Sarah Wood is the COO/CMO of Unruly Media. The Shoreditch-based company not too long ago raised $25m in Series A investment from Amadeus Capital Partners, Van den Ende & Deitmers and Business Growth Fund.
Unruly’s social video platform delivers and tracks active video views for major global brands and their media agencies including T-Mobile's acclaimed Life's for Sharing series, Evian's global Roller Babies hit and Heineken's Open Your World campaign.
I recently caught up with Sarah as we took a trip down memory lane, talking about her background to her inspirations growing up and finally speaking about how the idea for Unruly Media came about and her plans to grow the business even further.
Hi Sarah, How are you doing, great to have you on YHP?
Thanks for having me!
Could you quickly give us some background information about yourself? Tell me about yourself growing up?
As a child, I was the archetypal bossy big sister – according to Mum, my younger brother didn’t learn to speak until he was 4 yrs old because I did the talking for both of us. At school, I worked very hard to be the best at everything I did, but when I fell short of my own expectations I would get way too upset. As a grown up, I try not to beat myself up so much when things don’t go to plan.
How did you get into business? Were you exposed to entrepreneurship as a child?
Funnily enough, my father is a trade unionist, so my childhood and teenage years were spent on the other side of the fence – supporting workers and decrying the greed of big business. Both my parents have a very strong work ethic, though, and a stoic determination never to give up, no matter how tough things get. I’ve carried that with me.
Who was your inspiration growing up and why?
Anne Frank, The Famous Five and my teachers. My teachers used to let me hang around them at break times. We would talk politics and bash the Tories. I was a total geek and a political idealist. Robert Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropist made a deep impression.
So tell me about Unruly Media and how the idea came about?
There are 3 cofounders – myself (COO), Scott Button (CEO) and Matthew Cooke (CTO). Scott and I had been together since university and had run a couple of small businesses after graduating from uni - nothing serious, but we did have a lot of fun and were keen to work together again. I went on to become an academic and Scott joined an ad-serving start-up in the late nineties, at the height of the Internet boom. That’s where he met and got to know Matt Cooke.
When the company (Connextra) was sold in 2005, the three of us decided to join forces and build a technology business. The Web 2.0 phenomenon was getting underway and we were keen to build a business that made the most of the social web. The availability of open source software and the cheap office space we were able to sublet in the Truman Brewery meant that the barriers to entry were low so we started up without a business plan or a commercial model – just a lot of ideas! We hired another developer, built a bunch of stuff, failed fast and learned fast during the first half of 2006.
We became especially interested in the fragmentation of online media, the explosion of social networks and the emergence of the blogosphere – all of which created a problem for any online video junkie: how to decide what to watch and how to be the first to find great content.
In September 2006, we had our first taste of success with ViralVideoChart, a cool-hunting website powered by a proprietary blog-scanning engine that scoured the web for video links and identified the most shared videos on the web. Described by Will.I.Am as “the Billboard Hot 100 of our generation”, ViralVideoChart now maps the dissemination of 300 billion video streams and tracks over 2 million video shares each day.
When brands and agencies asked us to help them launch their own films across the social web, we spotted an opportunity to build a scalable video seeding platform that identified influential sites and bloggers, invited them to run branded content and enabled brands and agencies to launch, optimise and measure their own social video campaigns.
We’re now the leading social video business in the world, with 9 offices spanning the US, Europe and Asia Pacific. Since launching our proprietary platform in 2007, we’ve delivered over 1,400 campaigns, 1.34 billion views and worked with over 300 brands. We’ve had the privilege to distribute iconic campaigns such as Compare the Meerkat, Barclay’s Waterslide, Old Spice Guy, Evian Roller Babies and T-Mobile’s Royal Wedding spoof.
Sustainable advantage comes down, ultimately, to your company’s DNA and Unruly’s DNA combines a fascination with video content, a love of the random and demotic nature of the web, with a big data approach to understanding the who, how, and why of what makes content work.
What were you doing before you founded Unruly Media?
I was a lecturer in American culture at Sussex University. I’ve never lost the teaching bug – now I convene an MPhil course at Cambridge University on Online Video Culture.
Can you explain to me what Unruly Media is and what you guys do? What is the process?
Unruly’s social video platform delivers and tracks active video views for major global brands and their media agencies. Our distribution network includes more than12,000 blogs, sites, social platforms and mobile apps globally across the social web. We have 9 offices and 120+ employees across three continents and 11 time zones.
We use our proprietary technology to target relevant audiences and identify the brand and content advocates that start conversations. Our proprietary video player and robust sharing & tracking tools ensure delivery of desired brand engagement across key campaign metrics -- Awareness, Attention, Advocacy, Action.
How have you been able to fund the business?
We bootstrapped the business up until the raise, using seed capital from the sale of Connextra to carry us through to profitability in 2009. From then on, we funded growth organically from cash flow.
The headlines reads "Unruly Media raises $25 million" and all of a sudden it seems like an overnight success story, I'm sure you guys have gone through a lot of intense moments since starting almost 6 years ago? What was your biggest challenge during the whole starting up phase?
We’ve doubled headcount every year since 2007, so preserving the Unruly culture that made us successful in the first place is an ongoing challenge. Maintaining focus can be difficult as there’s so much going on in the online video landscape and we’re compulsively drawn to new ideas. There are so many awesome new technologies, bringing with them new problems to solve and new digital ecosystems to solve them – it’s a great time to be an entrepreneur!
Why do you think you were very successful in raising that kind of amount and what was your experience and some of the key things you learnt during that process?
We’re a profitable company, we’re scaling revenues fast and we’re leading the field in a high-growth advertising sector. Industry experts predict that by 2015, half of all marketing campaigns will include video bought on a cost-per-view basis and 75% of video ads on the web will be social in nature. Operating at the intersect of social and video, Unruly is exceptionally well positioned to take advantage of this shift in advertising spend from offline to online.
What are the most crucial things you have done to grow your business?
Entered new markets – opening in New York was a significant milestone – and hired awesome people, with the aptitude to scale as the company grows.
What’s your business model?
We work on a cost-per-view basis. Brands pay us each time someone actively views their ad in the Unruly player and we share the revenue with the sites where the views occur.
Would you say the business has changed from the first initial idea?
Since we launched the platform in 2007, the social video format has certainly come a long way and our platform has rapidly developed to meet the changes in the social media landscape. As well as being a Facebook-whitelisted partner, Unruly’s player is integrated with Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and Pinterest - platforms that were either nascent or non-existent five years ago.
What advice can you give to other entrepreneurs looking to raise money for their start-up?
Be clear about why your business is unique; be clear about your vision for the company and be sure to know your numbers inside out!
What would you say has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
Ooh, that’s a difficult one to answer. Having the opportunity to spend lots of time in New York, making it into the Sunday Times Top 100 Companies to Work For, closing the Series A funding round were all highlights, but honestly, nothing beats the satisfaction I get from delivering kick-ass campaigns that exceed the client’s expectations.
What can we be expecting from your company in 2012?
We'll be striving to live up to our mission statement – to deliver the most awesome social video campaigns on the planet, and we’ll be doing that from more offices and for more clients, reaching consumers across more devices and a greater number of emerging social video platforms. We'll be continuing to innovate our technology platform and products and working closely with the IAB to ensure we're leading the sector as it matures.
What three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
1. Choose cofounders you trust; high-integrity individuals who share your values and vision for the company
2. Talk to your customers as soon as possible – the sooner you get your product out to market, the sooner you’ll find out whether it has any legs. If it doesn’t, at least you’ve failed fast. If it does, then you'll benefit from having real customers making suggestions as to how you can improve the offering, iterate the product, or solve a larger problem.
3. Invest in a kitchen table - this is the most important piece of office furniture you will ever buy; it’s the ideal place for a team to swap ideas and spend time building friendships with their peers.