Stepping into the role of CEO at Advidi doesn’t exactly follow expected protocols. When Mark van den Elzen joined us at the end of 2015 (initially as COO), he discovered that right away – along with more than enough enthusiasm and positivity to carry him through.
Our company culture is undoubtedly unique, which Mark – along with the rest of us – considers invaluable to our success this past year. Despite the typical challenges that face a growing company, we’ve managed to launch a new vertical and transition from startup to adolescent company under Mark’s watch. Here’s what he has to say about what we accomplished in the past year and what we’re planning to do in 2017, along with his philosophy on running an affiliate marketing network, kicking butts, climbing mountains and more:
What do you see as the most important successes for Advidi in 2016?
That depends on how you define success. The numbers have gone up, which is one way to look at it, but I think success goes beyond just what you do in an office environment. The fact that we grew from a startup to an adolescent company without sacrificing the great culture we have here really stands out to me as our strongest success in 2016. It’s been a tremendous task, and I believe the management team has succeeded in maintaining our profitability level while facilitating a shift in our company structure.
We also developed our presence in our current verticals (Dating, Health & Beauty and Mainstream), along with launching a new vertical (iGaming). Despite this growth, we kept our focus on putting relationships and people before profits. We had to trust our mission, and we’re proud of the results.
What do you see as the biggest challenge the company faced in 2016?
We were confronted with extreme growth peaks in the first months of the year. Circumstances in the market changed overnight, especially in the Health & Beauty vertical, leaving us with a couple of advertisers facing cash flow issues. It is in our our DNA to remain a trustworthy partner for all of our stakeholders, including our highly respected affiliate partners – whatever happens, we will always pay our affiliates.
Thanks to strong efforts to come to terms with some of our troubled advertisers, we have been able to do some impressive damage control, but this adventure cost us some profit at the end of the day. This experience has not only been a valuable lesson to ourselves (and we have taken precautionary measures in the form of a Credit Management protocol), but we are now even more capable of providing guidance to our customers in determining healthy levels of CAP. We believe strongly that it’s our responsibility to protect our business partners from incurring these kind of painful losses, but also to leverage our capabilities as a company to minimize (and eventually eliminate) such setbacks.
What goals were set out at the beginning of the year? Were they accomplished?
We have outperformed ourselves when it comes to professionalizing Advidi. This was not a goal in itself, but rather a means to build a platform for our growth. Not only are we now in a position to boost revenues at an unprecedented scale, but more importantly, we have the mechanisms in place to do so against a stable profit margin. The result of this has been tangible. You can see it in the way our team prepares for events – they’re excited and look forward to having fun, but they’re also preparing really well. They’re really focused and they’ve aligned their goals with the company’s. As we professionalize, we’ve also become more cohesive.
We have also overachieved our financial goals at all levels. The strong basis for that is the solid position we have maintained in our strongest verticals, along with carefully planned growth into new ones.
From an operational perspective, we did a lot of hard ground work last year to cover the basics – and more – of what any professional organization should have. I think the following accomplishments illustrate the building blocks that have amounted to where we stand today:
Management Structure: We built the complete management and communication structure, including a meeting structure from the CEO and Board through to individual bi-weekly 1-2-1 cycles for all employees.
Personal Development: I was once told that you don’t plan a trip around the world at once, you plan it in parts, in shorter journeys. We view our company goals in a similar way, so we asked ourselves how we could support our employees on their “shorter journeys”. The answer came in our Performance Management System. This system supports optimal alignment of personal objectives with company-wide strategic objectives, with Quarter by Quarter evaluation and a focus on SMART Key Result Areas to improve upon.
Training & Development: There is a well-balanced Training & Development program in place that addresses the needs of personnel at all levels – from online self-study modules to full-blown management training with a professional coach. One our first employee satisfaction surveys suggested that this was a need that we weren’t fulfilling. With our learning program in place, the latest Engagement Survey gave us a score of 3.7 out of 5. Wow, how happy I was to see us make that happen!
CRM Implementation: Our Advertisers and Affiliates are our most valuable assets. We want to nourish them and take the best care of them possible; at the same time, we need to make the best use of our people. The solution was implementing the Zoho CRM. Our sales force is now capable of efficiently handling a much larger account base than before and at an even higher service level. The CRM system has helped us in many ways – I could go on for another hour on this subject! It is amazing to see how this has boosted our efficiency and focus.
Corporate Responsibilities: Growing into a mature company also comes with real corporate responsibilities, including Risk Management Analysis, Mitigation Planning, Legal and Financial Audits (including follow-up actions to comply), Credit Management Protocols, and so on. All done – all boxes checked!
Forecasting & Planning: Last but certainly not least, we have acquired the skills as management to forecast and plan long term – we’re now looking 2-3 years ahead. Brainstorm sessions, SWOT analysis, competitor analyses and proper budgeting have given us insight in our strengths and future potential. We have formulated a solid 5-year forecast and a highly detailed Marketing and Sales Plan 2017 that will align the full team. It has been structured to cover the Why, How and What of our business, including everything from core values, mission and vision to individual account planning and a detailed Advidi roadmap of the 18 shows we’ll be attending this year. This required us to go back to basics, and the guys earned my respect by delivering a quality plan that was beyond what I had asked for. The special effect of the plan is that the process of writing it was even more valuable than the end result itself. The process involved reflection, strategic thinking and gathering feedback from sales reps, then funnelling everything into a document that reads like a novel. Reading it now makes it look so obvious and clear. Again, my respect, especially because this was the first time we did this.
Did the company go through any major changes this year?
As I mentioned earlier, 2016 has been a decisive year for Advidi. It has been the turning point in terms of professionalization, facilitating the process of becoming a highly scalable and sustainable business, diversifying in terms of geographic footprint, becoming profitable in four verticals and sourcing a wide array of traffic types. We have gotten to the point where we not only know how to climb a mountain, we have the skills, alternative routes and the self-consciousness and bravery to make it to the top!
And yes, I see that as a major change. It is the classic transformation of any company that evolves from being a startup to an adolescent state and then adulthood. It is only a fraction of all ventures that make the full journey, and I’m proud to have been given the confidence by my shareholders and my fellow management team to guide us through in my role as CEO. This is a team effort and you can hardly imagine the “tears and sweat” put into Advidi in twelve months’ time by over fifty committed, hard-working people.
The seed was planted years ago by our founders, Iwert and Mike. Those guys are amazing entrepreneurs that instinctively know how to make money out of almost anything. Coming from a 20+ year career in corporate environments, I’ve learned a great deal from them and have immense respect for their true entrepreneurship.
What’s your philosophy as CEO of Advidi?
On a more philosophical level, I would say that as long as we are able to create value
in society, whether that be for consumers, customers or the publishers we work with,
I believe there is opportunity.
We start every day with a primary goal: create opportunities for each person who interacts with our brand. And we finish every day by asking ourselves: How did we make this person feel today? And then: How much did we help him or her earn? The way we answer these questions defines us as a company. Our partners depend on us, and we don’t take that lightly. A lot of websites have 20-30% of their income from advertisers, and we care about that – it’s their income, and we’re here to grow it. We do that by taking the time to understand our partners and their needs. Only then can we add truly unique value. This makes us more stable and attractive as a partner, but it also helps everyone’s bottom line.
It is my opinion that we build lasting partnerships on a foundation of mutual trust, respect and success. Staying ahead in the ever-changing industry that is online marketing can only be achieved through continued and innovative change by the organization and its technology.
The ability to learn, adapt and evolve is at the core of our company, both in its structure and in its people. Because we have these qualities, there is no limit to how big we can grow. We will survive and expand because we focus on being a business partner rather than a client.
In our industry, you need to bring something unique to the table if you want to remain successful. Our original “cowboy mentality” is an important part of who we are, and when we combine it with professionalization and structure, we’re able to pioneer new markets and expand the company beyond what is currently on the horizon.
What are you most proud of accomplishing since joining the company?
For me personally it has been a great step to join Advidi. My background is in business and management; that’s what I was trained for in university, and it’s the working experience I gained with well-established companies in diverse industries. My career path was solid and safe.
Then one summer day in 2015, I visited Mike and Iwert at Advidi. This was a whole new thing to me. I was wearing a handmade Italian suit and tie, sitting across from these two young, casually dressed men in their t-shirts with rolled up sleeves. Wow, two worlds colliding.
Over the course of months, we had six interviews, each lasting over three hours. It was not only about the job, though. It was about our mutual thoughts regarding the circumstances under which Iwert and Mike would be willing to have their company run by someone other than them. It was about building trust both ways. This wasn’t only a big step for them – I knew I was about to leave the beaten track, too.
Long story short, I joined in December 2015 as COO and last summer officially took over the lead of Advidi in the role of CEO. That is what I am proud of: I have been able to come through and deliver while earning the trust of my shareholders and management team.
To the same extent that this makes me proud, it has been a humbling experience. Being given this opportunity and support is unique. How many business owners have it in them to overstep their own shadows and let others take over from them? I can tell you, not so many. If you’ve been on the other side, it’s really easy to appreciate what we have here.
Experiencing the drive and ambition of the people that surround me has also been humbling. One of the professional coaches we work with told me: “Mark, the results of the coaching are amazing. I know I’m good at what I do, and so are you, but let’s be honest… this is really fertile soil we’re working with here.”
I found those words very true and illustrative for what we have in our hands here. I’m as proud as I am grateful.
What do you find most interesting about the culture at Advidi?
Advidi feels somewhat like a “movement” or perhaps a membership. My colleagues come here because they want to be part of Advidi. This shows in the little things; take the Advidi WhatsApp group for example. It’s a continuous source of fun, compliments, practical discussions and so forth – it gives a perfect picture of the natural way this group of people communicates. It resembles how friends would interact. When it comes to coaching, we more often need to slow people down than kick them in the butt to work harder. The drive is amazing. I mentioned this earlier in the way they take events seriously, but it’s apparent in all aspects of how we work, including the fun we have together. Of course, everybody has their off days now and then, but an off week would be quickly noticed as it is so out of sync with the atmosphere and culture. The good thing about that is that issues get addressed and don’t drag on any longer than necessary. I’ve worked in quite some companies varying in size that are active in different industries, but never have I experienced the true engagement we have within Advidi.
At one point I even wondered if this was a facade… you know, like people’s lives on social media always seem perfect. So we ran an anonymous survey amongst all personnel, including management. I have never seen such high scores of engagement, job satisfaction, personal development opportunities and so on.
This has carried over into my personal life, and it’s even come with some interesting challenges. I never had to worry about what to wear at previous companies – blue suit, grey suit, brown belt, black belt – and it took me some time to adjust. I’m happy I have. Maybe the dress code here is symbolic of being a person, not just being a professional. While we professionalize the company, we make sure none of our people lose their identity in the process. And that’s something that those on the outside sometimes miss. They see our casual clothes and think we’re laid back about our work, but it’s actually the opposite… we couldn’t be more fanatic and ambitious!
All this adds up to an important goal for our company: we want to share this culture and maintain it as we grow. We received more than 3000 job applications in 2016, and our recruitment team is working hard to continue drawing such positive attention. We want eager professionals to join us, and we’re constantly listening for ways to make life at Advidi better – it doesn’t stop at the recruitment level. We really do want to create the best working environment possible.
With that, we’re excited to announce that we are participating in the official Great Place to Work survey. We had a meeting with them at our office and it makes sense on many levels to pursue that direction and aim for a top ten position in the Netherlands. Our culture will be a key asset in accomplishing that.
What are you looking forward to most in 2017?
2017 is going to be crazy! We are all set to harvest the investments we have made. We carry lessons from numerous challenges faced in 2016 and years prior. Many of our growing pains have reached a peak, and though new challenges await, we are better equipped than ever to view those challenges as opportunities and act upon them appropriately.
Our team will be participating in 18 shows all over the globe, without counting private visits to partners around the globe. I’m absolutely convinced they will bring us even more precious new partnerships upon which we can build a profitable relationship. There will be a special contest amongst our Affiliates and we’ll organize the second edition of the Advidi Amsterdam-Berlin rally, which was a true highlight and fun factor last year. And that’s all just the beginning… I think we’ll be an exciting company to interact with this year (more than we already are) on both the profit and the people side.
But primarily, I look forward to building the company, acquiring young talent, moving into new geographies, adding new verticals and basically continuing the journey we are already on. I know that I’m going to enjoy the ride!