Imagine you're on your smartphone, breezing through the levels of Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog. Suddenly, your luck runs out. You can start all over from the beginning. Or you can watch a 15-second video advertisement to revive Sonic and get back to the game.
Vungle is the company behind this novel way of working mobile ads into games. The three-year-old startup created a platform to help developers embed video ads into mobile apps in order to monetize them. More than 100 million people see an advertisement enabled by Vungle each month.
Vungle CEO Zain Jaffer and his team have the onerous task of making video ads--which are often percieved as jarring and irksome--as palatable as possible.
"If you get it wrong, it's a double-edged sword," Jaffer said. "You're going to annoy your users. Whereas if you get it right and you embed the video ads into the mechanics of the actual app, it becomes part of the flow."
Throughout three funding rounds, Vungle has earned votes of confidence from investors such as Thomvest Ventures, 500 Startups, and Google Ventures. The company closed a $17 million Series B funding round in February to bring its funding total to $25.5 million.
Support for Jaffer's mission wasn't always so easy to come by. Not too long after starting Vungle in London with co-founder Jack Smith, Jaffer said they were burning through cash fast. In 2011, he managed to persuade his then-girlfriend and now-wife, in addition to his business professor from University College London, to invest $15,000 each to keep the company afloat.
Times were hard, to say the least. "You have to realize there was a lot of guilt, because I had taken money from my girlfriend and my professor," Jaffer said. On top of that, he couldn't make his own rent. He was buying discounted groceries that were about to expire. And he lost contact with friends and family as he worked around the clock.
It was time for an act of desperation. Jaffer and Smith were reading TechCrunch one day and saw that there was just one open spot left in a class for the San Francisco-based startup incubator AngelPad. The accepted company would receive $120,000 in seed funding.
Jaffer and Smith schemed to come up with a standout application. They simply decided to do what they do best.
The co-founders created a hypertargeted ad, which they managed to deliver just to AngelPad founder Thomas Korte's friends. A picture of Korte's face appeared on Web advertisements that read, "Korte needs help. Urgent message right now." The ad then linked to Jaffer's video pitch that explained why he should get accepted to AngelPad. The ad got Korte's friends' attention--and subsequently Korte's as well.
"It was very effective," said Korte. "If they can figure that out, they can do a lot of things. It really swayed us to be like, 'Look, these are doers. We need people to figure out stuff and get stuff done.'"
After making Jaffer sweat for a few weeks, Korte finally called him on a Thursday. There had been 2,000 applications for one spot, and Vungle was in. Korte told Jaffer to get on the next plane to San Francisco --the program started Monday.
Jaffer did just that and hasn't looked back since. "I thought to myself, I'm going to finally have people who believe in me give me a chance," Jaffer said. "So I was like, I want to be there."