Timehop’s unconventional journey to a 12x revenue jump

November 22, 2018

Timehop is perhaps best known as a nostalgia app that aggregates users’ photos and memories to make every day a “Throwback Thursday.” But that’s about to change as the company takes the wraps off Nimbus, a home-grown, in-house ad server and header-bidding solution that cuts out app-bloating SDKs and boost revenues. Our host and Chief Content Officer Peggy Anne Salz catches up with David Leviev, VP - Programmatic Product Development at Timehop, to talk about the tough journey and the smart decision to move from clunky waterfalls to lucrative in-app header bidding to monetize it. David also shares how having an ad server allows publishers to control their app destiny and reveals Timehop’s plans to set up Private Marketplaces (PMPs) with brands and trade desks, giving them priority access to advertise with users.Peggy: Hey. Hello, and welcome to Mobile Growth, the podcast series where frontline growth marketing experts share their insights and experiences so you can become a better mobile marketer. That's what it's all about here. And I'm your host, Peggy Anne Salz, from Mobile Groove, where I help my clients grow their revenues and audience reach through content marketing. And on my watch, this series will introduce you to the people who know how to drive growth. It's either because they themselves have apps and they are growth ninjas working behind the scenes, or it's because they understand the trials, tribulations of app marketers trying to grow their app or audience. In this case, it's kind of interesting because we have a little bit of both, we have David Leviev, he is VP, Programmatic Product Development at Timehop. David, first of all, welcome to Mobile Growth.

 

David: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

 

Peggy: So I mentioned that you're a little bit of both because in talking with you, it is kind of interesting because you've sort of seen it from both sides. You know what it takes to make it as a publisher because yes, you are an app publisher. But you're also gonna try and attempt, and I think very well, to understand the inefficiencies because you've seen it from that end. So let's just start off first of all with Timehop. Now, that's an app. That's your baby. That's what you do. Tell me about that first.

 

David: Yes. So, Timehop, Timehop has actually been around for quite some time. It's a social media app and what it does is it connects our users to their social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and so forth. And it really connects their "on this day" experience of years past. So, you're able to reminisce and kind of have a throwback Thursday everyday kind of experience when entering our app.

 

Peggy: So it's sort of like, I don't know, in a way sort of organized nostalgia in a way. It's picking out of the social networks, as I understand, sort of pulling it together, aggregating it all and saying, "Hey, this is what it was, you know, a year ago this day." Or, you know, whatever, right?

 

David: Exactly. Exactly. And our users like, absolutely love it, just because they go on the app and either they absolutely cringe at their past posts or pictures and they're just like, "I can't believe that was me just five years ago." Or they, you know, they have, you know, pictures of loved ones that they were able to reminisce and they thought they'd lost forever, and all of a sudden, they kind of resurfaces from the weeds. So, it's definitely an app that I'd highly recommend people to download, just because it does bring that kind of reminiscing nostalgic element back.

 

Peggy: I like the idea, David. I'm gonna have to actually check it out because, you know, you sort of wait for Facebook to, you know, they put it together, but they do it sporadically. And they tend to just pick what you've done there and I've done things elsewhere. So this is cool. I can bring together, you know, tweets, photos, statuses, and I can say this is it. I'm just curious, you know, as a potential downloader now for you, and user, how am I sharing it? Can I say I'm sharing it via Facebook or to those communities? I mean, I get it all together, how do I communicate it out?

 

David: So, yeah, we have an option to share directly on the app. So, if you guys...and we also have like these very fun and unique frames where we kind of give you an option to do even like a then and now type of feel. So, if there's a picture of you at like 12 years old, and then you'll just have an option to just like picture yourself there and then take a current photo and have it back to back. So, there's different elements to the app and we do allow to share, you know, back to the social media platforms, or even through messages, or any other platform that you're kind of familiar with. And, yeah, we just send it out as simple as just a tap.

 

Peggy: Well, that's good because I can be in your network so to speak, but I'm not limited to that. I can bring it back into my other networks. I could do it, I guess, you know, Facebook, Instagram, whatever. Whatever floats my boat, right?

 

David: Yes, exactly, exactly.

 

Peggy: Very cool. So, you've seen it from that end. I just like to understand because, you know, you're gonna be speaking at Mobile Growth events, which is awesome to have you at Mobile Growth summit, and telling us about how you understand what publishers go through. And that has also been the trigger for you to come up with a programmatic product in the first place. But I'd like to hear more about those struggles because I think that, you know, the sense of empathy, catharsis, you know, just been there, done that adds a lot of validity, adds a lot of interest to what you're going to be offering and launching soon. So, tell me about, you know, that long road.

 

David: Yeah, yeah, I mean, and it's definitely a road that we've been trekking through for the past year. So, a little bit of backstory, I guess, and I'll try to be as brief as possible. Timehop was looking to kind of just reinvigorate what we were doing internally, and we were also, to be completely transparent, we were running out of the funding that we were receiving from our investors to kind of keep going. So, we needed a new outlet and we needed to really understand what the next steps are gonna be, and that was a turn to programmatic, and a turn to digital advertising on, directly on to the app. So, they hired myself and my engineer, we both came from SSP. So with that, we kind of knew the intricacies and the nuances needed to effectively run an ad stack. So with that said, we were primarily working on desktop and like, in mobile web. So this in-app kind of feature was new to us, but we still understood, you know, what we needed to do in order to be efficient and effective and make money.

 

So with that said, my first call of action was to reach out to all of the contacts that I had in the past relationships and try to get them connected to Timehop, and Timehop being a premier top publisher in terms of the quality of our inventory, we had a lot of interest. A lot of the top big players, they really were eager and ready to get integrated and to receive our inventory. So I thought that was gonna be the hard part. That turned out to be the easy part. From what then I realized is that in-app was just a completely different beast in terms of integration, in terms of optimization, and in terms of just plugging in. So there's just like a handful of different mediation partners that you can really integrate with, but, and we tried.

 

And when we did, we noticed there were so many limitations. Things like a waterfall solution versus header bidding. I mean, we're in a world right now where header bidding is key and it brings transparency back to the publisher and it also allows for an agnostic really healthy auction to go to the best bidder. And it really kind of brings an equal atmosphere to all players involved, and when you don't have header bidding, and you have a waterfall solution, things start getting murky and then you have prioritization, and then you have, you know, kind of question marks around where or how your mediation partners are trafficking your inventory. So with that said, we understood that there were so many limitations in that part and a lot of the partners that wanted to work with us just really couldn't because the technology wasn't there.

 

So, we really had a few months to make a decision and that decision was to build our own proprietary ad server. So, in two weeks, our engineer just put something together. It was really just like a makeshift mock ad server, put together with band-aids, and love, and care...

 

Peggy: And duct tape on the way, yeah, I get it.

 

David: Exactly. And we really kind of just held our breath and just pressed go, and all of a sudden, we just noticed that our performance just skyrocketed. It was almost unbelievable to see how much potential there was left on the table. And when you give your inventory and you're allowing someone else to mediate that for you, they don't really prioritize you the way you would prioritize your own inventory. Like, it's like your baby. So, with that said, we were just like, spend resources and continue giving someone else, you know, our inventory so that they can traffic and do what we expect them to do. Or just really, you know, grab the bull by the horns and do it yourself. So that's the route we went and it really paid off dividends. We saw exponential growth in fill, exponential growth and CPM, and overall revenue just increased by over 250%. We went from a company that was in the red, drowning really, trying to stay above water but couldn't, to a company that is well-profitable. And so much so that we're now able to expand and really pivot to a new market.

 

Peggy: I was gonna say that because that's the point. I mean, I wrote a book about Apponomics about, oh, three, four years ago now. And the whole idea was, you know, if you can do it, you do it yourself. But at that point in time, certainly, four years ago, you just couldn't do it yourself. It was, you know, if you're a certain size, you'll be able to pull it off. And if you're not, you can't. And I guess what you're trying to do and what you're trying to say here is that you don't have to be that certain size. What you can do is you can use tech as an equalizer here, you know, level the playing field, do your own ad tech stack, figure it out. Did people come to you, I'm just wondering, David, and say, "This is great stuff. I wanna license it."? Or what was the idea, because you started out by sort of telling people just do it and benefit from it. But, you know, I guess their reaction was, "Well, that's great. I just can't build it". So, that's what puts you here or what?

 

David: Yeah, it's exactly that. I mean, I've been requested to be speaking at multiple conferences. And really my agenda, and I think we spoke about this earlier, was to educate publishers, you know, to try to take action and really kind of have this homegrown ad server on their own front so that they can have this insight on their data, on the users, on their performances, and all of a sudden have the control a that publisher should have, considering that it's their own inventory. But to your point, some publishers are either too small, where they can't afford the dev resources to either build it out themselves, or they don't really understand the nuances in advertising to do something so efficiently, or they're so big and there's so much bureaucracy that there is this hierarchy that needs to be approved on so many different levels, that it just never gets passed.

 

So the most efficient way for them to work is just to pass it off to somebody else to do. So, it's very interesting to see the two different levels of interest and how to kind of go about this. So, with that said, a lot of publishers just ended up asking for us to use our ad server for their publishing needs. Initially, that's not something that we ever even built our ad server to do. It was really just something that we wanted to do for ourselves just because, to be frank, we needed to otherwise we wouldn't survive. So, after, you know, the first publisher who came on board, we were just like, oh, this is interesting. Like it looks like we're doing something right. And then after the 17th publisher who's been asking to jump on board onto our ad server, we were like, wait, maybe we should start thinking about this, because if this is a product that is just not on the market in any capacity, and we're the only ones that really have it, maybe we should be that player who brings this agnostic header bidding solution out to the world.

 

Peggy: Well, on that note, David, we do have to go to break for just a moment. But listeners, don't go away because when we get back, we're gonna talk about what I can't wait to hear about, you know, what are the insights that emerge and surface when you are in control of your ad destiny? And when you can see what's going on behind the scenes, what are the actions you take? So, those are some of the questions we'll be asking David. As I said, don't go away. We'll be right back.

 

MGS: If you haven't already, be sure to check out the Mobile Growth global event series, where thousands of the world's top growth marketing experts come together to discover the latest in growth marketing innovation. We run events all around the world in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Berlin, Montreal, and more. And our candid panel discussions feature industry leaders including Facebook, Google, Uber, EA, and loads of other top-tier publishers. So, attend our lineup of intimate workshops and gain the in-demand skills you need to stay on top of your growth marketing game. Expand your professional network and build meaningful relationships in a fun, friendly publisher-first environment. When and where can you get in on the action? Well, just visit mobilegrowthsummit.com for a complete list of upcoming shows. And if you should decide to join us, and I hope that you will, then be sure to use our special promo code, MGSPODCAST30, for an additional 30% off your ticket order. Once again, that's MGSPODCAST30, all caps, no spaces, for 30% off of your order. We hope to see you there. I certainly hope to see you there. And please, enjoy the rest of our episode.

 

Peggy: And we're back to Mobile Growth, the podcast series of course, where frontline growth marketing experts share their insights, and that's what we're doing here with you, David, you're on the show. And as I said, the insights there, you know, I mean, it's transparent because you're doing in-app header bidding. You're in control of your own destiny to some extent, I mean, I won't say it's simple, I won't say it, publishers, you know, it's a walk in the park. But what were you impressed with when you started doing this for yourself? I mean, when you can finally see into everything, what hit you?

 

David: Yeah, I mean, I think the biggest benefit of, you know, rendering and running your own ad stack and your own ad server is that you kind of see the data. And we now receive these log-level data on every single auction. And the beauty about it is that you could start seeing trends, things that you never really had access to before considering that you never had the ability to see that transparency of how your traffic is been mitigated through third-party mediation partners or ad servers. So, with that said, we saw things like buyer behavior, buyer frequency, bidding frequency, bid values, things like that, things that we've never really had even any interest to inspecting into more. And once you start getting that data,s you start tinkering around. You start getting curious and creative, and what you do is you start doing A/B testing.

 

So, for example, if you have a certain buyer who's specifically targeting, you know, this user who lives in New York City for example, she's a female, she's a millennial, she's high-paying salary, she really has the demographic that the specific buyer typically likes to spend on. So you see the historical kind of bids that this buyer continuously spends on, and all of a sudden, you're thinking, "Why am I sending a specific floor, for example, a generic floor of $1 across all of our users, when really some of our users are more valuable to some buyers than others?" So that kind of got us thinking. And all of a sudden, we just started brainstorming, "Hey, why don't we make certain users worth a certain price point while other users are worth, you know, their own respective price point?" That way it'll be an even more efficient auction, so you don't have, you know, bids that are coming below the value, or, you know, you have this competition happening, but it doesn't really start at the base level or the CPM that it should be because you never had that insight before. So that was probably one of the most interesting kind of insights that we're seeing on buyer behavior, on things that we've never really had access to doing before.

 

Peggy: Makes perfect sense because we're all talking now about starting off at the very, very beginning. You know, it's great to do top of funnel things, but now, we're all talking about going deeper in the funnel, you know, and you want a certain high value audience from the get go. The spray and pray isn't really the thing. It was in the early days, but you really don't wanna be experimenting, I'll put it nicely, won't say wasting, experimenting so much early on. You wanna sort of kick it off with a good idea of the audience, a good idea of the value, a good idea of what money you can be making here. What is it you tell people when you go out on stage, you know, and you're looking out at the app publishers and some of them, you know, some, it's like 101, some of them are more progressed. I mean, what do you do to sort of get all of them on the same page to understand what's really going on here and how this impacts their bottom line?

 

David: Yeah, I think everyone really kind of understands, at least at this point, from my experience, everyone really understand the inefficiencies at the moment. However, I don't think everyone really understands that those inefficiencies don't have to exist. People kind of just relate back to the bigger players in this area, and they're just like, "Hey, man, you know, if this company can't do it, then what makes you think that I can do it? So, we're just gonna have to stand in line until, you know, something is bigger and better that comes out from these bigger players." But in reality, we'd like to try to think outside the box. So, on stage I kind of walk them through all the steps that it took, really for us to get where we are. And with that said, it kind of becomes like this aha moment or this epiphany moment for them. It's just like, "Yeah, I've been thinking this for the last, you know, six months. Why has this never been done? I'm so happy that someone's actually doing it now." And it kind of like invigorates them to say something to their hiring manager or whoever's above them to say something like, you know, "Hey, we should be doing this. I've been telling you we should be doing this. Let's start implementing it considering that other people are already doing it." So, it's less about educating the publishers on the inefficiencies, because they live through it, they literally go through reporting, they literally see the nuances that they have to do in order to kind of go through the motions of optimizing and getting the best [inaudible 00:18:17]. So that kind of information is already there for them. The information that they don't have, and what I'm trying to educate, is how to get past it and what is necessary for them to really be on the same page and how to kind of get their resolution in what they want.

 

Peggy: I mean, it sounds for me as a person who writes about apps, but doesn't actually have one that your programmatic product that you're about to launch, you know, tell me about that in just a moment, is, you know, is more of for like the middle, you know, because if you're really, really big, you built this, you know, three years ago maybe or two years ago, you know, if you're massive. But there's such a huge part of the app economy that needs to be like this and isn't and can't do it on their own resources. So, I'm seeing it as like a, you know, a middle to large company play. Or is it for even the smallest of app developers? Who's your audience?

 

David: Honestly, everyone.

 

Peggy: Everyone, okay.

 

David: We really wanna help all publishers alike. And to your point, you know, the bigger players, they believe that they started a few years ago. But from what I've noticed, and me being a publisher first, I've used their product, the majority of them are using legacy items. So, their product is really built around things that were, you know, necessary or relevant four or five years ago. And four or five years ago, the relevance was in desktop, the relevance was in mobile web, you know. In-app wasn't really that much of a thing, so, you see all this tech kind of built around a desktop kind of environment, but in reality what they needed to do is strip it down completely, bare bones, and build specifically for in-app. Because in-app, like I said, is a completely different beast. So, yes, there are some bigger players out there and yes, I've used them all. And no, I don't think that anyone really does it similarly to the way we do it in that respect. Because we were an apps-first, and because we needed to really optimize specifically for being in-app. So, bigger publishers and smaller publishers alike, they're all kind of listening in, you know, they're really kind of trying to figure out what the next steps are, and I think that they're becoming privy to the fact that the bigger players in this industry aren't necessarily the most efficient ones.

 

Peggy: So, how does it work when I engage with Timehop? I mean, you're going to be launching soon and we're very, very fortunate by accident, a happy coincidence, we're going live right around launch time, which is great. So, tell me about how that works. I mean, you have an offer out in the market, you know, I obviously get in touch with you. But, you know, after we say, "That's it, come on, I'm ready." Where does it go from there? I mean, how does it actually work? And what's your actual sort of like business model/pricing model? Because you're doing it for the good of the industry, but of course, you're gonna make your money. How does that work?

 

David: Yeah, I mean, the pricing model will probably be standard in whatever ad serving models you typically see. However, what we noticed is that we've built... So Nimbus is the name of our ad server. I don't know if I'm skipping ahead here. So Nimbus is the name of our ad server. And what we do is that we built this ad server so effectively, so efficiently that our costs to run the server are so small, that we're able to undercut the market by a lot. And that's really what we're trying to do. We're not greedy and we're not really trying to necessarily be, you know, the biggest, baddest ad server out there. But what we are doing is we wanna be the cleanest, most efficient, and most holistic mediation partner for every publisher who's interested. We want to run it in a way where everyone is happy at the end result. And we pretty much get paid out by the success based on our model. So, if Nimbus does well, then we get paid for it. And if Nimbus doesn't get well, we don't really get paid that much for it. So, it's a real win-win for everyone in play.

 

Peggy: And is there anything that you've sort of built in from your own experience with inefficiencies? Maybe some IP thrown in there additionally? So it's just that extra focus on the in-app mobile model and also, you know, the issues, the barriers that publishers come up against when they're trying to get the most out of their audience, out of their inventory.

 

David: I would think the biggest and most notable element to our ad server is that you do not require any SDK. For those of you who know, or who are listening in know the hurdles of what an SDK requires, considering, if you wanna have an equal auction opportunity, meaning the market really dictates how your inventory is sold, you're gonna need a few players to be bidding against. But with that said, every player that you implement, the Rubicons, the Googles, the A9s, they all require, or hope that you implement their SDK in this waterfall type of solution. Each SDK increases bloat, each SDK lives within the app, and each SDK requires to do the rendering. So, a lot of that is kind of intrusive, considering that, you know, you have someone else's technology living within your app and then receiving all the data and seeing all of the activity going on within your app. And what we do is that we connect all these big players, we connect all these SSPs, we connect all these DSPs via SDK-less solution. However, I understand that there are some publishers who aren't as big as, you know, the bigger names out there, who can't necessarily do rendering. So what we do is we teach our publishers how to render their own content, so they literally have control of all aspects, both the ad serving aspect of things and the rendering aspect of things. So, they don't have to require, you know, an account manager from a specific mediation platform to answer their questions regarding render rates, because everything is built and homegrown.

 

Peggy: You know, David, that sounds like a very interesting solution. I'd love to have you back again to maybe talk about that, or share some thoughts, or maybe even on our blog at mobilegrowthsummit.com, because I feel that there's going to be a lot of interest and also a lot of interest in learnings, watching your product when it hits the market, when you're working with app publishers and, you know, how you're addressing that. In the meantime, how would someone sort of stay up-to-date with you? You've got your launch, you can talk about your product, what it's called, again, properly, and, you know, just like where I can understand how I engage with you, David. How would that happen?

 

David: Yeah. If anyone out there is interested, you guys can go on our website. Like we said, it's gonna launch next week, but you can still look at it now. It's adsbynimbus.com. You can put in your contact information there. So, it's adsbynimbus.com, and yeah, so you guys can reach out to me there. Or you can email me, david@timehop.com if you guys have any questions or inquiries about, you know, both Timehop and Nimbus as an ad server.

 

Peggy: Excellent. And you're gonna be speaking at San Francisco I understand? Correct?

 

David: Yeah, I'll be there. I'll be there. I'm gonna have a time slot, so I'm gonna have a speech prepared for you guys. So if you're interested, stop on by.

 

Peggy: Perfect, and I'm gonna hit you up for some content as well, David, but in the meantime listeners, hey, thanks for listening to this episode of the Mobile Growth podcast. A quick reminder to visit mobilegrowthsummit.com for a complete list of our upcoming events and hopefully also, David, one of your blogs. No pressure, no pressure. And listeners, don't forget to use the very special promo code MGSPODCAST30 for 30% off of your order, and we hope to see you there. We encourage you to check out earlier episodes of the series by looking at mobilegrowthsummit.com, that's where they're posted, and on Soundcloud, and coming soon to more channels providing you even more ways to listen in. So watch for that, and we'll watch for you, and we'll see you soon.



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