Startup Stories: nRelate’s co-founder on his startup’s journey to acquisition by web giant Ask.com
Editor’s Note: This is a Q&A series that features entrepreneurs and leaders who have successfully guided their startups to maturity. It is meant to complement StartUp Beat’s coverage of early-stage startups and an effort to provide further insight into the experiences of entrepreneurs.
nRelate provides free tools for online publishers to help increase traffic and revenues. Its first product, a ‘related content’ plugin, analyzes the current page and suggests other relevant articles from the publisher’s own site, their partners, or content marketers. The company was acquired by Ask.com over the summer for an undisclosed sum.
nRelate was founded in 2009 by Neil Mody and Oliver Wellington.
Neil Mody: nRelate is actually my first venture. We just had our three-year anniversary this past July. In July 2009, we quit everything we were working on to work on nRelate full-time.
I went to school here in New York, pretty much for my entire educational career focusing primarily on statistics, computer science, and philosophy. I ended up working at a consulting company early in my career, but I’m a reader at heart—my apartment is littered with books and most of my free time goes to reading.
Given I consume content non-stop, it was natural for me to get into the space. A few years ago I was thinking about where this space—content—was on the Internet, and my friends and I were not really impressed with what kind of recommendations were given on sites. It all started from there.
SUB: What prompted you to start nRelate in the first place?
Mody: Well that was just it in fact. When I was looking for related content, I’d see some stuff I’d like but it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, and I’d go back to Google and search more. I found that the results I got would send me back to the same site I was just on.
So in my mind, the system felt broken. I felt that perhaps we could build software that really helps the publisher connect the content they have with the readers that are most interested in that given topic.
In typical startup fashion, we started working nights and weekends on a solution. And when we found that our ideas really resonated with our test users, we knew it was time to quit our day jobs to start nRelate.
SUB: Was there a point at which you knew nRelate would hit it big?
Mody: We knew we were onto something when we started to get rapid traction from the blogosphere–they were signing up for our product with great interest. We were very thoughtful in our approach and really worked with these bloggers and small publishers to get a better understanding of their needs. Then, we built our product around that very feedback.
As a result, our core publisher network grew quickly and sites were recommending our platform to their peers. We started to see 100 new publisher sign-ups a day, which showed us the positive traction we were looking for.
SUB: Was there a ‘tipping point’ when nRelate really picked up steam and where it started growing exponentially?
Mody: There wasn’t a tipping point per se, but just non-stop growth. When we started seeing our software on sites when we, personally, were just casually browsing the web, that is when we knew we made it.
SUB: What were the first steps you took to establishing nRelate?
Mody: Well besides all the legal and accounting type things, we started by building a prototype and speaking with both online readers and bloggers we respected. We were skeptical that we would be able to get enough feedback, but once people saw how committed we were and why we thought this was important, a great number of people contributed and were overwhelmingly positive and supportive.
SUB: If you had it to do over again, what would the first concrete step to establishing nRelate have been?
Mody: Well I definitely learned the lesson for why being diligent with the bookkeeping from day one is important. Besides that, I think getting started faster is important. Like I mentioned earlier, we worked for a few months nights and weekends, I wish now we just trusted our gut instincts even sooner.
SUB: What were the most significant obstacles to growing nRelate to maturity?
Mody: The most significant obstacle was creating awareness. We needed to make publishers aware of our offering and value proposition. Similarly, we really needed to hone the marketing strategy and message to understand marketers’ needs and ultimately what our platform could do for them.
SUB: What kinds of outside funding did you raise?
Mody: nRelate raised $500K in Angel funding and was a part of the Mayor Bloomberg’s incubator program. nRelate was acquired by Ask.com in July 2012.
SUB: What was the metric/milestone that indicated to you that nRelate had moved past startup stage?
Mody: The milestone would definitely be interest from Ask.com to acquire nRelate, and ultimately acquiring us this past July. To have an established technology company in the space see and understand our value was big validation, and they wanted to help us to continue to grow our product base with the right resources. That is a startup’s dream.
SUB: What were the most important lessons you learned about entrepreneurship while building nRelate?
Mody: I have two pieces of advice: 1.) Start your company as soon as you can once you’ve validated your idea. If you’ve been thinking about it, every day that goes by is a day that’s lost. 2.) Be patient once you start. It takes a while and you must be ready for the long haul.
You need to have perseverance; any good startup story takes a while to build. We always hear these overnight success stories, but they are rare. Good things take a long time to build, and we still believe we have a better product in us. We have been at this only three full years.
Neil Mody’s nRelate Bio:
A former tech consultant and owner of a consulting practice, Neil knows all too well what it means to work long productive hours. Neil manages the tech while also bringing the business to the next level. With monthly impressions of well over one billion and three plugins released, Neil is constantly working to ensure that we continue to push the technological envelope and deliver high quality results-driven software.
Nine years’ experience, one year nRelate, three years with McKinsey & Company, five years independent software consulting. M.S. Information Systems, New York University, M.A. Philosophy, Columbia University, B.S. Statistics and Information Systems, New York University.