For Kamakshi Sivaramakrishnan, getting a PhD in information theory from Stanford was merely a "stint" on the path to something greater. Her true passion, she says, is honing data to decrypt consumer purchasing behavior.
Today, Sivaramakrishnan heads up the fastest-growing woman-led company on the Inc. 5000, Drawbridge (it's No. 6 overall on the list). Her San Mateo, California-based business uses a complex algorithm to better understand how users interact with ads online, as well as across different interfaces (smartphones, tablets, etc.). By determining whether multiple devices are linked to the same user, Drawbridge can determine if a specific customer is more likely to respond to the same ad on a mobile device versus a desktop, for instance. Another example: Drawbridge will know if a given user sees a banner ad on mobile, but then makes a purchase on their computer. Then, it could tell marketing agencies that their mobile ads are in fact driving consumer spending, where it might not otherwise be obvious.
Sivaramakrishnan is acutely aware that there are few women in her field--and even fewer in the programmatic advertising niche to which her company belongs. Even so, she says that she has a philosophy which keeps her sharp: "I focus on what I have to say, rather than how I look or how I say it," she tells Inc. Drawbridge, it's worth noting, is a far cry from your average digital marketing agency. "This is a company that is foundationally tech. We are not a company that does consumer experience around fashion or shopping online; that's not our DNA."
The business may not have a glossy tagline, but it has been successful: In the past three years, the five-year-old company's annual revenue grew an enviable 23,000 percent--pulling in nearly $33 million in 2014, up from just over $139,000 in 2011. It can also boast attracting two venture capital rounds of funding worth $20.5 million from high-profile backers such as Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
Investors seem to agree about the uniqueness of Sivaramakrishnan's business model. "She was the only one I saw who had a novel, technology-driven approach to targeting," says Matt Murphy, a board member at Drawbridge, who was formerly a general partner at Kleiner Perkins. "At the time, our belief was that mobile advertising was in its infancy... Along came Kamakshi, with a PhD out of Stanford, who said hey, there's this whole other world that we can get into." Today, Murphy is a managing director at the prestigious investment firm, Menlo Ventures.
A starting point.
"My journey in this space is a rather interesting one," says Sivaramakrishnan. After graduating from Stanford, she rejected offers from top investment banks, and instead took a research position at the then one-year-old mobile ad startup AdMob. The company would be acquired by Google two years later, for no less than $750 million. (That makes it the tech giant's sixth-largest acquisition ever.)
At the time, the move to AdMob was a bold one: Sivaramakrishnan compares the success rate of Silicon Valley startups to that of new restaurants in Manhattan, and not inaccurately. Still, she made the leap herself in 2010. "Google is a tremendously agile organization in spite of its size," she says of her job at the tech giant, post-acquisition. "But at the same time, I felt like there is a forward momentum as far as mobile is concerned as an industry... There is a rising tide that is rising much faster than how Google is coming to terms with this. I felt that there was an opportunity for me to innovate and disrupt, at a pace that I could operate much faster being outside of Google and building an independent company rather than inside."
Sivaramakrishnan attributes Drawbridge's growth to the gap that she sees it filling in the marketplace. Her firm wants to answer the question: Who is the user? And unlike competitors, she says her company will do so without using any form of software presence on your device. Facebook and Google, for instance, which also deal in advertising technology, will deploy their software when tracking consumer behavior.
Drawbridge instead makes money by selling its technology to marketing agencies, as well as by licensing data to services that want to learn about their shoppers (think: fashion brands, and e-commerce retailers). The company's team of 100 employees has access to as many as 3.5 billion devices, or 1.2 billion consumers globally.
Keys to growth.
PhD or no, launching a tech startup on the heels of an economic recession--and in Silicon Valley, no less--is far from easy. Sivaramakrishnan says she went solo for the first three months, before ultimately bringing on a handful of engineers in January of the following year. "Engineers are like firemen," she says, to explain how critical she views her team to be. "They're the first line of defense." The company's biggest early breakthrough came later that year, when it began attracting ad clients such as Groupon. As recently as July 2015, Drawbridge poached a former Apple ad executive, Winston Crawford, to serve as its first COO.
However complicated Drawbridge's algorithm may be, the premise itself is simple, says Sivaramakrishnan: "It's a set of people who come together to code"--and rake in millions in revenue in the process.