They Might Be Giants

From Google to startups like Square, a look at seven would-be mobile titans

Lars Albright

Founder and CEO

SessionM

Lars Albright is in the mob. Two mobs, in fact. Not the real mob, of course, but the sort of metaphorical mobs that spring up in technology circles, made up of former employees of a given company. Think the PayPal Mafia, whose members would go on to spawn LinkedIn, Tesla Motors and Zynga and be among Facebook’s earliest investors.

Albright belongs to the m-Qube and Quattro Wireless mafias, the former having given way to the latter, as well as daily-deals site BuyWithMe (now owned by Gilt Groupe) and social/mobile commerce company Unbound Commerce.

After Verisign acquired mobile-messaging firm m-Qube in 2006, Albright and three other former m-Qube wiseguys co-founded mobile ad network Quattro. Apple acquired Quattro in 2010, converting it into the company’s iAds platform. Since then, former Quattro employees have gone on to launch mobile targeting startups Adelphic, AdMobius and Albright’s own SessionM.

“I love it,” Albright says of the Quattro diaspora that has spread out to tackle mobile advertising. “It’s a sign that we had a really high quality team proving to be great entrepreneurs.”

Albright may not be a legitimate mafioso, but he does have a mobster’s bravado—in terms of business strategy if not personality. When he debuted SessionM in May 2011, the startup had $6.5 million in funding, three employees and little else. At the time, all anybody knew about the company was that it aimed to drive user engagement in mobile apps for brands. In other words, boilerplate for any mobile ad firm.

Less than a year later, SessionM officially launched as a mobile-rewards platform, and today the Boston-based company employs 60 staffers and operates a service that reaches 40 million people each month.

“One of the things I saw toward the end of my time at Apple and iAd was this trend of apps getting a ton of activity, millions of users and downloads, which are great stats,” he says. “But when I dug into the active user numbers and how long they’re with the apps and looking at ads, it was apparent that was a big challenge in the space.”

SessionM is Albright’s means of tackling that challenge, aiming to create “power users of content and advertising,” he says. It specializes in enabling brands including Honda, HBO and McDonald’s to provide users of mobile apps from the likes of The Weather Co. and Shazam with reward points for stuff they do naturally within the apps. Those points can be redeemed at a mobile storefront operated by SessionM.

According to Albright, advertisers enjoy engagement rates of upwards of 70 percent, with video ads nabbing 90 percent completion rates. “I would’ve killed for that number in past businesses,” Albright says, referring to the number of consumers who opt in to interact with an ad.

SessionM isn’t yet profitable, but Albright claims that top-line revenue “is exploding right now.” That’s expected to continue as the company builds out native tablet support to take advantage of devices’ larger screens and expands its footprint internationally—perhaps, in time, spawning its own mafia. —Tim Peterson

Naveen Tewari

Founder and CEO

InMobi

Naveen Tewari got out of text message ads before it was too late. Sensing the limitations of the space in terms of scalability and engagement, InMobi’s CEO began in 2007 to focus on the then-nascent mobile-based Internet ad market (the company was previously called mKhoj). For Tewari as well as InMobi, the move was equal parts brilliant and lucky.

Today, InMobi, a mobile ad-delivery platform/network, is in over 160 countries, serving ads to nearly 600 million consumers.

Even with that huge base, Tewari believes we’re still in the earliest of early days. “I think in general, in some pockets, we have a rudimentary understanding of mobile, but we’re just scratching the surface,” he says. “Our understanding of user signals is largely primitive.”

At the outset, Tewari saw the growing mobile market in India as the best place to launch his company. A few years later, InMobi entered the U.S., where the company’s international experience proved helpful in assessing the strengths and limitations of the market, including how a PC-centric attitude can serve to slow mobile adoption.

“Sophistication in the U.S. is very high and the buyers are the most sophisticated anywhere, but they have a very strong Western bias,” he says. “The U.S. is the largest mobile market in the world, but other markets as a percentage of digital space are moving faster to mobile because there is much less loyalty to the PC.”

Tewari also sees the fragmentation of the technology market as a factor. In China, adoption is very fast since there are only one or two services. But in the U.S., he adds, “the challenge comes from the highly segmented market, which creates delays. Quite ironically, it seems the lack of segmentation in the market allows other countries to grow more.”

Thus, Tewari wants mobile ads to get a lot better, both from a creative and technological perspective.

“We are working on the idea that we should be able to predict what a user wants in the next minute, seven days, 30 days or even 90 days,” he says. “That’s what mobile should be able to give us. There is a lot of data around user experience that is nowhere near where it should be. Whether I’m standing up or lying down or sitting or walking, this context level isn’t there yet. If I know the user is walking, I’m better off showing more graphics than text.”

Going forward, Tewari’s enthusiasm for such precise targeting will surely be met by screaming from privacy advocates. But that’s a long way off anyway. For the time being, “we have to simplify mobile,” Tewari says. “What I mean by that is that mobile ads just have to work. Because they don’t always work, people have a hard time accepting their value. We are hard at work putting together a complete solution from creatives to optimizing both supply and demand side platforms. Hopefully a unified solution will allow people to see the value of mobile and raise CPMs.” —Charlie Warzel