Facebook Rule Change Inspires New Path for Video Ad Startup Waymark

The last time we checked in with serial entrepreneur Nathan Labenz, it was 2014 and he had just won the Detroit edition of Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest pitch competition. The digital advertising venture he was working on then, which was called SocialProof, has changed course.

Now called Waymark, Labenz’s 22-person company has relaunched with a refined mission to give small- and mid-size businesses the power to produce their own Facebook video ads quickly, easily, and affordably.

“Today, our focus is helping the 98 percent of businesses that don’t have in-house production capabilities to successfully make video ads,” Labenz explains, noting that within two years, video is expected to become the dominant advertising medium on Facebook. “The vast majority of businesses don’t have the resources, and our product makes it really simple.”

While the democratization of video advertising is not a new idea—there’s another company called Slope that got its start in Detroit doing something similar—Waymark has put its own spin on the concept. Using only a business’ phone number, Waymark’s proprietary technologies can pull together a short, custom video ad in roughly 10 seconds.

Waymark’s production philosophy is to make users feel like executive producers of their own ads, Labenz says. “I want people to feel like they’re in charge as opposed to being an editor or videographer. We’re restrained when it comes to features, because you’re not supposed to get in the weeds with editing. We can give you fully formed ideas in 10 seconds,” he adds.

Called Movement, Waymark’s software tool scans the Internet to find relevant social media profiles, the company website, and customer reviews. It grabs photos and key pieces of text, and spits out a video ad complete with snappy visuals and music in seconds. (Try the beta version yourself here.)

“We use artificial intelligence to surface the best parts of customer reviews and identify the content of photos,” Labenz says. “We’re not, like, an A.I. pioneer—we apply technologies already developed at places like Google.”

Innovative use of Google tech might partially explain how Waymark won a spot to compete in the company’s annual demo day a few months ago. Waymark was one of 13 startups from North America pitching investors and other interested parties at Google’s headquarters in California.

Waymark’s presentation was impressive enough to garner two on-the-spot investment offers: one from a gentleman in Atlanta, and one from Steve Case, who was serving as a judge and pledged to invest $100,000 in each of the pitching startups. Waymark also won an audience award.

“It was awesome,” Labenz says. “Google Demo Day is a great way to get on the radar of lots of people.”

Before Google Demo Day, Labenz hadn’t been on a stage pitching his company since Rise of the Rest in 2014. At the time, SocialProof was helping large companies collect customer feedback and turn it into micro ad campaigns.

Another component of SocialProof was targeting each client’s Facebook friends. “We collected reviews and, with the company’s permission, turned them into an ad to show their friends on Facebook,” Labenz recalls. “Big companies loved it.”

SocialProof was growing quickly and winning awards like Rise of Rest until, a few months after Case came through the Motor City, Facebook tweaked its rules and the company was no longer able to get its customers’ lists of friends.

“So the targeting piece was no longer possible,” Labenz says. “It was a big problem. We were signing all these awesome Fortune 500 companies as accounts, so we took a step back and said, what do we have and how can we evolve?”

Instead of software to create 10,000 small ad campaigns for one big customer, Labenz had an idea: What if he could make one ad for 10,000 customers instead? He says he spent two weeks “repurposing” SocialProof into Waymark as it is today.

“It’s a classic pivot story,” he says. “You have something that’s working, but then something goes wrong.”

Waymark has so far been able to stay afloat through revenues and past infusions of venture capital—Labenz says the company has “reached financial stability”—but its appearance at Google Demo Day was meant to be the official start of another fundraising round as Waymark rolls out nationally. “We’re definitely not content,” he says. “We’re still aiming for bigger and better video production capabilities.”

Labenz calls the potential market for Waymark’s technology vast,pointing out that people currently spend about five hours a day watching video content across their devices. “That dwarfs the amount of time people spend reading,” he says. “There’s an unbelievable appetite for video.”

Labenz believes that in the near future, just about all companies will need to step up their video advertising campaigns if they want to catch the attention of customers—especially new customers.

“We believe video will be essential to advertising, and our goal is to serve millions of businesses with compelling content,” he says.

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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