Nat Turner started his entrepreneurial career selling snakes out of his parents’ garage. Just two years after graduating from Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania, Nat and his 20-something co-founders, Zach Weinberg, Scott Becker and Michael Provenzano, sold their web ad sales firm, Invite Media, to Google in 2010 for a reported $70 million. Knowledge@Wharton High School caught up with Turner to talk about life before and after the big deal. An edited version of the conversation follows.
Knowledge@Wharton High School: How did you get hooked on entrepreneurship so early in life?
Turner: That’s a good question. It started way back in high school. I had hobbies that just grew into businesses. I had trading cards like every kid. I had a weird [hobby] where I was keeping snakes. And both of those hobbies ended up just evolving into where I had way too many trading cards. I would go to card expositions around the country selling them. I started building a website for each of those businesses. That turned into a web design company. Then web design skills turned into a website that I started — kind of like a half dotcom for gift cards. Then using those skills, I ended up creating Invite Media, which we just sold. It was a progression where each business built upon the former one.
KWHS: When you look at where you are now compared to what you were doing 10 years ago, do you see the development of Nat Turner? What would you recommend for young people who would just put those cards in a closet somewhere?
Turner: The first businesses started because we had a very entrepreneurial home. My dad was an entrepreneur. My mom was as well. And [that entrepreneurial spirit] was very fostered around just doing things your own way. When I started high school and college, the biggest thing that I learned was finding the right co-founders. I had a co-founder in all the businesses except the trading cards. Invite was successful because of the co-founder group. I’m a strong believer that you can’t do everything yourself. For the most part, especially when you’re young, you don’t know everything.
So finding someone who is technical if you’re not, finding somebody who knows sales if you don’t, finding someone who knows a particular industry or knows people like investors and you don’t — that’s pretty important.
KWHS: Your parents were encouraging of you. Can you tell me what they were like as mentors?
Turner: The key as a parent — at least in my case — was not to force someone into some sort of usual path. I had a lot of friends whose parents were very set on, ‘Okay, you’re going to be a lawyer. Or a doctor. Or a consultant. Or a banker.’ It was one of those four options, and that was the path they were going to take. It was treated as a disappointment if they didn’t get an internship or transgressed off that path. I was starting my own company in junior year of high school instead of getting an internship, and that wasn’t looked at as odd. That was important. Had there been that pressure to get a banking internship or whatever it is that you do in high school, it would have been different. I probably wouldn’t have been doing what I am today.
I think it’s very important to just encourage. Entrepreneurship takes its own course. It’s not standard. It could be weird. You could be raising snakes in a garage like I was. You have those paths and you need to be encouraging of them.
KWHS: Did you see all the companies that preceded Invite as profit-generators? Or as experiments? Or were they just a great way to hang out with other smart, fun people?
Turner: We started all those companies hoping they would be huge. And some of them got big enough. I mean I was able to buy a nice watch and buy a car — those were the moments. But not until Invite [did we have something really big]. Prior to that, I was in high school or in the first part of college. We chose the wrong markets, we didn’t have enough money to go out and sell. The idea wasn’t executed perfectly. We didn’t know the tech well enough – all these reasons.
KWHS: Tell me how you came up with the idea for Invite and when you knew this could be the big one.
Turner: Invite started completely differently. We started as a video ad network in a way. We met the founders of YouTube before they launched and they had this idea to build this massive video destination site. We saw all this video inventory out there — all these people watching videos — and we thought, ‘There’s no advertising against it.’ A company I’d worked at called VideoEgg had 500 million video views a day or something like that — or a month — that weren’t being monetized. It was half a million dollars in server costs just to serve these videos. There wasn’t a way to get advertisers on.
The name Invite actually comes from the fact that we wanted to build a unit, an ad unit that popped up — kind of like when you’re watching basketball on TNT and you see the new TV show trailer pop up in the bottom left corner of the screen. That’s what we called an “invite.” It was inviting you to watch something, inviting you to do something. Our first idea was actually this Invite ad unit on top of video inventory. The idea, frankly, was awful. Four years ago advertisers didn’t know how to value video inventory, they didn’t have creative units for it, and so we kept pivoting the idea. The next idea was built around Facebook applications. Then the next idea was based off of ad exchanges, which is what we’re doing today. We morphed that into an agency-focused model, where we were selling to ad agencies.
It took about a year and a half from, ‘Okay, we have an idea, we’re going to get started working’ to ‘All right, we have an idea that’s going to work, let’s hire people and build upon it.’ Our investors were very nervous during that year and a half. It’s the “idea du jour,” as one of our investors called it.
KWHS: Tell me about some of the challenges of Invite. You did have some challenges in terms of hiring [and] office space. I read there was a fire somewhere. And you were still in school for most of this time.
Turner: Having a business in school is really hard at first. We started it junior year. I actually ended up making better grades, depending on what semester we’re referring to, when I had more on my plate. You focus your time. One of the biggest challenges was physical location. Our customers were in New York and we were going to school in Philly. We still to this day have 15 people or so here in Philly, focused on the engineering side that we were able to hire out of places like Penn and Drexel. In New York it’s much harder. But early on we were in school here — we had to have meetings literally every day in New York. Investors were in New York as well. We were traveling every night and still had to manage midterms and finals and all that stuff.
We had problems recruiting when we were 21 years old and trying to hire a VP of finance and a VP of sales. A lot of investors and advisors told us to hire people older, who knew the stuff. But we weren’t convinced. We wanted to hire younger, hungrier people who were very ambitious, who hadn’t done this before and needed a win.
We did have a fire at our office. My co-founder was mugged at gunpoint outside of my apartment one summer. But at the end of the day it was, I think, pretty similar to what most companies go through.
KWHS: Take me through the critical weeks and months leading up to the Google acquisition.
Turner: We didn’t have a perfect exit plan [how they would ultimately leave the business, either through selling it or some other strategy]. We had offers to sell along the way for lower prices. We had numerous chances. We were building a company that was very valuable and we knew that. But we didn’t know how valuable yet. We were a buyer of some of Google’s inventory and they were a supplier of ours. We knew from day one that they would be a great fit.
One reason we were excited about our idea is that there wasn’t a lack of companies that would want our technology. We were a little worried that Google wouldn’t be interested because we were too expensive. Maybe we were too young. The six to nine months leading up to [the sale] was the flirting stage with Google and other companies. We had to convince them that we were the right company to buy, but we needed to be convinced that they were going to invest in us, going to put us on the right path to accelerate the business.
It was really stressful because when you’re raising money, when you’re selling your business, it’s almost a full-time job just to do those things. And it was still just Zach and I and our two co-founders, Scott and Michael, running the company. We had very few senior employees who were managers. We ended up fixing that and now have some great people. But at the time, it was a very small group.
For about six months leading up to the sale we were working harder than ever just because we had to keep the business growing. But then we also had to watch out for our shareholders and make sure we actually saw the deal through.
KWHS: Was there ever a point where you thought, ‘This is not going to work out’?
Turner: We didn’t think the deal would fall through. It was more of, ‘Should we do it or should we not?’ We had multiple companies interested. We knew we had something valuable. It wasn’t like we were selling a straw house to someone. Zach and I hadn’t been through this before. We were flip flopping every day for six months. Should we do it, should we not? It was all about, ‘Is this the right time? Do we have a bigger opportunity if we wait? What happens if we don’t? Does Google buy someone else? Does whoever else was interested buy someone else?’ The chess moves.
KWHS: Another part of the deal was figuring out what your roles at Google would turn into. How has that worked out?
Turner: One of the big reasons we chose Google is that they decided to keep us pretty much independent. We’re still our own legal entity. Zach and I and our core group of key employees still run the company – day to day. That hasn’t changed. So I went from actually having less time to more time doing the same thing. I no longer have to worry about things like board management. I’m not the CEO anymore. I don’t have to worry about fund raising. Google has a lot of money. I don’t have to worry about a lot of things, frankly, that a start-up founder has to.
KWHS: You knew you were an entrepreneur in high school and it sounds like you never really had a strong moment where you said, ‘Jeez, I really think maybe I’m an investment banker.’
Turner: I came close freshman year [of college]. It’s one of those things that you have to pick your right student groups, you have to pick the right classes. I made the mistake of thinking I wanted to pick my concentration too early on at Penn. I started doing finance classes a little too early — just thinking that was what people do. The reality is that there are groups of people here that do everything – there are entrepreneurs, there are finance people, there are consultants. You have these core groups. I made sure to focus my efforts outside of school with the crowd of people that I thought would do what I wanted to do, which was startups. Freshman year you just have to stay true to what you want to do. The good news is you don’t get forced into anything.
KWHS: What if you don’t know what you want to do, but entrepreneurship is one of three or four things that you are considering?
Turner: You have four summers when you’re here, including one in between high school and college. I had a venture capital internship freshman year. I had a start-up internship sophomore year and knew that’s what I wanted to do. I started a company in junior year. You have summers — use them.
You’re not going to figure out [what you want to do] in the classes. Finance could seem like the greatest thing in the world, or entrepreneurship even, in class. And then you do it in real life and you realize it’s either not what you expected it to be or it’s boring.
I recommend getting out there and working. When you graduate, you get into a routine and you get a full-time job offer and a salary. It’s very hard to go back and say, ‘You know, I want to switch careers.’ It’s very possible. People do it all the time. But it’s harder — once you start having a family or whatever it is — to just switch on a dime.
KWHS: Your advice is to take some risks in the summer?
Turner: Take some internships. VC firms are great because they are the closest thing to start ups while still being in finance. And VC firms have portfolio companies. Portfolio companies can be anything — you can have your choice of the litter. I did a VC firm, and then parlayed that into an internship at one of the portfolio companies. Or you can go back to the VC firm if you did a good job. Definitely take some risks and get some job opportunities.
It’s very important to go to school. I’ve met too many entrepreneurs, or want-to-be entrepreneurs, who don’t go to school. They either skip college or they fail to graduate college. There are only so many Mark Zuckerbergs who can quit college and be billionaires. There are 999 other entrepreneurs who left school and now are regretting it — it’s very hard to go back. It’s very important to get that degree. It means so much once you’re out.