At 28, Will Becker was running a 120 head business operating in 7 European markets. He set up and led Advertising.com Europe into the biggest online ad network of its time before being snapped up for just under $1/2BN by AOL in 2004.
I talk to Will about his experience running Advertising.com Europe and about his company, Media Ingenuity.
Hi Will, 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?
I grew up in deepest, darkest rural Suffolk. So I arrived at university in Oxford and then London wide-eyed and naïve.
How did you get into business? Were you exposed to entrepreneurship as a child?
Both my parents were dentists. So I have good teeth but didn’t really have anyone close to me who was obviously an entrepreneur. I ended up running my own businesses largely because I lack the application required for a proper job.
Who was your inspiration growing up and why?
When I was growing up I wasn’t interested in the accomplishments of business leaders. David Attenborough seemed to have one of the best and most important jobs you could wish for. Today I’m inspired by how much Elon Musk is accomplishing at a tender age. I hope he stays motivated.
What was the inspiration behind Media Ingenuity? How did the idea come about?
Media Ingenuity is a business that simply evolved from a core skill. Jonathan Hassid (my co-founder) and I knew we had strong online marketing capabilities and wanted to exploit those skills with the lowest risk strategy possible – we chose lead generation in financial services since the market was so accessible. Today the business has much more lofty ambitions and a clear social purpose but that wasn’t clear in the beginning.
So Will, what is Media Ingenuity? What are you guys are trying to solve?
Media Ingenuity operates the credit card focused comparison site TotallyMoney.com. Its mission is to transform the choice and usage patterns of consumer credit and in doing so save consumers billions. We’re focused on building tools that make it as compelling to switch credit products as it is to compare and switch insurance. The problem we’re trying to solve is that whilst 50% of us compare insurance every year, less than 5% of us compare credit cards and so we’re giving up huge value. Since the financial benefits of comparison and switching are similar we think that can change. We’re already the 2nd largest credit card intermediary in the UK but our mission is more to grow the market than take market share.
We also operate our own credit card brands in partnership with leading issuers:
What was your biggest challenge during the starting up phase? Tell us about the first couple of months.
We were tremendously lucky and established a very simple but profitable business model in lead generation from very early on – we were profitable from about month 4 and had only burned through a pretty small amount of our own money at that point. That allowed us to stay entirely self-funded until SEP’s investment in 2011. The main challenge in the very early days was being taken seriously as a new entrant in a very crowded space.
What were you doing before you founded Media Ingenuity?
From 2000 I was lucky enough to be involved in building Advertising.com into the biggest online ad network of its time. I set up and then led Advertising.com Europe from startup phase to its position as the leading internet advertising network in Europe. Then in 2004 we sold it to AOL Time Warner (for just under $1/2BN).
What are some of the key things that you learnt from that experience?
That was a tremendous learning experience – at 28 I was running a 120 head business operating in 7 European markets: much too young, really. We made a lot of mistakes – I hired a good but similarly inexperienced team around me – we could have done with a few more grey hairs. The most important learning though was that even in a market with returns to scale like network advertising, you don’t have to be first in market. No one gave us a chance against well-funded incumbents like DoubleClick.com when we launched but within 3 years we were dominating the UK, and were the biggest in Europe overall. As a late entrant you can still win if your product is good and you execute well.
Raising money is always such a hot topic, How have you been able to get such a great bunch on investors onboard?
In truth it wasn’t too hard. We were a cash generating business from the early days so it was really a question of what type of investment we were looking for and of course the valuation of the business. Nevertheless, we were very glad that SEP made us a great offer. They’ve been brilliant to work with.
What are the most crucial things you have done to grow your business?
Above all, a focus on hiring great people. Secondly, not being afraid or slow to pivot – we’ve lived through some pretty turbulent times in financial services. Our internet marketing skills have always given us access to customers to grow fast but making sure we stay one step ahead of the game as the world has changed has sustained our growth.
Would you say the business has changed from the first initial idea?
Absolutely – we started with a very simple lead generation business, a website a couple of pages deep and excellent online marketing. That established our profitability. From that base, we’re now building class-leading comparison and credit products. When you have great product, there’s a whole lot more that you can do and that represents the current strategy and the future of Media Ingenuity.
What would you say has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
I would say Advertising.com taking on the well-funded incumbent online advertising network players in Europe with little backing and winning within 3 years.
However, hitting the Tech Track 100 with Media Ingenuity two years running was also a moment of realization that we’d created something very successful.
What can we be expecting from Media Ingenuity in 2013?
I hope you will see TotallyMoney.com reach consumer consciousness as we persuade people to see that there’s huge value in choosing and using better credit cards.
What three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
Firstly, go for it. Especially when you’re young and you can. Secondly, if you’re not in a position to afford to fail, don’t try to change the world. I think the most common misunderstanding is that you need a brilliant new idea to be an entrepreneur. Great execution within an existing market is a much more likely success story. Finally, don’t do it alone – it’s just more fun to do it with a partner who you trust and who has complimentary skills and personality, I’ve been very fortunate to work with Jonathan these last 7 years.