Featured Founder: Nathan Hagen of Admiral
Welcome to our Featured Founder series, where you’ll meet startup founders from Tampa-St. Petersburg who are building and scaling their ventures to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. We interviewed Nathan Hagen, Co-Founder of Admiral, a revenue platform helping digital publishers grow by improving visitor relationships through adblock recovery, paid subscriptions, privacy consent, and more.
What were you doing previously and what inspired you to launch your company?
I think my answer to this question is very typical for many entrepreneurs, but I think the story behind how our team got together is really unique. The short answer is that I worked in advertising for a digital publisher, and when that opportunity ended, I saw an opportunity to take my experiences and share them in a way that wouldn't have been possible if I were doing anything other than starting a business. I think this is a common experience. Working at larger companies is rewarding, but often times its extremely difficult to substantively tackle new challenges that are on the horizon. And while joining an existing startup is a great opportunity to learn quickly and influence the direction of a product and team, there is already a problem, and hopefully a solution, that you'll be running at starting on day 1.
If you really want to test out an idea that has been stuck in your head like glue, and if you really want to make an impact, there isn't a better way to do that than to take some time off and really run at and invest in it by starting a business. That's where I was at and that's what I wanted to do. What I think is unique about my story, though, is that Admiral wasn't started by just me. Or me and a co-founder. Or even me and 2 co-founders. On day 1 of Admiral, we had 5 people in a room working towards addressing the problems we felt we were uniquely positioned to solve based on our experiences working on them, together, already. And this is a really important part of our story.
The entire founding team at Admiral, and actually almost all of our full-time employees for the first few years, were people we had worked with every day for years at Grooveshark, the company we all came from before starting Admiral. Grooveshark had a killer team, a very widely used consumer product, a strong brand, and a successful ad business. When it shut down in early 2015, leadership did a good job of helping people land on their feet while loose ends were tied up, but after hours, there were a few groups of us who would meet and talk about ways that we could keep working together in our next chapter. What interesting problems did we solve together that we knew other publishers were having? Within a month of our last paycheck at Grooveshark, Admiral had a name and a proven team ready to execute on a mission to bridge the gap between adblockers and publishers. We just had to build it and find customers. And that's kinda how it all started.
What pain point is your company solving? What gets you excited to go to work every day
We think most publishers are content creators first and technology companies second, and we provide a technology platform that helps them build their revenue streams through messaging or engagement. Our beachhead is adblock recovery, so that's where we usually start with our customers: we say, you're probably losing 20% of your revenue to people who have chosen not to see ads, and we'll help you engage with them about the value exchange that is necessary to support the content they're consuming. So we help them start a conversation that might be around whitelisting, or around paid ad-free passes, or something similar. Their total revenues will go up 10-15% or more. We usually have so much success with this that our customers ask if we can do the same thing with the rest of their audiences.
Personally, I want to make journalism sustainable. That's what inspires me the most about what we're doing. Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon have proven a model for this, called "subscriptions", but that's traditionally been a hard game for digital news media. Even for national brands like NYT, it hasn't been easy. And so, traditionally, businesses that depend on journalism are supported by advertising, and there are problems with this. Technical problems, ethical problems, money problems, privacy problems. All kind of problems. No reputable newspaper business would tell you they love that banner advertising is the backbone of their business because there are these problems. The incentives aren't great. Users can block ads, or have a diminished experience on the site and often don't see the content as valuable as it really is. Advertisers don't get explicit editorial control, but they do have too much power with regards to how users experience content on the page. And if a writer is getting paid, in part, according to how many clicks their article headlines get, what kind of headlines can we expect them to write? That's some of why I'm excited about doing my part to help digital publishers go beyond just advertising.
Reliable subscriptions I think are a key part of improving journalism in the next decade, and providing subscriptions in a way that works for publishers is not something most publishers are equipped to do well, if at all. That being said, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem. Advertising allows people to access content without respect to whether they can afford it. I think in a democratic society, advertising ought to exist where it can. But good, reliable, trustworthy, and impactful journalism costs money to create, and I think consumers will need to be educated about that in order for content creators to build more sustainable businesses. So we do much more than just subscriptions. We make it dead simple for them to start a conversation with their users about the value of their content, and if they can't pay for it with cash, and if they really don't want to see ads, we make it possible for them to do what they can by signing up for mailing lists, following on social, submitting new content, or through another engagement touchpoint. The important thing for us is giving publishers and users as many choices as possible so that they can build the best and most sustainable and lasting relationships with each other.
Name the biggest challenge you faced in the process of launching the company. How did you overcome it?
While starting Admiral has been one of the most rewarding and exciting things I've done in my life, it has come with a lot of challenges. Realistically, the biggest challenge was the financial crunch in the first year before we raised money and were able to pay a salary. I had started Admiral after working at another startup before it--and I wasn't working there because of the money. I had some savings, but I wasn't planning to not take a paycheck when the opportunity to start Admiral arose. I was a young founder--I think, 23 or 24. I put most of the money into the company that I had saved up, and spent about 6 months driving for Uber after work to pay rent. I'd be in our tiny office until 9pm and then out driving drunk kids around Gainesville until 3-4 am a few days a week. I enjoyed it, but it wasn't sustainable and honestly dangerous in a couple of ways. I gave up an apartment that I really loved and found a dirt cheap month-to-month situation with a friend. Everything in my life was month-to-month, for a long time. I don't recall ever taking a vacation, and I didn't see my family down here in Tampa much that year.
At the time, I didn't have a spouse to lean on financially. I didn't keep another day-job, and I had bills to pay. I got really good at finding events with free food. I didn't have any breathing room until we had a few opportunities to build MVPs for a couple of other startups in our network. We wouldn't have been able to make it to our seed round without doing those projects. We used that money for some early salaries, which is what ultimately got us over the hump to the point that we all knew we could stick it out until we were able to raise money. I really believed in what we were doing, and the team we had and gave everything I could.
We eventually went on to raise $2.5M in our Seed round. But it's hard to build your own thing when you're also building someone else's thing, and it's hard to imagine being able to make the choices and sacrifices I made then again as I get older. I also think a lot of those challenges are normal and an important part of an entrepreneurial story. And it was a good time, really. I had the privilege of a family I knew I could fall back on if things became dire, and the flexibility of being an ambitious 20-something software engineer in a good economy. No kids or mortgage. Good health. My rent was never more than $450/mo. I was supremely privileged. There have been a ton of other challenges we've faced. Having a remote team. Raising money. Not getting enough traction when we really needed it. Shifting from being product-focused to customer-focused. Unexpectedly and impossibly long sales cycle for important customers. Hiring high-need employees is a challenge. Company culture and morale. Marketing to cost-centers. But I want to highlight the financial barrier to entry because I think it's really important for our community specifically to talk and think about how difficult it is, logistically, to start a company. If you don't live downtown, how are you connecting with the community here? If you can't afford a reliable car in Tampa, how can you talk about starting a business? If you have a family to support, how can you take the risk of entrepreneurship responsibly? What if you don't have a family to support financially, but you also don't have a family to financially fall back on? If you don't run in wealthy circles already, how do you connect with investors or other founders? How do you pay for health insurance? Tough questions that we need to help our community find answers for as we build an inclusive, diverse, and successful entrepreneurial space here in Tampa.
Where do you see your company headed next?
Admiral's future lies in the relationships between our publishers and their audiences. We truly think that the future of digital publishing will require publishers to take a more individualized and flexible approach to exchange value with users who come to their site. Not just with content recommendations or conversion optimizations, but really building an understanding that the user is coming to a site, or a network of sites, because the content they're getting is valuable and worth coming back for and supporting. It's also about ensuring that users can still get access to all the content they could need without being inconvenienced.
To this end, this year we're rolling out and expanding our multi-site subscription business, which allows publishers to let users subscribe to multiple properties that they own, or share subscribers with other related publishers. We're also investing in improving our targeting so that its easier for publishers to engage with different types of users in ways that make the most sense and get the most out of each type of user. On top of all that, we just want to continue to offer the widest range of value exchange mediums and features that exist in our market. So far we've done great, but our customers expect the best, and we aim to deliver.
Give us a tactical piece of advice that you'd share with another founder just starting out.
Love your team. Be an evangelist for them. An idea is useless without an effective team to execute on it. First, find (a) co-founder(s) that you trust and would commit the next 5+ years of your professional life to. Next, get to know people who have skills you know you'll need, and who you know will be great for your team, and who will stick with you through the ups and downs of building a company. These things are not easy to find but they're essential and you can't take them for granted. A good team is a rare thing. Make sure they know that and use that to set a high bar for responsibility and excellence. If your team feels like they can do anything, they might just be able to.