Next in Jake Millar’s ongoing Unfiltered series is Taboola’s Adam Singolda. Described by its founder and CEO Adam Singolda as a search engine in reverse, Taboola recommends digital content to web users. Here, the New York-based entrepreneur tells how he brought his idea to fruition.
JAKE: So, Adam, back to the beginning, how did Taboola come about?
ADAM: I couldn’t find anything to watch on television. I knew you could search
for things to watch, but what about all the other programmes I didn’t know existed and would probably really enjoy – how do I find those? That question evolved into my work for the past decade: how to create a personalised world for consumers, wherever they go. It’s been very fulfilling.
I didn’t think in terms of money and business – I was just passionate about the concept of finding information. Before search engines came along, it’d take you a long time to find things. I thought that the future would be a version of that – I thought that I’d never have enough time to search for things that I might like and never knew existed.
I’d been in the army for seven years, so I didn’t know how to analyse a business or an industry. I didn’t get a pay cheque from Taboola for a long time, but I wasn’t thinking about it as a job. I considered it more of a problem to solve – the personalisation problem.
My mum was the first to believe in me, and although she didn’t really understand what I meant by ‘personalising the future’, she introduced me to an angel investor who I was somehow able to convince to believe in me and this idea. He said, “You’re going to waste my money, but I think we’ll enjoy the process of working together.” And that’s how it all started.
JAKE: It’s not very often that I interview a billion-dollar founder who started in the Israeli army. What did you learn there that was useful?
ADAM: Being in the army is a unique experience because its [structure is] very flat. There are no VPs or chiefs of anything; I was there for seven years with pretty much no one getting fired or promoted. So there’s this humble experience of working with others who joined at 18 years old, believing that together, you can do anything, all in a relatively flat organisation.
When you think of a start-up organisation, it’s usually a small team that’s under-resourced and going after something huge. You have to be nimble and believe that you can do it, and in many ways, it reminds me of those days.
JAKE: Are your original angel investor and first employees from the army
still part of the business now?
ADAM: Yes, lots of them are. We’ve just had a 10-year celebration for our vice principal of research and development, who replaced me in the army when I left, then joined Taboola. And the original angel investor is still here. I think it’s unusual but very special.
JAKE: Has your vision of Taboola changed at all since day one?
ADAM: The vision has stayed the same. We’ve always said that we’re going to build something that will recommend you anything, but we’ve broadened the delivery of that vision.
In the first four years, we were just recommending videos, but we didn’t do a great job and it was very difficult. We then evolved to article recommendations, and have since evolved to recommending products and apps, plus we bought a company in the video space to double down on video recommendations. In many ways, we’re closing a circle.
If we do our job correctly, Taboola will be everywhere, but most people don’t know about us – they’ve used our service without realising it. When you click on the ‘You may also like…’ links at the bottom of a web page, that’s what we do. We have an idea that we can be everywhere: online, on your phone, on television.
JAKE: A business like Taboola has so much data, and there’s a lot of discussion going on about that at the moment, in terms of what should and shouldn’t be shared. How do these global discussions affect your work?
ADAM: We’re in a unique position because Taboola doesn’t really know you. You never log into Taboola – it’s an anonymous ID that helps us to understand what you might like to be recommended. We never know who you are, your age or gender like other companies, so the privacy conversations affect us much less.
JAKE: It’s funny that you say you’re not a consumer-facing brand because I was on Business Insider the other day and
saw the articles at the bottom of the page and realised how many of them
I’ve clicked on over the years. And then right in the top corner, there’s your name – it’s very cool.
ADAM: Yeah. We now reach 1.3 billion people every month. The average American sees Taboola two to three times a day, so we have a huge reach, but my guess is that nobody knows who we are besides publishers and media companies – although I think my mother knows what I’m doing now, because I told her!
See the full interview and more inspired stories of business brilliance free at: UNFILTERED.TV