For most of her career in digital advertising, Loren Rochelle had always worked for other people's startups. And then one day, she had her Jerry Maguire moment.
This was 2014 and the industry was evolving fast: While the rise of YouTube and social platforms offered brands new ways to target customers, advertisers struggled to understand where their ads appeared and if they were paying off. Sensing an intriguing problem in need of a solution, Rochelle worked for a string of tech startups in Los Angeles that promised to make sense of this new world of advertising for their clients. The problem was, she didn't see them really delivering on it: You couldn't measure how well an ad campaign was doing, nor did you know if you had reached the right people. What those people did next after seeing an ad was also a mystery.
This all became clear to Rochelle during a monthly management meeting at her then-employer where no one shared her urgency to solve these problems. "I wear my emotions on my face and I'm the worst liar in the world," she says. Brent Neill, one of her colleagues in the meeting, knew exactly what was happening: She was checking out. "I thought, if she leaves and I'm still here, it will be that much worse," Neill says.
Unlike Maguire, Rochelle didn't get fired. But she and Neill decided later that day while grabbing coffee together that they'd leave to start their own advertising tech company. They'd do things differently--more insightful analytics, more personal service for clients. When they told their team a few days later, two colleagues decided to leave with them. With a grand total of $4,000 in startup cash, NOM (Not Ordinary Media) was born.
Four years later, NOM's platform and promise to better track ad campaigns--to avoid its clients' brands appearing alongside objectionable videos--has struck a chord. "Brand safety issues will always exist--it's like a game of whack-a-mole," says Rochelle. "We see ourselves as the honest broker in the industry."
Clients seem to agree. NOM ranks as the 10th fastest-growing private company in the U.S., according to the annual Inc. 5000 list; in 2018 the company's revenue hit $21.4 million, an almost 12,000 percent jump in revenue from three years prior.
Getting to work
Year one was a bigger slog than either co-founder anticipated. While Rochelle had a bit of personal savings as a safety net, Neill did not. Without a product, clients, or outside funding, NOM had no money coming in. At one point Neill, a CPA, temporarily had to turn his focus to doing people's taxes so he could pay rent and keep food on the table for his wife and infant daughter. He also borrowed $20,000 from friends and family for personal expenses.
Raising money didn't exactly pan out as expected either. Things looked promising with one angel group until the day of the presentation. Rochelle says right before she started her pitch, one of the investors told her she looked like Madonna. "I was so mortified. He was someone trying to make me feel small. I just choked and couldn't give the pitch," she says. NOM didn't land the funding.
Looking back, Rochelle says she now thinks of the failure as a pivotal moment for the company. The co-founders decided fundraising was too distracting, so they simply got to work. Neill started teaching himself how to code, and he learned enough to build a database from scraped YouTube data that NOM could use to test the performance and targeting of real campaigns. "It wasn't pretty but it got us off the ground," he says.
NOM's first big break came when Rochelle landed L.A. advertising agency Ignited, which works with clients including Activision, Soylent, and Pepsi-owned probiotic drink brand KeVita. "We tested [NOM] with one of our clients. The service we got was so much better and the targeting was more granular than what we saw from other companies at the time," says Chalita Dasnanjali, VP of media for Ignited. "And I loved Loren's story."
Getting bigger, faster
Today, NOM's back-end tools have performance data on more than 300 million video placements on YouTube, which gives the company crucial context for helping brands target their own ad placements. A front-end tool is focused on brand safety: Clients can see exactly where their ads appear and make sure their video spots don't wind up running in front of, say, a user-generated video that's sexually suggestive, violent, or otherwise off-brand.
Even so, Rochelle says she continually underestimated the cost and the time it was going to take to unify all of these tools into one, ever-more sophisticated platform. Earlier, when Rochelle and Neill had approached angel investors, they had pegged the build-out at $250,000 and around a year. They quickly realized it would take millions of dollars and several years.
"I felt like we weren't going to be able to compete in the market if we didn't build faster," she says.
In 2017, a partner with more resources came knocking. MTM, a New York City-based marketing and advertising company that is home to a network of independent agencies, acquired NOM. "We were not for sale, but we had reached a point in the business where we were feeling like we were going to need to fundraise," says Rochelle, who declined to offer financial details of the deal. "This felt right. We were all of the same mind and wanted the same things."
NOM, which says it will more than double its client base in 2019, continues to operate independently, updating MTM on operations and strategy and leveraging the larger company for introductions when necessary. The investment allowed NOM to hire a product team, which is building a beta version of its new platform slated to launch by the end of the year. In the co-founders' view, the deal helped them liquidate some of the risk of running the company.
That's largely why Rochelle wasn't too precious about selling.
"I never had an ego about it and thought, 'I'm going to lose my baby.' We needed the platform to be smarter," she says.