‘Running a business in a fast-changing environment’: An evening in conversation with Dom Joseph & Gwyn Jones

Earlier this year, Smedvig Capital held an evening in conversation with Dom Joseph, CEO and Co-founder of Captify, hosted by Gwyn Jones, Ex Global CEO of BBH, now Chair of Quill and Bloom & Wild.

Founded in 2011, Captify is the global leader in Search Intelligence, uniquely analysing billions of exclusive searches to empower brands all over the world such as Apple, American Express and Unilever to make the most informed media and marketing decisions. We bought Dom and Gwyn together to discuss the dynamic Adtech market and how it has evolved in the last decade. Dom shared his experiences of building Captify from concept, raising Series A and B and how culture lies at the heart of Captify’s success. Read on for excerpts of the evening’s conversation.

Gwyn: What was your relationship with Adam (Co-founder) when Captify was founded?

Dom: Adam was my client! I told him about an idea that I had for this product whilst we were on a jolly in Vegas and he said, ‘we can have a business plan by the time we’re back.’ Adam doesn’t drink and so he genuinely meant that! We spent around 6 months working on it and I spent that time rounding up my previous clients, persuading them that they should spend their money with us. On 4th July 2011 we started Captify, offering ads targeted to people who searched for products.

Gwyn: Did you have a platform?

Dom: No, it was pretty crude at that point. We’d managed to cobble together a few bits of other people’s technologies, I remember typing into Google ‘where to buy search data’, which was quite ironic! We built a piece of java script and then about month two we rang up publishers to see if we could put that code on their site to get search data in. I remember I flew to Spain to meet Opodo, then we put that code in their site and they got millions of searches coming in — we didn’t really know what do to with all the data! We hired another company to process it, so we could get it to a minimal viable product by cobbling together other people’s stuff until our series A.

Gwyn: So the first year really was at lightning pace, no debt and £1.3m in year one?

Dom: Yeah and £300k EBITDA. We realised at that point that we had to do a Series A as there was way too much demand for our product, which was essentially this cobbled together bit of code. We were basically taking package data from another supplier that was a travel segment of data and then we were putting that through another bit of technology. We realised this wasn’t going to be sufficient for powering these campaigns, so we had to do a Series A. With Series A, you need to prove that you’ve got a good business model and the good thing was we could do that with £1.3m in revenue.

Gwyn: Did it change how you thought and ran the business? You hadn’t taken any money up to this point and then suddenly you were answerable to people other than yourselves — there’s a bit more required of you as leaders of the business?

Dom: Yeah, it’s completely different to the beginning. Today we have a board of VCs and a very credible chairman, who used to be CEO of multi-billion-dollar companies and you often feel like you’re out of your depth having to learn on the job. But, at the same time, we all want the same outcome, we want Captify to make its shareholders lots of money and be as big as it can be. I’m enjoying learning from these people, being out of my comfort zone and ultimately being accountable — it’s going to make me a better CEO by having to do that.

Gwyn: So let’s talk about the second round, in the first one you had to prove the product, build the product so it was scalable and ensure the business continued to grow at pace in that period, 200% a year in fact, what then drove Series B?

Dom: I always look back on what happened after Series B — we just knew that the money was going to fit the company perfectly. If series A was about the product, series B was about the team. We could get the right key hires in to make the team what we wanted it to be. From this, the revenue started to flow in. Then, last year, we went through the phase of slowing down, meaning we had to work out how to change the structure of the company ready for scale and we were able to do that. The Smedvig money along with Panoramic was the absolute best thing we’ve ever done as a business.

Gwyn: The world I left is now unrecognisable after only 3 years, do you find that your original insight is still what drives the business, or have you had to evolve the offering over time?

Dom: The offering has evolved, but we’re still very sure on our core purpose as a business: to understand a data set that allows us to really know what consumers want and what brands have to do to react to that. I really believe that search data is the most powerful data set out there — as proven by Google, there is a clear appetite for that product. If you understand what consumers want and what intent is coming from searches, it’s the glue between all data.

Gwyn: Captify is a tech business, it’s also about people, analysts and sales — which can put quite a strain on culture — do you feel like you consciously manage culture? Does it matter in Captify?

Dom: I think it’s the lifeblood of the company. We’ve always been incredibly proud of our culture and from the beginning we’ve had a great team of people that really care about the company. Our first four staff are still with us and they are real pillars of the company. When we set values for the company we looked at those 4 people and worked out what they represent: collaboration, give a shit, passion. I think once you get that culture of positive, people who aren’t that jump out quickly. Then you need to work on it and nurture it. It takes a lot of effort, with things like one on one schemes to empower people to have a voice, it’s hard work but worth it.