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Retarget Links CEO and founder Serge Salager and marketing manager Supriya Gupta in Singapore for a Techstars accelerator. (Retarget Links Photo)

If Serge Salager realizes his dream for the democratization of online advertising, you might get your kid’s Christmas wish list next year delivered as a banner ad. That is, if your kid has the $8 to spend for the ad campaign and an outsized desire to get your attention.

Salager is the CEO and founder of Retarget Links, a Vancouver, B.C.-based company with five employees that launched in 2016.

“We are definitely the easiest way for someone to advertise to someone else,” Salager said.

Retarget Links helps advertisers — which could even include a kid lobbying for gifts — make their pitch by creating a short link using the company’s software. That link can then be shared by text or email, or by slipping it into addresses for commercial websites including eBay, Etsy, Amazon and other marketplace pages; crowdfunding pages like Kickstarter and Indiegogo; or event pages such as Eventbrite. Using cookies, the Retarget Links link will follow the target audience and serve them ads wherever they go online.

In an example provided by Salager, a kid named Clara creates a campaign to share her good grades with mom and dad, and follows that up with ads encouraging them to buy her an iPhone. Clara first sends her parents a text with the link and they ultimately get the personalized iPhone ads when browsing news sites such as the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

Retargeting is already a tremendously popular, and at times controversial, way to deliver online ads. Most people have had the experience of checking out a product on one site, only to have the item trail them across the internet like a ghost of browsing past. AdRoll, Criteo, Google and many others are in the space. Salager said that his approach is different because it uses custom links (Clara’s original text link, for example) instead of the information from a website that someone visits.

Clara makes her initial pitch with Retarget Links’ help. (Retarget Links image)

Salager is also CEO of Vancouver’s Visualping, a business that monitors changes on webpages, and former CEO of One Move Technologies. He was a marketing manager at Procter & Gamble for 11 years, based in Switzerland.

We caught up with Salager for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: We want to democratize advertising, making it easy enough for anyone to display banner ads to a specific target. We do this through an innovative use of “retargeting.” Retargeting is a technology that uses cookies to tag your audience and serve them ads wherever they go. What makes our solution special is that we can target an audience through a simple link that anyone can create and use. We can display ads on news sites including GeekWire, Forbes, Vogue and Vanity Fair and through networks such as Google Display Networks, OpenX, Rubicom and others.

Inspiration hit us when: I was helping a friend promote the Traction Conference in Vancouver and San Francisco. They were hosting the event on a platform similar to Eventbrite, directing all of the traffic to this page. But because they didn’t own that page, they couldn’t add a retargeting script to later display ads to people who came to the site but didn’t buy a ticket, which was nearly 95 percent of the visitors.

That led me to the idea of adding the retargeting script into a link so that when a recipient clicked on it, they were tagged before they even visited the event site. We built a minimal viable product (MVP) and tested the idea with the Traction team. The software allowed them to use any web address  — including the link to their event page — shorten it with the RetargetLinks system, and tag everyone that clicked on the short link. All of the tagged users would then see ads when they left the event page and surfed the web.

Clara points her mom and dad to the obvious conclusion: that she deserves an iPhone. (Retarget Links image)

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: Our MVP was not difficult to build and we bootstrapped it. Then we raised $500,000 from angel investors. Building the infrastructure to deliver the ads on time through the ad display networks such as Google consumed a big chunk of our fundraising.

We just finished the Techstars accelerator program in Singapore, which was sponsored by Rakuten, Japan’s largest eCommerce player. Before that, we participated in another corporate accelerator called the Brandery, sponsored by Procter & Gamble. Accelerators do require that you give up a percentage of your company’s ownership, but are worth it depending on the stage of your startup and the sector that you’re in.

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: Coming up with a code that fires the retargeting script fast enough to redirect the person who clicks on the link so that it doesn’t create any delays. We also had to invest in building our own platform or “trade desk” to display the ads directly, avoiding going through a retargeting provider. This allowed us to keep our prices lower and we could control some special user requirements, such as only delivering ads at certain times of the day and doing advanced geotagging.

The smartest move we’ve made so far: We love simplicity. Our sign-up process to user experience is about making things easy. Our users simply have to find a URL that goes to a great piece of content, shrink it with our tool and share it with their target audience. If someone clicks on the link, they will see their ads. It’s as simple as that.

This simplified strategy is important not only because online marketing can be extremely complex, but also because our target market is focused on small online businesses that don’t have the time or the knowledge to deal with complexity. We want to make this accessible to anyone, including those advertising a birthday party or a yard sale. A lot of small marketers don’t know how to design ads so we even provide free ad design and free branded short links.

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: During our MVP we gave users a one-month free trial and then charged a monthly subscription. This kept our costs low, but prevented users from testing the service beyond the first month. It also created some friction when we had to ask them to pay. So for now at least, the service is free so that our users can create audiences, and we only charge when ads are served.

Serge Salager, CEO and founder of Retarget Links. (Retarget Links Photo)

Which leading entrepreneur or executive would you most want working in your corner? Jack Dorsey, the co-founder and CEO of Twitter and mobile payments company Square. A ton of our short links are used in Twitter so having him in our corner would definitely be beneficial. We also love the fact that he is committed to keeping tweets painstakingly short and simultaneously runs two companies.

Our favorite team-building activity is: Don’t judge us, but we love hanging out at a bar after a long day. In the last year and a half, we have spent a considerable amount of time away from home while doing the accelerators and we got used to spending a lot of time together. Since we all like to have a drink after a long day, it was a natural team-building activity.

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: People who get sh*t done. There isn’t time to think too much in a startup and sometimes any decision is better than no decision. We like people who experiment strategically and can think on their feet. Some of us come from large corporations where we have witnessed decision making, procrastination and politics destroying innovation and speed. We love people who work in the opposite way.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Never, ever run out of money.

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