You Are Working Too Hard And Not Getting Anywhere
Continuing the case method on MBA Mondays, I am going to tell a story about a business model pivot that was not a full business pivot.
In the lull between Flatiron and Union Square Ventures, I made a few angel investments and the best one was in a company called TACODA that went on to become a Union Square Ventures portfolio company and in many ways directly led to the creation of Union Square Ventures. My partner Brad who I founded Union Square Ventures with had left the venture capital business temporarily and was involved in the creation of TACODA, having provided the initial seed capital to Dave Morgan, the founder of TACODA.
Dave had previously founded Real Media, one of the early ad server companies, and he had seen the need for better targeting of display ads on the Internet. His idea was to build a companion to an ad server that could collect behavioral data and target dispay ads to the people who actually wanted to see them. This became known as behavioral targeting. The intital business model was to sell the behavioral targeting engine to publishers who would then sell the behavioral segments to their agency customers.
The software cost between $10k a month and $20k a month and was sold as a SAAS service to publishers. TACODA closed a few big deals early on and got validation of the product and the market from that. But it got harder and harder to close these deals as publishers were wary of coming out of pocket big dollars on a new technology that they weren't sure would help them make more money.
After six or nine months of disappointing numbers, I recall a meeting with Dave where Brad pointed out that the team was "working too hard and not getting anywhere." Brad suggested that the company try a new business model in which it would operate the targeting engine in the cloud and sell the advertising in an ad network model and then share the revenue with the publishers. In effect, Brad proposed that we send the publishers checks instead of asking them to send us checks.
Dave saw the logic of Brad's arguments and slowly but surely pivoted the company into an ad network. And once the business model pivot was completed, revenue took off. In less than three years after the business model pivot, the company was doing north of $50mm in revenues and was bought by AOL for $275mm.
The moral of this story is sometimes you have the right product but the wrong business model. Fixing the business model can fix the company. It certainly did in the case of TACODA.