By the time he was 21, Adam Ludwin, co-founder of adtech firm Captify, had already been to and quit university, and worked as an estate agent, a city broker and a recruitment consultant. But he still wasn’t content.
“For what I wanted to achieve I really didn’t feel that I needed to go down the academic route,” he tells me, from the converted fruit warehouse in Covent Garden that Captify calls home. “I felt that I went to university for all the wrong reasons. It’s really drummed into us as a society that it’s the place you have to go to to develop a good career.”
After a six month stint selling property, Ludwin moved into brokerage in the City, but couldn’t see the career progression he wanted to achieve. “I knew that no matter how hard I worked, I could never get past a certain point. There’s a ceiling – you have to really wait to inherit lines from traders, and no matter how good you are, it doesn’t matter, you’re always in the hands of someone else.”
Controlling his own destiny was imperative to ensuring success, but where that success would come from was still unbeknown to Ludwin. “It was a period where I was really lost. I was 19 years old, and understandably my parents were pretty concerned,” he says. The job hopping continued into recruitment, where he stayed for two years.
But he was itching to do his own thing – the only issue was what? As someone who didn’t start university until aged 21, I can only admire his determination, and gritty resolve.
While still working 12 hour shifts in recruitment, he decided to take an online course in affiliate marketing, a type of performance-based marketing in which a business rewards affiliates for each visitor or customer they bring. “I was working all day, then getting home and carrying on till two to three am, getting a few hours sleep and doing it all again. After three months of studying I’d made about £50 profit.” Not disheartened by the slender profit, he’d “proved the concept. I believed I could do it. I thought ‘if I can make £50, I can make thousands. If I can make thousands, I can make millions.’” Which he has.
I can make millions
Quitting his recruitment job, he moved back to his family home in Essex to pursue, and realise, his big ambitions. “I set up a computer in my mum’s hallway. It was the only space in which I could fit it, and I worked there day and night, I had no weekends, no social life, nothing. Breakfast, lunch and dinner was at that computer, and after the first year I’d managed to turn that into a multi-million pound generating business.” This was Ludwin’s first business, Inflecto Media, which he founded in 2009.
It was through this that Ludwin met his business partner Dominic Joseph. “I was one of his biggest customers – we just both really hit it off and wanted to put our stamp on the industry. I was tired of buying normal advertising, he was tired of selling normal advertising, and we felt that, between the two of us, if we could collate our expertise, we could come up with an innovative way of disrupting the industry.”
They needed something new, and decided to focus on a highly primitive form of ad targeting that existed loosely in the US called Search Intelligence. “We decided that we could pioneer the sector by bringing next-level user targeting through Search Intelligence to Europe.”
Search Intelligence is the ability to understand search behaviour over a period of time, pinpointing intent and interests of users. This is very different to more common forms of targeting as it takes a more holistic understanding of what people are genuinely interested in and their level of intent. Captify’s proprietary technology understands 15bn searches a month and, depending on the campaign’s key performance indicators, shows an ad to consumers across video, mobile or a computer.
After pouring their own savings into what was (at that point) little more than a concept, “the market loved what we were doing.” In fact the business grew far faster than anticipated, reaching profitability in its second month, and paving the way for the first £1.2m round of outside investment in 2011.
“We knew that we had to take investment to go into loss, so that we could invest into the future of the business and grow from there,” says Ludwin. Following its Series A funding round, Captify started its international expansion, opening offices from New York to Kiev, building up teams and diversifying the product. “We were growing over 200 per cent year on year,” says Ludwin. “When it got to June last year, we were the European leader, and the next stage was becoming the global leader. We went out of the market and did a Series B fundraise with Smedvig Capital – they led an £8m round.”
Fear of failure
I ask Ludwin if he ever had any doubts in his mind about the product and pace of expansion, to which, after a brief pause, he responds by opening up about fear of failure. “I think there’s an aspect of entrepreneurship, where people believe you shouldn’t fear anything, that you shouldn’t be scared. The truth is, I was afraid of failing, and I used the fact that I was so scared to fail to power me, to motivate me to work harder, to innovate harder, to keep pushing. I think that fear of failing drove us both.”
The conversation turns to business failures – has he had any? “Oh loads” is his candid response. “We’re continually pushing what we’re doing, we’re building fast, and as we continue to scale, not everything will work from day one.” Ludwin talks of their eagerness for international expansion, and how “we’ve been often led by the market opportunity and market size, when actually that’s a huge mistake. There are so many other factors we didn’t look at, such as where we already have relationships, and how we can leverage existing relationships and agreements. That was a very valuable lesson to us, and something that has changed.”
After taking on two rounds of VC funding, Ludwin knows the ropes, and doesn’t think the government is doing enough to help scale-up businesses like his to grow. “There’s such a lack of understanding from traditional institutions that limit the growth going into this market,” he says.
His talk of scale-ups reminds me of the German Mittelstand – medium-sized, niche market-leading companies that drive the economy. “I think actually there’s a huge opportunity for the government to be involved in certain institutions to encourage investment into technology and scale-up business,” he says.
“If we are serious about tackling the issues our country will face as we grow, and become more independent from Europe, then we have to fuel the growth of these new exciting businesses, or risk getting left behind.”
But what’s next for Ludwin, and Captify? He still directs Inflecto Media, the lead generation agency in Fitzrovia he founded during his affiliate marketing days. “As we evolved, I knew I couldn’t work on both businesses, so brought on two partners to run the business day to day, and now I just oversee the growth and strategy.” I ask if that’s the point he’d like to get to with Captify. “You know what,” he tells me, “I actually think that a good founder can make themselves redundant. A lot of my goal is to work on the business, not in the business.”
It’s a long way off yet though. “The future for us… we will make this a global leading company in the next 18 months to two years. We first need to look at what makes a global leader and work backwards from that. We’re working on three key areas: international expansion, expansion of existing markets, and product diversification, to make sure we’re always at the forefront. If I would have said that to people two or three years ago, they’d have rolled their eyes and said ‘yeah ok,’” he says.