From College Students to Million-Dollar Partners

The founders of Tatto Media bootstrapped their startup and now they're running a $100 million company.
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This story appears in the February 2010 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Million-Dollar Partners

On a crisp autumn night in 2007 in Wellesley, Mass., while most Babson College students were poring over books, Lin Miao and his business partners were in their dorm pouring Dom P�rignon to celebrate their college business hitting $1 million in sales.

Less than a year earlier, Miao had partnered up with fellow Babson students Andrew Bachman, Lucas Brown and Lee Brown to build an Internet marketing company that would fundamentally change the way advertisers pay for display advertising. All four had been involved with ventures that required selling online, and each was left underwhelmed by the advertising options available to small businesses.

So they came up with a plan to shift the display marketing paradigm from paying for impressions to paying for performance, and Tatto Media was born.

"We couldn't afford to spend $100,000 on a campaign to see if it worked," says Miao, Tatto's 23-year-old CEO. "So we built an automated self-serve platform that allows anyone to build a performance-based display marketing campaign in minutes, whether they have $50, $100 or $100,000 to spend."


Partnering Up
Finding a partner in college means looking beyond your circle of friends.

Here is Lin Miao's best scouting advice:

. Join clubs and groups that foster entrepreneurship.

. Start an entrepreneurship club if there isn't one on campus.

. Attend speaker programs to meet other entrepreneurial students.

. Sit in on classes that you wouldn't normally register for to observe the students who stand out and excel.

. Ask professors you trust to recommend and introduce their brightest students.

. Get to know students working campus jobs. It takes discipline to hold a job while studying and socializing.

Using Tatto's system, advertisers upload a banner in flash format and it goes through an automated testing and optimization process that includes colors, text and backgrounds. Then the system generates a banner designed to perform best on a specific website, drawn from Tatto's inventory of more than 10,000 publishers, including MySpace and AOL. Advertisers pay only when someone clicks on a banner and they get a result, such as a product being sold from the advertiser's website.

From its self-funded, dorm-room beginnings, Tatto Media has grown into the third-largest ad network in the world, according to comScore. It has 120 employees at its Seattle and Los Angeles offices and Boston headquarters, and revenue topping $100 million for 2009.

Bachman, Tatto's president, says the company's stunning success is largely because the founders were all students.

"College is a fantastic environment to find highly motivated partners who are hungry, aggressive and untainted by the bureaucracy of the real world," says Bachman, 25. "But it is important that you look for partners who are unique from one another."

That means branching out beyond your inner circle. Join clubs you wouldn't normally join, and get to know students who are different from you.

What you don't want is a situation where all of the partners are trying to do the same thing.

"That limits what you can accomplish and can lead to nasty head-to-head battles," Bachman says. "Without the genius of Lin, and the design and engineering skills of Luc and Lee, I never would have had a product to sell because I can't see it like Lin sees it, and I can't build it like Luc and Lee build it."

Finally, Miao adds that it is important to get to know potential partners on a personal level: You want to build a team that you can rely on.

"When growing pains occur," he says, "you need partners you can trust to make decisions for the team, and not just for themselves."


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