Meet The Inventors: Ikkjin Ahn Of Moloco On How To Go From Idea To Launch
As a small startup, you need to move fast, iterate, and get feedback. Large companies are on a different time scale. They may delay decisions to fit in with a yearly plan and that delay can be devastating for a small startup.
With nearly two decades of software and monetization experience at YouTube and Google, Ikkjin Ahn co-founded Moloco in 2013. During his time with YouTube in the monetization team, Ikkjin developed a video profitability prediction system. While at Google, he was the founding Tech Lead Manager for the Android Data team achieving the Google Citizenship award in 2012.
As CEO, Ikkjin sets the strategy and vision for the company. Mr Ahn is often sought out for his opinions on machine learning, data privacy, performance advertising, and growth marketing. He leads the company’s continual investment in machine learning and R&D and has led the company through significant revenue growth, global office expansions and staffing increases. Ikkjin is an advocate for all employees ensuring that Moloco continues to be an inviting employer that welcomes diversity and provides opportunities for employees to learn and advance their careers.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I have always been interested in tech and how it can help people. In high school I built ‘teledemocracy,’ an electronic voting system. My family wanted me to follow in my father’s footsteps in the medical field. I studied science but veered toward computers. My real interest was in artificial intelligence and economics. Little did I know that the performance marketing industry is a perfect combination of these two subjects. When I look back, I realize that I have always been interested in how people think.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
While at Google, I took their management classes. One thing that always struck me was the advice to be yourself and be authentic. That’s the approach I take with my team and with everyone at the company.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I can name three that have stuck with me: Carl Shapiro and Hal Varian’s Information Rules: A Strategic Guide to the Network Economy; Robert Reich’s The Future of Success: Working and Living in the New Economy; and Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
While none of them are particularly recent, they talk about how classic economic principles can apply to tech. For example, Google makes a lot of its products for free and yet is enormously successful financially. Another example is how the standard network effect can decide which technologies are adopted, such as VHS vs Betamax or Blue-Ray vs HD DVD.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What was the catalyst that inspired you to invent your product? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
What first sparked my interest in launching Moloco was the realization that not all companies had access to the advanced technologies needed to fuel their growth. I started my career at YouTube in its early stages in 2008. One of the main challenges at the time was how to monetize a video-hosting platform. I realized we could leverage machine learning (ML) to build its ad revenue model — my first “ah-ha” moment — and headed one of the two ML projects at the company.
I later worked with Android at Google, where an engineer mentioned 90% of apps in the Google Play Store weren’t making money. This was my second “ah-ha” moment. I didn’t want to see my favorite services go out of business! The machine-driven technology these tech titans were relying on wasn’t just a project; it was a critical market need and an industry gap that needed to be filled. Moloco was born out of the idea that ML can help companies of all sizes remain competitive and independent.
There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
Having a solid understanding of the industry and that sector’s specific market needs went a long way in translating my idea into a business. If your idea solves an issue or directly addresses an industry gap that impacts many people, it’s more likely to grow into and succeed as a business.
Be authentic and do what you like since you will do it for a long time especially when you prove that your idea is the right one. In my case, building a machine learning engine for the adtech industry took over five years. Even then we didn’t know if we would be successful, but we believed we would.
Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?
Ideas are cheap. Execution is important. Circulate your idea and get feedback from others. There were Palm Pilot, SideKick, and Newton before iPhone and Android. Something may have been done before but can be done better now.
Did you have a role model or a person who inspired you to persevere despite the hardships involved in taking the risk of selling a new product?
I had a Steve Jobs poster in my room in the 1980s, but now I believe it is important to learn from everyone instead of a single role model.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I don’t know if I would call it a mistake, but I inadvertently named my company “milk” in Russian. I learned this while speaking to an investor who asked, “why milk?” The lesson here is to research your product’s name in all languages. Moloco is actually a derivative of Machine Learning Company.
I also formed the company in November which was not the best timing as we had to deal with taxes right away. But I was motivated to form the company at that time because my co-founder might not have joined if I delayed.
The early stages must have been challenging. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” after making your invention, when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
As I mentioned, building a machine learning engine for performance marketers took over five years. There can be a lot of distraction, frustration, and impatience during that time. But once we brought it to market, we saw that it filled a need and did so very well. We decided that our machine learning engine would be an area we would continue to invest in. As our market reacts to changes, our machine learning engine must constantly evolve. We also decided early on to invest in scaling our machine engine. It takes enormous computing power to do what we do, and this decision has paid off tremendously as we can offer a service whose overhead doesn’t hurt us.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Invented My Product” and why?
There is one thing that stands out in my mind. It wasn’t really something I wish someone told me but something someone DID tell me that I will never forget. When I was thinking about leaving Google, a mentor told me to not focus on going after big, well-known brand companies as customers. Instead, he said to focus on the second or third tier company because they move and make decisions faster. Working with a large company there is a mismatch between timelines. As a small startup, you need to move fast, iterate, and get feedback. Large companies are on a different time scale. They may delay decisions to fit in with a yearly plan and that delay can be devastating for a small startup.
Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
Have open-minded discussions with others and get feedback. Be willing to take the advice and make changes.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
First-time entrepreneurs often have to bootstrap. But when looking for venture capital funds, be sure to align with the right one who shares a similar timeline. If your road to success is going to take a while, be sure to find a VC partner who is patient. It will be difficult to work with a VC who is expecting fast returns if your development is going to be lengthy. Also, sometimes the advice a VC can offer is equally important as the funds.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We have a global initiative at Moloco called Moloco Love. This was born out of caring and compassion for others as well as our company values. Our social good project focuses on three areas: charitable giving, volunteerism and community involvement, and internal education and discussion. Our specific efforts are driven by employees, and some of our past initiatives include supporting local restaurants by donating lunch to hospitals around the San Francisco Bay Area and providing laptops to children in Korea.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Well, you can tell from my early school days that I am interested in things that help all people fairly and equally. That has translated into my career where we strive to create a world where companies of all sizes can share equally, fairly, and transparently in the digital economy.
Thank you for these great insights! We wish you continued success.