Sean Rad is the personification of entrepreneurial success. His pioneering spirit and forward thinking techniques have enabled him to start two thriving companies, Orgoo, and Twitter advertising company, Ad.ly. His company has over 1000 celebrity influencers including Kim Kardashian, Snoop Dogg, Paris Hilton, and more. We were lucky enough to speak with the Ad.ly founder about what he believes are the main components to building a strong startup team as well as his thoughts on the future of new media. Check out the interview to learn more about Sean Rad!
- What takes up most of your time right now? Ad.ly 🙂
- Guilty pleasure: I like romantic comedies.
- What is your relationship status? Single
- What would you consider your weakness? I have plenty of weaknesses — wouldn’t be human if I didn’t. One weakness is that I sometimes move too fast on things. It takes a lot of discipline to slow down and get perspective at times.
- What are your pet peeves? People who clean their teeth with their tongue and people who can’t admit and recognize their weaknesses — probably my biggest pet peeve.
- Your ideal girl: Somebody that has a balance between career and family. Somebody who is ambitious and not just ambitious about her career but ambitious about building a great family. Someone who is very understanding and supportive.
- Name a couple of celebrities you’ve met since you started Ad.ly: Believe it or not, I haven’t met that many celebrities. I’ve met their management and some pretty fascinating people in Hollywood — the people behind the celebrities. We haven’t interacted with celebrities themselves, more with their business units.
- The longest you have gone without sleep: Two and a half days. The day we launched Ad.ly, I pretty much did not sleep for two and a half days. There were fires we were putting out. We had a huge launch party the same day we launched Ad.ly, it was part of a conference. Unexpectedly, we had a very large campaign from a large brand that same day. We didn’t have the technology fully baked to execute that campaign, and we didn’t have the process in place, because we weren’t expecting to launch a campaign. It was sort of all hands on deck for two days to execute that campaign and get things in order. It was fun and it was a wild experience.
- Fun fact: I write music and I sing. Prior to entering the tech world my ambition was to be a singer and songwriter. That was the focus of my life.
- Funner fact: (laughs) I don’t know what to say.
Walk us through a typical day for you.
Sean Rad: I wake up at 7 o’clock, check my email, check the news, respond to email messages, go to the office, have daily meetings or stand up meetings, get the day in order and probably put out a fire or two. A big part of being an entrepreneur — and life in general — is having to deal with a series of problems and finding intuitive ways to solve them. Then, I come home and relax a little bit, go out, come back and work until 3 a.m. Then, I do it all over again.
Have you always been a morning person?
No, but you have to be. The morning is the best time to get a lot of stuff done. There’s a lot of peace and quiet.
You’ve already explained what Ad.ly does in multiple interviews, so we’ll save you the headache. However, we do have one question: How did you come up with the name?
At the time, we were looking for a name that sort of reflected the Twitter ecosystem. Bitly was fairly popular for shortening URLs and we wanted to sort of put our brands within the URLs that we were distributing on Twitter, so we thought of Ad.ly — bitly but with ads. It indicated that it wasn’t a regular link but an endorsed link. We were really big on disclosure.
Actually, getting the name was really funny. A German company originally owned the Ad.ly name. I was up until 4 a.m. figuring out the contact information of the company. I went to their site and found the CEO’s name, googled him, went to his blog and still didn’t find the right contact information. So I translated the blog post into English and figured out that one of the blog posts that he was referencing was a friend that he did work with. Then I went to that consultant’s blog, looked at that number, called the guy and asked him if I could have his friend’s number.
Now, it was like 5 a.m. A week before our launch it wasn’t called Ad.ly. We ended up negotiating for an hour because there was actually a URL shortener on it, so we had to buy the company, so to say, to get the domain. It wasn’t that expensive but it was worth it.
Is there any specific reason you went from working in tech to working in entertainment?
Ad.ly has more to do with tech than people imagine. Yes, our supply and distribution relies on celebrities. But to make Ad.ly scale is a fairly large technical challenge.
It involves machine-learning technology to understand a celebrity’s audience. There are pre-campaign analytics to match the right brand to the right celebrity. There’s sort of this complicated CNS to route requests to celebrities to get them approved and track them in the system.
Then, there’s post-campaign analytics, so we can track performance for every campaign and track links. There’s actually a lot of technology involved and the Hollywood piece is a big part of what we do, but we are definitely a technology company first.
In one of your early interviews, you mentioned that you’ve never had a real job until your first company. How did you learn to run a company at such a young age and who are your mentors?
My first job was my own company. For my first company, Orgoo, we brought in a fantastic CEO. I sought him out because I felt that he was better equipped to run the company. I’ve always had the philosophy to do what’s best for the company, not for myself.
I was in a fortunate position to learn from him because he had no choice. I was the founder and we had to make decisions together. I learned how to manage a team through business and experience. There’s a lot that I’ve learned just sitting in meetings and learning from others.
The most complicated and most difficult thing that I’ve had to learn was how to effectively manage a team and how to get a team focused around a single vision — have accountability, set goals, and keep the wheels turning. A company is all about the team.
Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?
I’ve always had a drive to be an entrepreneur. I’ve always been creative. I’ve always had a dream to own what I do. I have a pretty high propensity to take on stress and responsibility, so I like challenges. The pressure is sometimes fun.
YouTube recently announced that they will be launching a hub of new channels for celebrities in the near future. Tell us your thoughts on the new media movement and its integration into mainstream media. Do you think Hollywood is still behind or do you think they’ve caught up in the last year?
I think distribution is moving online, viewership is moving online, but content is still king. Hollywood understands content better than anyone. Talent is also still king.
What you have right now is ‘tier one’ content, which still exists on television and to some degree online. ‘Tier two’ content is low production — professional YouTube personalities. ‘Tier three’ content is user generated content.
I think what you’re going to find over time is that Hollywood is going to move in a direction where they are producing cheaper ‘tier two’ content. I think that’s already happening right now. Hollywood is going to increasingly leverage the Internet and leverage the Web on how they distribute their ‘tier one’ content.
I think you can’t avoid the fact that people are either online, while they’re watching TV or exclusively watching content online. I think what you’re going to find is that there’s not going to be a difference between the television set and the computer. It’s going to be one consistent experience that’s going to rely on the cloud of Internet and make that all work. It’s almost like one big sky net.
What are some online channels that you follow, if there are any and why? Do you have a favorite blog, website or YouTube channel that you keep up consistently?
Every morning I check Google Reader. I have some of the same sources that I’ve been looking at. I have my sources for tech, which include: TechCrunch, ReadWriteWeb and Mashable. I have a variety of niche sources — The Next Web is a great one. I follow competitors and their blogs. I catch up on the music and entertainment industry, and make sure that I’m aware of what’s happening.
I love digesting all kinds of information. I’m sort of like an information whore. It starts with RSS, and even though that’s an outdated medium, it’s efficient for what I use it for. I check Twitter, sometimes you find things that you don’t find, you know, they are distributed by your friends. I’m also constantly looking at Facebook to get updates on my close network of friends ,which sometimes gives you a good sense of what’s transitioning from early adopters down to the mainstream. The Facebook feed sort of represents the mainstream and when you see things pop up there, it gives you the whole sense of how important that news is. It’s a different idea for scale.
What are some of your favorite campaigns you’ve done with Ad.ly?
One of my favorite campaigns that we’ve done is for a BBC television show, Top Gear, where we had a variety of celebrities basically tweet out what their first car was. I thought that was interesting because it was sort of content meets editorial meets advertising. It was real content produced by the celebrities. It tied in the brand, campaign and purpose of the show they were promoting very well.
Another campaign that I really liked was one for the release of the Michael Jackson’s “This Is It” DVD with Sony. What was amazing about that one was it was a competition where you had to retweet a particular tweet, and every one in a thousand would win a free copy of the DVD. It was wildly successful.
What was interesting, was that we were able to see how 20 celebrities were able to generate over 20,000 tweets and create a trending topic. It was really fun watching that campaign grow and that viral coefficient to kick in.
If you could go back to your experiences with your first company, would you change anything?
There would be a million things I would do differently now, but I probably wouldn’t change anything. It was those mistakes that established my knowledge. If I would have never made those mistakes, I would have eventually made them so I’m happy I made them early on in my career.
I think what I learned from my first company is that the most important thing about building a company, and the difference between a company and a product, is that a company, to me, is defined as a group of people that are focused on a vision. How they accomplish that vision, and how they solve and fulfill that vision, could be in a variety of ways.
The product, which is sort of like the vehicle to get there, changes all the time. If you have a bad product, you can fix it. If you have a bad team, you can’t fix that. If have a bad culture, you can’t fix that. The most critical components of building a company is having an effective vision that a good group of people are bought into — you are all focused and headed toward that vision.
What can we expect from Ad.ly in the future?
We launched Looksy.com, which is a flash sale site. It’s a site that promotes products that are picked by celebrities. That was a nice project that we launched, with a variety of celebrities, and it’s doing very well. I think as far as Ad.ly is concerned, and what you’re going to see from the company, is advertisers are going to have more interesting sets of data to examine — both pre-campaign and post-campaign.
Ashton Kutcher recently announced that he is going to take a break from Twitter and have his management team review his tweets. In a poll conducted by Mashable, more people voted that Kutcher should stay transparent because that’s what social media is all about. What are your thoughts on social media and transparency? Do you think people should be more careful nowadays, especially celebrities?
I think people need to be more careful. That doesn’t mean be dishonest because at the core of social media there’s that transparency. People and celebrities need to understand the power of their tweets, the power of the messages that they are distributing through social media and how in many ways they are as effective — if not even more affective — than press and PR itself.
There comes a lot of responsibility with the notion of how you control your distribution. In Spiderman, his dad tells him, “With great power comes great responsibility.” I think that applies to social media and these large accounts.
You mention in another interview that one of your greatest challenges was conquering and developing a good team. Can you share any tips on building a solid team?
First of all, you have to have a define culture in your head. Part of the culture is your vision — where you want to go.
To build an effective team, you need to find people and set those expectations ahead of time: this is the culture, this is the vision, this is what we’re doing. Make sure they are bought in to prevent future clashes.
As far as getting access to the right people, one strategy is I’ve been able to appeal to the best of the best. One of two things happens when you get to the best of the best. They end up joining and bringing other great people with them. If they don’t join, they can point you to another great person because they know who those people are. Talent chooses talent. It’s all about being able to identify who is the right person to perform the function that you need done, and who is the right person as far as assimilating within your company and culture. Both of those things are equally as important.
You can have a great person who doesn’t fit into your culture and they will be the worst person on your team. Similarly, you can have somebody that’s not that great but fits into the culture really well and who punches above their weight class. One more thing about talent: I’ve always looked for people who are not set in their ways and are able to punch above their weight class and have that desire to do so. You want to surround yourself, especially in a startup environment, with people that are hungry, with people who are going to push the limits with you.
So hypothetically speaking, if Orgoo and Ad.ly did not work out, what would you be doing right now?
Starting a third company. As long as you have the luxury of time, my philosophy is: there’s always a way to accomplish what you want to accomplish. Never take no for an answer. If you want to get something done and your ambition is to build a successful company, as long as you’re honest with yourself and realistic, there’s always a way. If you fail once, twice, three times, you just keep going.
Any final words of wisdom for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Really focus and define, ahead of time, which market you are going after. If you want to raise outside capital, it should be a very large market.
What is the problem you are solving? Define that problem and make sure it’s a clear and recognizable problem. What is the solution? Is that solution marketable and achievable? Do you have access, and can you identify the right people who are going to basically allow you to fulfill that vision? Who is your customer? That’s something most people forget to define early on. How do you plan on making money and how will you make money? Do you have a proven revenue model? There are so many things that go into building a company and you have to be prepared beforehand.
You need to have your story straight. Number one, for yourself. Number two, for the purpose of getting people around you. You need to be clear on what you’re doing and be able to articulate that to team members and other people.
At the same time, as long as you plan ahead, I think there’s a misconception that entrepreneurs are not prepared, but I think entrepreneurs are the most prepared people. You have to be prepared but you also have to move. You can’t sit still. You can’t have excuses and fall in the typical Catch 22 and say “I need money to do this” or ” I can’t do this unless I have funding and I can’t have funding unless I have that.” There’s always a way and there have been plenty of entrepreneurs with zero funding, who were able to recruit a great team and build a product by being scrappy and getting a company going. There’s always a way and you should never make excuses.
Just a fun question, assuming you became a famous musician. What kind of music would you be singing?
Who would be your musical influences?
Sting and Coldplay