Ad Tech CEO, Tom Coburn, Proves Every Entrepreneur’s Favorite Adage Once Again: Luck Favors the Prepared
When I meet with entrepreneurs, a common topic of discussion revolves around how many years of work, discouragement and course-shifting goes into becoming an “instant” success. One idea leads to another. Ten failures lead to a breakthrough. Last year’s hard luck story is this year’s brilliant coup. Take Jebbit, for example. The company runs a service that allows brands to build interactive experiences, such as quizzes and questionnaires, that collect information individuals voluntarily provide around their interests and preferences. This is known as first-party data, long the holy grail of digital marketing, and now made even more valuable by recent moves by Google and Apple around data privacy. Google announced in early 2021 that it would no longer support third-party cookies, which track user behavior around the web. A few months later, Apple gave users powerful new privacy protections that similarly weaken the ability of marketers to know what consumers are up to online.
For Jebbit cofounder Tom Coburn and his partners, however, the journey began not with a paradigm-shifting idea, but a challenge: As freshmen at Boston College, Coburn and his roommates set a goal of winning the BC’s business plan contest, which offered a $10,000 prize, before they graduated. As it turned out, they won the competition the following year, but not before churning through four other ideas including a medical device, athletic apparel and e-commerce concept. “We were all over the place,” Coburn recalls. “We just wanted to start a company.”
Well, not even that, at first. “When I got to BC, I was a bio major dead set on going to medical school,” he explains. “My roommates were all in the business school, and we were trying to find something we could all do together.” So, the group met two times a week at the library for two hours each time to brainstorm and develop ideas. In October of his sophomore year, Coburn pitched the idea of attaching questions to video ads across the web that registered users could get paid to answer. The group resoundingly rejected the idea but revived it when the March deadline loomed, and they hadn’t come up with a better option. “We threw it in on a whim, not expecting anything,” Coburn says. One of the contest judges, Peter Bell, a venture capitalist, showed interest and asked the trio to join a summer program run by his fund.
“That summer program changed my whole life,” Coburn recalls. “I was still fully set on going to med school; this was just something I was doing for fun on the side. But that summer I got totally hooked on the idea.” He eventually secured a leave of absence from BC while running the company from his dorm room — as well as a one-year deferral from Tufts Medical School, which had accepted him after his sophomore year.
But Coburn never returned to school, and Jebbit began its evolution. Right off the bat, the group’s advisors suggested scaling back the concept to a website just for college students. Coburn ran this first version of Jebbit for two and a half years and raised $2 million in seed capital.
A big setback and a slow pivot
Unfortunately, the business couldn’t grow under the triple burden of selling the idea to corporate clients, building the software and recruiting users. In 2013, they decided to scrap the website and transform their experience-building application into a software-as-a-service (SaaS) that brands could use themselves in their mobile apps. What Coburn thought would be an easy pivot took another two and a half years. “It was really difficult, feeling all the pain and seeing customer challenges and seeing the things that were hard for our team,” he recalls.
But once the transformation was complete, brands started signing up. By 2018, the company was generating revenue of more than $5 million and had raised more than $10 million in funding, a figure that has doubled by 2021. As data privacy becomes a growing concern around the world, Jebbit has continued to benefit. This year has been its best by far, Coburn says, with a huge uptick in inbound leads on the website leading to new deals. “A lot of people that we had talked to a year or two ago that hadn’t prioritized Jebbit yet are now calling us and saying, ‘hey, based on Google and Apple’s announcements, we have just made first-party data capture our top priorities for the year.”
Of course, as the market shifts, new competitors are bound to enter the fray, but Jebbit, with its false starts and pivots, has the advantage of time and experience. “We started building the core of the Builder in 2012, and for the first few years, we used it ourselves, building experience on our own site,” Coburn explains. “We made it possible to build amazing experiences quickly and easily, and that’s the value we bring to our customers. Many of our customers have told us that they’ve tested our competitors, and Jebbit is way more powerful and comprehensive in terms of what it enables them to do. Our differentiation comes from the actual product and building the experience. That is the value of our technologies.”
Now, the former pre-med student has no regrets, despite the wild ride, and is already paying forward with a summer program and venture fund exclusively for BC entrepreneurs . “I tell our team, ‘we have this great opportunity. We have these investors behind us; we have this ability to come in every day and build whatever we want and pivot in whatever direction we want.’
“Med school,” he concludes, “is always going to be there.”