We’re thrilled to be included in The Makegood’s ‘People of Ad Tech’ series! In this segment, our CEO and founder Josh Payne explained the importance of ‘native’ as an essential component of the modern digital publisher’s monetization toolkit. Check out the full interview below:
We’re thrilled to announce the addition of Ben Gafni to the StackCommerce team! With an expansive publisher network currently reaching over 1 billion monthly visitors across more than 750 publisher partners worldwide, we are always searching for new ways to better serve our ecosystem.
We couldn’t be happier to have Ben leading the charge on the growth and evolution of our publisher network as our new VP of Publisher and Business Development. Ben joined us from Google where he provided incredible leadership to the publisher-facing development team for over 12 years. Today, we are picking his brain on everything from his time at Google to his vision for the future of StackCommerece’s publisher network.
Liz: You recently joined StackCommerce after a long tenure at Google. Can you describe the evolution of your time there?
Ben: After starting my career in strategy consulting in New York, I joined a startup here in LA called Applied Semantics, which launched my career working with publishers. Applied Semantics created AdSense, one of the first contextual ad targeting technologies designed to help publishers monetize in a new way with text ads. When Google acquired the company in 2003, I joined Google’s publisher-facing business development team and worked to sign search and content syndication deals across multiple verticals. My role evolved over time, as Google acquired Doubleclick and began to work with partners in a much more multifaceted way led by ad platform technology and programmatic monetization across display, mobile and video. Most recently, I led a team in LA focused on Google’s largest partners in the entertainment and media space.
Liz: What excited you about the opportunity at Stack?
Ben: In looking towards my next role, I focused on high-growth start-ups in the LA area that aligned with my goals on several fronts — industry, culture, and leadership opportunities being paramount. The more I got to know the StackCommerce team, the more it became clear there was a true synergy on both sides. At Stack, I am able to leverage my experience with publishers but in a novel way: helping partners navigate the emerging sphere of native commerce. I have the opportunity to lead a fantastic team, and absolutely love the open, team-oriented, and dynamic culture.
Liz: What are some of your top priorities as our VP of Publisher and Business Development? What type of impact do you hope to make?
Ben: It has been great to dive in, learn the ins and outs of the StackCommerce model, and build a strategic plan for 2017. Native commerce powered by Stack has become such an important part of our core partners’ businesses that I am focusing on building out our newer verticals such as Women’s Lifestyle and News — with the goal of having a tailored storefront offering for publishers of all shapes and sizes. I am also ramping our PR efforts to ensure our media presence reflects the impact we have been able to drive in the marketplace. Overall, I am aiming to apply rigor and strategic focus to what we do in order to drive revenue growth across the organization.
Liz: What is your favorite thing about Stack so far?
Ben: I have been super impressed with the spirit of collaboration and high energy that permeates the culture here at Stack. There is a constant flow of ideas and nobody hesitates to share thoughts on how we can make the company more successful. As a new member of the team, I have a ton of ideas about where we might take the business and have been encouraged by the collective willingness to entertain new approaches and challenge existing assumptions. Plus, everyone is just plain fun to be around – and working right on Venice Beach doesn’t hurt!
Liz: At Stack, we stress the importance of work-life balance. What do you do to live a balanced life?
Ben: Balance is something I’m constantly trying to achieve across many aspects of my life, most notably between work and family. I have 3 amazing daughters that throw me immediately into “dad mode” once I walk through the door each evening. Being able to toss work aside and focus on my family is something I value immensely. To that end, I try to separate from electronics until after the kids are asleep and avoid distractions as much as possible.
One thing I do for fun, exercise, and general sanity is play basketball. I’ve organized a twice-a-week game with a group of friends for the past 10+ years, which accounts for nearly 100% of my cardio and keeps the competitive juices flowing in a (mostly) friendly environment.
The old cliché hasn’t lost its potency: Money doesn’t buy happiness. But what is the end game for entrepreneurs and startups if unlimited funds and open-ended positioning in life isn’t the fulfilling dream we’re hardwired to believe it is? That’s the dilemma facing Minecraft creator Markus “Notch” Persson, since he sold Mojang to Microsoft for a massive $2.5 billion nearly a year ago.
Taking to Twitter on Saturday, Persson lamented the void of struggle and reward in the eyes of wealth, finding social experience impossible due to imbalance. Hanging out in Ibiza, rubbing elbows with celebrities, able to do anything he can imagine, but the feeling has left a void inside.
The problem with getting everything is you run out of reasons to keep trying, and human interaction becomes impossible due to imbalance.
— Markus Persson (@notch) August 29, 2015
Hanging out in ibiza with a bunch of friends and partying with famous people, able to do whatever I want, and I’ve never felt more isolated.
— Markus Persson (@notch) August 29, 2015
Persson’s sense of personal value, tied in part to the social constructs among the staff of Mojang, has gone haywire. The Mojang crew “all hate me now,” he insists, though one Mojang employee responded that he only hated Persson during the initial shock of him leaving. However, Persson aggressively rejects the notion, saying “nobody reached out and said it was just initial shock. So fuck all of you. Fuck you so hard.” Needless to say, there’s a deep-cut sensitivity to the situation that defies gentle hindsight. The sudden burst of wealth is reportedly romantically isolating as well.
However, as Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer illustrates in action, success and a traditional sense of happiness can walk hand in hand. She’s running one of the world’s most highly recognized tech companies with a family at home and twins on the way. Balance is key, she stresses.
“Moving forward, there will be a lot to do for both my family and for Yahoo,” Mayer wrote in her Tumblr page announcement. “Both will require hard work and thoughtful prioritization. However, I’m extremely energized by and dedicated to both my family and Yahoo and will do all that is necessary and more to help both thrive. The future looks extremely bright on both fronts.”
Though Persson’s pessimism seemed to take a turn at the end of his Twitter streak – noting that others in his position have told him such feelings are normal and will pass – his predicament is hardly unique among the ultra-wealthy and celebrity elite. When you work yourself to the bone and your efforts finally pay off, sometimes beyond your wildest dreams, what new horizon will inspire passion and value?
The answer – and even the question itself – applies to nearly all of us more than one might imagine. Ambition drives innovation, industry, competition. But a sense of harmony among life’s core value points is essential to maintain longevity of contentment, fulfillment and well-being. To succeed in a competitive market, we will work ourselves into the ground and set goals beyond the rational. But if we sacrifice our creative trajectory – let alone our family and health – for single-minded financial gain, the very meaning of our existence will have been lost in the waves of professional peaks and valleys to which we assign our own value, even if the gamble pays off monetarily.
Though he’s wary of it now, Persson could do well to follow the example of Elon Musk, who turned the incredible payout from his stake in PayPal to eBay and used it to start businesses that are changing the trajectory of future tech. Musk launched Tesla Motors, which is developing an affordable electric car, and the Mars-bound SpaceX, which aims to make interplanetary travel accessible on a very real timeline.
Musk is using his billions to change the world. While Persson, Mayer and others are by no means obligated to follow in such altruistic footsteps, the importance of a course for betterment within and without cannot be overstated. It’s not enough to get a grip on that elusive brass ring – the key is to use it as a stirrup to reach far more meaningful ground.
Last week’s New York Times article about Amazon’s cutthroat company culture has sparked a wildfire of debate over just exactly what 2015’s biggest corporate buzz-term consists of. As the discussion expands to the impact of company culture on employees and the businesses they populate on the whole, renewed attention is being drawn to perhaps the most grueling and demanding professional climate of all: the startup world.
Amazon founder & CEO Jeff Bezos is the fifth-richest man in the world. His methodology in getting very most out of every employee, to ensure the velocity of his company’s success, has paid off: Amazon recently became the country’s largest retailer. Their reputation for hard-working employees precedes the NYT piece, but the article outlined the harsh intensity of Amazon’s operations in embarrassing detail: email attentiveness at all hours is required. Vacations are a myth, and weekends exist only as mile markers on the path to success – by no means a time to downshift. If you aren’t working all the time, you’re failing. Amazon’s ranking system regularly purges the low performers, but also factors in how well employees interact. Their employees are reportedly encouraged to send negative feedback about their peers to their bosses, a confidential exchange that pits staff members against one another and creates an air of paranoid hostility.
The list goes on. Amid the flurry of criticism, Bezos and others at Amazon have challenged the spin and professionalism of both the report and the NYT reporters. A Bezos memo to employees following the piece has made the rounds, clearly PR bait: the CEO said he wouldn’t tolerate a “callous” working environment, and doesn’t believe one exists at Amazon. In tandem, Amazon employee Nick Ciubotariu published his own defense of his employer as well as a few shots at the NYT article, summarizing the NYT approach as a preconceived hit job against the company.
To Bezos and Ciubotariu’s credit, in a company with so many employees, it is statistically guaranteed that many heartwarming examples of fantastic company-culture experiences can be found within Amazon’s corporate narrative. But to find over 100 employees willing to share tales of woe is uncommon, particularly given that the sample group consists of members of the leadership team, human resources executives, marketers, retail specialists and engineers who worked on projects from the Kindle to grocery delivery to the recent mobile phone launch.
Similarly, startup culture is cutthroat, take-no-prisoners and absolutely hostile to the idea of shared priorities. As a rule, startups do not foster an environment conducive to healthy families, well-rounded childhoods or “quality” personal time. Free food, team games, onsite barbers and other benefits often exist in companies large and small to allow people a break without leaving the office, softening the impact of those grueling 60-to-80 hour work weeks.
Ideal company culture demands a balance between pushing employees to go above and beyond, and allowing a personal sense of worth and vitality within the corporate structure. A company set on long-term development and success requires leadership who can fully understand and pass along its corporate atmosphere and philosophy to other employees. To accomplish this they must be engaging, inspiring and above all, willing to work harder than anyone else.
With 150,000 people on staff, Amazon boasts an army of people mandated to devote their life to their work. Is total sacrifice of personal life on a company-wide scale the most desirable model for success? For those whose life priorities aren’t inextricably topped by fealty to a corporate success story in the making, absolutely not. So where is the middleground? How can a balance be struck while a company struggles to emerge as a leader in its field?
A frequently cited example of great company culture is Google. With an employee count nearing 50,000, it’s remarkable and refreshing to see workers describe operations as having a small-company feel, free of senior-officer intimidation. Company culture is determined by company morality, how it treats others, and there is a direct result in staff morale & motivation. Googlers can be found volunteering directly in company efforts to give back to the community, and lead initiatives around the world with financial aid, restoring public parks and beyond.
At StackCommerce, we’re striving each day to sharpen the balance between driving success and enriching staff. There’s rarely an amenity unprovided, with the office boasting a stocked kitchen, surfboards and bikes at the ready (the Venice Beach boardwalk is just outside our door), a ping pong table and entertainment lounge in the basement (hell, even a basement in Southern California is a unicorn perk). But these are mere decorative boosts, a handful of bright colors on the tapestry of a company culture that encourages personal wellness through yoga breaks and volleyball games, through enlightening guest speakers and regular happy hour gatherings. Robust benefits, sign-on stock options and encouraged use of personal days provide employees with a sense of security and control over their personal lives – an extreme rarity in startup culture.
Sure, we work our behinds off, often arriving long before the workday begins and leaving long after rush hour has subsided. But those of us making the early-morning rounds are often greeted by wetsuit-clad employees greeting the day with enthusiasm; they want to be here early. They’re invested in a company that’s equally invested in them.
The link between employee happiness and productivity has been documented at great length. Companies cannot thrive on a singular character model of A-type workhorses giving their every waking moment to their employer, with reckless abandon of personal stability. Diversification is essential, creating constellations of different skill sets and different opinions to stay innovative and to continually thrive. Personal and professional values are essential, but this does not mean absolute sacrifice at all times. Company culture must align with personal stability, particularly in the startup world.
Entrepreneur.com‘s Eric Sinou put together a great infographic on the impact of company culture, as well as the perils of being on the wrong side of a corporate atmosphere:
Google announced a huge company restructure this week, establishing themselves as a subsidiary of a new parent company named Alphabet. Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page will serve as President and CEO of Alphabet, while Google head of product Sundar Pichai has been appointed as the new Google CEO. And provided that Google can clear numerous potential legal hurdles, we’ll likely be hearing a great deal more on Google’s new holding company in the near future.
In a blog post explaining the news, Page outlined how the restructure will make the “slightly slimmed down Google” more accountable. He explained that Alphabet is a collection of companies, the largest of which is Google, with companies “pretty far afield” of Google’s main internet products being shuttled under Alphabet’s umbrella.
“Alphabet is about businesses prospering through strong leaders and independence,” Page wrote. “In general, our model is to have a strong CEO who runs each business, with Sergey and me in service to them as needed. We will rigorously handle capital allocation and work to make sure each business is executing well. We’ll also make sure we have a great CEO for each business, and we’ll determine their compensation.”
The Google business will remain in command of features including search, ads, maps, Gmail, YouTube, Android, and the related tech infrastructure, while branches including its health and investment efforts, such as Ventures, will move to Alphabet. This will allow the subsidiary companies to experiment freely without tarnishing the Google name in the process (the failure and prolonged death of Google+ comes to mind).
“The whole point is that Alphabet companies should have independence and develop their own brands,” he wrote. Alphabet, he continued, isn’t meant to be a consumer brand unto itself. “For Sergey and me this is a very exciting new chapter in the life of Google—the birth of Alphabet. We liked the name Alphabet because it means a collection of letters that represent language, one of humanity’s most important innovations, and is the core of how we index with Google search! We also like that it means alpha-bet (Alpha is investment return above benchmark), which we strive for! I should add that we are not intending for this to be a big consumer brand with related products—the whole point is that Alphabet companies should have independence and develop their own brands.”
In light of Google’s announcement, it’s time to take a closer look at Alphabet, particularly the major brands under the company’s umbrella.
Run by Sergey Brin, who co-founded Google and will also serve as president of Alphabet, Google’s secretive ”moonshot” lab is devoted to building the tools of the future in million-to-one scientific ambitions that require enormous amounts of capital and risk-taking. In its Star Trek-level conceptions, the company aims to come up It has incubated highly publicized projects such as the self-driving car, Google Glass, a drone delivery service called Wing and the Fiber internet service provider.
When former Apple engineer Tony Fadell built a vacation home, he was unimpressed with available thermostats and other security systems on the market. In his quest to design a better alternative Nest Labs was born, and has since expanded into an all-inclusive smart-home product source. Google bought the connected-home company for $3.2 billion in January 2014, and it will serve as a subsidiary of Alphabet in the restructuring.
Calico’s core mission is simple and universally appealing: it wants to create the fountain of youth. Formed in 2013, the R&D company is headed up by Art Levinson – 14 year CEO of biotech company Genetech – and utilizes advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology dictating the human lifespan. Through development of age-slowing developments and tools to fight age-related diseases, Calico is helping people to lead longer and healthier lives.
Founded in June 2015, Sidewalk Labs aims to foster the development of technology products, platforms and infrastructure that help improve life in cities around the world. Led by former Bloomberg CEO Dan Doctoroff, the New York-based company will implement technological breakthroughs to solve urban problems, tackling issues like cost of living, transportation, reducing energy usage and more.
“The biggest challenges that cities face — such as making transportation more efficient and lowering the cost of living, reducing energy usage and helping government operate more efficiently have, so far, been more difficult to address,” the company said in an announcement. Doctor has said that Sidewalk “will play a major role in developing technology products, platforms and advanced infrastructure that can be implemented at scale in cities around the world.”
Founded in 2009, the venture capital investment arm of Google has backed more than 300 growing startups including Uber, Slack, Medium, Periscope, Nest and 23andMe. Providing venture capital funding to bold new companies, Ventures invests independently of Google, and provides these companies unparalleled support in design, engineering, recruiting, marketing, and more. They’re not afraid to take on riskier tech challenges such as clean energy, cybersecurity and health, and have devised independent complex computer models to offer better predictions of market outcomes.
Google Capital is the growth capital fund financed by Google, with a devoted interest in established private companies. Focusing on larger, growth stage technology companies, Capital invests for profit rather than strategic positioning for Google. Led by partners David Lawee, Gene Frantz, and Scott Tierney, Google Capital’s approach includes giving portfolio companies access to Google’s people, knowledge, and culture to support the companies’ growth and offer them guidance. This has served FanDuel, SurveyMonkey, Renaissance Learning and Glassdoor.
Anyone caught in the pre-millennial pop culture current will easily recall Pepsi’s 1992 Super Bowl commercial, in which Cindy Crawford climbs out of a Lamborghini in a pair of daisy dukes, heads to a soda machine and pulls out the world’s first look at the hotly-anticipated new Pepsi can. The moment was iconic: the most adored model in the world, drinking a Pepsi from a newly designed futuristic-looking can as if it were an intensely sensual experience.
Pepsi needed an edge over Coca-Cola, and for a shining moment in early ’92, they accomplished it with the perfect storm of a celebrity endorsement through Ms. Crawford, a brand re-skin and a cultural centerpiece launchpad (the Super Bowl).
The e-commerce world has seen a wildfire rise in the number of successful companies taking root over the last three years. Without in-store distribution, however, brand exposure is limited to the digital world, resulting in a vital need for innovative marketing campaigns, third-party promotions and endorsements by established public figures. Competition is ferocious in this wild new frontier, and a number of efforts are now underway to promote brands with celebrity endorsements – with good reason. The top tweeters are almost all celebrities: 43 of the top 50 most-followed accounts are either musicians or sports stars.
The numbers certainly support Pando’s belief that celebrities will drive the next wave of E-Commerce startups, but what about when it goes wrong? There could be no better example than entrepreneur and self-declared billionaire Donald Trump, whose incendiary remarks on immigration and hispanics have resulted in a severe backlash for the 2016 Republican presidential candidate. In the past two weeks, Trump’s partnerships and endorsements are evaporating like a puddle in the Sahara, and he’s been dumped by NASCAR, NBCUniversal, Macy’s, Univision, Televisa, Farouk Systems, PGA, apparel manufacturer Phillips-Van Huesen and more. NBC won’t broadcast Miss Universe or Miss USA (the network and Trump co-own the beauty pageants), and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio instructed his office to review existing contracts with the Trump Organization, who currently provides concessions to city facilities.
While the advertising community watches with car-crash fascination, Trump has doubled down on his remarks, and will continue to slide further and further into untouchable status by brands. The takeaway: be very careful who you do business with, and be highly wary of anyone who would serve as the face of your brand. To embrace a volatile personality with a powerful public presence is to endorse their behavior through the cultural lens.
With celebrity endorsements on the rise in e-commerce, the image of businesses hang in the balance of what are potentially volatile personalities in the public eye. The risk is rationalized through exposure, and when an endorsing celebrity finds themselves in the TMZ spotlight, companies that have contracts with them often re-examine the relationship. Often times, immediate damage control becomes necessary, such as the case with Trump. Companies often immediately sever ties, putting distance between the endorser and themselves as quickly as possible.
Building on that idea, I’ve broken down seven of the most high-profile cases of celebrity endorsements gone awry, with their accompanying rationale.
Armstrong was an untouchable hero in the biking world at the turn of the century, but he was forced to relinquish his 1999-2005 Tour de France titles after news broke about his doping scandal. He stepped down as chairman of Livestrong, a cancer-fighting charity he founded, but that was just the beginning of his problems, which amounted to over $150 million in lost endorsements and effectively ruined his own brand. Nike and Anheuser-Busch dropped Armstrong but remained supporters of Livestrong, but after Nike dropped him, so did Annheuser-Busch, Trek Bicycle Corp, FRS and Honey Stinger.
The most decorated Olympian of all time won eight gold medals at the 2008 summer Olympics, guaranteeing the young man a golden-paved future of endorsements and sponsorships, even if he never swam again. But in early 2009, a photo depicting Phelps smoking from a bong sent brands scurrying. Cereal giant Kellogs parted ways with the athlete within a week, insisting that Phelps’ behavior did not align with its views, and sandwich maker Subway distanced themselves as well.
Once the most celebrated golfer in the world, Tiger woods lost roughly $22 million in endorsements back in 201 after news broke of his multiple extramarital affairs. Gatorade, AT&T, Gillette, EA Sports, Buick and Accenture all jumped ship. Woods’ public image never fully recovered, though he’s since seen a return to brand endorsements.
Video footage of the Baltimore Ravens running back dragging his unconscious fiancé out of a casino elevator resulted in a firestorm of backlash, with Nike pulling endorsements, EA Sports erasing his presence from the Madden NFL 15 video game, Vertimax, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Modell’s and more. Rice reportedly has no remaining active endorsement deals, a devastating blow to the fallen sports hero.
When the formerly clean-cut singer pleaded guilty to assaulting his then-girlfriend Rihanna before the 2009 Grammys, Wrigley dropped him as their spokesperson with impressive speed. His “Got Milk?” endorsement deal also went sour.
Jean-Claude Van Damme
The Muscles from Brussels was caught on camera (for a British reality show) complaining about shooting a commercial for Total Flex home gym equipment, insisting he didn’t want to endorse a product he didn’t like. After reportedly showing up on set without knowing his lines he quit the commercial, and was sued for breach of contract to the tune of $25.2 million.
The cover girl and wife of The Kills rocker Jamie Hince was snapped doing lines of cocaine back in 2005, resulting in a media rush to dub her “Cocaine Kate”. Shortly thereafter, she lost massive endorsement deals from H&M, Chanel, Burberry and more. A turnaround resulted in recent years, after Moss went to rehab and polished her image (to an extent), returning to good graces with campaigns for Rimmel, Dior and Mango – she is now the third-highest paid model in the world.