FF 013 'Make Bets And Believe In What You Are Doing' with James Borow @ Shift & Brand Networks

Summary Notes


In this episode of the 20 minutes VC, host Harry Stebbings interviews James Borrow, Chief Product Officer at Brand Networks and former CEO and co-founder of Shift Platform, which was acquired by Brand Networks. Borrow shares his journey from aspiring lawyer to internet entrepreneur, detailing the origins of Shift and its evolution into a leading marketing software company for social advertisers, with clients like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. He discusses the importance of having a safety net, the value of co-founders and advisors, and the necessity of hiring well to fill gaps in expertise. He also touches on his experience with raising funds, advising founders to be cautious with equity and to choose investors who align with their vision. The conversation includes a quick-fire round where Borrow reveals his favorite resources, apps, and his transparency policy during tough times. Finally, he expresses his future ambitions for Brand Networks to become the largest marketing platform across social media.

Summary Notes

Introduction to James Borow

  • James Borow is the chief product officer at Brand Networks.
  • Brand Networks delivers social marketing and advertising to 650 enterprise customers.
  • James was previously CEO and co-founder of Shift Platform, which was acquired by Brand Networks.
  • Shift Platform became the number one marketing software company for social advertisers.
  • James has been recognized as an Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year semifinalist in 2014.
  • He is considered a thought leader in the digital advertising industry.
  • James has written articles for Forbes, the New York Times, Bloomberg, and Business Insider.
  • He is also an active angel investor, with investments in Kixer, Gradient X (acquired by Singtel), and ConversionLogic.

"I'm very proud to welcome James Borrow to the 20 minutes VC. James is chief product officer at Brand Networks, which delivers social marketing and advertising to 650 enterprise customers following their acquisition of shift platform, where James was CEO and co founder, where he led the business to being the number one marketing software company for social advertisers with clients such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook."

The quote introduces James Borow, highlighting his current position, past achievements, and influence in the digital advertising industry.

James Borow's Entrepreneurial Origins

  • James Borow originally planned to become a lawyer and attended Vanderbilt University.
  • After graduating, he took a year off before law school to decide on his legal specialty.
  • During this time, he moved to California to work in the Internet sector.
  • He fell in love with the Internet, especially the potential of social networks.
  • The dean of George Washington University Law School held his spot for five years, giving him a safety net and the freedom to take risks.
  • James met his future co-founder, Clark Landry, while working at Minds and Machines in Santa Monica.
  • He co-founded Shift with Clark Landry and has been focused on starting companies since then.

"So I went to college in Vanderbilt, in Nashville, Tennessee, and I was going to be a lawyer originally... I moved out to California just to go work sort of in the Internet, whatever that meant, and fell in love with what sort of the Internet represented... I called the dean and I said, listen, I really, really liking this Internet stuff, but I'm not quite sure if I really don't want to go to law school. And she said, I'll hold your spot as long as you want."

The quote details James Borow's initial career path, his pivot from law to the Internet sector, and the unique opportunity given by the law school dean that allowed him to explore entrepreneurship with less risk.

The Role of Safety Nets in Entrepreneurship

  • James believes that having a safety net can be beneficial for entrepreneurs.
  • He suggests that it's wise to maintain a day job while exploring entrepreneurial ventures on the side.
  • Starting a business without immediately quitting a day job allows for learning and reduces risk.
  • It is easier now than ever to start a business, especially with the availability of freelancers and tech-savvy friends.

"Yeah, I think so. There's always cases that work either way. But I think in general, I think, like anything, you just really don't know what sort of these businesses really are until you start doing them. So I think just sort of cutting the cord immediately is really tough."

This quote emphasizes the value of a safety net for entrepreneurs and the practicality of starting a business while still maintaining other commitments or job security.

Starting a Business Without Technical Skills

  • James Borow did not have technical skills when he started his first company.
  • He emphasizes the importance of having friends with technical skills or finding freelancers.
  • His first company, before Shift, was a Buzzfeed-like platform for females called Girls Guide two.
  • It was one of the first websites to use Facebook Connect, which led to their deep involvement in the Facebook ecosystem.

"I did not, no. So it's really easy to start something if you have friends who have technical skills... Every person you know has a friend who works in tech or can write some basic code. So if there's a will, there's a way."

This quote highlights that while James did not have technical skills, he leveraged his network and the resources available to him to start his entrepreneurial journey.## Early Adoption of Facebook Connect Platform

  • The site was exclusively for females, using Facebook identity for gender verification.
  • Facebook Connect was fully integrated, which was unique at the time.
  • Facebook featured the platform alongside other major platforms, providing significant exposure.

"When the connect platform came out, we built this site. And the whole premise behind the site was that only females could get in. So we used your Facebook identity as a way to ensure that only females get in."

This quote outlines the strategy for leveraging Facebook's Connect platform to create an exclusive environment for female users, utilizing Facebook's identity verification to enforce this exclusivity.

Learning from Building on Facebook's Ecosystem

  • The experience of building on Facebook's ecosystem provided valuable insights into Facebook APIs.
  • This knowledge was instrumental in the development and success of Shift.

"I think just the amount we learned about the Facebook ecosystem, the Facebook APIs just from building, that really led us to where we got with shift."

This quote emphasizes the importance of hands-on experience with Facebook's ecosystem and APIs, which was crucial for the development of Shift.

Acquiring First Clients for Shift

  • Shift initially had no funding and only a beta product.
  • The team made numerous phone calls to potential clients like Microsoft and Jamba Juice.
  • They pitched advertising within Facebook applications before social ads existed on Facebook.
  • Convincing clients to allocate budget to social advertising was a major challenge.

"So we were making a lot of phone calls at the time. We didn't have any funding. We had basically a beta product."

This quote highlights the grassroots efforts in acquiring the first clients for Shift, emphasizing the lack of funding and reliance on a beta product.

Educating Clients on Social Advertising

  • Early days required educating clients on the value of advertising on social platforms.
  • Shift's value proposition evolved to one marketing platform for managing paid, owned, and earned media across all social networks.
  • Initially, clients were skeptical about advertising on social media, particularly on Facebook.

"But I think on day one we are trying to make it as simple as possible for people to understand."

This quote reflects the initial strategy of simplifying the explanation of social advertising's value to attract early clients.

Working with Major Social Networks

  • Shift was a launch partner with every major social network, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Instagram.
  • The partnership with these networks was seen as having a significant impact on the development of social advertising ecosystems.
  • These tech companies were supportive and moved quickly on initiatives, contrary to the stereotype of slow-moving big companies.

"We've been a launch partner with them. And the great thing about it has been twofold."

This quote signifies the importance of being a launch partner with major social networks and the benefits it brought to Shift.

Scaling Shift and Managing Growth

  • The scaling process involved cautious spending and headcount growth.
  • Advisors played a crucial role in guiding strategic investments for growth.
  • Founders must balance the fear of spending with the necessity of investing in long-term growth.

"I was almost scared of, scared of spending money, and I was scared of growing headcount."

This quote illustrates the initial trepidation towards spending and hiring during the scaling process and the subsequent realization of the need to invest for growth.

Importance of Mentorship for Startups

  • Mentors and advisors are deemed essential for guiding young startup founders and employees.
  • They provide perspective and advice on investment and growth strategies.

"Yeah, absolutely. Without a doubt. I have a ton of really just incredible advisors."

This quote underscores the value that the speaker places on having mentors and advisors in the journey of building and scaling a startup.## Importance of Advisors and Co-founders

  • Emphasizes the significance of having advisors and great co-founders for company success.
  • Advises against trying to reinvent the wheel and encourages learning from others.
  • Stresses the importance of company success over individual ego.
  • Highlights the need to be generous with equity to incentivize employees and advisors.

"But there's absolutely no reason to reinvent the wheel on a lot of this stuff."

This quote underscores the idea that new entrepreneurs should leverage existing knowledge and experience rather than trying to learn everything from scratch, which is time-consuming and potentially wasteful.

"The ego should be around making the company successful and making sure that your employees and investors do well."

The quote suggests that the focus should be on the collective success of the company and its stakeholders rather than on personal pride or ego.

Equity Sharing

  • Discusses the pitfalls of being too possessive over equity.
  • Advocates for making employees and advisors feel like owners to align interests.
  • Warns that having 100% of nothing is worthless if you don't have a strong support system.

"Yeah, absolutely. I think that so many people start, especially in the early days, they start sort of chasing the shiny object, thinking about what their equity could represent."

James Borow warns against the temptation to overvalue one's equity in the early stages, suggesting that it can lead to poor decision-making.

"And I've seen other people who end up having 100% of a company but don't really surround themselves with bright people, and 100% of nothing isn't really worth the bust at all."

This quote emphasizes that a large equity stake is meaningless without a competent team to build the company's value.

Fundraising and Investor Relations

  • Describes the fundraising process as both enjoyable and challenging.
  • Highlights the importance of having a network and organic introductions to investors.
  • Emphasizes learning about the business through the fundraising process.
  • Discusses the importance of sticking to one's vision despite investor questions.

"You never learn more about your business than going out and try to raise money."

James Borow points out that the process of seeking investment forces founders to deeply understand and articulate their business model and value proposition.

"We also have to make sure you stick to what you believe in, because you do in a lot of ways, get married to these investors..."

This quote highlights the long-term relationship with investors and the importance of ensuring their vision aligns with the company's vision.

Choosing the Right Investors

  • Advises caution when entering a funding round due to the long-term nature of investor relationships.
  • Warns against raising money just for the sake of it.
  • Stresses the importance of understanding the implications of investment terms and conditions.

"I also wouldn't raise money for the sake of raising money."

James Borow advises that raising capital should be a strategic decision, not just a milestone to achieve for the sake of publicity or validation.

"It's fun to get the TechCrunch article, but in a lot of ways it doesn't really matter."

The quote downplays the importance of media attention in fundraising, emphasizing the real impact on the business as more crucial.

The Acquisition by Brand Networks

  • Explains the reasons behind Shift's acquisition by Brand Networks.
  • Describes the complementary nature of Shift's paid social side and Brand Networks' organic content side.
  • Mentions the impressive performance and client base of Brand Networks.

"And the opportunity to join forces and really create this truly holistic platform has always been our goal."

James Borow articulates the strategic fit between Shift and Brand Networks, which led to the decision to sell, aligning with the goal of creating a comprehensive platform.## Acquisition Synergy and Investor Enthusiasm

  • The synergy between brand networks and Shift was a key factor in the acquisition.
  • The combined entity aimed to become the largest independent player in their space.
  • Investors were excited about the potential beyond just financial impact.
  • Lear Ventures and Rinkon Venture partners were highlighted as supportive investors.

"And I think as our investors learned about what brand networks plus shift could mean for this space in becoming pretty much the largest independent player, they all got really excited as well."

This quote emphasizes the positive reaction from investors upon understanding the strategic importance of the acquisition, which promised to create a significant presence in the industry.

Role Transition Post-Acquisition

  • Post-acquisition, the speaker transitioned from CEO to Chief Product Officer.
  • The change involved a loss of some level of control but was seen positively due to the partnership.
  • It allowed the speaker to focus more on product development rather than business operations like fundraising and HR.

"So it's been a great opportunity for me to really focus and to do the things I want to do on the product side."

The speaker expresses satisfaction with the new role, which provides an opportunity to concentrate on product development, an area of personal interest and importance for the company's growth.

Founder Focus and Team Building

  • Founders should hire competent people to manage different business aspects.
  • Bringing in a CFO and a Head of Product can significantly benefit the company.
  • Founders need to be self-aware and address their weaknesses by hiring the right people.

"So I was able to be a much better CEO as I surrounded myself with better people."

This quote highlights the importance of building a strong team to complement the founder's skills, which in turn enhances the overall leadership and performance of the company.

Personal Preferences and Tools

  • The speaker's favorite blog is Stratfor, a geopolitics blog.
  • "John Adams" by David McCullough is his favorite book for its historical and founder-related content.
  • Essential phone apps include Snapchat, Business Insider, and Product Hunt.

"Stratfor. It's a geopolitics blog. It's pretty fascinating."

The speaker shares Stratfor as a personal favorite, indicating an interest in geopolitics and the value found in the content of the blog.

Transparency in Leadership

  • Transparency with the team is crucial, especially during hard times.
  • Sharing challenges with the team allows them to prepare and decide if they want to stay.

"As a founder, you definitely tell them. Transparency is the key."

The speaker advocates for open communication within the company, stressing the importance of transparency as a leadership principle.

Future Plans for Shift Incorporated and Brand Networks

  • The goal is to build the brand networks platform into the largest social marketing platform.
  • The company plans to introduce new features and leverage a large engineering team to innovate quickly.
  • The speaker's personal ambition is to continue creating great products and companies.

"I think the goal is to continue building out the brand networks platform to be the largest marketing platform across social."

This quote outlines the strategic vision for the company post-acquisition, aiming to scale and dominate the social marketing platform space.

Acknowledgements and Resources

  • Thanks given to Clark Landry for facilitating the podcast episode.
  • Mention of resources and items discussed in the episode available on the podcast's blog.
  • Promotion of Vidar Law, a startup-friendly law firm with a structured fee system.

"And again, thank you so much to Clark Landry for making that happen."

The speaker expresses gratitude towards an individual who contributed to the success of the podcast episode, highlighting the importance of collaboration and support in the industry.

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