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Case Story: How VPN Unlimited Sold Over 237k VPN Subscriptions

Case Story: How VPN Unlimited Sold Over 237k VPN Subscriptions

Marketing a VPN (Virtual Private Network) is no cakewalk in 2018 — but imagine the task at hand four years ago when VPNs were a foreign concept to most. A secret server that takes your invisible data and does what exactly? Where would you find the right audience? How would you even begin to explain such a complex subject within the confines of a simple ad unit?

This dilemma is what sparked the partnership between KeepSolid (and their product, VPN Unlimited) and StackCommerce. Four years later, the two have sold over 237k subscriptions to VPN Unlimited and KeepSolid has expanded its offering to six products. But let’s pause there and start at the very beginning, shall we?

Designing a Content Marketing Plan 

In August of 2014, KeepSolid, a productivity and privacy protection software company, was looking to expand its product portfolio into digital information security. Long before Equifax, Target, and the daily data breach news reel, there was still a demand, albeit more niche, for an online consumer security solution. In other words, people were seriously skeptical about using the internet, especially in public places.

Vasyl Ivanov, CEO of KeepSolid, noted “existing VPNs were complicated and expensive, so we decided to create a user-friendly, easy-to-use — and at the same time affordable — solution.” The idea was there, but the lean team had no dedicated marketing resources for the service, and enlisted StackCommerce to help get it off the ground.

Reaching New Audiences

Turns out that StackCommerce’s publisher partners provided the perfect ecosystem of engaged readers, starting with tech sites like Engadget, Cult of Mac, and Macworld, to grow the VPN’s user base. Through the distribution of advertorial content ranging from 200-1,000 words, each personalized to individual publisher audiences, KeepSolid was able to fully explain the value of a VPN as a solution to a very serious, growing problem.

VPN Unlimited on Engadget

Not only did they connect with targeted groups of iOS enthusiasts from Stack’s Apple-centric publishers, but they quickly realized an interest in the Android, Windows, and Linux communities, as well — allowing them to prioritize building alternative client apps without significant risk. Later, they started connecting with men’s lifestyle publications. News outlets. Women’s lifestyle blogs. People recognized they weren’t safe from hackers and everyone is ultimately interested in protecting themselves.

Finding a Content Angle

KeepSolid elevated its success even further by curating a “lifetime” deal to be offered exclusively on StackCommerce’s network. That’s when they struck gold. Lifetime access?! You’ll never have to worry about hackers again?! There’s the story — and publisher audiences were ready and willing to get onboard. This deal alone accounted for over half of the overall sales (164k units), thanks to the unique, newsworthy angle.

VPN Unlimited

But we don’t just love this story because of the numbers. We partner with new-to-market brands every day in hopes that they will see the same success as KeepSolid. “The partnership with StackCommerce gave us the chance to make a leap to the next level of quality and performance as well as invest in new projects. We had big expectations from StackCommerce. They surpassed them,” said Ivanov. Music to our ears. Are you ready to become the next KeepSolid? Contact our Sales Department today sales@stackcommerce.com to get started.

Introducing Our New Vice President Of Sales: Natalie Tarpinian

Introducing Our New Vice President Of Sales: Natalie Tarpinian

We’re pleased to announce the newest member of the StackCommerce executive team: Natalie Tarpinian. Natalie is a key addition at a timely moment here at StackCommerce, and a reflection of our success in Q1 and Q2 of 2018. Most notably, she will be spearheading our recently-launched media division, StackMedia, which provides brands yet another tool to reach highly-engaged audiences directly on the sites they visit most.

Natalie brings over 15 years of experience serving in leadership positions at a wide range of media and ad tech companies, including SitePoint and BuySellAds. Her proven track record in building and scaling sales organizations is the perfect recipe for taking Stack to the next level.

I sat down with Natalie to pick her brain on adtech, her very first job, and the future of StackMedia.

Katy: What inspired you to join StackCommerce?

Natalie: I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with StackCommerce over the years, and it’s been incredibly impressive to watch their offering evolve into a diverse portfolio of solutions for advertisers and publishers. When I was given the opportunity to join the team and build out the new media division, StackMedia, I jumped at the chance!

Katy: You have an impressive array of experience in the ad industry. What excites you most about our offering in particular?

Natalie: StackCommerce’s core strength is creating compelling content that moves readers to purchase products and services on their favorite websites. Extending that solution to include media is a natural progression.

It’s no secret that the shifting media landscape has created challenges for stakeholders on both sides of the business. Publishers must consistently create entirely new sources of revenue, and advertisers must find creative ways to reach their target audience. StackCommerce is able to provide a well-rounded solution that speaks to both sides.

Katy: What do you think is the “next big thing” for the industry?

Natalie: We’ve moved beyond surface metrics into an era of content marketing. Marketers will become laser-focused on reaching the right people, with an emphasis on quality over quantity. More specifically, they will be looking for relevant content that is custom-created for their target audience. This makes distribution and engagement strategies essential.

Katy: What was your first job, and what lessons do you still use in your day-to-day?

Natalie: My first job was actually in radio sales. When selling radio advertising, knowing your audience, the station, and your client’s needs is vital.

Katy: What keeps you up at night?

Natalie: Easy: the ever-changing media landscape. I’m excited to join a like-minded organization that isn’t afraid to evolve with the times.

 

The State of Native Commerce: Publishers Are Opening for Business

The State of Native Commerce: Publishers Are Opening for Business

The times are a’changing in the world of commerce for publishers. Just this May, Digiday held a Hot Topic Conference in New York City devoted to the subject of commerce alone. It’s clear that publishers are hungry to replicate the success of their peers like Gizmodo Media Group and Business Insider, and to fill the growing revenue gap caused by a shifting digital landscape ruled primarily by Facebook and Google. Commerce for publishers is no longer a foreign concept as it was only a few years ago when we first launched our white-labeled shop product. But let’s skip the nostalgia, and move right to the state of publishers and commerce today in 2018.

Affiliate Rules, But Proceed with Caution

As part of the above-mentioned Hot Topic conference, Digiday surveyed 53 publisher executives on commerce initiatives. Of those publishers, just over half reported that at least 75% of commerce revenue came from affiliate programs.

And for good reason. When it comes to harvesting a new commerce strategy, affiliate commerce is the most straightforward path to revenue. More and more brands are offering direct affiliate links, which leaves publishers tasked with a familiar role: producing content and linking to products that will interest their readers. Simple, right?

Not so fast. Affiliate revenue streams, while relatively easy to implement, can amount to pennies and dimes when you subtract the cost of an expanded editorial team. Affiliate margins are notoriously small; Digiday reports that Dotdash’s affiliate commissions were as low as 2 or 3 percent. In addition, there are well-documented issues with purchase attribution on mobile that further depresses effective commissions for publishers. And while producing a higher volume of content may appear to be the solution, publishers are then left with the cost of growing full editorial teams devoted to writing commerce articles. Buzzfeed reported a full-time commerce team consisting of 19 writers last November. Scaling commerce content in an efficient, revenue positive way — while remaining faithful and authentic to the core mission and voice of the brand —  is the needle publishers are attempting to thread.

Amazon Is Risky

Where does Amazon, the king of all e-commerce, fit into all this? While Amazon may be the most obvious choice for quickly scaling a commerce program, publishers are beginning to grow weary of depending on digital behemoths for consistent revenue. Just consider how much a single Facebook newsfeed algorithm change rocked the online publisher landscape this past January.

Instead, publishers are looking to lean into their strength: the readers, i.e. the fans. As Christopher Vollmer put it, “Fans watch more, listen more, participate more, share more, advocate more, and create more. Most important, fans spend more.“

This is where owned stores and proprietary merchandise come out to play.

PopSugar Shop
Beauty By PopSugar Branded Makeup Line

Developing Publisher-Owned Stores

Increasingly, publishers are opening their own online stores in hopes of forging an even tighter bond between themselves and their readers. Of the publishers surveyed, Digiday reported that 40% have an online store.

Proprietary shops not only allow publishers to sell products in line with their site ethos, but to engage their readers in a complementary manner. POPSUGAR recently announced a branded makeup line, doubling down on their time-earned reputation as a beauty expert amongst its readers. theCHIVE has owned the t-shirt game since 2011

But not all publisher shops have been Cinderella stories. A significant handful of publishers have tried and failed at the e-commerce game due to the high-cost and logistical nightmare of running an e-commerce shop. Merchandising, operations, customer service, shipping — opening a shop means essentially opening a new business, and new businesses can fail.

Mashable commerce shop
Mashable Shop Powered By StackCommece

Where Does StackCommerce Fit In?

The above challenge is exactly what drives our team to do what we do. We fill the gap. We offer publishers of all sizes the branded shop — and even the content — so they can scale their commerce efforts while focusing on their actual core business of creating great content. With seven years of experience in e-commerce, and extensive data, we’re able to provide a custom shop experience (site design, merchandising, operations, customer service, etc.) for our publisher partners with virtually no risk. And best yet, we’re able to offer much more attractive economics compared to typical affiliate, which can make a significant net impact on their monetization portfolio.

We’ve been riding the eb and flow of the commerce wave since the beginning, and are incredibly inspired to see the success publishers are having within the past year. There’s no place we’d rather be than helping publishers succeed financially so they can continue to provide valuable content to their readers every day. With all the rapid change, the question is: what will 2019 have in store for us?

StackCommerce’s Own Josh Payne Named Semifinalist for EY 2018 Entrepreneur of the Year

StackCommerce’s Own Josh Payne Named Semifinalist for EY 2018 Entrepreneur of the Year

Update: Josh Payne has been named a finalist in the Entrepreneur Of The Year 2018 Greater Los Angeles Awards program! Stay tuned for more updates on Twitter @stackcommerce.

Six years ago, Stack’s CEO and Founder Josh Payne put everything on the line to launch what’s now known as StackCommerce — and from his living room nonetheless. He inspires the StackCommerce team with his infectious entrepreneurial spirit every day, which is why we’re so pleased to announce that he was selected as a semifinalist for the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2018 Greater Los Angeles Region Award! Josh was a finalist for the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2017 Greater Los Angeles Region Award, making this his second consecutive semi-finalist nomination.

“I’m incredibly honored to be in the company of such inspiring entrepreneurs from across Los Angeles. There’s no shortage of awards to strive for, but celebrating and encouraging entrepreneurship is something I value to no end. My name may be on the nomination, but this is truly a reflection of the hard work of the entire StackCommerce team.”Josh Payne

As the world’s most prestigious business award for entrepreneurs, Entrepreneur Of The Year has been at the forefront of identifying game‑changing entrepreneurs for more than three decades. The program has honored the leadership of such entrepreneurs as Howard Schultz of Starbucks Coffee Company, John Mackey of Whole Foods Market Inc., Pierre Omidyar of eBay, Inc., Reid Hoffman and Jeff Weiner of LinkedIn Corporation and Mindy Grossman of HSN, Inc.

Learn more about the Entrepreneur Of The Year Greater Los Angeles program here and stay up-to-date on Josh’s journey on Twitter by following @StackCommerce and @jnpayne.

About Josh Payne:

Josh Payne is an entrepreneur, investor and startup advisor. He is currently the Founder & CEO of StackCommerce, the leading native commerce platform helping online publishers to monetize and engage audiences through the integration of content + commerce. Prior to founding StackCommerce, Josh managed business development for several leading technology companies including Yahoo!, Meebo (acquired by Google), and Intel. Previously, Josh was an investor in early stage technology companies as a venture capital associate at Aurora Funds. Josh earned his MBA from Duke and his bachelor’s degree in Computer Information Systems from Indiana University. He is a member of Young President’s Organization (YPO) Bel-Air Chapter and was named a 2017 Finalist for EY Entrepreneur of the Year for Greater Los Angeles. Josh is a startup mentor for venture firms Amplify.LA & 500Startups. Josh also currently serves on the board of Trubrain.com, a venture-backed biohacking startup. He is a husband, father of two daughters, triathlete, and avid-explorer having traveled to over 40 countries worldwide.

 

Want to Land a Job You Love? We’re Hiring!

Want to Land a Job You Love? We’re Hiring!

Fresh off our seventh company-wide Hack Day (pictured above), the team here at StackCommerce has never been hungrier for what’s to come. We played hooky from our normal tasks and spent the day indulging in company-sponsored meals — well that and thinking up out-of-the-box ideas to push StackCommerce to the next level. From a content showcase website for our in-house brand studio (the winning project!) to Slack hacks for coffee-making instructions, the day was a bona fide success.

Now is the time to get in the native commerce game — with virtually every online publisher and media company working commerce into their revenue strategy. In fact, Digiday recently reported that commerce programs account for a third or more of total revenue for some of the world’s largest publishers.

If you’re ready to dive in and help brands and publishers monetize via amazing products and content — take a look at our job openings below. From sales to creative to engineering, there’s a wide range of opportunity and we can’t wait to hear from you. Check out a recent piece on the StackCommerce story in DealCrunch — and read more about our job openings on Built in LA or on the StackCommerce career site.

Business Development

Director of Publisher Development

Manager of Publisher Development

Creative

Jr. Copywriter

Engineering

Head of Engineering

Finance

Staff Accountant

Product

Sr. UI Designer

Sales

VP of Merchant Sales

 

25 Lessons From Running a Profitable, Venture-Backed Start-Up For Six Years

25 Lessons From Running a Profitable, Venture-Backed Start-Up For Six Years

Six years. The tweet below from Jason M. Lemkin pretty much sums it up. You start, you hustle, you make progress, you grow, the market shifts, you start all over again albeit on a new level within the same game.

 

What makes the start-up game the greatest game on earth is that the chess board recreates itself every day in new unanticipated ways. Nothing stands still — there are new entrants below you, bigger companies above you who now see the opportunities you’ve unearthed, and all the while you must change the tire on a moving car.

Given those challenges, I document a few lessons learned (Year 1Year 2Year 3Year 4Year 5) for other entrepreneurs on the same arduous path. There is nothing that can fully prepare you for the journey that lies ahead, but this is some of what I’ve learned and I hope it helps you in your endeavors.

Why listen to me? I’ve been in the thick of launching, running, and growing a start-up for the past six years as the Founder and CEO of StackCommerce. In that time, we’ve grown from $0 to $40m in annual revenues, profitably, on less than $1m of venture capital raised. In 2017, we acquired one of our competitors, Joyus.com, who raised over $65m in venture capital.

startup founder anniversary cake

1. Cannibalize Your Current Business

Given how fast technology evolves today, you must shift before the market does. This seems like an obvious point, but while you’re in it…you get caught up. There are countless examples of “temporary” business models or hacks that work for a while, but then that trend or technology gets passed by in what feels like a blink of an eye. Think about historically top performing companies like Zynga (fb apps), Groupon (daily deals), and Blockbuster (dvd’s) — they dominated until the game changed and were caught focusing on the “old way”.

The only real shot you have of overcoming this is to cannibalize your current business with a new product/feature that leapfrogs your current offering. There will be a lot of pushback from your team because most of them would rather improve “what’s working” in lieu of the challenge of losing focus on the core business. It’s a valid argument and takes a lot of trust on both sides to get through.

One thing we do to flush out these types of “moonshot” ideas is running bi-annual “Hack Days”. People get a chance step away from the day-to-day and work on side projects / features / culture hacks that they don’t typically have time for. This year, our hackday resulted in one of the most important features we’ve every released!

2. Life Will Happen to You

When I started Stack, I was single and could spend 100% of my time however I wanted. I dedicated almost my entire thought process 24/7 to my start-up — happily. A few years later, I got engaged. Then I got married. Then we had our first child. Then we a second kid. All within three years! Talk about life happening.

For me, the transition to fatherhood initially felt like an attack on my identity as an entrepreneur. I simply couldn’t juggle everything. But in time, I saw how the challenges of constraining my time and energy forced me to be more purposeful and hire more talented leaders to push forward.

Whether your life event is the birth of a child, the loss of someone important to you, a health scare, etc … realize that you are not a robot. You are not immune to life outside your start-up. When life does happen to you (and it will), the important thing is that you’ve built a team that can carry your vision forward with or without you. For many years, I made our business dependent on me and manifested that in my team. I’m still untangling that mess. But, now I have other life priorities that outweigh what I believed was my only priority for so many years.

3. Concentrate Your Resources

When building your initial MVP, it’s crucial to ensure that you’re building for a large, growing market. For instance, when we first built StackSocial it was purely for desktop Mac software apps. I didn’t know it at the time, but that market would get eviscerated by the shift from desktop to mobile app adoption. We quickly expanded into other categories such as online learning, games, gadgets, etc…but instead of going deep in one area, we went wide across categories. This is incredibly tough to do.

Starting in a niche is smart, but if the market you are in is “too small”, then you constantly have to chase new buckets of revenue. Going deep in one category enables you to “do less, better”. So, while that new field looks like greener pastures, it will be much harder once you get there than simply improving upon and expanding within your current market.

4. Better, Faster, & Cheaper?

Not a chance. You’ll be lucky to be one of those and if you are great, you will likely be two of the three. Know which ones you are and own it. Your company values and mission should align to your priorities and will ensure that everyone in the company knows which ones you’ve chosen.

For us, this involves taking the team for a full day off-site where we take a look back and see how we’ve evolved as a team and how our mission, vision, and values need to evolve as well. This year we hired an Executive Coaching Firm, Novus Global, to run a workshop on the topic with us.

It’s not cheap, but it’s well worth the investment.

People who are inspired with a deeper mission will continue to fight long after those who are only focused on the tactics. If you notice your team zoning out, it’s likely because they aren’t connecting the dots of their “daily grind” to a more meaningful reason to do the work. Connect your personal reason for being to a shared goal and you will see a different response.

Last piece of advice, own your trade-offs just as much as you do the traits you are claiming and pursuing. The more you attempt to be everything to everyone, the less people will know who you are and it will dilute your brand and your mission.

To wrap things up, here are a few #humblebrags on my team and some accomplishments over the past year:

6th Year Highlights:

  • 2017 Finalist for ‘Best eCommerce Strategy’ — Digiday Publishing Awards
  • 2017 Best Places to Work in LA by LA Business Journal & Comparably.com
  • 2017 Finalist for the Los Angeles EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award
  • Partnered & integrated shops on 50+ new prominent publishers including CNN, Mashable, CBSi, Gannett, Scripps, & others
  • Acquired Joyus.com (who raised over $65m in venture capital) to expand into video commerce and add to our women’s lifestyle offering
  • Grew registered members on our platform to over 5.5 million members

Onward and Upward! #stackup

JP

21 More Lessons from Previous Years:

Year 1: (4)
Year 2: (4)
Year 3: (4)
Year 4: (5)
Year 5: (4)