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Ruling the world

Written by Josh Russell on Wednesday, 05 December 2012. Posted in Scaling up, Interviews

With offices across three continents, it’s fair to say that Unruly Media is fast becoming a global success story

Ruling the world

Unruly Media is taking the world by storm. The video advertising innovator has quickly become one of the UK’s fastest growing tech companies, recently ranked tenth on the 2012 Sunday Times Hiscox Tech Track 100. Co-founder Sarah Wood is also no stranger to accolades. Last year she netted the coveted UK Female Entrepreneur of the Year award at the Fast Growth Business Awards and was also named one of Inc. Magazine’s 15 Women to Watch in Tech in 2012. But what is it that has made her one of the UK’s hottest tech faces?

“I’ve always been keen to learn new stuff and I’m really interested in new ideas and making stuff happen,” says Wood. When she was a child, it was rare for her not to be involved in some sort of business, whether that was walking a pack of neighbourhood dogs, babysitting in the evenings or using her weekends to wash cars. “I’ve always enjoyed working and I’ve always enjoyed ideas and being creative,” she explains. But, while her co-founders Scott Button and Matthew Cooke could often be found fiddling with their Acorn Computers and Commodore 64s in their youth, Wood has always been a little less tech-obsessed. “Technology is interesting for what it can help us do, rather than as an end in itself,” she says.

Something that has formed a large part of Wood’s life is academia. In total, the PhD holder spent 10 years in higher education studying literature, and has subsequently dedicated herself to giving lectures and passing her knowledge on to others. “Academia was great because it gave me the freedom to come up with new ideas and the platform to get those ideas heard,” she says. “That’s not to mention the peer group and the student group, which help develop those ideas further.” It was also academia that introduced her to Button; she met her future husband and co-founder when the two of them were studying for their bachelor’s degrees at the University of Cambridge. These elements would both become vital in the Unruly journey.

“Having high integrity co-founders and having co-founders who you trust is so important,” she says. Without a strong relationship and trust between partners, she feels success will always be hard to come by. “Starting up a business is like bringing up a family and the ‘parents’ need to be aligned in terms of values and a sense of trajectory.”

Example of content that has used Unruly’s platform

After gaining her PhD, it wasn’t long before Wood was lecturing at the University of Sussex and, although she enjoyed her time there, she found she wanted more. “Ultimately, the impact you can have in academia is quite limited,” she relates. “You know that it’s time to move on when in the evenings, rather than thinking about literature, you’re thinking about the latest business idea.” At the time, Button had been the CEO of ad serving and online analytics firm Connextra. While there he met Cooke, who held a senior position at the company, and he led the firm to its trade sale in 2005. This provided the start-up capital the trio would need to embark on their new venture.

“We’d always known we were going to build software because Matt was a techie, and Scott, although not a computer scientist, was also very techie,” Wood says. “That’s where the barriers had come down and we could see there were lots of tools we could plug into.” While YouTube was only just beginning to build up steam and Facebook was still catering solely to universities, services such as Digg and Delicious were already starting to attract a lot of attention. “That was the year when the information web was dying away and the social web was rising,” she says. “In a sense that was where the action was.”

Unruly Media was founded in 2006 and very quickly thronged with ideas. The first that really began to make waves in the marketplace was its Viral Video Chart; the software was designed to search the web for links and embed codes for videos on YouTube and then ranked them in the order of which were the most popular. It also looked at how people shared the content and how influential they were. Wood remarks, “That’s what got us thinking about a sustainable solution, so brands could reach a global audience with their branded content and find a way of doing that at speed and scale.”

And this is what gave birth to MEME – the media engagement and measurement engine. “Think of it as part content management system (CMS), part ad server and part social analytics dashboard,” explains Wood. 

Clients send Unruly their video files and MEME ingests the video files, loading them into their systems and tagging them with digital tracking that allows agencies to carefully monitor whether the content is reaching the right audiences. It also provides optional plug-ins and social annotations. 

“You can run a video alone but, nowadays, brands also want to layer over additional functionality – be that data capture, polls, competitions, all kinds of interactive features,” says Wood. “Video is such an opportunity.”

While ideas such as the Viral Video Chart and MEME were generating a lot of interest in Unruly, the three co-founders were hardly living on easy street. “For the first three years we were bootstrapped – we didn’t take salaries, Scott and I sold our flat, our kids didn’t have any new clothes,” says Wood. They had had no small amount of interest from investors, so it made very sound business sense to hold out for as long as they could. “We really wanted to wait until we’d proven the business model, grown the revenues and at that point it felt like a much better time to take on capital.”

Sarah Wood at the Fast Growth Business Awards

But their time eventually came. By 2011 Unruly had opened its first international office in New York, and the United States quickly cottoned on to how valuable its tools could be. “There was a real desire for the product and we were very keen to open in Chicago and San Francisco,” Wood says. “We realised we would need additional capital to really grow our geographical reach and diversify our product set.” The threesome embarked on their first round of funding and closed it in January of this year, having secured a $25m investment from Amadeus Capital Partners.

And in the last 10 months the company has hardly rested on its laurels. Unruly now operates in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, LA, London, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Sydney, and the team has been developing its latest tools. Released only at the beginning of this month are two exciting projects. The first, the Share Rank predictor, is designed to help brands better understand how their content works. “We take content, run it through biometric tests across social panels and then we can advise brands on how much social traction the particular piece of content is going to get,” Wood explains.

Perhaps more exciting, however, is Unruly Hive. “We’re launching an international start-up hive, where other companies working in the same space as us, or somewhere similar, are going to be taking space in our office and become part of the ecosystem,” says Wood. Given the huge number of events that are carried out at Unruly – from book launches to its social media week – the next logical step was to allow tech-orientated entrepreneurs make the most of the resources Unruly has at its disposal. Wood remarks, “Part of the long-term legacy that we want to leave behind is helping to boost the tech start-up ecosystem in London and to give companies that are just starting out access to the facilities we didn’t have when we began.” 

About the Author

Josh Russell

Josh Russell

As editor, Russell is the man in charge of properly apostrophising our publication and ensuring Oxford commas are mercilessly excised. Our digital doyen, he’s also a Photoshop Pro, a dab hand with InDesign and the man to go to if you need a four-hour soliloquy about the UK's best silicon startups.

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