Nikhil Sethi graduated from Northwestern University last year with an engineering degree, a job offer from Microsoft, and a decidedly "that was yesterday" attitude. He moved to New York, got an office in Start-up Alley, and hired 22 people in two weeks to help him break into the advertising industry. Today he's 23 years old, and his company Adaptly—which has amassed $2.7 million in investment—is reportedly on track to generate $10 million in revenue this year. While Adaptly works primarily on social-media advertising campaigns for traditional businesses—and is not even two years old—it's taking a step usually associated with more mature companies: building in a social mission. The structure is simple; Adaptly is taking on a second string of clients: social enterprises and non-profits. For instance, after Japan's catastrophic earthquake, Adaptly's targeted advertising drove 3,000 targeted donors to the American Red Cross in two days—for a cost to the organization of less than $1,000. That's in part because when Adaptly takes on a non-profit client, it matches the client's budget dollar-to-dollar. Esha Chhabra spoke with Sethi about starting a company in the classroom, building a social mission into his start-up, and teaching non-profits some business sense.
So, tell me, how did you hatch the idea for Adaptly?
In college. We were engineers used to developing these kind of tools and this posed a challenge with an engineering solution. So we built it in our spare time. We locked-up in a room, loaded up on caffeine, and started working on it. Then, we took it to business incubators until we received funding for it.
What was it like starting-up in college, before you got into an incubator?
This is actually funny because the project started in a class at Northwestern where business school students come together with engineering students and collaborate. The business school students looked at the market intelligence and told us that this was a bad idea, not a good market, and not likely to be profitable. But we had a gut feeling telling us that it was worth pursuing. So, we did. And I think I got a C-minus in the class.
But at a time when many companies already have a social media expert, how do you compete?
The social space is vast. There are the paid advertisements. Then there are the social-media experts who'll be managing organic content on Twitter and Facebook accounts. I got a lesson from a nine-year-old in social media that summed it up. Either you can play a bad football game with a full stadium or you can play an awesome game in an empty stadium. So, you have to strike a balance between the paid and the organic—they're two peas in a pod. And we help with that.
When did you build in the social mission?
I saw that social online was an environment that had global activity, but so many of the social-media platforms were separated from one another. So, how does a change-maker plug into the approximately two-billion people online who are tuned in but disconnected? These are platforms that are toppling governments, so it was only natural to think about how we could help these change-makers. So we built a tool that would let these organizations take an ad online, in print, or in film, and expose it to these mass audiences in a smart, strategic way.
The difference between working with non-profits and working with for-profits?
Non-profits usually don't have the budgets of for-profits. But I tell them that sometimes a product, put out by a company doesn’t resonate with people but a message, like what non-profits are generally focused on, does resonate and very strongly. So, you don’t need large amounts of money to get traction for a campaign. For example, $5,000 for an ad on a social-cultural issue goes much further than a $50,000 one for a traditional for-profit print.
What would you say is the biggest mistake non-profits make in the online social space?
People tend to think that if you build a Facebook page, they’ll come. Then you’re just focusing on the organic content and that’s one sided. Rather, they should think about online much like they do about TV, print, and radio. It’s more holistic and you’ve got to think about the various other platforms online.
Do you have to be a programmer to start a tech-based venture?
No, not necessarily. In fact, there are so many resources available these days to get the basics. You don't have to go to school for four years and become an engineer.
What's your goal for the next few years?
Become a trillion-dollar company and help all these great organizations along the way.