Niel Robertson is a serial entrepreneur and former VC who most recently founded Trada, a crowdsourced paid-search marketplace, and Crowdsortium, a trade organization for crowdsourcing professionals. Prior to Trada he was CTO and founder of Newmerix, a software company specializing in change management for packaged applications; co-founder and CTO of Service Metrics, a website performance monitoring company; a CTO in residence at Mobius Venture Capital; and a venture partner with Fidelity Ventures in Boston.
What are you working on right now?
I am the CEO of Trada. Trada is about 2 years old now and we just celebrated our 1 year anniversary of selling our product publicly (we stayed in stealth for about 18 months). Trada invented the concept of crowdsourced paid search campaigns. We focus on SMB clients who have traditionally struggled to get success with PPC on Google, Yahoo and Bing. The struggle is not because the concepts are too complicated, rather that well-optimized paid search campaigns take a lot of constant effort, a constant stream of new ideas about how to attract the right searches with keywords and ads, and some specific technical know-how. Trada has built a crowd of more than 1,500 PPC experts that join SMB campaigns and work both collaboratively and competitively to build out and optimize SMB campaigns. The advertiser specifies the price they are willing to pay per click and per sale, and Trada’s crowd gets paid only when they beat these targets. We have developed a whole set of game mechanics and mechanisms to make sure the crowd is incented in exactly the right way to succeed for the advertiser. We’re seeing explosive growth in the business. We started with an investment from Foundry Group and then received an investment from Google Ventures, and are scaling the business dramatically right now. I spend most of my time working on strategic partnerships, recruiting world class talent (we just hired Tim Mayer who ran search for Yahoo for 7 years and Ben Wright who ran Yahoo’s paid search optimization team) and figuring out where to put the 20+ people we’re hiring each month.
I spend my spare time working with the CEO of VigLink, a company focused on helping content creators (e.g. blogs, content sites) monetize through the use of affiliate links to products they are talking about. VigLink is heading into through a similar growth phase right now so that keeps me pretty busy as well.
3 trends that excite you?
Small Business Marketing – The last few years have seen a massive amount of innovation in the options small businesses have to advertise and market. Whether it be Trada helping them succeed with PPC, Groupon bridging online audiences with offline retailers and services, or Foursquare leveraging user’s social recommendation and amplification power. I see this trend continuing although small business’ need more education about what will work best from the various options available to them.
Content Monetization – For the last 10 years, the primary way for content creators to monetize their content has been through display advertising. The field of content monetization is heating up dramatically with entrants like VigLink to help monetize links, on-site ecommerce widgets, twitter stream monetization, etc.. The content monetization landscape will evolve dramatically over the next decade.
Crowdsourcing – Crowdsourcing as an industry and force for business and economic change is just getting its start. I think 2011 will be the year that crowdsourcing proves itself to be a viable and scalable model to cost-effectively produce high quality digital work whether it be logos, legal documents, CAD designs or marketing campaigns. In the long run, crowdsourcing can solve a lot of the job-related problems our economy and other global economies face by creating labor markets that give access to work to anyone who wants to perform it.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I talk constantly to people and ask them what they think is interesting. Rarely can I claim an idea I have is totally original. Trada may actually be one of the few that fall into that category. I also believe very much in falling out of love with technology and falling into love with solutions to real problems. There is a direct correlation between finding really scalable ideas and being comfortable abandoning most things you come up with.
What inspires you?
I love to build things that change people’s lives. This may be a product that enables someone to be successful in a way they could not before or opportunities for employees to excel when given more responsibility than they have been used to. My early job experiences were all about being given these opportunities and working my ass off to fulfill the chance I was given. I have a very pay it forward approach to the opportunities that were given to me.
What is one mistake you’ve made, and what did you learn from it?
It’s hard to pick just one! I think the biggest mistake I’ve made is thinking that success in one type of business (technology) would translate seamlessly into another sector (e.g. restaurants which I have owned two). Now I am much more aware of where my skills are optimized to succeed.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
We are entering an unprecedented era of measurability of work. I think the employee experience will change dramatically during the next 10 years as we can measure (and thus incent) employees in wholly new ways. Measurement and incentive create a much more dynamic and quick feedback loop that helps everyone get the results they want. We will need a platform for doing this in the same way that Salesforce.com is building a platform for integrating all customer facing business activities. While it’s a bit early, someone will reinvent the concept of HR into a game-mechanics driven system for employees of all sorts.
What is one book and one tool that helps you bring ideas to life?
The book Drive should be read by every entrepreneur and manager. Humans are multi-modal in their motivation system. Never forget that.
Excel – I am completely data driven and we run Trada this way. There is nothing we can’t apply measurement to so we can make informed decisions. Every college graduate should take a basic statistics class before they graduate. No corner of the business world will be left unmeasured in the next 10 years (and thus a basic knowledge of the difference between an average, a median, a distribution and a variance will be critical).
Who would you love to see interviewed on IdeaMensch?
Lukas Beiwald, CEO of Crowdflower. He’s been a constant leader in crowdsourcing thinking.
Oliver Roup, CEO of VigLink. Not because I’m involved with the company but because he’s on the cutting edge of the next generation of content monetization which is the next multi-billion dollar shift coming online.
David Alan Grier, Associate Professor of International Science and Technology Policy and International Affairs, GWU. One of the lead thinkers about the past and future of work.
Dharmesh Shah, CTO and Co-Founder, HubSpot. Simply one of the smartest and best entrepreneurs I’ve met.
What is your personal business philosophy?
Talk to strangers. I spend about 10% of my time constantly reaching out to new people and trying to get in front of them. I focus my time on people that have solved the problems I will be facing in 6-12 months. Learning is the most expensive way to solve problems in business. Asking someone who already knows the answer is the fastest (and cheapest). This is a skill that’s critical for everyone in a business, not just the CEO. Its not networking, its learning. And it has to be reciprocal, so I spend about 10% of my time meeting with entrepreneurs and execs who can learn from what I’ve done already. This is a big time commitment but one that pays dividends always.
What’s your thought on work life balance.
I don’t think about it much, I’m too busy working.