Techvibes Technology News: Toronto start-up proposes to monetize Twitter

As many of you know, Toronto is a brewing with young tech companies.  And with social media becoming more mainstream by the minute there are even more companies looking at how various applications can be properly monetized.  Enter into the picture hot start-up Assetize.  Assetize proposes to partner content publishers with advertisers…on Twitter.  I recently had the oportunity to interview Assetize founder Saif Ajani: 


Thanks for doing this Saif.

Saif: My pleasure.

What exactly does Assetize do?

Saif: In short, Assetize helps publishers monetize social accounts, and helps advertisers connect with their target audiences through this new medium.

For example?
As you know, on Twitter, a publisher can take on many forms. The type that immediately comes to mind for most people are newspaper publishers and large bloggers, who still create valuable content on different mediums and are now using Twitter as a distribution channel. However, as we’ve seen social network activity grow over the last few years, each user is truly also a publisher. For example, while Techvibes produces some great content for the site, your personal account also produces and distributes valuable content for its followers outside the Techvibes networks.

Our goal is to enable all social network users monetize their content. We’ve recently signed an agreement with a large sports agency to help tier 1 professional athletes monetize their accounts, and are currently also in a trial with a large Canadian newspaper publisher.

Does Assetize only do this for Twitter accounts or do you also help monetize content on other social networks?

Saif: Today, our focus is on Twitter because it is by far the biggest opportunity in front of us. However, as we grow, we do plan on branching out into other networks. For example, if someone has creating a Facebook Page for Michael Jackson and has attracted millions of ‘Fans’, they should be able to monetize their work as well. Another example would be Ning: If someone has created a great social network for a niche like new moms, they should also be able to monetize this network by allowing advertisers the ability to target this highly valuable audience.

At this time our focus is purposely narrow so that we can become great in one area – Twitter monetization – before expanding outside.

Can you give an example of how Assetize would help a publisher monetize their Twitter account?

Saif: Sure. Here are 3, for the different types of publishers we’re currently working with:

The individual publisher.  There are some users in our system with hundreds of thousands of followers, and do a great job of keeping their audiences engaged by providing them with valuable information. When they register with Assetize, they provide us with a key to publish in-stream ads into their Twitter accounts.

Any type of ads?

We’ve placed a high importance into ensuring that the messages that our publishers’ followers receive in-stream is relevant, and we do this through a patent-pending system that we have developed. On an ongoing basis, we constantly monitor our users’ accounts to see what they’re discussing and extrapolate what would be relevant to their audiences. We then use an algorithm to match each account with an ad that would be relevant to them. This proprietary analysis and targeting engine is something that is unique to Assetize, and is what makes us different – and better, we feel – than some of our competitors.

Second are media companies. We’re working with a large Canadian newspaper publisher now who wants to monetize their Twitter stream just as they have monetized their news website. For these types of publishers, we have created a platform that allows them to sell Twitter sponsorship directly to their existing or new advertisers. By using Assetize, the destination page for each of their links would have a top bar, similar to the ones links show, but these would instead be branded with the publisher’s logo and have ad space for their sponsors. In other words, just as all links have Techvibes branding, but ads for Hootsuite/, publishers that use Assetize would have their own branding with ad space available to their existing or new sponsors.

Finally, athletes.  This is currently in stealth mode, but we recently signed a deal with a US-based sports agency to help their athletes monetize Twitter. Just as athletes have offline sponsors, we would bring sponsors to their Twitter accounts as well. Not only does this provide obvious value for athletes, but also really democratizes athlete sponsorship. As you know, to date, most athlete sponsorships have been done by large conglomerates because they’re the only ones who could afford it. However, with Twitter, where local and international followers are so engaged with the athlete, it’s now possible for local SMBs to sponsor an athlete’s Twitter stream for a limited time and on a budget. We think this is a game-changer, and are in hot pursuit of businesses looking to enter into tier 1 Twitter sponsorships.

Let’s take a step back. What was the impetus for creating Assetize?

Saif: The impetus for creating Assetize was the thesis that social accounts have a lot of untapped value, and the best analogy to draw to them was domain names. If domain name could sell for $7.5M, then, in theory, should also have some real financial value. And by extension, the owners of these social accounts may also be looking for ways to monetize these accounts.

When we first launched in May, we performed a really quick experiment that proved to be very insightful for us: Assetize’s first incarnation was actually a marketplace for social account names – if you search for us, you’re bound to see TechCrunch and New York Times articles from June that reference this marketplace. Although Twitter and Facebook weren’t happy about there being such a marketplace, the thousands of users that registered with us really proved that yes, our thesis was correct: social network users are looking for ways to monetize these accounts.

So we started building other methods for users to monetize accounts and drew some parallels with history. In the past, every time there has been a new distribution channel for content, these content creators and distributors were able to monetize by partnering with ad networks. This was true for individual blogs, websites, and even all the way back to radio and television. Twitter is really no different, and we saw a real gap in the market for ways to monetize this new channel.

Can you tell our readers what you were doing before Assetize?

Prior to launching Assetize, I was in business school at Cornell, and my Co-Founders, Minaz Abdulla, were consulting to technology companies. We’ve worked on startups on a part-time basis before, but Assetize was the one that truly excited us and we decided to focus on this full-time.

What is your vision for Assetize?

Saif: The vision for Assetize is to really become the platform for social account monetization – across all networks, for all types of publishers, and for advertisers of all shapes and sizes looking to reach their target audiences.

Social networks like Twitter have not only democratized ideas and opinions, but also given an opportunity for all sorts of niches to develop and take shape. And for each of these niches, there are organizers doing a lot of work who deserve to be compensated, and there are advertisers who are looking to reach these audiences. Matching these two groups is the only way that value, not only monetary but also content, will continue to be built on these networks.  How sustainable is a network where value creators are not compensated? We don’t think it is.

Wow. That’s a bold vision!

Assetize will be the platform that enables this, either through our own site, or by working with the different parties to extend our services to them.

Why is Toronto a hotbed for tech start-ups?

Saif: Toronto is an under served market in many ways, which is what makes it such a hotbed. With some excellent schools in the city, and 1-2 hours from here, there is certainly no shortage of really great talent. We’ve hire interns and have been blown away by how great they are at what they do; and being close to other startups and Xtreme Labs has further confirmed this.

There’s also a real movement here – through incubator/accelerator programs like Extreme University, groups like Techvibes, and events like Startup Drinks – to promote the startup community. With such a close-knit community, there’s a real feel that Toronto’s entrepreneurial spirit is being awakened and it’s great to be right in the middle of it. We’re constantly running into people who are thinking about starting something new, and the ecosystem is growing daily.

Any advice for young people wanting to get started in their own business?

Saif: I don’t know if I’m in a position to give advice yet – just had a lot of luck along the way – but there’s a great quote that I often think of when working on Assetize: “If you’ve never missed a flight, you’re spending too much time in airports.” I don’t know who first used it, but I’ve heard it attributed to various people including Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal. I think the point is , if you’re always playing it safe, waiting until your product or environment are perfect, you’ll end up missing great opportunities. We’ve made many mistakes with Assetize, but are proud of the fact that when we failed, we failed fast, learned from it and built an even better solution.

Saif, thank you so much for taking the time for this. Best wishes for the holiday season and 2010.

It was my pleasure, and all the best to you too.