Oliver Roup is the Founder and CEO of VigLink, a content monetization technology for forums and blogs. He is also the Co-Founder of ForumCon, an annual Conference for forum owners and administrators. VigLink and ForumCon are familiar to many of you, so I thought it would be interesting to do an interview with Oliver so we could find out more about him and his work.
Can you give us a brief biography?
I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1975 and my parents and my sister and I moved to Canada when I was a year old. I grew up and went to High School in Toronto splitting time as a dorky computer guy and a very competitive rower. In 1994, I moved to Boston to go to College and I've lived in the US ever since.
I know from your bio on VigLink that you obtained bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science from MIT and an MBA from the Harvard Business School. Those are very impressive credentials to say the least! What are your areas of specialization and how has your stellar educational background helped you prepare for doing business online in the real world?
Thank you! At MIT I spent a lot of time around the Media Lab and worked on some very cool projects, including wiring up athletes with telemetry much as you see today with the FitBit and Nike+. I think the part I enjoyed the most was "systems" - the composition of lots of simple seeming parts together into a larger whole with unexpected capabilities. Making cool and unexpected things happen was addictive and has fed my work right through to where I am today.
What was your work experience prior to VigLink.
In 1999 I moved to San Francisco and spent time as an engineer and product manager at Echo Networks which was sort of the Pandora of its day. Sadly we could not make audio ads work and that business failed so I moved to Seattle where I spent some time working for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen at Vulcan and then 4 years at Microsoft. I did some fun stuff there, including founding the group that does TV and Movie downloads for the XBOX. That was sort of a proto-CEO experience for me. J Allard gave me 20 heads [permission to hire 20 people] and said, "I don't know what you're building but it ships in November." I was hooked.
How did VigLink come into being?
I was in business school thinking about a business to start. Someone turned me on to affiliate marketing and as I investigated it just seemed incredibly complicated. I thought if I had a hard time figuring it out, I couldn't be the only one so I wrote a crawler to go look for links to Amazon and count how many were affiliate links. The answer came back less than half and I knew I had a business opportunity on my hands.
As the business has grown, it's become increasingly clear how real the opportunity is. Particularly for forums, where user-generated content abounds, it’s difficult for administrators to get the most out of affiliate marketing programs and leverage the product-focused content their forum generates. Before tools like VigLink existed, it meant editing user content by hand, and tracking tens or hundreds of different programs and tagging schemes.
How many affiliates and publishers are there currently?
We work with over 12,500 merchants and thousands of publishers have the VigLink technology on their site.
Can you give us some perspective into the scale and scope of VigLink (e.g. how much coding is involved, how much server power and bandwidth, how many man hours in lining up affiliates and publishers, how much money is involved, etc..)?
It's a pretty substantial enterprise - we have 17 people including an engineering team of six that we're looking to grow aggressively. We've been in business three years and spend a 5 figure number of dollars every month on infrastructure at AWS, spread across several data centers. The labor required to identify, join and instrument 10s of thousands of affiliate programs is very substantial and we put tons of effort into customer and merchant relationships, into sales and into marketing. It's a huge effort. We've also got some exciting things in the works that I think your readers will love.
To date we’ve raised $7.3 million in funding across three rounds of funding and in August 2010, we acquired one of our competitors. In 2011 we processed over 2 billion outbound clicks across our publisher network and we're seeing great growth this year as well.
How does VigLink work, and how can forum owners use it to increase revenues?
VigLink is un-intrusive content monetization for publishers. Forum owners install it in their site and outbound links to merchants are quietly turned into paying links without changing a single pixel of your site. Optionally a forum can turn on link insertion to notice mentions of products and brands and insert new links. We even have a plugin so that only guests see inserted links if you prefer.
Doing this work by hand is certainly possible but it's incredibly tedious, time-consuming and error prone. Given that the useful life of a thread decays quickly over time, a big portion of the opportunity is lost. It requires forging a multitude of partnerships with affiliate networks and individual online merchants, and then manually combing through content, locating merchant links, and appending the html tags for those links (which can change on a regular basis, depending on the affiliate program).
Installing VigLink can be done directly with a code snippet or using a plugin for platforms like vBulletin. Internet Brands who make vBulletin use us exclusively for all their owned-and-operated sites.
Take us through your schedule on a typical work day.
I just tried to get more formal about this and did an exercise to map it out. There is a 90-minute focus block in the morning to get a big task done and there are two 60-minute email blocks. Outside of those two time slots, I try not to do email. I also have another 90-minute block set aside for one-on-one meetings with my team. I meet with each team member once a week, alternating between a 30-minute and 60-minute check-in. The reality of the day is messier, but as the company grows, implementing a framework for how I spend my time has been critical.
Tell us about the VigLink Team.
Like all great startups, we know the quality of the team is the key component to make magic happen. We're based in San Francisco (in Twitter’s old offices on Bryant Street) and we're looking for roughly 1/3 engineering, 1/3 sales and 1/3 everything else. Readers can meet the whole team here.
How do you differentiate yourself from your competition?
When most publishers hear "content monetization" they think of intrusive pop-ups and double-underlines ala Kontera and Vibrant Media. VigLink is focused on being un-intrusive which means it's suitable for publishers who can't abide the traditional experience. We differentiate ourselves by really catering to the needs of the forum community. We started ForumCon and we're hosting the third one this June in San Francisco. We hope to meet a number of your members there.
Do VigLink links affect SEO?
Running VigLink does not affect a publisher’s Google PageRank. VigLink is backed by Google Ventures which makes it very likely that if we ran afoul of their guidelines we would hear about it quickly.
It’s also worth noting that Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land has reported on a conversation he had with Matt Cutts, head of Search Quality for Google, who reassured him we’re not doing anything inappropriate -- and my conversations with internal Google staffers support this. In addition, we haven’t ever had a customer complaint relating to a drop in PageRank as a result of installing VigLink.
What are outclicks and why should publishers care about them?
Outclicks represent the traffic that leaves a site. These clicks have economic value, value that is almost universally ignored, but VigLink is working to change that.
Outclicks are important for the same reason that inbound clicks are: they are a significant revenue opportunity and a source of critical data about your audience. Historically they've been far more difficult to track and monetize than inbound clicks. VigLink is focused on making it easier for publishers to optimize their outbound traffic in the same ways they would optimize their inbound traffic.
Can you give us some insight into future VigLink developments?
People explore the web by searching and by clicking on links. Search has had 15 years and billions of dollars in research but links are un-innovated since Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the web. The links you see and where they point should not be the result of a single decision made long ago by the author but the result of an intelligent decision making process that considers the reader, the publisher, and the state of the world. VigLink’s vision is to make the web better by making links intelligent and valuable.
Are you involved in any other projects or ventures?
In 2010, after realizing that no in-person events existed to support the forum community, I co-founded ForumCon with several other members of the VigLink team. The annual conference brings together around 200 forum owners each year, and has been a really fun side project to spend time on outside of VigLink.
I still like to write code when I have a free moment. I wrote a lead generation tool that our sales team is using but honestly there isn't a whole lot of time.
How did you become interested in Online Communities?
After founding VigLink, we realized fairly quickly that our most successful customers were those whose sites contained meaningful conversations around products and merchants. And it’s no surprise that these types of interactions are frequently taking place within online communities. Beyond providing an environment for individuals to learn, interact, and network, forums are a driving force behind many purchasing decisions.
But in many ways these conversations are undervalued -- despite the fact that 37% of online consumers turn to social sources when making a purchasing decision (source: ZMOT), it can be difficult to monetize these conversations. It was an interesting problem that piqued my interest in online communities, and one of the reasons our products have taken the direction that they have. ForumCon is now a big part of our business and I hope it continues for many years.
What can forum owners do to increase traffic and revenues?
While it’s easier said than done, there are two areas I recommend forum owners invest time to increase traffic and revenue:
Playing nice with other social media sites. Twitter and Facebook can be great tools for introducing new members to your community and re-engaging with existing members. At a minimum, it makes sense to share content on Twitter and Facebook for consumption.
Building spaces where purchasing decisions are made. Becoming the definitive source for information and conversation around a particular product category provides a lot of leverage when it comes to monetization. This means creating sensible threads that relate to products, encouraging conversation around products, and creating content that your community will find helpful.
What are the common mistakes you see forum administrators making?
We frequently chat with forum owners who are just launching their site and are heavily focused around monetization. While it’s important to build a framework for your forum where monetization is possible later on, initially, the focus should be on community building rather than revenue generation.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment so far?
I think I've pulled two magic tricks in my life so far - the first was convincing Josh Kopleman of First Round Capital to invest in me with no product, no customers and no team. The second was to convince the Driving Revenue guys that they'd be better off on our team than alone. Both those events were about getting people to invest in me beyond what was really justified by the facts. I like to think that both have been good bets, but there are a lot more cards that need to turn over before we really know. Delivering on the faith those guys showed in me is what keeps me up at night.
Any failures you'd care to tell us about?
One thing I would do differently next time is to start with a co-founder. It’s easy to underestimate the mental burden of being on your own. It’s not so much that you can’t make decisions, but that sometimes you don’t even realize the decisions you aren’t making. The wrong co-founder is obviously a horrendous situation but the right one provides a sounding board and another perspective from someone who's in as deep as you are.
Where do you see the Internet 5 years from now?
I think we're still under-estimating the shift to mobile. I often find myself lying in bed with my cell phone when my "real" computer is three feet away. I think for a while people tried to argue that it was all upside, that mobile was all additive and wouldn't cannibalize from the web. I don't think that's true, and it's going to get less true over time.
What Websites do you visit for fun and relaxation?
I'm a massive Hacker News addict. I read it both on the RSS feed and from the front page because you see different stories that way.
What do you know now that you wish you'd known 5 years ago?
Don't stop exercising. It's much easier to continue a good habit then start a new one.
What offline activities do you enjoy in your spare time?
I like to snowboard and sail and I really love to travel. Before business school, I took 6 months off and visited 11 countries. It was a real treat.
What are your favorite books? TV shows? Music? Foods? Beverages?
Growing up I was a huge fan of Ender's Game and of Life After God. For TV I generally like dramas - I was a huge fan of the West Wing and Battlestar Galactica. Lately I've gotten into Justified. I'm a huge Sushi fan and there are lots of great options in San Francisco.
Do you have any pet peeves?
People who don't make the most of their situation. I was born into a pretty lucky situation and I feel compelled to try and make the most of my luck. People who take things for granted or don't try their hardest sadden me.
What does the future hold for Oliver Roup?
Links in content have economic value to their target but that value is largely ignored. VigLink aims to change that and to create value for our customers, employees and investors in the process. It's an exciting problem and one I hope to be involved with solving for a long time to come.