Ziv Elul co-founded the ad-tech company Inneractive in 2007 and served as its CEO, expanding the company globally and achieving profitability, with consecutive 3-digit YoY growth. In 2016, Fyber N.V. acquired Inneractive and with 15 years of management experience, Ziv was appointed as the next CEO of Fyber N.V. Since stepping into his role in July 2017, he has been leading the successful integration of Fyber, Heyzap, and Inneractive into one consolidated entity, under the Fyber brand, with the goal of bringing the best components of each group into one cutting-edge, unified technology platform. Under his leadership, Fyber N.V. reached profitability for the first time as a unified company.
In addition, Ziv serves as a Lieutenant Colonel in Israel’s Reserves Corps and is a member of Israel’s branch of the Young President’s Organization (YPO), a global network of young Chief Executives. Ziv is deeply involved in the local high tech and startup ecosystem by investing, mentoring, and advising young companies and entrepreneurs. Ziv holds an Executive MBA which he graduated from with honors and is currently working on his new book, which combines the ancient wisdom of Judaism and his vast experience and knowledge of management.
How did the concept for Fyber come about?
This is a story of two parallel companies:
Fyber was founded by two German entrepreneurs (Andreas Bodczek & Janis Zech) in Berlin, Germany. Originally called SponsorPay, it was later renamed RNTS Media and finally rebranded as Fyber. The group made a series of acquisitions prior to my time as CEO, the last one of which was Inneractive.
Inneractive was founded by Offer Yehudai and me in 2007 as an eMBA project. I was a student of the eMBA program in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and my final project was to come up with a new revenue model in an industry of our choice. Offer was a student at another institution at the time, the Technion (Israel Institute of Technology), and he helped me as a friend with the project. We came up with something innovative at the time – monetization – placing ads in return for providing free content. In those days, the big mobile carriers controlled the app stores and therefore there was no free content for an advertising model. Halfway through, we realized it was a great model…so great that we decided to found a company together which was eventually acquired and merged into Fyber, and I became CEO of the group.
How was the first year in business?
The first year of Inneractive was tough. We were only four employees and we tried educating a market that was used to a paid model to use a new revenue stream instead – ads. In our pitch to aggregators, carriers, and investors, we presented an educational slide that always worked – we called it The Onion Model slide. We convinced them that by using the paid model, you only approach 10% of the market and leave 90% on the table – the users who are afraid to leave their credit card info online or simply don’t want to pay at all. There are many layers around this onion and with us they can reach a wider variety of users. Based on this, we raised $1.1 million, pre-seed and seed capital, for the first time. Today, you can see this model worked, with the Google and Apple app stores, people rarely pay for content today.
What was your marketing strategy?
Even though mobile carriers were very big at the time (Vodafone, Verizon, Singtel), they were heavy and rarely open for change. We approached more aggregators and focused on business development and resource allocation rather than conventional marketing in the beginning.
We originally had two focus areas: (1) main off-portals (which managed their own app stores) and (2) aggregators that were white-labeled for carriers. We wanted to run fast, and understood it is better to directly approach the content creators rather than approach the big-name carriers and waste our money and resources.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
The first three years were mainly for education of the market. We did earn money, flew around the world, met with clients, but still the model was more manual and not scalable (agencies wanted to approve the ads for each “real estate” ad space). Very soon, we understood that if we want to scale, we need to change something, and we decided to pivot and change our product into a more tech platform (Ad Exchange). It wasn’t a proven technology yet, but from that moment on, we started seeing growth of hundreds of percent YoY.
How do you define success?
I see success as execution that goes according to your vision and plan by creating a sustainable business model, with real technological edge and product uniqueness which bring long-term value.
When a company fulfills its purpose, it results in benefiting all stakeholders – employees, investors, market, and clients – and that’s also success to me.
What is the key to success?
First, creating a strong DNA to the company and having solid belief in your vision.
Nobody can run alone, so an entrepreneur must have a strong team that also believes in his vision and works as a tight unit to execution. Such a team will help you through challenges or changes and will find creative solutions.
To attain the team’s buy-in, listening is key. However, at the same time, you must remember to listen to yourself and your intuition as well. As a founder, you have a lot of advisors, but at the end, you are the one who knows what’s best for the company’s success and growth.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Many treat their creation, their company, as their “baby.” I almost did, too, but your “baby” might grow quicker than you’ve imagined into a child, and then into an adult, and it might also fail to grow. So, you must be willing to adjust, adopt changes, don’t get attached, and do not to fall in love with an idea, or even a person, too much.
Like in any growing company, I had to become not only a founder, but also a professional CEO and make tough decisions, like letting go of people that I appreciated and personally liked when they were no longer the right, fitted professional for the position and for the direction the company was going in. Accept this as an opportunity to grow and develop as an entrepreneur.
What are some quotes that you live by?
“Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.” There’s always enough time for things you are set on doing and passionate about. If you can’t find time for something, it is probably because it is not high enough on your priority list.
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all” – Helen Keller. When you lack the energy to wake up, to change, or to develop, this is a sign to move on to greater challenges.
“Every great dream begins with a dreamer.” – Harriet Tubman. When you truly believe in an idea, people recognize your passion and light in your eyes and this is what cut deep into the hearts of your employees, investors, and the market.
What are some of your favorite books?
The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
Executive EQ: Emotional Intelligence in Leadership & Organizations by Robert Cooper
Thrive on Pressure: Lead and Succeed When Times Get Tough by Graham Jones
The Bible 🙂
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
In the early days of INN, due to the financial bubble burst of 2008-2010, two VCs that previously agreed to invest in the company decided to pull back their offers and we found ourselves with seven employees and no money to pay next month’s salary. This forced us to make tough concessions. We let go 3 of the 7 employees and Offer and I, as founders, gave up our salaries.
This wasn’t even the biggest challenge yet! With no money left, we still wanted to pivot the company and invest in a new product. This was a real challenge and it took a very strong belief in the company and our vision. Ultimately, it worked as you can understand from my answers above, but what we’ve learned from this experience is that entrepreneurship is a jungle, it is a roller coaster, it really takes you to extremes and you should be ready to be in the front line and take risks.
If you are risk-averse and don’t know how to manage big, risky challenges, rapid changes, and gaps between your expectations and reality, you won’t succeed.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
It is important to understand what you are heading towards and set expectations with yourself, your friends, and your family. Not only you, but also they will be paying a price for this journey and you’ll need their support, time, and sometimes money.
Invest in your technology! Don’t build a short-term business, but a unique technology that adds value to the industry that you are in.
Finally, find the right partners for this journey. The right co-founder next to you will be like a good spouse in life. Look for ego-less people who share your world view and values but at the same time compliment your traits to create a diversity of ideas and knowledge.
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This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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