Blockboard: Matt Wasserlauf

Audio Description

Matt Wasserlauf is known as a pioneer of video advertising. He's worked in media for three decades and was at the forefront of online advertising back when we called the internet "the information super-highway." In 2019, he founded Blockboard, a video accountability company that uses blockchain technology to solve for the "black box" of digital ads. Matt shares his insights, experience, and advice for people who want to start their own company.


This transcript has been generated using an AI tool.

00:00 - 00:18

I vividly remember turning on my computer at these agencies, and here I am talking about streaming video. Give me your money, give me your ads. And it wouldn't work. They would look at me like I had two heads, you know, why would I buy this if it doesn't even work on your computer?

00:19 - 01:18

Matt Wasserlauf is a pioneer in advertising technology. He's worked in media for three decades and was at the forefront of online advertising back when we called the Internet the information superhighway. He has a keen eye for spotting and capitalizing on trends from video ads to streaming to blockchain technology. In 2019, after recognizing the need for more transparency in ads, he founded Blockboard, which uses blockchain to provide important data to advertisers in real time. Hi everyone and welcome to the inflection point where we talk to entrepreneurs, business leaders and innovators about their journey and the make or break moments of their career. I'm your host, Bryan Haloossim, senior managing director at Bernstein. So, Matt, I want to welcome you to the inflection point. I'm very excited to have this conversation with you.

01:18 - 01:19

Thanks, Brian. Excited to be here.

01:20 - 01:30

So, Matt, to kick us off, why don't you tell us a little bit about your background. We're going to get into your business and all of that. But where you grew up and sort of how this all started for you.

01:31 - 02:10

Sure. I'm a marlboro New Jersey kid who grew up in Monmouth County, New Jersey. My parents who are still with us, my brother, younger brother, two years younger than I am, became a prominent orthopedic surgeon. I was always the other one, to be frank. Even though I was the older brother, I was always out because I would show up at these family reunions and, you know, the grandparent would be like, Are you the doctor? And I'm like, No, I'm the other one. I'm the other one. So that became my my thing. But I'm just remembering, you know, the in the mid-nineties, there was a show called The 30 something Tuesday. You don't like Susanna, but you just admit that.

02:10 - 02:13

You think this is some kind of conspiracy against your girlfriend.

02:13 - 02:51

The season finale of Thirtysomething. I love the show. It was about two guys who started an agency that once the creative one's the business. And I saw these two people and the business guy. I can't remember his name. It's so long ago, but. Michael. That was me. I saw me in that man and I said, you know, I think this is what I want to do. I want to go into advertising. So I went to Indiana University undergrad, studied marketing, and they have a very good undergraduate business school. And off I went. I just got excited about working in the world of advertising.

02:51 - 03:31

Matt Almost every business owner I've spoken to knew that they were going to run a business or start something on their own rather than maybe going down an institutional track or something a little bit different. When did you know that for yourself? Just to let you know for me. One funny story many, many moons ago when we were kids, I come from a basketball background, so we were training young kids and then all of a sudden we decided we would charge them for it. And then it became like a big camp. And never forget, my father told my mom, you know, he's never going to be a lawyer. So anyway, tell me a little bit about about about what that look like for you.

03:31 - 04:07

Yeah. I mean, you know, in that show 30 something, these were two guys who started their own thing. And for some reason, that resonated with me. You know, I saw these guys take risks trying to support families. And I understood that with starting anything, you know, there are those risks. So I would say from a teenager, from a teenager, I had that bugging me. My father also went off and started his own car leasing company. So I had in a role model somebody who I can relate to, obviously. So I would say it was always within me.

04:07 - 05:04

Now, in the media industry, it's much harder to find that niche. It was only until I was working at the Warner Brothers Studio when I was applying to business school that they brought us all to Burbank and they wanted to show us into their labs. They actually have labs out there at Warner Brothers and they started digitizing friends. Our big show, our big hit show, and I remember vividly the guy clicking on Jennifer Aniston's sweater and up launched this pop up website to buy the sweater. And I my eggplant, I was blown away by this. And I said then and there, I got to figure this out. I got to get into this. And I was getting well paid. I was working on some of the best TV programming in the world. Yes, that was an inflection point for me because I knew this was coming and I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

05:04 - 05:24

So, Matt, another story that I really love about you is the story of how you got into the University of Chicago. And I was wondering if you could tell it, because every entrepreneur that I have interviewed, you know, there's something about them. There's some edge they have. And I think this tells a great story. So if you don't mind.

05:25 - 06:13

Yeah, right. It's my it's my favorite story of my life. So I appreciate it. I would say, wait, was that 25 or 30 years ago I was working for Warner Brothers, Time Warner and I felt compelled to go to business school. I always did. I always knew I wanted to and I didn't know how good a school I could get into. But I was in Chicago working for Warner Brothers as a regional rep, and the two schools that I most wanted to get into were Northwestern or University of Chicago. They both had great reputations and I applied to both. But the school that actually was able to offer me a weekend program where I was traveling during the week and they knew I could attend was University of Chicago.

06:13 - 06:34

So I was really determined to get into that school. In particular. I applied once, I applied twice, you know, and I knew full well my my grades were not probably on the standard of the University of Chicago, but I kept applying and I got rejected. They got rejected once. I got rejected twice.

06:34 - 07:04

I know in my essays to the school, I really appealed on the basis of my experience. I felt like I was working at the best Hollywood studio in the world, so I really focused on my experience at the Warner Brothers Studio. I thought I could bring that to what is more of a financially based school. And I got rejected a third time and I tried not to get too down on myself, but I was still steeled and determined to get in there somehow, some way.

07:04 - 07:34

And at that time there was some press coming out and something called emotional intelligence. There was a book written about it. All of a sudden I saw IQ all over the place. I saw it on Time magazine. I read the article aloud. I saw it in The Times and I saw it on the Oprah show. So I knew there was something to this. And I read as much as I could about emotional intelligence. And I realized this is something I have I have emotional. And I didn't necessarily think there was a lot of it at the University of Chicago.

07:34 - 08:12

So I started writing and I wrote to the dean of the business school that here is something I possess. I use it in my experience at the studio. I want to bring it to your classroom. I actually got rejected one more time and I remember putting in one more letter to the Dean. Dean Hamada was his name. I called his office to say, at least give me a chance to talk to you about this. And I think I probably called one or two months, got to know his assistant, and she finally got back to me. She called me. She said, Not me.

08:12 - 08:42

Dean Hamada on Friday at 12:00 and to Hyde Park. I went. I remember sitting in his conference room or his reception area for a long time, felt like hours. And she finally she finally ushered me into his room. Dana might have sat there. He actually had the copy of the Time magazine I had sent him and slapped it on the table and he said, AQ guy.

08:42 - 09:25

I said, Yeah. I said, Thank you for taking the time with me. He even pulled out my resume. He was looking up and down my resume. He said, Listen, your grades are a little below our standard here at the school. And I said, I stop. I said, I know, I know. I said, But I'm here to appeal to you on the basis of my emotional intelligence. I want to bring my IQ to your classroom. And he stopped. I know he took one last breath and he said, okay, send in your registration check for Jan. I said, Don, and that was my story. I got in. It took me a few years and a lot of rejection, but I got into the school.

09:25 - 10:03

I love it. I love it. You know, you have to do anything you can to separate yourself from everybody else. By the way, I have a terrible story. My essay was a poem. Wait. Wait till I share that with you one day. But I think they let me in because they felt sorry for me. So, look, you broke down a door and got yourself in, and it looks like you've done the same thing in advertising, digital advertising, because you started really early. In fact, you've been called a pioneer in that space. And I want to know how you broke in that way, how you broke into that industry and how that got started.

10:03 - 10:54

Thank you, Brian. Yeah, I mean, it was very similar in that way. I think that took as much perseverance, if not more, because I had to do a lot more. There were a lot more people to convince than just one d of a business school. In this case, I was running up and down Madison Avenue talking to the leaders of the advertising industry that this great thing called TV advertising was about to start changing. And here's this new thing, streaming video. So a lot of people to convince a lot of years where it was just starting to take hold. It felt like video was always on the way. I know we joke about mobile. I remember everyone saying this is going to be the year of mobile. I remember personal experience of that video back in the late nineties and early 2000.

10:54 - 11:28

So it just took a lot of a lot of education, a lot of politicking, a lot of hand-holding. But I transitioned out of TV, so I felt like I was the right person because I had been one of them. And I can talk in their language. I can talk and negotiate in a way that they were comfortable with. So that's how that's how I worked, the perseverance. I mean, those were long years of a lot of running up and down the city streets.

11:28 - 12:01

You know, I vividly remember turning on my computer at these agencies, and here I am talking about streaming video. Give me your money, give me your ads. And it wouldn't work. They would look at me like I had two heads, you know, why would I buy this if it doesn't even work on your computer? So it was a it was you know, those were the days of the 56 K modem trying to push large video files through those pipes. So it just took lots and lots and lots of perseverance.

12:02 - 12:28

Yeah. And Matt, you started your career in TV advertising and you alluded to it. Know, you worked on shows like Friends, E.R. Survivor. But then you you took that to another level, creating what was your first real big company. And you are a serial entrepreneur. So do you mind first taking a step back and talking about your company number one, and then we're going to get into what you're doing doing today shortly.

12:29 - 13:04

Great. Yeah. So Broadband Enterprises was my company, number one, 2004. I just thought the timing was perfect because the largest advertisers that I was working with in TV were starting to say, Hey, what's this streaming video thing? And they were making motions about starting to get involved in the upfront, which is that big fancy term for the spring when all the big TV networks put their new shows out there for for the buyers.

13:04 - 13:50

So those conversations started to frost in 2004, and that's when I set my sign in the ground. My stake in the ground started broadband enterprises to really be the Tiffany network of digital video. And and I did get the timing right that was my first big advertiser was Procter and Gamble in 2004. They gave me their first video upfront and off we went. We built a great company. We built great technology, really all in conversation with the largest marketer in the world. So I felt very fortunate to have nailed the timing with my first company.

13:51 - 14:26

That's great. And so you exit that company and you end up creating Blockboard. And one of the things that got me excited about this dialogue is I've had first experience through my wife's company of dealing with the challenges, of looking at the efficacy of advertising, trying to track it, trying to understand it. So maybe you could take a little bit of a deeper dive into what light went off where you said, there's a problem and I want to solve it, right?

14:26 - 15:00

Yeah. You know, as the earliest pioneer in the digital video advertising space, I've really seen the market grow up from zero to what today is a $50 billion marketplace through, you know, that front row seat that I've had, you know, I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly. And, you know, the good was as we started to develop scale and audience across digital video and computers and laptops, then iPads and today phones, that scale has grown enormously.

15:00 - 15:27

And the biggest marketers in the world have really not went from dipping their toe in the pool to jumping full bore into the pool. And and today we have what's becoming a fast maturing marketplace. I remember in those days thinking about the TV industry, it was a $70 billion industry felt like forever. And today we're almost there. We're almost as big as the linear TV industry is.

15:27 - 16:11

So having seen the industry grow and all those wonderful things that happened in its inception, I've seen some bad things happen over the last five or ten years and I don't mean to throw mud on this thing, but what started to tip in the early tens were programmatic. We automated this stuff, we took the humans out, know when I was walking out on the streets trying to sell digital video advertising, it was mainly it was my team. It was it was people. It was a people based business, much like television was. That's how I taught. That's how I was taught. That's how I learned the media business through handshakes and contracts.

16:12 - 16:35

What we've done over the last ten years is we've automated everything, taking the human element out, even the relationship has been removed. We're doing all of our deals with hands on keyboard and we don't necessarily know what's really happening under the hood. And what that has done is it's allowed for bad actors to enter the fray.

16:36 - 17:24

And what has further exacerbated that problem is the black box. So when I use the term black box, what I'm trying to say is we have no idea what's going on. When we push, sell or push return and that ad gets delivered, we don't know where it's going. We don't know who it's hitting, we don't know how it's performing because these black boxes are what the biggest companies in the digital video advertising space are operating with Facebook, YouTube. You know, there are programmatic companies called Trade Desk that are doing this all in a black box. So, one, we've removed the human element out of this, too. We're operating in a black box.

17:24 - 17:50

And now, as our industry really has grown exponentially over the last number of years, more and more of those ads are not being accounted for. We don't know what is going on. And so that is the problem that I'm working to solve today, and I'm excited about it. Having been an early pioneer and knowing what the potential of this marketplace could be, I'm excited about helping fix those problems.

17:51 - 18:06

So I'm going to put you on the spot mat. Give me an example of a situation where a company pays for that advertising click send and how Blockboard is solving their problem.

18:07 - 18:59

The inspiration for my starting blackboard was on a Papa John's campaign. Papa John's was being run out of an agency. I'm recommending the agency. I was very close with the guy that ran the media there. They picked the top video suppliers to run their ads. The top of the list, YouTube. At that time, you know, Yahoo! Was big. All the biggest players and programmatic distribution platforms were on this plan. It was probably ten or 15 deep, as was I. And the goal of the campaign was branding. And this time Papa John was no longer with Papa John's was the face of the company. Peyton Manning was in the commercial pizza maker playmaker. I can't believe I waited 30 years. But Frieda was on a feed. Took me 22 years. Make it to the NFL. Ingredients, better pizza, better football. Alphajax.

18:59 - 19:47

And those ads we were tasked with running and delivering to drive for Papa John's plan. They weren't necessarily analyzing sales, at least not yet. This is about five or six years ago. And lo and behold, we're probably a month into the campaign and the KPI, the key performance index changed because sales were tough, times were tough. They wanted to meet the main KPI sales. They wanted to see pizzas sold. And we were operating not only to drive the brand for Papa John's, but we also were making sure that it was running to the intended targets at the intended times. I know we targeted mealtimes. We were heavy in sports. That's what they liked.

19:48 - 20:14

Across Digital Video, I got a call on a Saturday from the head of media at this agency and I was alarmed. They never get Saturday phone calls from my clients and he was pissed. He said, Why did I just get a report that says you sold 8000 pizza orders and no one on my plan got any sales?

20:14 - 20:55

I said, that sounds like a great thing and it sounds like a great problem, you know? Why are you calling me on a Saturday? To tell me that I sold all those pizzas? Why aren't you calling the 15 other providers? Well, I have to answer for this. I have to talk to the client, and they answer that. You sold all those pizzas, and I put all those other companies on the plan and they didn't sell on pizza. This was a marked memory and indelible memory. And I knew when I started my next company I was going to fix this problem. So that's that's the story.

20:55 - 21:05

That is a great example now. Blockboard is using blockchain technology to do that. Can you give us a little understanding of how that works?

21:05 - 21:45

So we had that when we're consulting the company. I turned to my CTO and co-founder and I said. How can we use blockchain, which is a public ledger, to shine a light on how video is distributed? And we did research. We chose a etherium. Of all the systems on the blockchain, everyone knows Bitcoin and there's a thousand others. We chose Etherium because it was the easiest to build on. It was just a more of an open system that was easier to construct with.

21:45 - 22:16

And so there we went resetting, restructuring the entire video ecosystem, starting with the ad server to the DSP, to the exchange, to the SSP, to the verification company, to the Validations. I mean, there are so many pieces of this ecosystem. We went about rebuilding all of those elements on the blockchain, and that is what Blockboard is.

22:16 - 22:22

And what's next? Mat for Blockboard? Where are you guys right now and what's the next big step for the company?

22:22 - 23:20

So we are all getting excited about a big upfront event that we're dealing with, calling it up next to showcase our platform and the success and our case studies to Madison Avenue and the world, because we're doing something that no one in the world is doing and we're excited about. So Be Upfront is next for us. We're growing our team. We're writing a lot of new business. We're on a very strong run rate right now, revenue run rate, which is exciting. And those marketers that gave us that chance are all telling us this is working in a way we've never seen work in the industry, and we know we're on to something. We're beating the biggest video distribution companies in the world with valuations that range from tens of billions to trillions. And so we're excited about that. So that's that's what's next.

23:20 - 23:28

Yeah. And you're doing this with some really well-known brands. You were sharing some of the names with me prior. It's pretty exciting.

23:29 - 23:46

Yes. Yes. We're excited about the work we're doing for some of the biggest brands in the world to play Dexcom, Henkel, 8:00 Coffee, or some of our early clients that have seen the success and the results and are doubling down. So it's an exciting time for our little company.

23:47 - 23:47


23:47 - 24:25

So Matt, I think we've clearly set the stage that you have done some pretty amazing things with with company number one and now with with Blockboard. I think a lot of our audience wants to learn a little bit more about what you've learned along your journey. Not many people have been through starting multiple companies, exiting a company, getting into a very exciting aspect of technology with regard to blockchain. So what have you learned along the way? What were the tough lessons? Right, where you where you failed and it fueled you? Because I don't see you as being someone that lets things slow them down. So let's focus on that.

24:25 - 24:46

Okay. You know, one of the better things I did, I transitioned from TV, the video, but I actually went to a startup that failed in the early 2000. It was called The Feed Room. We had a good run. I was there for four years and that taught me a lot of the things that I needed to know as I went about building my own companies.

24:47 - 25:39

So when I talked to young people who all want to get in and start their own thing, I think it is important to get out there, get some experience, fall down, get up, you know, fail. You know, you learn as we always hear, you learn the most in your failures. And I and I did. You know, I think maybe the company was a little too early, so the timing wasn't necessarily right. But we you know, we I saw a lot of spending that I felt wasn't necessary. And I didn't see an emphasis on sales that I knew I was going to bring to my company. So those are those are the types of experiences that helped me as I was setting about going out on my own. So that's that's that's one of many experiences and failures that helped me as I built my company.

25:39 - 26:06

That's great. Well, Matt, I think that this conversation, we might have to continue it to see how the the growth of of Blockboard manifests and what that's going to look like in the future. I want to thank you for spending the time that that you did with with me today. And we look forward to tracking and watching, you know, the changes. As we all know, companies change to grow. So we really appreciate your time.

26:07 - 26:10

It's awesome. Thank you, Brian. This is really this was terrific. Thank you for having.

26:13 - 26:29

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