Mobile ad networks are all the rage. A generation ago, the winners among its desktop brethren made a killing and many view the mobile Web and app ecosystem as a similar if not larger scale opportunity. And yet, no one has nailed it yet. The early winner was AdMob, which was acquired by Google for $750 million in 2009. Since, others like Millennial Media and Jumptap have emerged as worthy challengers. But there remains enormous opportunity for innovation and for additional high nine or even ten figure exits.
One little known company that is making waves in this category is Los Angeles-based AirPush. The fully bootstrapped company was founded in 2011 and has since grown its network to include 100,000 apps using its SDK and more than 5,000 advertisers using its platform. The two year old company’s inventory now reaches more than 10 billion ad impressions per month.
Along the way, AirPush’s revenue has grown 300 percent and 170 percent respectively over its first two years, from $9.5 million to $47 million, and is now on pace to reach between $130 to $150 million this year, according to its founder and CEO Asher Delug. The company declined to share profitability figures, but according to a source close to the company, its gross margins are greater than 40 percent, which compares favorably to others in the category. Delug, who still owns 90 percent of the company (with his employees owning the rest), views a 2014 IPO as a probable outcome. He is also considering taking on private financing.
Delug’s decision to bootstrap AirPush makes it unique within the category. But beyond that, company has taken a unique “outside in” approach toward tackling the market, according the CEO. AirPush’s earliest hit ad unit was an opt-in, push notification-based ad in the notification bar of Android devices, something that Delug says was an industry first at the time. This made the company the only avenue for apps like wallpapers, themes, launchers, and the like to monetize via ads. Despite an ad experience that seems likely to be incredibly irritating, users were happy because they could trade their demographic data for free wallpapers, ringtones, and other content. Developers, on the other hand, were thrilled to have ad-based option for monetizing these apps.
AirPush grew like a weed and built a real business on the back of this odd win-win situation. The unintended consequence was that the company was able to build a rich opt-in database of information on more than 150 million Android users. This information, which includes carrier, device type, and the apps installed on their device, among other details, proved to be a valuable – and, according to Delug, rare – asset for expanding into more traditional mobile ad businesses. The company has since launched additional ad units like banners and interstitials, the latter of which Delug says is generating $90,000 in revenue daily (roughly 20 percent of its gross revenue).
AirPush continues its push into more traditional digital ad businesses, launching its first real-time bidding (RTB) demand side platform (DSP) at the end of last week. Delug believes this offering stands out in the market due to the quality and scale of the opt-in dataset behind it. The platform, for example, allows advertisers to target highly specific categories of users, such males between 18 to 25 with premium handsets and at least five role playing games (RPGs) installed on their device. Further, AirPush offers self-serve buyers a media buying tool to enable similar precision as is available to RTB buyers.
Next on the product roadmap for AirPush is a demand side private exchange in partnership with OpenX, and shortly thereafter a mobile retargeting service, which again relies heavily on the company’s unique dataset.
The key to AirPush’s growth in the absence of funding has been its international workforce. Of the company’s 150 employees, only 50 are based in the US, with the remainder located in Bangalore, India. One hundred employees in India costs AirPush the equivalent of 35 to 40 employees of comparable skill in the US, according to its CEO. There are tradeoffs to the strategy, including the fact that the team is distributed, and thus less cohesive. Recruiting elite talent abroad was also a challenge early on, Delug concedes, but as the staff grew, the company’s profile rose in parallel, and now the CEO is confident that he’s hiring from among best talent in India and is on par with his US competitors.
AirPush’s notification tray ad offering is not the greenfield opportunity that it once was, with others like SendDroid moving into the market. This is ok with Delug, who concedes that notification-tray ads are unlikely to be the future of mobile advertising. The strategy did, however, allow the company to assemble a large, and highly-valuable user data asset that now powers the rest of its growing platform.
Most companies hold the details of their datasets close to the vest, making it difficult to compare apples to apples. Nonetheless, it’s fair to say that AirPush isn’t the only one who knows what apps Android users have installed on their devices and can target ads accordingly. Competition is healthy, however, and AirPush’s revenue growth numbers indicate that it’s up for the challenge. The company may have take a nontraditional path to reach its current position, but the result has been a lean and highly profitable operation with a number of strong differentiators. It looks very much like a company to watch going forward.