Hello! My name is Todd Garland; I’m from Boston, MA, and I founded BuySellAds over 12 years ago to help publishers better monetize their websites.
We build revenue technology that helps online communities and media companies maximize their earning potential. At the same time, we connect advertisers with hard to reach, in-demand audiences at scale through transparent relationships with our media and publishing partners.
We excel at connecting advertisers with audiences like developers, designers, cryptocurrency enthusiasts, and tech-savvy early adopters.
Many of us are (or were) publishers ourselves, and we’re now on a mission to solve the media’s monetization problem. Our tools let publishers run simple, unobtrusive ads that help generate honest revenue without giving away (what feels like) their souls.
We also work with publishers and provide yield optimization (for example, header bidding), as well as access to our sales team and ad operations teams.
Our company is bootstrapped since day one, and today we own and operate over 15 online properties, including Digg and Pando. We also represent over 1200 publishers, more than 4500 advertisers, and we currently have a remote team of more than 50 employees.
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
I grew up in the small fishing village of Cape Porpoise, Maine, with pretty modest means. My first job involved fishing golf balls out of the river at a golf course, selling things out of my house that I probably wasn’t allowed to sell, and washing dishes. Washing dishes was perhaps my favorite job ever because of how meditative it was during that time of my life.
Stop making excuses. Build something. Just do it. Life is too short.
Before founding BuySellAds, I was a very early employee at HubSpot. Still, my first job out of college was at an interactive agency where we built websites and products for other companies, and also managed search engine advertising budgets.
Then, I got into the advertising business as a publisher myself.
I started in 2007, and I was running two sites as a hobby. I’m a web designer and developer by trade. One website I ran was a CSS gallery (I might be dating myself here), and the other site provided free downloadable CSS menus. After acquiring a decent amount of traffic, the thing that became most frustrating to me was dealing with advertisers who wanted me to put ads up, take ads down, figure out payment, and everything else. It was pretty time consuming and painful.
At the time, there were plenty of ad networks, but none of them made it simple for me (and my advertisers) to quickly purchase an ad on my websites. I also found the indirect and opaque relationship that existed between advertisers and publishers frustrating. With many networks, you didn’t know who would be advertising on your website or if they were reputable. To me, it was important that publishers could generate revenue without sacrificing their integrity.
I saw an opportunity for advertisers to promote their products through niche publishers that had passionate communities. So, I set out to create a lightweight “shopping cart” that would allow publishers to turn advertisers into paying customers without going through all the fuss of navigating the world of ad tech. At the same time, this new process promoted transparent relationships between publishers and advertisers. Both could deal directly with one another and not through an intermediary. It became a lot easier to cut through the case associated with media purchasing.
Things have slowly evolved from my original idea to where we are today.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?
I didn’t start BuySellAds thinking it would be where it’s at today. The motivation to create the company came solely from my frustration with how hard it was for publishers to monetize their websites with ads that felt more like sponsorships versus the kinds of advertisements that now dominate the internet and the types of ads that encourage folks to install ad blockers.
At the time, I was using an Adobe Dreamweaver plugin called Interact. It was a PHP framework embedded within Dreamweaver 4. That’s what I use to build the first iteration of BuySellAds. When looking back, it’s kind of funny to imagine the thoughts running through the head of the first developer I hired. More importantly, though, it worked out of the gate, and while the first iteration of BuySellAds was not up to par to today’s development standards, the concept behind it was something that made sense. The half-step approach of relying on a Dreamweaver plugin to launch a company helped me take the critical first step towards fully realizing a solution.
I built BuySellAds over many nights and weekends. I’m not sure I could ever go back to the kind of schedule I had when I was launching the first version of BSA. I would wake up an hour or two before work just to spend time on it, and then I would work on it another few hours after dinner before bed. There were some very late nights.
To validate my business idea, I started with a landing page (essentially a non-scroll one-pager, back in 2007, if you can imagine that) that had nothing but basic information about what we provided and a single call to action that read, “Be the first to learn more about BuySellAds when it launches.” I would then go and purchase ads on other blogs and sites (with an audience that I knew would be interested in my product) and promote my advertising platform, directing folks to my landing page (you can see it on archive.org, but the styling is now gone).
This simple testing process helped me gather email addresses and validate my idea at the same time.
Fun aside - I never ended up doing anything with those original email addresses I collected on our landing page. Our first publisher customers were acquired through the 8-10 advertisers that I was working with on the sites that I already owned. I looked at the other publishers they were already spending money with, which was often 5+ separate websites (or plenty more), and then pitched them a tool that they could use to manage all of that in one place. Once I got both parties at the table (advertisers and publishers), I just worked as hard as I could to keep them both happy. This was (and still is) the basis for our growth at BuySellAds. Our product did one thing well: it helped publishers sell their ad space and encouraged advertisers to buy inventory directly without complexity. We eliminated the unnecessary baggage that came with most transactions in our industry.
Today, we have no delusions about being the next Facebook or Instagram, but we’re comfortable with where we’re at and our steady, secure growth. Much of our early ethos remains.
It sounds a little bit crazy, but working on challenging projects with great people is our guiding light. Being able to provide employees with a place where we could work together for our entire lives was, and still is, an exciting idea that truly resonates with me. BSA is our little happy place. We get to do things our way and get to be in control of our future. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, we continue to operate as an entirely bootstrapped, profitable company. We’re still seeing tremendous growth year over year. We represent over 1200 publishers and 4500 advertisers, and we now own and operate 15 properties online.
Something I’m most proud of is that we’re still a fully remote company, and we have a diverse group of employees scattered around the world. Right now, we’re in the middle of our remote secret Santa, with a dedicated slack channel for guessing and sharing gifts. It’s been hilarious hearing all the stories and seeing what it takes to ship these gifts around the globe. Some folks have gone to great lengths to obfuscate shipping addresses.
It may sound like a generic response, but today our focus has continued to shift towards being a customer-first company. The philosophy is something I picked up while I was at HubSpot, and it’s something that I continue to emphasize today. If we’re going to continue growing at a decent rate, our focus should always be on keeping our customers at the forefront of our decisions and strategy. We’re here because of them. We must continue to build tools that help them grow their businesses first and foremost.
As a publisher-first ad platform, we’re always looking for new ways we can benefit our publishing partners and help them solve their monetization problems. This is what led to our acquisitions of websites like Digg and Pando. There’s a real issue out there with finding ways to support independent publishers online. We believe we’re uniquely positioned to deliver them revenue tools they can use to maximize their growth. Given where the industry is today, we need fresh new voices more than at any other time in our past. We hope we can help lower the barrier of entry for the next generation of content creators online. People love to hate advertising, but it’s essential for keeping content free. It’s a shame we ended up here, but we believe we can put the genie back in the bottle, and web companies can once again rely on advertising to help pay their operating costs. We can do it sustainably and ethically, devoid of all the surveillance-ridden data tracking technology.
We’re seeing a seismic shift in how people manage their data, and a more nuanced understanding of privacy online as people learn about the insane things tech companies (among other companies) are doing to increase profits. Ad tech has taken a hard-left away from promoting products and instead have turned directly to data collection as a revenue model.
At BuySellAds we’re building ad technology that serves noninvasive ads that respect user privacy first and foremost, and we’re seeing more companies turn back towards a model we’ve championed for the last decade. The future we envisioned a decade ago is quickly approaching on the horizon, and we’re uniquely positioned to capitalize on the opportunity while some of the other programmatic companies are still grappling with the new dawn in front of them.
To double down on where we stand, we’ve recently partnered with Brave, a new web browser that has built-in AdBlock technology that blocks trackers and cookies, amongst other things. We’re also part of the AdBlock Plus Acceptable Ads committee, and our native ad networks are whitelisted across most major AdBlock plugins.
Going into the next decade, I expect to see more companies move away from shady advertising behaviors online (for example, most data-based targeting that feels creepy) and to more traditional forms of promotion, like contextual advertising.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I think most mistakes come from focusing too much on chasing dollars when you’re not sure if the value your product provides is there.
There’s also a healthy balance here, but the second you start following what your competitors are doing too closely, you lose your competitive advantage and lose yourself in the wilderness. Conversely, if you notice competitors following what you’re doing, stealing your messaging and playbook, don’t pay too much attention to it. They need you to survive. It means you’re leading the pack. As hard as it is in the moment to take the high-road, it’s pertinent that you double down on your approach, not alter it. They’re mimicking you because you’re on to something. We have seen plenty of competitors come and go over the years, and they often have far more funding than we ever had in the beginning. Focus on what you do best. The rest will work itself out over time.
When it comes to hiring people, our best employees have come from referrals through our team. This might speak for the quality of our fantastic team at BuySellAds. Still, it is probably because with referrals, the employee is often judged by the quality of their referral, and most employees don’t want someone they refer to the business to reflect poorly on them. It’s been a huge competitive advantage for us. Hire smart people, let them do the work, then hire the people they recommend. It’s almost had a 100% success rate for us at BuySellAds.
Also, take advantage of microservices. There are so many other tools that can help you accomplish whatever your business needs, spending the time trying to do these things yourself is going to pull you away from your core focus. Focus on what you are trying to provide and excel at that, take advantage of all of the other resources out there to help you along the way. Take up new ones quickly, but kill off old out of date and unused ones even quicker. Always evaluate the tools you’re using and whether or not they still serve you the way you need.
Depending on your industry, this will be different, but for us, there’s no real reason to have an office anymore. The time I used to spend commuting, I now spend with my family. Our team can run out to appointments during the day without losing sleep. Our work becomes results-oriented, and team members can be more productive. Less is spent on administrative costs. Technology makes it easier than ever before. Embrace a remote-work program. It’s the perfect solution to work-life balance, and your employees will go the extra mile for you when you need them to because they respect your commitment to giving them the best possible work environment.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Stop making excuses. Build something. Just do it. Life is too short. Time is the one thing you can’t recuperate. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. If you’re passionate enough about something, have a solution, and believe there’s a real product-market fit, shoot your best shot. The worst that will happen is you start again, or move on. But, if it results in a best-case scenario, you’ll have forever had an impact on an industry, and thousands of people’s lives. For me, it’s all a risk worth taking.
You don’t have to come out of the gate being the absolute best and having raised a series A of funding. You don’t have to have an idea for the next Uber. You just need to have faith that you’ll find the answers as you go. I’m not a fan of the phrase “fake it until you make it,” but I am a huge fan of believing in yourself and your abilities. I’m passionate about publishers and technology, so it was easy for me to decide that this was the space I wanted to spend my time in regularly. It’s easy for me to motivate myself every day because I genuinely want to spend time-solving the publisher monetization problems we now face. If you’re not driven by what you’re doing, you’ll always produce less than perfect results. Figure out how you want to make the world a better place then go out there and do just that. You’ll surprise yourself.
When it comes to having a minimum viable product, dare to put something out there that you know isn’t your final product. Getting started with something simple helps you determine if there is a demand for what you’re building in the first place. Treat your product as an ever-evolving canvas. No matter what you put out there, you can continue to improve it. You can iterate over and over again, each and every day, until you’re happy with the result.
Forget the big companies. I can speak to this being in direct competition with some of the largest companies (Google, Amazon, and others, and I’m not bragging) in the world. People have this strange idea that these large companies are reasons to avoid chasing their dreams, but it’s the opposite: every big company has blind spots and things that they are not doing well. If the founders of Google and Amazon took a defeatist approach out of the gate, they never would have challenged the original big tech companies they now call competitors.
Don’t pay attention to the never-ending popularity contests on the web, in fundraising circles, on the tech press websites, and the various (mostly) fake, and pay to play, awards schemes out there. Focus on your customers, on running a profitable business, and on collecting a group of people you’d want to work with for the rest of your life. The rest will work itself out.
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business. By sharing these stories, we want to help you get started.
Interested in starting your own business? Join Starter Story Premium to get the greatest companion to starting and growing your business:
- Connect + get advice from successful entrepreneurs
- Step by step guides on how to start and grow
- Exclusive and early access to the best case studies on the web
- And much more!