Alex Collmer is the founder and CEO of VidMob, the world’s largest video creation platform. As the web transitions to a video-driven medium, Collmer recognized the need for businesses to have access to the world’s best video creators who could produce quality content for a variety of platforms that was affordable. VidMob has raised $95M from top-tier investors like BuildGroup, Acadia Woods Partners, Macanta Investments, and Interlock Partners.
In this episode, you will learn:
- Finding and capitalizing on friction
- Product market fit and scale
- What’s next for internet marketing
- His top advice before starting a business
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About Alex Collmer:
Alex Collmer is the founder and CEO of VidMob, a creative performance platform that provides an end-to-end technology solution for all of a brand’s creative needs. Since founding the company in 2015, he has raised more than $45M and counts many of the world’s leading brands and agencies as clients. Combing an elegant interface with a roster of more than 5000 video creators enables anyone to maximize their video presence and make a brand impact with video.
An engineer by training, Collmer’s career has always been at the intersection of technology, design, and consumer entertainment as those sectors have evolved. Prior to founding VidMob, Collmer was the co-founder and CEO of Autumn Games, a premier publisher of video game franchises. Under his leadership, Autumn Games developed successful partnerships with such personalities as Jimmie Johnson, the 7-time NASCAR champion and companies like Def Jam, the leading urban culture brand, as well as the award-winning fighting game franchise, Skullgirls.
Previously, Collmer was a founder and board member of the New York Video School, an online film school focused on empowering people all over the world to become “video literate” (www.nyvs.com). Collmer received a B.S. from Cornell University’s School of Engineering and was a certified E.I.T. in the field of structural engineering in the state of New York. Collmer sits on the board of several technology and media companies and has spoken at numerous universities and conferences on entrepreneurship and media. In his spare time, he coaches little league soccer and baseball.
Connect with Alex Collmer:
Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. Today’s founder – what a journey. He’s been at it a few times. I think everyone is going to learn from all the lessons, product/market fit, building, scaling, financing, and you name it. Without further ado, let me welcome our guest today. Alex Collmer, welcome to the show.
Alex Collmer: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Alejandro: You were born in Ohio but not necessarily raised there. It was kind of a back-and-forth between New York, Ithaca, and Washington D.C. So how was life growing up?
Alex Collmer: Life growing up was good. I grew up, in many ways, in the shadows of universities. My folks were both professors, and so when I was really young and living in Ithaca, my folks were getting their Doctorates at Cornell. Then, when they got their first professorial jobs, we’ve moved down to D.C. And then actually moved back to Ithaca and started working with the university there in high school. Life was good. I grew up in an environment that was rooted around curiosity. I learned to appreciate reading and all the things that go into the scientific method at an early age. I feel like, in many ways, I’ve grown to appreciate them more and more as I’ve gotten older.
Alejandro: And you think that’s why you ended up going after engineering?
Alex Collmer: Yeah. I think, like so many people, when I grew up, I was into sports, and I played soccer and baseball and did all the things that most kids do. I didn’t spend a ton of time thinking about what life would look like when I grew up. I knew I was pretty good at math and science and figured that meant I should be an engineer. I knew the soccer coach at Cornell. I went down and talked to the soccer coach at the University of North Carolina, and then ultimately went to Cornell. I got an early decision as an engineer, in general, and then after a few years, I ended up starting committing to the structural engineering program, part of the Civil Engineering School.
Alejandro: Obviously, your parents being both professors, they were probably not very impressed with you having fun and playing a lot of soccer.
Alex Collmer: I think they were fine with me having fun and playing soccer. I think they probably would have preferred me to also be a little more focused on my studies. That was the part that they were probably less impressed with.
Alejandro: What was it like for you being on your own at 19 when your parents said, “You really need to figure it out.”
Alex Collmer: I was – I don’t know. In some ways, I was fairly independent from a fairly young age. My first couple of years at school, I was smart enough to get Cs and C-s without applying myself at all, which is not a great way to go through life. After my first semester of my sophomore year, my folks took me aside and said, “Is this really the best that you can do?” I thought about it for a second and said, “No. I’m pretty sure that if I tried, I could do a good amount better.” Then they came back at me – the one-two punch. “Do you think this is a good use of our hard-earned money?” I couldn’t disagree. I said, “No. I don’t think it is.” So we agreed that if I didn’t do basically like a 3.0 that I would drop out, and I would figure out how to pay my own way through college. Needless to say, I didn’t. I filled out a voluntary leave of absence. At 19, I left college. I really had no skills and certainly no academic record that would make anyone want to hire me. I had to figure out how to come up with the $15,000 – $20,000 to pay my way back through college. That’s a real kick in the teeth as someone who is otherwise quite confident in their abilities. I thought about going out west and being a fly-fishing instructor because I was really into fishing at a young age. Ultimately, I started bouncing at a local bar on campus, and then through that, ended up taking over a catering business providing refreshments to university-sanctioned fraternity and sorority parties coming in with the insurance and various other paperwork to make those things operate safely. Then, through that, I ended up taking over the bar and restaurant that it was run out of. When I was 19, I had a couple of hundred people working for me. I worked literally 365 days in a row. I never took a day off. I saved every penny I made. In a year, I saved up all the money I needed and then went back and finished my engineering degree. But now, with a much different appreciation for academics because there I was writing these big checks to the bursar. What I found was that when you’re the one paying the bills – I went to class every day. When you go to class, they teach you exactly what you need to know. I essentially got straight A’s from there on out and actually really enjoyed it. I found that the subject matter was incredibly engaging, and I loved being an engineer. So, I had these two very different experiences as a student. I think as an entrepreneur, I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything in the world because I learned early on that failure is part of life and that you can deal with even the most adverse situations and that there’s always a solution, and I got addicted to it. I knew from then on that I was always going to be an entrepreneur.
Alejandro: So, being on your own at 19 is a tough one. What would you say was the life lesson that was there for you to learn?
Alex Collmer: I guess the one thing that I’d take away from it was that no matter how dire things can look at any moment, they’re always less bad than they seem. In that time, I really felt like my sense of self-value was incredibly diminished. On one level, it could have been one of the worst periods of my life. But, in retrospect, it was actually one of the best experiences of my life. It was the challenge. It was the failure that actually forced me to learn my own potential. I think the lesson there is that it’s really easy to try and keep score in the middle of the game. You might be thinking you’re doing really well, or you’re doing poorly, but oftentimes, when you think you’re doing poorly, you’re actually having the most positive learning moments and things like that. I think going forward for me, I turned the scoreboard off completely. I never pay attention to whether I think I’m doing well or poorly because I have a clear sense that it’s probably going to be a faulty gauge.
Alejandro: Got it. Fast-forwarding, after college, you did a little bit of consulting, software consulting. That was the clear segue into launching your actual first business. How was that transition and that experience?
Alex Collmer: It was really interesting. I quickly realized, at least for me, I was always going to optimize to be the broadest person possible. So anything that felt like it was going to push me down a narrow path, I recoiled from it. Even though I graduated with a degree in Instructional Engineering and passed my EIT exams, and was on the path to be a licensed instructional engineer, I didn’t want to do that because I felt like it would end up pushing me down a very narrow and specialized path, and I knew that wasn’t the right thing for me. So, I went into consulting. I worked for a company called Sapient and spent a little bit of time in their operations department, and then I was actually writing code and cutting my teeth there. Then, ultimately, I was managing some relatively small-scale development projects. It didn’t take long there where the idea of building someone else’s technology just was very hard for me, and I wanted to go into the process of building companies. I went and met another guy from Cornell who had been successful. He had previously built and took a company called 24/7 public. I worked for him for a couple of years. I started to learn a bit about the process of entrepreneurship, and then I guess it would have been around age 24 or 25, I set out and started building my own businesses. The first meaningful company I started was when I started with my current partner, Jason Donnell, and then another guy named Reilly McCally. We built a company called Autumn Games, which was a video game publisher.
Alejandro: Let’s talk about the video game publishing experience because you did this company for quite a bit, so what was that journey that you experienced with Autumn Games? Tell us about it.
Alex Collmer: I think journey is a perfect way to describe it. It had real ups and downs. We learned a lot along the way, and I think, again, it was another of these important learning lessons for me. When we started that business, the thinking was fairly simple. At the time, we started to see innovation in the film finance model, so you had legendary pictures, Dune, and a number of those early number of those film funds being watched. We felt like some of those models could and should be applied to games space, which was less mature and had more room for innovation. Jason and I got together, and then our third partner, Murali, he’d been running Activision, a North American Studio. We put together a model to make a number of large-scale, true Triple-A games and worked out a deal with Sony where we were going to make them exclusive for the Sony PlayStation platform in exchange for them guaranteeing a certain degree breaking on each investment. Then, we took that contract and had the Royal Bank of Scotland agree to underwrite what, at the time, was going to be about a $400 million fund to watch the business. We were moving along well with that, and then all the sudden, everything went completely sideways with RBS. They ended up getting nationalized by the Bank of England. It was like the early days of what, now, is the 2008-’09 financial collapse. After RBS, we started working with Merrill Lynch. They signed an agreement off the Merrill Global Private Equity Fund to underwrite basically to finance $125 million equity investment to launch this business. Then Merrill got bought by Bank of America, and again, the rug was pulled out from under us. Meanwhile, we’ve actually started working on our first game, which was a game called Def Jam Rapstar. We had a fairly large development obligations. Our financing had just gone away. There was no option other than to push through. Luckily, the game had a great deal of enthusiasm around it. It was getting early good reviews, and comparable games, Rock Band and the Guitar Hero were really big franchises. We got into this period where we were basically raising the capital to fund the business a week-to-week, month-to-month basis, always with this Sword of Damocles hanging over the company’s head with 100-150 people on payroll between us and the actual developers working on it. We always found a way to make it work and ended up completing the game, launching it. That period, though, that multi-year period of never having much more than a couple of months of capital visibility, you really learn how to dial down the Emotimeter and get really Zen when you’re in that period for a long time. Again, I think that forced me as an entrepreneur to lower my heart rate and understand that no matter how bad things get, you always can find a way to work through things.
Alejandro: What ended up happening with this rodeo with Autumn Games?
Alex Collmer: It continued to have ups and downs throughout where we ended up launching that game, generated $25-30 million dollars in the first month. Then we ended up in a very long and contract dispute with the publisher for the game at the time that ended up a multi-party lawsuit, and all the sudden, I had to learn all about what litigation looks like and all those things. Like my experience with college, this was a massively negative experience in my life where everything – the rug was just ripped out from under us. We had this hundred-million-dollar business that went essentially to zero. We had to let go of all of our employees. I worked for years without paying myself a penny and just stuck with it trying to figure out how do we get through this? How do we end up winning this litigation, getting all the games back, and that process matured me a million times? I think I learned that as long as you stick with character. Stick with integrity and deal with things the right way. I feel like almost anyone I know would have just left and would have been like, “You know what? There’s no profit here. I’m not being paid. It’s time to move on.” But I just couldn’t let go and the same with Jason. We fought this thing all the way through until a couple of years later, we ended up getting all the games back and then ended up starting from scratch. We did the Indiegogo campaign to build one more character for our smallest game, and that ended up being the biggest Indiegogo campaign for a game at the time ever. It raised over $800,000. I think we ended up making five characters, and we launched this Skullgirls franchise, which even to this day, nearly a decade later, is still popular all over the world, and we were just too stubborn to quit. I don’t know if that’s a good lesson or a bad lesson for an entrepreneur because there can be a lot of collateral damage when you’re that stubborn, but it was the right decision for me.
Alejandro: At what point does VidMob come into the picture?
Alex Collmer: A few years later, it got to a point where through that experience, we were on a path where we didn’t raise new capital, and we were still working on rebuilding the game out of cashflows from it. It was clear that was like a long-haul, and part of me was thinking, “I need to figure out another way to survive.” Then, there was another part of me that was like, “The games business isn’t my dream job.” I’d get fan mail – not that people were fans of me, but people were fans of the game franchises that we’d help make. We’d occasionally give people tours of the office. I was thinking, this is probably a lot of people’s dream job. It’s just not mine. I wanted to do something that, for me, felt more impactful and more valuable for the world. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew it was important to me. I started thinking about where could I create impact? I kept coming back to this idea that the web was about to go through a significant transition and the transformation from a static internet with text and images to what we now see today as a video network. I knew that was going to be just fundamental that we were like oral as a culture for tens of thousands of years before Gutenberg, and from the printing press, for the last 500-550 years, we’ve had communication dominated with text and images. I knew this transition was on that scale in terms of both potential and also friction. Having come out of the entertainment world, I felt like human creativity was always going to be important, but I also had an engineering background, and so I really believed in technology. That led me to this thinking, which was, “If I could build a platform that could help scale human creativity, logically, the thing it would do is create jobs. That’s how it would work if it worked. If it was my platform, I could design it in such a way to ensure that the jobs it created were good jobs. I could put rules in there saying, “You can’t sort by the cheapest creator. We’re not going to set it up so that 100 people compete against each other and only one person gets paid.” This started to get really interesting to me, where I was like, “All right. Trying to create a million jobs is a whole lot more interesting than trying to entertain a million 14-year-olds.” So, I started VidMob in 2014. The idea simply was: let’s build a platform to scale human creativity and make it more efficient and more effective.
Alejandro: One of the things that was very interesting here is that you guys were able to find product/market fit. But the business was not rocketing forward. How is that possible? Because, typically, when you hit it on product/market fit, it’s like everything is falling into place, but it seems that you guys were still figuring things out.
Alex Collmer: Yeah. It took us – if we launched the marketplace in the fall of 2015, I would say it took us about a year to find true product/market fit. Now, at the time, that probably felt like five years. We launched it then. Right at launch, Apple named our app one of the best apps of the year. We had accolades and things coming in, but the revenue was like $4,000 a month, $6,000 a month. Meanwhile, we’re like, “Oh, we grew 50%.” But it’s like small numbers. We didn’t really know what our business was going to be at that point. We were still just very much like videos in the world – it wasn’t clear what our niche was. In the fall of 2016, our third co-founder, Craig Coblenz, started working out a relationship with Snapchat. That pushed us down a path to see the real opportunity. They had just turned on advertising in Snap. Because there were no other vertical ad formats at the time, and no marketers had vertical ads. You’d have someone like Budweiser, who was interested in spending half a million dollars within the Snap platform, but they didn’t have a vertical ad, and so they couldn’t spend the money. It was like this friction that stood in the way between interest and spending. Snap had been working with more traditional agencies to solve and remove that friction, but they found it was taking, in many cases, months to get the creative they needed. That delay was not helpful, and it was costing hundreds of thousands of dollars that ate into what could actually be spent on the platform. And, frankly, the creative often wasn’t good. It was more kind of rooted in traditional television narrative storytelling. So they found in our platform they could get it done for a few thousand dollars, get it done in a few days, and have the content native to the Snap environment, and it did a lot better. So we became really popular there and helped drive a bunch of spending on the Snap platform. Again, this was about three-quarters before they went public. It was important revenue time. We found ourselves with a core group of that team at CES at the beginning of 2017. They were like, “You guys were really helpful to us this past quarter. What can we do to help you?” I was like, “At some point, you’re going to roll out a self-service ad-buying platform, and when you do, then there are going to be tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of advertisers, smaller advertisers who struggle with their creative just the same way today like Budweiser and big platforms are struggling. What we want to be is a button there that can be pushed to remove that creative friction for all those marketers.” They’re like, “That’s a great idea, but we don’t have a self-service ad-buying platform, and our engineers are pretty busy now on a bunch of other initiatives. Why don’t you build it? If you build our self-service ad-buying tool, you can then put the button wherever you want.” It’s like 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning at CES in Las Vegas. I ran back to my room. I called our CTO and woke him up, and talked to him about the conversation. A week later, we flew out to LA and showed them a fully designed campaign manager, and they were like, “How long is it going to take to build this?” We said, “Two months.” And they’re like, “Can you build it in a month?” And we did.
Alejandro: That’s amazing.
Alex Collmer: People always ask me, “What’s entrepreneurship like?” My answer oftentimes is, “It’s taking a thread and pulling on it, like a loose thread on a sweater.” It wasn’t any strategic thought. It just came up in conversation, and we responded with what felt like a good idea at the time. The next thing we knew, we built a platform to plug into their app APIs, and all the sudden, we started having visibility into the performance of the creative that we were making. Then we did similarly with Facebook, and Instagram, and then Pinterest, Twitter, and Google, and LinkedIn, and all of our other partners. At the end of that year, 2017, it occurred to me, “We have better cross-platform visibility than any platform. We have better cross-industry visibility than most agencies. If only we could understand the actual creative content, like the elements of what’s happening frame-by-frame, what emotions people are exhibiting, what words are onscreen, what words are being spoken, where and when logos and trademarks are coming in, and all these things, we could take that creative element data and compare it to all the performance data we’re getting, and we could actually get to something that marketers have never seen before, which is like not which ads are working, but why. Why is this ad working and that one’s not? Why is this ad working last week, but it’s working this week? It all came out of that one random Snap conversation and the one random thought that we would then build this campaign manager for, which we ended up deprecating nine months later. Now, today, this creative intelligence business is the backbone of VidMob.
Alejandro: Was that the turning point where you started seeing all the big ones like Google or Facebook also partnering with you guys where, at that point, you’re like, “I think we’re into something. I think we’re going to be okay.”?
Alex Collmer: Yeah, it really was, and I think that was the time where we felt like, “You know what? We actually have a really differentiated business here.” Our platform increasingly is driving real value to our clients that we can see and that we can say, “We increased the performance of this marketer’s advertising by 100-200-300%.” When you can see the budgets, you’re like, “Okay. You know what? I just added half a billion dollars in value to this marketer.” I think once we started seeing that, we felt like, “We’re really onto something here.” The broader trend was always very clear. The move from a static web to a video web, that was clear. What wasn’t clear to us was that these enterprise marketers, these big, big brands were going to need our services. I assumed that they would always be totally fine with their agency relationships, but over time, it’s become very clear to me that somebody had to build a technology platform to bring their data and creativity together and help build a lot more intelligence to creative decision-making. Now, today, we work with many of the largest agencies. We work with the majority of the Top 20, Top 50 marketers in the world, and we work with all the big modern platforms.
Alejandro: In terms of capital, as well, to support this growth, you need a bit of money, so how much capital have you guys raised to date?
Alex Collmer: If you had asked me a month ago, I would have said we raised $45 million, but we actually just closed a $50 million Series C, which we’ll be announcing probably right around the time this podcast goes live.
Alejandro: Nice. Very cool. So that would be a total of–
Alex Collmer: A total of just under $100 million.
Alejandro: Very nice. Congratulations. Just for the people that are listening now to get an idea of the size of VidMob, anything that you can share in terms of employee count or anything like that?
Alex Collmer: I think we’re at 135 employees now. So, to put some context around it, for those first few years, we were right around 10-12 employees. Then when we raised our Series A, we grew from 10 to 25. When we raised the Series B, we were about 60 people, and now, it’s almost doubled. We have operations and offices across the U.S. with our headquarters in New York, and offices in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Western Massachusetts, and a few small satellites in a few other cities. We have a team in San Palo, in Brazil, to service the Latina market. We have offices in London, Dublin, and in Tel Aviv.
Alejandro: Very cool. Let’s say you go to sleep tonight, Alex, and you wake up in a world five years later when the vision of VidMob is fully realized, what does that world look like?
Alex Collmer: To me, there’s, let’s call it the five-year and the ten-year. In the five-year, what we’re trying to do is build what we think of as the operating system for creativity. My vision is that the same way today, no sensible sales organization would think about running their global sales operation without having Salesforce or some sort of underlying SaaS platform there to help it run – manage the leads and bring intelligence to go to market and all these things. We firmly believe that there’s a similar opportunity to build a Salesforce for creative operations. Five years from now, I would hope that any and all marketers are using our platform to either run their in-housing teams or to bring their media agency teams and their creative agency teams together so that their creative operations and their media data operations are brought together, and they’re making all their creative decisions with real intelligence driving them. In the ten-year time horizon, our view generally is the same way payment friction suffused the web for the first 20 years of its existence, and that was, for a while, a barrier to commerce online and much of the internet’s potential. We believe going forward, there’s going to be more and more creative friction as a barrier to the internet living up to its potential. As all platforms transition from text and images to video and beyond that AR and more complex media types, we think that creative friction is going to exist everywhere, so on every dating site, on every job site, on every home buying, and Airbnb, and everything you can imagine. We’re trying to construct this series of APIs that can be plugged into each and every one of those friction points and help remove the friction and bring intelligence to the process so that the person creating that video resume or video home they’re actually being advised by data on how to make the best possible content for their goals.
Alejandro: Very cool. Let’s say, Alex, that I’m bringing you into a time machine, and we’re going back in time, and I’m taking you to a time where you’re thinking about what you’re going to be doing, maybe a business that you’re going to be launching – that younger self, that younger Alex, and you have a chance to talk to your younger self and give your younger self one piece of advice before launching a business. What would that be, and why, knowing what you know now?
Alex Collmer: I don’t think that I would change anything. I wouldn’t try and avoid the painful times. All of those things were important parts of making me who I am, and I don’t think I would even want to remove the suspense of it. I think it’s important for people to struggle because, ultimately, it’s through struggle that we’re able to enjoy the highs all the more. So, if anything, if I was going to talk to me a long time ago, I would just say, “Buckle up. Don’t sweat the downtimes. Know that in the end, everything happens for a reason.”
Alejandro: Absolutely. Alex, for the people that are listening, what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi?
Alex Collmer: I’m on Twitter: @comerica – you can go on the VidMob site, and there are a whole bunch of different ways to find us there through our blog or anything else.
Alejandro: Amazing. Alex, thank you so much for being on the DealMakers show today.
Alex Collmer: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me, Alejandro.
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