The path to building AdXpose — which sold to comScore today for $22 million — was definitely not a straight one. With startups, it rarely is. (I recently gave a presentation on this topic at Casual Connect, which you can read here).

Backed by Ignition Partners, the company was founded in 2004 under the name Mpire by Dave Cotter and Greg Harrison. It started out as an eBay seller tool. Fantastic product, but too small of a market.

I joined the board in 2005 and got to see first-hand the trials and tribulations of a team trying to navigate a crowded market. When I joined, we basically started over.

Here’s the back story on that transformation.

We took all of our knowledge around shopping data and built a shopping search engine with analytics on when to buy items — not unlike Farecast (now Bing Travel) and

Matt Hulett

Desperate, and without any revenue to speak of, we started to do work-for-hire jobs for eBay. That experience led us into the advertising business.

We started by building data widgets for eBay, which became the underpinnings of an ad network. That led us to create an ad network around shopping. None of us had built an ad network before, and we really didn’t know how to run one.

We launched the WidgetBucks ad network, learned a lot, made mistakes, iterated, and improved. But we quickly recognized a problem: there were too many ad networks and we were concerned about punching through the market noise.

While we built a huge network of publishers and bloggers, we weren’t making the big dollars we had hoped for.

That led to a transformation where we created ads so that they could dynamically optimize themselves.  We collected information on where the ads were placed on the page; what text was around them; how they were performing; and what creative was working.

This emerged for one simple reason: We didn’t have a large team.  Necessity was truly the mother of all invention.

WidgetBucks exposed massive amounts of data that publishers and ad networks had never seen before.  They were intrigued (and maybe scared).  Eureka.  A new product was born and, yes, another business model pivot.  This being the fourth and final one.  (We internally joked that we changed the name every year so that we would win industry awards).

We launched AdXpose as a software-as-a-service product for agencies, brands, networks, and exchanges.  CTO and founder Greg Harrison built the team and had a crazy passion for providing truth and justice in advertising.  (Some members of the original team from 2004 are still at the company.  And, before I left,  I hired some fantastic business leaders in CEO Kirby Winfield and CFO Jeff Bergstrom who both know startups.  These folks took AdXpose to another level).

As we all learned at Mpire/WidgetBucks/AdXpose, most startups don’t actually start with the product or service that they end with.  The key ingredient to success, in my mind, is a great team.  And that includes investors, which in the case of AdXpose included Bill Bryant from DFJ; Mike Vernon of Zulily and Jeff Lanctot (former chief strategy officer of Razorfish).  In addition, we had some notable board members like Rob Solomon (who just recently left Groupon) and Michelle Goldberg and Rich Tong of Ignition Partners.

There certainly were a lot of twists and turns along the way.  But after multiple pivots and transformations, we got there, and comScore is lucky to have AdXpose.

Matt Hulett is the former CEO of AdXpose and current president and senior vice president at RealNetworks’ games unit. He blogs at the Startup Whisperer.

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  • Interested Observer

    Interesting backstory but there’s a LOT missing here. You guys sold for only enough money to make back the initial investment. Some investors didn’t even make that back. While returning most investor money back is a laudable “draw” in chess terms, that sort of outcome is usually accompanied by a LOT of acrimony among both heavily diluted employees and frustrated investors. What are some of the details around THAT piece? That’s the real interesting storyline here: battling to a virtual draw by virtue of hard work, patience, and trying times with your investors. It’s kind of like in chess when you are down to only your king and you salvage a stalemate from the match (which is considered a victory given the circumstances).

    • Matt Hulett

      Why entertain a cap table debate since you most likely don’t have intimate knowledge of the financing history.  Its fine to make snarky comments but its generally respectable to make them under a real identity.  Own your comments and don’t troll!

      The reasoning for this post (and posts like it) are to better educate the broader populace at large.  The reason why we share our experiences on site’s like GeekWire, Seattle 20, etc is to better educate our entrepreneurial breathen who are about to embark on or are currently in the midst of starting their own companies.  There is no hubris driving the intent of this post other than to rave about the team at AdXPose for having the temperament to stay the course on finding a product that inevitably is used against billions of Web pages by a large customer base. 

      • Interested Observer

        Hi Matt. Not trying to troll here. I just don’t use my name for other reasons.

        It’s a nice accomplishment getting any sort of sale done. Well done to Kirby and everyone else for that. I guess what I’m saying is that what you posted seems to be a very abridged version of what is promised by the headline. The constant changing of business models is interesting and all but what I’m saying is that the inside-the-trenches story sounds like it contains a lot of blood and gore, and that is what is probably more interesting to most readers here, especially entrepreneurs who may face similar fights in the future. Only the brave tend to talk about that stuff… would be nice to hear.

        My guess is that you aren’t allowed to talk about it or you are wary of airing dirty laundry. Either reason is a perfectly fine reason to keep quiet.

  • Informed Observer

    I find it very weird that matt is talking about this as if he had something to do with it. Kirby Winfield came in and cleaned-up a big mess (no strategy, no revenue, no profit, no people) and turned it into something of value (at least in ComScore’s eyes).  Kudos to him and the team he hired.

    • Uninformed Observer

      Is there truth in this? If there is, I’d be interested in reading the full story.

  • algard

    Congrats Mpire team on the sale. Thanks Matt for taking the time to share your story about the perseverance and ingenuity required to set up the company for a $22mm sale.

  • David Niu

    Congrats Matt and the team!  I know Matt did have a lot to do with the success and energy of the company and transitions (as did the rest of the team of course).  Thanks for sharing the insights, and I think the main lesson are (1) entrepreneurs definitely have to be flexible since their 1st idea is oftentimes not the one that the success of their company is built on and (2) as an investor, overweighting to bet more on the entrepreneur versus the idea.
    Bravo Matt!

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