Boot-strapped to award-winning: the Publift story

Publift win best sell-side technology at The Drum Digital Advertising Awards APAC

Australia-based Publift celebrated winning the sell-side technology category at this year’s The Drum Digital Advertising Awards APAC and has its eyes on an APAC expansion, but not too long ago it was a bootstrapped start-up.

Founded by Colm Dolan officially in 2015, the business has doubled its staff to 25, based in an office in Sydney. Speaking to The Drum after the award win, Dolan says starting the business wasn’t always easy. In fact, he took the leap into entrepreneurialism after a drop in confidence.

“Publift officially launched in July 2015, but my journey towards it started in November 2013. After five years at Google in Ireland and the US, I made the move to Australia and was working at a content platform startup called Rollup Media. After failing to win a series B funding the company had decided to wind down Australian operations. My confidence was low, which came across in every job interview so I started to revisit a past idea I’d had about setting up a consultancy business,” he says.

This brief lapse in confidence, however, was the catalyst to sparking action on creating a business that’d been in his head since his time at Google. Dolan says after working at Google, he’d seen the need for publishers to have an agnostic partner that could help them drive revenue, something publishers rarely have time and resource to implement themselves.

After some time boot-strapping the start-up and talking within the industry, Dolan had a version of the business up and running in 2014, but it wasn’t until bringing in his ex-Google buddy Tobin Page that Publift took on its new name and became the start of the business it is today.

“I now had two clients and I was rocking… The first six months were hard, my girlfriend paid the rent and a friend moved in and while I was just getting by, I could see the opportunity and was excited about the next step. In January 2014, I moved into a shared office space in Darlinghurst and felt like a real entrepreneur.

Publift’s business model is essentially simplifying revenue generation element of business for publishers with programmatic advertising. This means that publishers can concentrate on content and building audiences, rather than the complexities of technology. Dolan says this is key because there’s so much fragmentation and complexity on the tech-side that it can be overwhelming for publishers.

In terms of challenges for the market, Dolan believes the switch to programmatic has been tough on publishers, as well as the move to social content for younger readers.

“The main challenge in the industry right now is the changing of the guard from direct IO bookings to programmatic. It's still taking publishers some time to realise that programmatic is here to stay and is only going to get more automated. Many publishers need to change their business model; previously they got high CPMs for display advertising and focused a sales team around landing those deals. Programmatic CPMs are nowhere near as big as previous IO booked campaigns and need a completely different set of skills to manage the system.

“Another challenge is content consumption and the influx of social media on the younger generations. There are more people than ever consuming content but they are not going through traditional publishers’ content and publishers are trying to figure out how to capitalise on new social trends,” he says.

It’s ultimately this proposition that drove the judging panel to select Publift, a relatively smaller player from the shortlist, as the winner of the category. Dolan believes the results Publift generates for its clients speak for themselves when it comes to winning awards.

“With an average net uplift for clients of 54%, it’s fair to say that it’s the results that led to this win. We have many client testimonials that can rubber-stamp this too. We really focus on delivering results for the publisher and we’re completely unbiased about which partner delivers the revenue. Which means we can always get the yield for every impression.

From the moment we took a conscious decision a few years ago to invest in technology we knew it was the right way to go. We could see a lot of manual steps in the work we did and a lot of space for human error. Turning it into a reliable and real-time system would eradicate almost all of that. We’ve invested more than AU$1million (which is a lot for a bootstrapped startup!) to develop our ‘Fuse’ platform.

“I also feel building a technology platform from the ground up, in a crowded ecosystem resonated with the judges. Especially competing and winning against global SSP partners.

As we grow and evolve, I get more bullish on our offering because SMB publishers are really craving education and consultation on their strategic direction, rather than just plain technology. At Publift we can do both in spades,” he argues.

As for what’s next for the business, Dolan is already testing the waters for a wider APAC expansion after signing licensing deals in Japan and Vietnam. Publift has also spent time developing the Fuse Premium platform, which he says “has the ability to service larger publishers and offer optimisation services to direct advertising slots as well as programmatic ad units. This is what we have spent the last eight months developing - making our platform robust enough to fit other market segments.”

As with a lot of business that plans to operate across the wildly fragmented and varied market of Asia Pacific, Dolan is mindful that the technology and staff need to be able to scale across this. However, Australia has been the perfect testbed, he says.

“The APAC region is certainly very interesting from a growth perspective. It’s the biggest growth market globally. Australia is a fantastic place to test and iterate. We’ve got highly sophisticated internet users and high CPMs. Our goal is really to use it as a testing market to expand to other regions in Asia,” he says.

With a regional award already under its belt, and having also just won the Transformer 2019 Award from Google due to its major growth efforts for clients, further expansion into APAC in 2020 is highly likely for Publift.

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