If you invested a year of hard work at a job and were still laid off, what would you do?
Kean Graham was one of the thousands of employees laid off during the recession of 2008. Instead of moping, he used his meager savings to go backpacking across South America and gain some clarity. At the top of Machu Picchu, he decided he was going to be a digital nomad forever.
Kean went home, researched the market, and created MonetizeMore: a SaaS business designed to give online content businesses more revenue from ads. Twelve years and $83 million later, he has a team of 200 based around the world, a close working partnership with Google, and one of the top ad-tech businesses in the world.
Here’s how Kean went from backpacker to an ad-tech guru in a decade.
It’s Not You, It’s Me
In 2009, Kean was fresh out of college working in the marketing department of an online classified business that competed with Craigslist. With the sudden drop in sales from the Great Recession in 2008, he was shown the door along with the rest of the marketing department.
Despite the setback so early in his career, Kean tried to turn the situation positive. He’d saved up a large enough sum over one and a half years of work to afford a five-month backpacking trip through South America.
“I like to turn bad things into good things,” Kean says. “During that trip, I had the time of my life. I remember sitting at the top of Machu Picchu and thinking I didn’t want some corporate job. I wanted to continue this. I realized all I need is a laptop with an internet connection and I could earn an income while I continued to travel the world.”
And that’s what he did. After another month of travel, Kean returned to Canada and went into what he describes as a six-month incubation period. He learned everything he could lay his hands on about online marketing tools like SEO, site building, and ads. Especially ads.
One thing Kean noticed was something most of us with proximity to digital marketing know: Google has a monopoly on online ads. In fact, according to Statista, Google accounted for nearly 29 percent of the total digital advertising revenue generated in the United States in 2020.
However, Kean saw that as an opportunity, not a threat. “I knew that if I could take some of that share I could make a lot of money,” he says. “It’s basic economics: if I can increase demand, the price goes up.”
And so in 2010, Kean set off to change online advertising.
Adding Millions to Ad Revenue
To start, Kean first reached out to his ex-employer – the one that had let him go in 2009. He knew they could use his service.
“At first they said they couldn’t afford my retainer,” says Kean. “I said I would charge a percentage of the increase in revenues instead. They said, ‘Great!’ and I got my first client in my second month.”
With profits completely tied to his performance, Kean used his opportunity to try every method he could think of for increasing revenue on his ex-employer’s ads.
“I tested every variation for ad text and placements to see which increased CTRs,” says Kean. “I was eventually able to get traction with their ads in the first month and increased their revenue by ten percent. “
Once Kean figured out an optimized way to display ads on his client’s page, he then moved on to the real moneymaker: increasing the demand for ad space.
“I started pitting ads from AOL against ads from Google and revenue went up 25 percent,” says Kean. “As I experimented with a larger number of ad providers, revenues just kept on going up. Eventually, I had made my client millions in additional ad revenue. They became my first customer testimonial on our website.”
Even with one happy client in the books, Kean still had to struggle for his second. After all, one success could be a fluke. He persisted, attending trade shows and conferences until he gained a contract from a website called PennySaver USA. In a much shorter period, he upped their ad revenues by over 400 percent. It was at this point Kean knew he had a business.
An Entire Team in the Philippines
With two client success stories gracing Kean’s website, it was much easier to convince other online publishers that they needed his services. Three years passed while Kean traveled the world, altering the trajectories of ad-based businesses.
Then in 2012, with a growing number of large clients, Kean realized the days of running his business as a side job were over. He needed to grow.
By 2013, Kean started training a team of two in the Philippines for customer support and ad optimization, which sped things up considerably. “It took me a while to train the team in the beginning, but once they got it, they were great,” says Kean. “They also knew other people in the Philippines that were looking for work and brought them onboard. Today, both of those first two hires still work for MonetizeMore and one even moved to Seattle.”
Kean also brought on one of his old roommates from Canada, Julio Monzon, as a developer in 2013. Two years later, he promoted Julio to COO of the business. “I’ve known Julio for many years,” says Kean. “I recruited him when I worked for that online classified business I initially was laid off from. We worked well together.”
In just three months of bringing on new team members, MonetizeMore’s MRR tripled. Today, that small team has grown to about 200 people, with the vast majority in the Philippines and a growing number in Brazil.
“We typically have an in-person retreat every year in the Philippines,” says Kean. “It’s a great place for the retreat because most countries can get a tourist visa there. Our HR team is in the Philippines as well. Obviously, we couldn’t do a retreat last year due to COVID. This next year we may have it in Brazil since we’re growing our team there.”
How MonetizeMore Works
MonetizeMore today is an AI-based tool designed to increase ad revenues for large content websites by creating more competition for their ad space.
Giant sites like Investopedia or PC Mag produce loads of free content to millions of viewers every day, earning money almost exclusively from ads. Those ads, also called “display ads” in industry lingo, are the key to MonetizeMore’s business.
Most display ads you see on the internet today are sourced from within the Google AdSense ecosystem. Companies wanting to advertise online create ads on their Google AdSense account, specify price ranges they are willing to pay, and indicate the types of customers they want to target.
On the other end, websites displaying ads set their desired price they want to make from ads. Google then matches companies displaying ads with the highest relevant bidder and skims a little off the top.
While displaying ads in the Google AdSense ecosystem is still quite profitable, there are increasing limits. Google Ads has few direct competitors and it has allowed them to skim more off the top of every ad sale making it less profitable to host ads. This is what MonetizeMore changes.
Google is not the only display ad marketplace. There are about 50-60 other services that run the same business of auctioning ad space. Ads from these other exchanges frequently offer better prices because they don’t take as large a cut as Google. They usually go unnoticed because most businesses simply never bother to shop around.
When a site searching for advertisers uses MonetizeMore, they not only run auctions for the best prices on Google, they also look for the best ads on AOL, Appnexus, and more all at once.
“In industry lingo, we do something called ‘header bidding,’” says Kean. “We have an AI that runs auctions on all major platforms and then pits the winners against each other. There are small things we need to program for too. Maybe Appnexus takes too long to run its auction. We have to set how long we’ll give them to time out before we drop them out as bidders.”
While revenue gains are usually just a couple of cents per click, that quickly adds up for big websites with billions of views.
“Using our service, we can increase revenue from $1 million to $1.3 million easily,” says Kean. “And we only charge a small revenue share. It’s all very trackable too. You easily see the ROI from using our tool.”
A business rarely shows instant ROI the way MonetizeMore can, and that has made it even more profitable. Kean says the business grew 70 percent last year and 120 percent this year.
The Wild West of Display Ads
While MonetizeMore solves a huge issue in the ad revenue world, it has also revealed to Kean and his team a host of other issues surrounding the space. Kean has since created a suite of tools to help websites stay healthy on Google and prevent malicious actors from ruining ad revenue.
“We have an overarching business intelligence platform called PubGuru that lets customers see all of their traffic and how much they are earning,” says Kean. “They can use it to tell if they are really buying profitable traffic and how much they are earning per campaign or traffic source. It goes deep.”
MonetizeMore also has a traffic watching tool called Traffic Cop. It solves painful issues for websites like bot traffic on ads. You see, the internet in many ways is still a bit of a Wild West. Malicious competitors try every trick in the book to get their competition in Google’s bad books and away from their ad space. That includes sending computer programs to view ads on competitor websites.
“You’ll see businesses go to black-hat forums and pay for bot traffic to their competitors’ ads that send ad views way up,” says Kean. “When Google detects a site is using bots for views, it’ll shut down their AdSense account and they can lose two whole months of ad revenue. For most people, that means their business is dead.”
Kean sells his tools all under one subscription or he allows customers to cherry-pick which services they want.
As for leads, Kean says about 90 percent come from inbound content marketing. That includes blogs on niche subjects, YouTube videos, webinars, and an active social media presence. They frequently answer questions on the Google Ad Forum as well as in other forums like Quora.
MonetizeMore has even created a school for certifications in Google AdSense and Google Ad Exchange called PubGuru University. Kean says each certification is about $99. “We’d do it for free but people don’t take courses seriously till they have skin in the game.”
The Google Connect
A huge aid to MonetizeMore’s success today is their partnership with Google to bring the Google Ad Exchange to publishers.
“There is a premium version of AdSense called Google Ad Exchange,” says Kean. “To access it, you need to be a huge website like Investopedia or work with a third party that has a partnership with Google like us. As an Ad Exchange partner, we vet businesses for access to Google Ad Exchange and make sure they’re optimized for it. That includes helping them with revenue growth diversification, traffic quality, minimizing policy issues and terminations.”
In exchange for helping onboard websites to the exchange, MonetizeMore gets early access to new tools and opportunities to expand its business.
“We get a special badge showing our status, we get access to early betas, we have a Google rep who will help us with issues and publishers, we get the latest and greatest from Google, and occasionally we even get leads,” says Kean.
Getting an Ad Exchange partnership isn’t so much about who you know. Businesses that want this partnership have to meet a strict set of criteria.
“To get one of these partnerships your business needs to retain a certain status in terms of revenue, novelty, value, publisher satisfaction, and publisher compliance,” says Kean. “If your score drops, you get kicked out of the program.”
There Are a Lot of Opportunities Out There
With a simple solution like Kean’s, you can bet he has a lot of competitors – but he isn’t too worried about competition.
There is just so much opportunity out there that competition just isn’t a factor. It’s just realizing that opportunity as quickly as we can.
“We have competitors all over the US, Canada, and Europe, but our field is still very niche,” Kean says. “There is just so much opportunity out there that competition just isn’t a factor. It’s just realizing that opportunity as quickly as we can. There are a lot of underserved problems with no solutions that publishers are just leaving alone.”
Kean’s advice to other founders is this:
“Focus on the value to your customers,” he says. “One common trend in adtech is people focusing too much on how to make money now regardless of whether they provide unique value or not. Businesses need to differentiate to be more long term focused and provide real value in the industry.”
It’s worth noting the problem Kean solves didn’t exist until now. Big tech with its sweeping solutions creates thousands of new problems every year, and small to medium-sized businesses pay handsomely for fixes. The moral here is to quit worrying about competition and solve something. There’s more than enough to go around.
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