22. Michael Provenzano – issuing an Invite (Media) to Google

Michael was one of the co-founders of Invite Media in 2007, with college classmates at the University of Pennsylvania. He and co-founders Nat Turner and Zach Weinberg met in an entrepreneur’s club in college, and Nat was inspired by a summer internship at pioneering video ad network VideoEgg to build a dynamic-creative ad platform. This morphed into a semi-baked idea to develop Facebook apps plus an ad server … until a recruiter connected the quixotic grads with ad tech paladin Brian O’Kelley.

In “typical Brian” fashion – recalls Michael in this lively interview – O’Kelley told them they were snorkeling a suboptimal reef and should build a bidder. Fresh from the Right Media acquisition into Yahoo, O’Kelley was launching his next venture called Adnxs (later AppNexus), and he astutely foresaw an ad market bifurcated into buy- and sell-side platforms on either side of a real-time exchange.

So the idea for Invite actually emanated from O’Kelley and was (so he told me in an interview a few years ago) the recipient of technical guidance from the “godfather” of ad tech himself, Dr. Boris Mouszykantskii now of IPONWeb.

Michael vividly recalls Invite’s sketchy early office space and frat-like atmosphere (43 boy-men, 2 women); the sleepless nights caused by payroll-making agita and rival DSP Turn; and the ultimate fear that the lack of real-time inventory – beyond non-real time Right Media and AppNexus itself – presaged the boys being stuck with a solution in search of a problem.

Then around 2008, things changed. Google released its real-time exchange, AdX; the Ventura-based Ad:ECN from pre-Trade Desk visionary Jeff Green appeared; and other DSPs began to pick up speed. Suddenly, there was inventory for the bidder to bid on – and the business started to grow beyond Right Media connectors, serving mainly ad networks “who wanted more control.”

Google called in 2010 and acquired Invite for a reported $81 million, explicitly as an investment in “exchange bidding.” Coming soon after its acquisition of AdMeld (an SSP), Invite formed the basis for its DSP which was renamed DFA and now DV360. Presumably little of the original code remains, but the ROI on the original Invite investment is staggering.

Shortly after the acquisition, Michael took time off to travel to Italy and came back to co-found Vistar Media, a company that began in 2011 to provide programmatic methods – data-driven, measurable – to digital out-of-home, a slow-growing category with little programmatic inventory. Admitting that getting an “old school category moving” has been “harder than I thought,” Michael persevered into building a 145-person, profitable company.

Then COVID hit. Despite an existentially trying year, Vistar is back to record-breaking quarters, Michael told us and AdExchanger Talks recently. Also in this episode: why TripleLift is a company everyone should emulate; why there were “bodies” in the company’s temporary NYC co-working space; and why Michael doesn’t really think they sold Invite too early.

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