After pivoting about five times in 2011, PocketMath co-founder Casey Grooms stumbled upon the concept of real-time bidding by chance at a party
Singapore-based self-serve mobile advertising platform PocketMath announced earlier this week the raising of a US$10 million series A funding round from Rakuten Ventures – what it claims to be one of the largest series A rounds in the island-state. The investment is part of the latter’s US$100 million startup fund – launched earlier this year – focusing on firms in the US, Israel, and greater APAC.
It is rather unusual for any VC firm to close a series A round by themselves. The fact that PocketMath processes over 20 billion mobile ad impressions per day, as it claims, might have had something to do with that.
“We funded the entire round because the team is amazing, and the tech they’ve built out hit the sweet spot in the industry like no other company in range of opportunity,” says Rakuten Ventures managing partner Saemin Ahn, who will be joining the startup’s board. He knows this scene well, admitting that he is “kind of an ad tech geek.”
According to Ahn, PocketMath will play a critical role in growing the Rakuten Marketing ecosystem in the near future. “This investment gives Rakuten a strong stake in the mobile advertising game,” he adds.
Apart from establishing a deep strategic partnership with Rakuten, the funds will also go towards hiring talent and accelerating product development, according to an official statement.
What’s even more interesting is that this is the startup’s first round of outside funding. Since being founded four years ago, the team has managed to work its way to an eight-digit revenue, and have along the way grown a team of 40 scattered across five cities – Singapore, San Francisco, Mumbai, Sydney, and Washington DC – though most of them remain in Singapore.
According to Vasudha Srinivasan, marketing manager at PocketMath, they are now looking to expand into Shanghai, New York, and Tokyo as well.
Finding the right model
PocketMath wasn’t always about mobile advertising. According to a statement, the team only landed on ads “after experimenting with a variety of other ideas, including a foray into a facial recognition advertising service” – this despite the fact that it was their eighth startup attempt together.
After pivoting about five times in 2011, Grooms stumbled upon the concept of “real-time bidding” (RTB) by chance at a party:
“I was at a party in San Francisco, and someone was telling me, “It sounds like what you’re trying to do is real-time bidding, but you’re not.” Had no idea what RTB was, so went home, researched it a bit, and that person sent me an email the next day with some technical specifications for RTB. We took that, and built a quick prototype in about 3 months.”
With a desktop-based prototype in hand, he went around pitching the idea to everyone he could at events, only to realize that what they wanted was a mobile version instead. “Since I’m not one to turn down money or business, I said, sure, I’ll get it for you!” he says.
The final product was only released in early 2013.
Here’s how the dashboard looks like.
Co-founder Casey Grooms tells Tech in Asia that the PocketMath team has been putting its head down and getting stuff done ever since.
“We’ve been an underground company to date and have had no real press or marketing, but have managed to bootstrap ourselves to a 40 person team, with not a single sales hire – except myself, a co-founder, doing all sales, business development, partnerships and hardcore hustling for the last four years.”
A whole lot of hustle
It has not been an easy four years for him, or the rest of the team. According to Grooms, he’s “hustled for four years making all the connections, crashed all the networking events and parties, and got the business.” The founding team – JD Lee, Eric Tucker, and himself – had to make a lot of sacrifices to stay afloat.
“As more features and requests came in, we hired more and more to keep up pace with customer needs and expectations,” Grooms explains. Which of course, required more money, and JD Lee was the one to provide it at the start.
“JD Lee contributed 100 percent of the funds needed to kick things off and keep things going,” he recalls. “As costs got less demanding, and as our net revenue scaled quickly, the difference JD needed to cover minimised.”
In the meantime, Grooms himself went unpaid – for all the four years. “My first year, 2011, I lived off a small retirement fund I had saved up during my four year job – that gave me about US$20,000. Next year, 2012, was from credit cards – which were all maxed out – and then I took out a cash credit line, and depleted it,” he says, and continues:
“Now, in 2013 and the first half of 2014, we [the team] can thank my parents who helped out and deposited money each month as needed. I obviously lived very frugally, and that may have trickled into our relentless control to limit unnecessary expenses to build the product and business.”
This was his mindset at that time: “And all I had to do was stay alive. If I could keep living, we can keep going. And I can keep selling.”
Bootstrapped by necessity
Not surprisingly, Grooms admits that bootstrapping was by no means easy, not only for themselves, but for their parents as well.
“By necessity, we had to be agile. We had to make sacrifices given our limited resources. Everything was built with a core team of about five engineers, including Eric,” he recounts. “We would hire one or two here and there to plug holes where needed […] All parents freak out. Corners are cut, things get hacked. Parents freaking out – again. But we just kept going.”
It wasn’t that they deliberately chose to bootstrap, either. Grooms says that, in the early stages, no one wanted to give them any cash:
“If it wasn’t because of our location in Singapore, then it was because ‘we had no sales strategy’ or ‘we’re too early’ or ‘insert excuse/reason here.’ So out of necessity, we just had to do it ourselves. We believed what we were building is needed and valued – blindly so, but guess it’s working out in the end. So far, anyway!”
Now, with their coffers full, the team can finally take a short breather, before sprinting off again.
PocketMath’s mission now is to “show everyone how accessible advertising can be with the right tools.” “Our vision is to take what we’ve built for the big brands and make it available to everyone […] People don’t want to understand jargon, they want to see results,” says Lee, who also acts as the CEO.
“You can really see our clients’ eyes pop when you click a few buttons and they get to see their ad, on their phone, just seconds later!” Grooms says.
This piece was was originally published on Tech In Asia