just coming into being. My high-level bet was not on the specifics of how TubeMogul would become the dominant programmatic video buying platform, but that video advertising would be big, and that Brett’s team would figure it out.

Now to be fair, I think most everyone knew that online video advertising would be big one day. There was nothing special about that observation. Instead it was the nuances of how TubeMogul was looking at the business that got me excited:

– Focus on Advertisers: Rather than playing the game of serving two masters (the advertisers and publishers) as many companies in the ad tech space do, TubeMogul decided early to focus on the advertiser and provide a best-of-breed solution with no inherent conflict in the business model.
– Building Transparency in the System: Because of this clear advertiser focus TubeMogul was able to put demands on publishers to be accountable, and provided transparency for the advertiser as to where their ads were being placed. This built deep trust with advertisers while gaining respect from publishers.
– Platform Approach to Buying: Back in 2009, buying video ads was a cumbersome, often manual process. Brett and his team were thinking about automating this process long before the word “programmatic buying” became fashionable. They were investing in analytics to assess and measure the efficacy of campaigns, and in high-quality UX to make it possible for the platform to be self-service.
– Eat Your Own Dog Food: It was not the most expedient thing to do, but when clients asked TubeMogul to run managed campaigns, the company rigorously used its platform internally to do so. This greatly helped mature the underlying technology for all self-service platform users.

However my really differentiated point of view on the investment was that Brett and his team were the ones to take on this emerging market. As an early stage investor you learn to pick up on a few telltale signs.

I recall Brett presenting his sales pipeline during our diligence process. There on that spreadsheet were names of not just his sales team, his marketing head and himself but also his head of product and his CTO. “Everybody here is in sales.” This reflected Brett’s maniacal focus on driving business, but it also showcased his belief that everyone in the business must have intimate, first-hand knowledge of customer needs, rather than an interpretation of what sales and marketing folks think.

I also noted that Brett had been very fair about distributing ownership between himself and his co-founders, and that he had aside a healthy pool for the employees, all signs of someone who is planning to build an enduring company.

I loved the team culture. It had the right mix of high pressure and a fun environment. It helped that the entire founding team of TubeMogul came from Cal (the company is based right near Berkeley in the East Bay). In the early stages of the company, a vast majority of new hires were Cal grads and I strongly believe that the company benefited over the years from this proximity to a terrific university. They were already a tight team due to these shared experiences, perhaps with a slight chip on their shoulder about their cross-bay rival, Stanford. These guys are hell bent on showing how an East Bay company can win big!

So Brett, I did know what I was investing in. I was investing in a market — but with the right leader, team, vision and culture: yours!