Daniel Jacobsson is one of the two founders of Bannerflow, an online banner production tool used mainly in the affiliate and bought media market. He comes from a background of design and web development and has the rare knack of being able to do both. What once started as an idea to remove a production bottleneck has now in a short span of time become a company of 14 employees with offices in Stockholm and New York.
Daniel calls himself the opposite of an entrepreneur, a pessimistic perfectionist who’s built on logic and loves problem-solving. We talked about his start-up journey and what advice he can give to other aspiring entrepreneurs who might have an idea worth the time, but not sure whether they have what it takes to realize it.
Know when to bury your pride and dare to hit that release button. – Daniel Jacobsson
What did you feel when you quit your day job and decided to go freelance? Did you have the seed of Bannerflow in the back of your mind or did it come later?
I was slightly frightened and thought: “What have I done? I had a perfectly decent job”, yet it was exciting to become my own boss with all the freedom and responsibility that comes with that. Would I be able to pay the rent? Would I get any clients? Some pressure for sure.
The idea of BannerFlow, or AdFlow as it was called initially, was already in mind at that stage. But I didn’t give it any serious thought until a year later when I realised I was still being a creative slave to others.
How did you come up with the idea?
Working as a web designer for an online marketing intensive brand left me continuously reminded about the tedious process of producing large volumes of ads. Yes, producing is the right verb – not creating. Campaign material often had to be produced in ten different sizes/formats combined with localized messages in up to twenty different languages. On top of that, each banner had to be provided in Flash and GIF format. In total, one of these campaigns could result in more than 500 banner files being managed and weeks of work. That could have been a pleasant task if it weren’t for the fact that the creative process was non-existent. At this point I figured that most of my production tasks could potentially be automated. If one only had the time to build it…
How long did it take from idea to realisation? Did you experience any problems/learnings in the beginning?
It took roughly a year from idea to hitting a planning phase. Once entering that, I was lucky to have my programmer friend on board focusing on the backend design of BannerFlow. We incoherently started putting the pieces together on the side of regular income-bringing freelance work.
In less than a year, we had a beta version ready to be commercialized. Unfortunately both me and my partner were little interested in selling the product. We were a lot keener on improving and adding on features than standing in conference rooms showcasing our application. Meanwhile, friends and former colleagues pushed me into meeting up with potential clients they knew of – especially my former employer. Luckily, despite my lack of sales finesse, we were able to get our first client.
In retrospect, the biggest challenge has been learning to compromise on perfection. My previous mindset was that nothing could be presented or released until it’s perfect. That’s indefensible in the long run – sometimes you have to be ignorant to move forward.
What were your fears when you started working on BannerFlow?
As more and more time was put into the project, the more committed we got but also the stakes got higher. How much time has been wasted if this wouldn’t fly? Will our product be technically obsolete once it is ready since it’s taking so long? Even if BannerFlow is accepted by designers and other users, will third-party affiliate and ad servers accept our banners? There were many questions, but we chose to ignore them initially.
Did you ever think it would become what it is today?
Not at all. Of course we were aiming at making it a successful project – one wouldn’t start if that wasn’t the goal and ambition. But we didn’t have any idea of what it might become. Mostly because we are both quite pessimistic of nature and didn’t want to put that extra pressure to our work by having unrealistic dreams. No thoughts or attention was given to how to potentially sell the product at this point – our only comfort was the knowledge of knowing the need for the product was/is obvious.
Do you have any advice to give to aspiring entrepreneurs? What to do/What not to do?
I can only speak to those who are like me: cautious, pessimistic and perfectionist. When stating those characteristics, I’m happy to learn I’m more the opposite of an entrepreneur – more of a logical, problem-solver than anything else. Still, I’ve definitely picked up on a couple of things:
- Know when to bury your pride. Dare to hit the release button – your product will never be perfect anyway, but it’s hopefully good enough to start.
- If you’re not into sales, partner up with someone that is – things will move quicker and give you the opportunity of doing what you love.
- Draw a line for how far to foresee and outline possible user-scenarios and functionality. At some point it’s better to keep things simple and add on functionality as you see the demand.
- To keep the momentum during the start-up phase, if you’re feeling bored or tired juggling an important project, don’t hesitate jumping into that “unessential” but fun task that normally wouldn’t be worth spending time on. This injects the energy and boost needed to continue fumbling in the ever-dark tunnel of a start-up.
Tell me about some recent developments. What are you working on right now?
Currently we’re working day and night on developing our new platform for BannerFlow, B2. It will be an open, self-service version, opposed to our current, private enterprise platform. We will introduce a SaaS (Software as a Service) subscription price model in line with other existing cloud applications such as Salesforce. But we will still keep the tailored Enterprise models for our premium clients.
The new, wide range of potential users will be the key. We also prepare our platform to be accessible via API to open up for white-labelling, third-party usage and other partnerships. With this new strategy we’re facing entirely new technical challenges such as implementing support for payment methods, overlooking support channels and nonetheless: usability. We need any user – may it be a senior designer, marketing manager at Nike or a part-time bakery assistant – to be able to design and publish banners easily, regardless of their needs and knowledge.
What are your future plans for BannerFlow? Do you do 5-year plans or take it year by year?
We have just come out of the phase where we plan one or two months ahead. Our current aim is next year’s release of the self-service version of BannerFlow. 2014 will also be the year when BannerFlow is taking a further step into becoming not only a production tool but also an ad-server in a sense. Long term strategy is to set BannerFlow as the standard tool for HTML5 banner creation, much as Adobe Flash has been in the past. Very bold, but not impossible given the lack of user-friendly tools for HTML5 ad creation. The goal is that our sales head-quarters in NYC is fulfilling and surpassing our expectations to conquer the North American market which is the, by far, biggest spender in online marketing.
Do you have a mission or vision for the company?
Our key mission is to create products that are powerful enough to satisfy enterprise clients’ needs, yet with a usability awareness that enables your grandparents to use it as well.
How is your company structured and do you have a plan for further growth?
Would like to define our company structure as the classic, dull Swedish type; fairly flat without an obvious hierarchy in which freedom and responsibility are essential elements. Everyone is expected to contribute and participate to the same degree regardless of position or role. Currently our team has the rough ratio of 70% developers and 30% sales. With our scaleable, upcoming platform we’ll be able to push sales harder. All revenue is allocated for continuous growth. Filling the gaps as they turn up. Right now for instance, we’re looking into SEO and social media – two areas we haven’t even bothered digging into earlier.
How is it to work at BannerFlow? What could you expect as an employee?
We strive to have a inspiring, fun but still focused and goal-oriented environment. We always try to reward ourselves when business is going well. Next week for instance, the entire team is flying over to our colleagues in NYC for a one weeks’ conference. Really looking forward to that!
Things have become more organized the last few months. We have weekly all hands meetings, daily technical morning meetings and soon we might experience the first rage email by a colleague who has had his/hers coffee cup kidnapped. The down-side is that things get more impersonal and common. It’s important to address and maintain the atmosphere of an energetic start-up despite the growth and not let it turn into what you once left yourself in your previous employments.
Read more about Bannerflow at www.bannerflow.com