How To Turn Around A Failing Startup

When your great idea doesn't work out, what do you do? If you're the founders of AdKeeper, you switch gears and create a thriving new business (or two).
August 26, 2013

In the startup world, everyone talks about the “aha” moment. But there are also plenty of “uh oh” moments, when founders realize that the company they first envisioned is perhaps not the one that’s to going to land them in the annals of stunning entrepreneurial success stories. Such was the case for the founders of AdKeeper. 

Scott Kurnit, the former chairman and CEO of About, and MaryAnn Bekkedahl, who was a senior executive at Rodale for 17 years, founded the company in 2010. Kurnit’s original idea was a venture called AdKeeper, and it was funded to the tune of a whopping $43 million before it all went south. To survive, he and Bekkedahl needed to turn “uh oh” into “aha”—and that's exactly what they did.

The Best Laid Plans

AdKeeper was conceived as an icon embedded in digital ads that, when clicked, allowed consumers to save the ads for viewing at a later time. Think of it as Evernote for ads. “You could send it to yourself in an email to look at later,” Bekkedahl says. Coupons, recipes, travel ideas and more would all be tucked away for later viewing so as not to interfere with readers’ primary purpose: consuming content.

“We had 75 of the top 200 online advertisers signed on,” Bekkedahl recalls. That included Jet Blue, Ford, Coke, Pepsi, Verizon and Allstate. The founders had also landed two rounds of capital from all-star investors such as First Round Capital, Spark Capital and True Ventures.

Right around launch time, in the first quarter of 2011, another icon began appearing in digital ads on a more regular basis. In response to grumbling from regulators, advertisers that use behavioral targeting began incorporating the AdChoice icon into ads, so consumers could click and get a full accounting of how advertisers were using their Web surfing activity to send specific ads their way. “Digital ads were getting pretty crowded,” Bekkedahl says. The company also encountered resistance from the media agencies that would be responsible for placing the AdKeeper icon in ads. “It didn’t work,” Bekkedahl says. “We had a big team and we were burning through all this cash.”

The Pivot

“We went through this big exercise, asking ourselves what do we have in terms of technology, patents and talent that we can recast into something that can reduce our burn and get us to quicker success,” Bekkedahl says. The company had the capability to transfer digital assets from one place to another and had a staff of expert marketers. Also, they took note of Pinterest’s growing popularity and consumers’ burgeoning interest in curating and publishing for themselves. “We thought, maybe people don’t like ads, but they like bags and shoes and necklaces.”

So Kurnit and Bekkedahl decided to create a platform where people could collect retailers’ product images via a “Keep It” button in their browser, share the images publicly, and follow other users with similar tastes. “People had already been trained to do this on Pinterest,” Bekkedahl says. “But over 60 percent of the pins on Pinterest are not products. On, everything is available for sale one click away.” All the products featured on the site come from individual consumers plus a handful of “taste-makers”—bloggers, fashion and interior designers, and magazine editors—that has on its payroll.

Bekkedahl and Kurnit also salvaged a second venture from the AdKeeper rubble. “One of our other assets was a huge database of daily newsletters from over 1,400 marketers,” Bekkedahl says. Those emails were the inspiration for Swizzle, a service that reduces inbox clutter while keeping preferred advertisers in front of consumers. Swizzle scans your inbox for automated messages, allows you to easily unsubscribe from and delete the ones you don’t want, and aggregates the ones you do want into a daily digest. Based on what you choose to keep, Swizzle also makes recommendations for other newsletters you might like to receive.

Community First

“We’re in the same camp as many other big platforms in that we won’t monetize until we have a huge user base,” Bekkedahl says. The obvious revenue stream for will be retailers to whom the site drives paying customers. Swizzle, currently free and listed this year in Time as one of the 50 best websites, hints at a potential revenue stream with its recommendations to users. But Bekkedahl insists the company is not yet focused on making money. “We are growing like weeds,” she says. “We want to make an awesome user experience and we don’t want revenue to interfere with that.”

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