On November 26, 2012, Pitney Bowes announced that local startup Movable Media had won the first Entrepreneurial Competition sponsored by the Stamford-based, NYSE-traded global technology firm. Movable Media provides brands with a platform that helps them leverage both the content and audience of contributing authors. Since winning the competition, Andrew Boer and the Movable Media team have built a partnership with Pitney Bowes that sheds light on what startup and corporate partnerships might look like in the future.
I sat down with Andrew to talk about his experience as a Connecticut startup founder, and on the time spent working with Pitney Bowes in their internal incubator. To provide me with some additional insight, I asked Pitney Bowes’ Brian Romansky, Director, New Business Opportunities, for perspective on how Movable Media figures into their take on innovation and collaboration with the startup community. Movable Media’s work with Pitney Bowes represents one part of the implementation of an “intentional plan” Brian began over two years ago.
Through work in the company’s R&D organization, he’d come to the conclusion that it was very difficult for the company to transition some “cool” ideas into new products and new lines of business. “My big idea at the time was that there are a lot opportunities to use our technology in new markets that were not squarely aligned with our strategy. Partnering with local startups to commercialize those ideas is a great way to support the innovation ecosystem and implement ideas that would not get internal investment.”
The thought process led to hackathons, sponsorship of Stamford Innovation Center, and the business model competition that brought Movable Media and XYVerify to Pitney Bowes’ headquarters. Brian’s intuition about the impact of supporting companies like Movable Media plays out in the numbers; “it’s fair to say they’ve doubled our traffic in cross-border e-commerce shipping.”
My interview with Andrew follows below.
DK: What does Movable Media do and why did you start the company?
AB: I started the company because I thought there was an opportunity to change something we perceive as broken. There is more and more content on the web now, and most of it is just noise. But some content creators are able to create content that resonates. Those authors create the most value, and it doesn’t make sense to just pay them by the word.
When you see authorities like Nate Silver and Ezra Klein going independent, it is because they now have not just content, but their own valuable followings. They expect, and should be compensated for, both.
At some level, we’re a content marketing agency, putting influencers in touch with brands and creating better alignment between them. But at another level, Movable Media is a technology platform designed to help content creators get compensated for their audiences.
Our platform measures the audience of a brand’s authors and then compensates the authors fairly for the value they actually create. In a way, we’re like a Nielsen, who did the same thing for TV audiences. For example, let’s say I’m writing for The Whiteboard as a journalist. I have my own audience, including social media followers, etc. The Whiteboard can pay me to write content, but couldn’t they also pay me incentives to promote my content to my own audience? We call this phenomenon “the author channel” – the built-in distribution channel that content creators now have – and when I am aligned with the content as an author, I will tend to bring anywhere from 1000-3000 of my own followers to the content. I also tend to do a better job.
It is a huge channel, the author channel. Half of Forbes’ audience now comes through its own authors’ and contributors’ personal networks.
Managing royalties and incentives for the author channel is difficult for brands, because it introduces a series of new questions. Is the author’s audience what they say it is? How do we attribute the author’s audience on a systematic basis, so the brand isn’t paying for its own audience? And could an unscrupulous author create fake traffic? Movable Media is designed to answer these questions.
- Vital Stats
Pre-product or post-product? Movable Media’s platform for measuring and compensating influencers and authorities is live and in use.
Post-revenue? Movable Media has 20+ current customers, including Intel, Pitney Bowes, MasterCard, Williams Sonoma and P&G.
Funded or bootstrapped? The company is bootstrapped so far.
DK: How did your team get started in Connecticut?
AB: I founded the company in 2011 as part of a spinout of a blogging company Six Apart. My colleague Wendy Taylor stayed part-time as an early part of the team and Andrew Eisner, a business school classmate, later came on full-time as co-founder. There are now ten people on the Movable Media team; a mix of full-time employees, part-time employees, and contractors. We also do a portion of our development with the Poland-based team behind Piwik, an open source alternative to Google Analytics which helped form the core of our product.
At the time we started the company, I was living and working in Connecticut as a remote office of Six Apart. Six Apart began shutting down parts of its service and sold other elements of the company in 2010-2011, and we spun Movable Media with just three clients at that point. So it was natural to stay in Connecticut. Not long after, in 2012, we applied for and won the Pitney Bowes challenge, and were awarded free space for 12 months. Generously, the company extended our incubation in their corporate headquarters to 18 months. And in November 2013, we won the CTC award for Most Promising Media Company in Connecticut. We haven’t had a lot of success yet with other State programs, but the private Pitney Bowes relationship has been particularly fruitful for us.
DK: What’s been so special about being located at Pitney Bowes?
AB: After we won the award and moved into their space, we started working with an initial business unit – the e-commerce team – but we are now in discussions with about six different business units at Pitney Bowes. You can also see how it directly benefited Pitney Bowes to incubate us; it was almost no cost to have us there, but the relationship has created a lot of value for them – we took an e-commerce blog with almost no traffic and turned it into a vibrant community of over 100,000 visitors. I view it as an incredible success story since it shows that private companies can not only support , but benefit from local innovation. In many companies, there is lot of private infrastructure that could be leveraged by the startup community. Some trust is involved, but I think it is an interesting model for supporting startups, and the state government could encourage it. Proximity matters – it took us probably six months to really understand the Pitney Bowes corporate structure, and what problems we could solve together…and I was in the building. At most clients, as a vendor, you don’t have any of that insight. Working alongside them day to day, it was a real eye-opener to see how difficult it is to really understand the actual needs of a big organization. As I mentioned, we were supposed to be out in December 2013 [Pitney Bowes is selling the building and moving to a new corporate center], but they offered that we could just stay on. And they are continuing to help us; the business relationship is certainly going to continue after we leave.
DK: What have been your biggest challenges to date?
AB: One of our challenges has been the perception that we don’t have the DNA of a “high-flying startup.” We didn’t go out and try to raise funds at first, but focused on building both a nascent technology company and a successful agency that solve our customers’ problems. This is not my first venture; I started a payments company and sold it to Amazon in my twenties. But ironically, we found that building a profitable business with clients made us a bit less attractive to the venture and angel community. We even heard some kind of shocking feedback that we were kind of old for this game – we eventually stopped trying to raise money and just focused on making our business successful. Being located in Connecticut was probably also a strike against us with the New York VCs.
DK: If you could change one thing to make Connecticut a better place to start and grow a business, what would it be?
AB: I’d remove residency requirements from any and all startup incentive programs. For example, Movable Media currently has a NY resident co-founder; so we could easily be located in Westchester, NYC, or Fairfield County. But to qualify for the angel tax credit and many other programs, you need to have 75% of your employees in Connecticut. We do not, which gives us reduced access to startup programs. But why should that be? There are many good things that will come to Connecticut by encouraging us to headquarter in Stamford versus Rye or Portchester. With the residency focus, Connecticut seems to be focused solely on the immediate short-term tax revenue. Supporters of entrepreneurship ought to put founders in the center of their thinking, while thinking about what the state is really trying to achieve long-term. Ideally, don’t they want Connecticut to become a startup magnet? To eventually attract even NYC-based residents to work and live here? If so, then first the company has to be successful in Connecticut.
DK: What is your ask from the startup community in Connecticut? What can they do to help you?
AB: The Connecticut startup community in general has been very supportive, especially compared to California, where I never even thought about the State. Encouraging companies like Pitney Bowes to promote innovation and partner with startups like ours is by far the most valuable help we have received. Startups ultimately need customers. And both Pitney Bowes and MasterCard (just across the border in Purchase, NY) were local companies willing to give us a try, and support us. That has made a huge difference to us. In return, we have done everything we can to return the favor.