Michael Provenzano, freshly turned 28, is the chief executive (CEO) and co-founder of ad tech company Vistar Media, which he launched in September 2011 with two friends, Mark Chadwick and Jeremy Ozen. With his discreet personality and demeanor, you would never guess that this young man sold his previous company, Invite Media, to Google for more than $80 million … at the young age of 23.
Bringing Technology to Disrupt the Ad Industry at Various Levels
The Vistar Media platform does two things:
– For place-based ads (those screens in cabs, at the doctor’s office, etc.), it aggregates all the available inventory of all screens into one exchange, providing digital agencies with location-targeted untapped options.
– For billboards, the platform pulls together (unused) real-time location data from mobile users and serves the gathered information as intelligence for brands who are willing to optimize their cost per mille (CPM). The data enables Vistar Media to define the audiences, which in turn, allows smart ad buys and retargeting.
Digital ad agencies partnering with Vistar Media are the ones “who focus on innovation, buy a lot of mobile space, and look at the on-the-go user,” says Provenzano.
Invite Media, Provenzano’s previous venture, is a demand-side platform that enables advertisers, agencies, and agency trading desks to use real-time bidding to buy and optimize online media in full transparency.
Buyers can set up and manage automated strategies to help facilitate intelligent buying across all major sources of real-time bidden inventory, as well as monitor their campaign performance in a single interface.
Ad and Tech Run in the Family
The youngest son of three siblings (he has two older sisters) of what he calls a “conservative Italian family” from Sicily, no less, Provenzano was raised in Houston, Texas, by very supportive parents. His father, especially, “was gadgety” and never restricted his endeavors to hack anything that would come into his hands. Clearly a figure Provenzano looks up to, his father runs a small ad agency in Houston: he has been doing a lot of print, out-of-home, radio, and now does digital, too.
Early Entrepreneurial Onset
Provenzano created a number of companies before nailing the first big one. “There were a lot of failures,” he notes. “I created a few companies when I was in college — they lasted five months.”
His very first foray into the entrepreneurial world started in high school, in a very organic way. Provenzano likes to solve problems and so at the time, he applied that skill to problems related to computers. He would teach himself what worked and what didn’t and was often asked to fix people’s computers and wireless networks. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” Provenzano confesses, but he just was curious enough to plod through whatever he needed to learn to fix things. He also committed himself to weekend classes about computers and more particularly hardware.
People would hand over their old computers and those were his toys, he says, recalling how he had a junk yard of old PCs that he’d experiment with, installing, for instance, Linux on one of them, without knowing what it was all about.
Provenzano quickly found out he could build customized computers for half the price Dell was offering at the time and that’s exactly what he set out to do. His clients? Kids whose parents had money. His marketing strategy? Show those kids what he had built on his computer when they came to his home. Visits would end up in “Mom, I want that” — i.e., conversion. “I could order parts on newegg.com at the time but now it’s impossible, it would be impossible to beat Dell” in the price war, he commented.
Lands First Job at 14
Provenzano obtained his first job at the tender age of 14 and he tells an amusing story about how he managed to get it. His dad’s agency’s clients were mostly doctors and they needed websites. He learned how to make them. In the building where he took his weekend computer classes, there was a family-run web marketing company, Schipul Technologies. He applied and submitted his links without mentioning his age. He was invited in for an interview and was left sitting in the waiting area until a woman, Mrs. Schipul, came out to ask whether he was waiting for a parent on the premises. Imagine the woman’s surprise when Provenzano, all suited up, said he was the job applicant. They interviewed him and were eager to have him onboard: the only snag was that Provenzano was only legally allowed to work 24 hours a week. But he landed the job. Working there for two summers, the 14-year old benefited from his direct access to full-time engineers, from whom he’d learn a lot of valuable things for the future.
Needless to say, his father is Provenzano’s first role model, “a big figure for me to look up to,” he says.
As a result of his summer jobs, Ed Schipul, the chief executive of Schipul, quickly became his second role model, together with his wife. “They just had kids, a family. They had the stress of being entrepreneurs and they loved it. A lot of hard work. All good people. Very driven, they loved the topic and whatever they did. They were so focused on it. There were no limits in their minds,” Provenzano recalls. Schipul is also the one who gave him a list of business school books that taught him the basics.
His third role model is no other than the late Richard Smalley, chemistry professor at Rice University in Texas and Nobel Prize winner. Provenzano had landed an internship in his laboratory where he was working on ultraviolet light through dispersions on nanotubes in liquids (yes…). “He was a very busy man, very dedicated. He was almost angry at how this country was unfocused on producing engineers. I learned a lot.”
Never a Great Student
Although he worked hard, Provenzano confesses he never liked taking tests and was never good at those. In high school, he knew his grades would never get him to college so he put his energy toward track and would even train with another school on top of his own in order to run faster. He applied to every best college in the U.S. “plus some plan B,” he recalls. “I would email the coaches and try to sell myself to them. I even wrote to this woman at [the University of Pennsylvania] and detailed the things I was doing outside school.” That letter proved to be the decisive step: Provenzano got himself into UPenn thanks to it.
Acceleration to Invite Media
During college, he worked on random sites as a business. “With random friends,” Provenzano tried an online ticketing system called “logobuzz.” But the timing was wrong and the delivery time was off. So that was that.
In April 2007, Provenzano teamed up with friends Nathaniel Turner, Zachary Weinberg, and Scott Becker. Turner and Weinberg had won a business competition in college on dynamic flash ads. “We all got together and started working on Invite Media: an ad tech company that built one of the first real-time bidders for the ad exchanges online,” Provenzano said.
The business model: typically 10 to 15 percent of the media spend. Before that, ad exchanges were operating in a totally non-transparent way and would take up to 70 percent margins on the spend. Invite Media “was around for three years” and was then sold to Google in June 2010, officially for $81 million. Provenzano explained how Invite Media was the biggest player in Google’s own ad exchange, prompting the Mountain View, California, company to start talking to them in December 2009.
“We were about 45 people at that time and the average age at the company was 24. I was 23. We started when I was 21 years old.”
The future will tell how Vistar Media will do. At this stage, it has already gone “from zero revenues in 2012 to a few million the following year,” Provenzano says.
Certainly an inspiring trajectory there and interesting, disrupting ideas for the industry.
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