CEO Alex Kronman on Supporting College Media and the Future of flytedesk
By creating the largest college media network in the U.S., flytedesk has made it easy for advertisers to reach college students at scale — and has also become an essential ally for thousands of student media organizations. We talked with CEO and Founder Alex Kronman about the origins of the company and where he and the team are headed next. Of note: flytedesk is actively hiring engineers. Read about the Engineering team here, or email Kit Summers to ask a question or apply: firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is flytedesk and how does it work?
We build the technology that powers campus advertising. Our team works with 2,300 student media organizations to aggregate ad opportunities on their campuses, and then we make that inventory available to large national brands. Our platform reaches nearly every college student in the country — about 20 million people.
On the advertising side, flytedesk’s primary clients are media agencies buying on behalf of Fortune 500 companies, and our core product is an automated buying tool that lets clients target specific audiences. For example, a large tech company that wants to improve its gender diversity could focus on schools with the biggest populations of female engineering students. Then they can plan their ad buys across 25 different channels, like digital, print, outdoor, and social media. In the publisher platform, student media organizations automatically get a schedule of ads for them to download and place.
Tell us about your background, and why you started the company.
Both my parents worked in advertising and I grew up running around ad agencies full of these weird, brilliant, jaded people. In elementary school the HR lady would get high and feed me snacks after school, and I remember getting dating advice from mom’s creative partner — I was 10. And everyone was united in telling me not to follow in their footsteps.
So I didn’t. I started a satirical newspaper in high school and in college became the managing editor of the school paper halfway through freshman year. I fought my way to the Editor-in-Chief job at the end of that year and held the position until I graduated. It was pure journalism for me. My mantra was to focus solely on the message. I didn’t care about layout or any of that, I just wanted to hold peoples’ feet to the fire.
“We’ve helped evolve the business of college media so student journalists have the funding to do what matters.”
I was still in college when I got the idea for flytedesk. I took on more and more responsibility at the paper, and when I started managing our budget I realized half of journalism is advertising. It was a strange feeling but I was right back where I started. The thing was, compared to the wider advertising world, college media was totally neglected. I talked with editors at other papers and everyone was operating a separate universe. Any step forward vanished when someone graduated.
At the time a few legacy companies were aggregating ad inventory, but they were doing it manually — no technology, just people calling hundreds of college newspapers. If they bought 30 ads in 500 papers, they’d have to sort through 15,000 paper copies to verify the ads ran correctly. They had people on staff whose entire jobs were, basically, to get students to use the Post Office. So their markup was super high, and so was their time to execution. It could take three months to buy the media you wanted.
Flytedesk fixes all of that. We help advertisers, of course, because we take a painful task and make it easy — but more than anything we help evolve the business of college media so that student journalists have the funding to do shit that matters.
Can you talk more about flytedesk’s relationship with student journalists?
They are our true north. They’re the reason we’re here in the first place. We see ourselves as part of their teams — we’re just selling to advertisers they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
I don’t see us as an advertising company. We’re here first because we believe in the value of college media and second because everyone wins if there’s a great ad product that supports it. Our primary mission is to fight for student media.
“We’re developing everything ourselves. Buy-side tools, pub-side tools, data tools — everything is custom.”
And I don’t think student journalists have any doubt about how much we truly love them and care about what they want to achieve. We go to all the conferences — pretty much everyone in student media in the country knows Piper, our VP of Growth. Most of them also know me. And they know we’re working our asses off to help them.
What’s the potential for growth in the college media space?
Way bigger than you’d think. In aggregate, the ad inventory of college media organizations is worth more than Buzzfeed’s, or the New York Times’, or both combined.
Advertisers spend $75b targeting 18–24 year olds each year, 44% of whom are college students. But almost all of that money is going to ads on TV or ads online, which just doesn’t work to reach college students. Hardly anyone has cable and 69% of students block ads online. College media — I know it sounds niche — is the best way to reach the people everyone’s trying to reach. This is one of very few ways to reach young people at scale.
What’s the hardest problem facing flytedesk right now?
We’re building a market from the ground up. Very few people were out there just clamoring for college media — it never even crossed their minds.
For sales, that means we’re selling something nobody else is selling. I never would have anticipated this, but I wish we had some competitors singing the gospel of college media, doing the dirty work.
For product and dev, it means we have to build everything ourselves. Buy-side tools, pub-side tools, data tools — everything is custom. There just aren’t partners we can bring in solve problems for us.
There’s a silver lining though. The ad tech ecosystem is incestuous and companies can do everything right and still fail. Or Facebook will change its algorithm and, like, multiple ad tech companies will die overnight.
It also makes us far more valuable in the long term because we own everything — all of our tools, all of our relationships. We’re not dependent on anyone else, and that’s unique in the advertising space.
What are the next big challenges the team will tackle?
Probably local advertising. Beyond the assets they own, that’s the next great revenue stream for college media organizations. We see their business staff becoming the sellers and account managers for all local advertising, and we’ll provide the tools.
“If it’s media on a college campus, we want it owned on campus and brought to the world by flytedesk.”
We have a product called The Ad Shop that lets local businesses buy media on just one campus at a time. That’s our beachhead. We’re getting them comfortable with it so one day you’ll wake up and the digital ads, the billboards, and everything small businesses buy will be managed by students. The students will take a cut, and, if we’re successful, that funds the next generation of student journalists.
We also have a really big roadmap of everything we’ll need to be a top-tier data provider. We’re already tracking ROI on ads with pre- and post-surveys, so we can look at a client’s locations and customer profiles and recommend the buys that will work best for them, but we want to expand our abilities. And in campus media, one of the biggest problems in tracking advertising is already solved for us, because we know exactly where the audience is. Removing that layer of complexity allows us to dig much deeper on other variables.
We’re looking at lots of other ways to expand as well, like using a product we recently launched — basically a closed reddit for college media kids, as a vehicle for promoting events like tours and movies. If you wanted college newspapers to cover the release of Black Panther, for example, you could set up a chat with Chadwick Boseman where student reporters dial in to ask their questions. We’ve also considered buying billboards and gifting them to student groups, to add that inventory to our platform. Basically, if it’s media on a college campus, we want it owned on campus and brought to the world by flytedesk.
What do you look for in new team members?
My one rule is “do you, just do it good.” I believe that’s an Afroman lyric. I gravitate towards characters, even if they’re wildly different than me. Autonomy and ownership are super important to us. You can follow a script, but I want you to create it. You have to carve out your own role. Our Head of Product, Katy, is a great example. She started as a designer and started to gravitate toward product work, so I said, “See what you can do.” And she was incredible. Piper has a similar story. She started out as an intern, cold-calling college newspapers, and figured out how to earn their trust.
We’ll give you time to ramp up, and we’ll give you guidance. Every manager does weekly one-on-ones with their team, and I do them monthly with everyone in the company. Because we’re small I think we have our finger on the pulse of when someone needs a little push. But you’re always going to be closer to your work than I am, so I need you to help choose what you should be doing.
“My one rule is ‘do you, just do it good.’ I believe that’s an Afroman lyric.”
Commitment is important, too. On the surface, it’s a really laid-back environment. But we’re all trying to do our best and trying to bring out the best in each other. If you’re trying to skate by and not become peak you, it’s an incredibly uncomfortable place. There’s a ton of responsibility that comes with the level of autonomy we provide. It doesn’t work for everyone, but the people it does work for, it really, really works.