Joe bootstrapped his first digital media/ad network business to $50 million in revenue and then sold it to private equity. Later he started a second business, an e-commerce company, that he bootstrapped for a year and then raised venture capital. His third business is a spin-off within the second business that takes him back to his digital media roots.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s start at the very beginning of your journey. Where are you from? Where were you born, raised, and in what kind of background?
Joe Speiser: I’m from New York and I went to school in the city. I studied at the Columbia University. I’ve been doing all sorts of businesses from a very young age. I always had a passion for trying to start something from scratch and make a living. My dad is an entrepreneur. I used to work in his warehouse for most of my summers. It definitely taught me a lot watching my dad run a business. I don’t know if it’s something that’s taught or something that you’re just genetically predisposed to. I enjoy it so much.
Sramana Mitra: What you said about your dad being an entrepreneur is very common for people who come from entrepreneurial families. My dad is also an entrepreneur.
Joe Speiser: Yes, there’s something natural about it. I never thought I would work in a big corporation. I never wanted to. When I graduated from college, all my friends were going into Finance or into Politics. It didn’t seem like something I would ever do. I never thought for a second that that would be my path. I was already building websites and trying to figure out how to make money.
In the 1999 to 2000 period, I was running a coupon site for soccer moms. It was a place where you can go and get coupons for all these startups that were handing away tons of money back in the dot-com boom days. That business was great. Right after college, I was running it. It was paying my rent. I was living comfortably out of it. It was growing very quickly. That path took me to where I am today. It has been a lot of small steps.
I had met my main competitor in the coupon space virtually. He was running a very similar coupon site for moms. We realized that if we combined our traffic at that time, we could command a higher web share from all the e-commerce companies that we were sending traffic over to whether it was Staples or Bluefly.
We decided to team up even though I had never met this person before. I flew up to Toronto. This was probably around 2000. I was very young—just 22—at that time. I met him for the first time and we hit it off. We started working together and things just took off from there.
We quickly realized that while we were going after moms, the opportunity was much larger. What I mean by that is there were hundreds of coupon sites just like ours and they were all struggling to make a certain amount of revenue from their partners. We went out to a ton of them and said, “If you combine under our umbrella, we can pay you more than you can get directly from the e-commerce company.”
Staples is a good example. They had a tiered system where the more sales you sent them, the higher percentage they give you back. As we started aggregating all these different coupon sites, we got stronger and stronger until we were earning 10% for each sale. This turned into an informal ad network.
In 2002, I moved up to Toronto full time. We opened up an office. We started up a company called Ezoogle. It became Ezoogle Ads, which then became Epic Advertising. We started an ad network. I wouldn’t say it was by accident, but we fell into it. We became the largest performance-based advertising network in the United States.