Rob Seo is CEO, US of Buzzvil.
How did you get into the industry?
I joined the Marine Corps when I was 18 because I wanted to serve and to challenge myself to grow. I got what I wanted and more through my training and my time with a light armored reconnaissance unit during the initial push for Baghdad. Since then, I’ve always been placing myself in challenging situations because I love the growth and learning that comes from pushing yourself.
In between my stint in the Marines and my current role at Buzzvil, I spent time in finance at UBS Investment Bank and Goldman Sachs. It was after my MBA internship with a fund in Singapore that I decided to become an entrepreneur because I felt that I’d be able to learn more by starting my own company.
I didn’t start-out thinking I wanted to build an advertising company. I started with a determination of what kind of company I wanted to build, and who I wanted to build it with. Slidejoy, the company I founded that was later acquired by Buzzvil, fit that as it challenged me to consider every aspect of business – and the high-quality caliber of my team pushed me to work hard and ultimately find new ways to bring value back to consumers.
Even though selling Slidejoy to Buzzvil is probably the biggest selling point on my resume, my proudest achievement from the experience is giving millions of dollars to our users.
Any emerging industry trends?
I think we’ve reached a point in mobile where growth in innovation has slowed. The biggest innovations will happen once the mobile infrastructure is upgraded. Once 5G is rolled out it will change the game for the mobile experience such as increasing the screen size or even a create a different alternative to a smartphone.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
Google and Facebook are the giants in our industry so carving out a sustainable niche is the challenge and opportunity in our space. That’s why experimenting with products and business models is of the utmost importance.
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?
Ironically, the inspiration for starting Slidejoy, was seeing Buzzvil succeed in the market in Asia. My Slidejoy cofounders and I saw lockscreen advertising, led by Buzzvil, taking off and decided there was an opportunity to bring the concept back to the U.S. market.
With all the negative press around advertising like fraud, ad-blockers, privacy, etc., we’d like to be a positive presence in the space. We want to expand our win-win-win business model to be more of a norm because it addresses many of the issues in the industry. We allow advertisers reach opted-in users who want to see their ads, enable publishers to get increased monetization and retention and give users relevant rewards. It’s a very difficult model to make work, but we’ve found a way to do so over the last 6 years.
What's next for the Business in the near future?
We’re constantly looking for additional acquisition targets.
Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?
The most successful activity that I’ve been involved with was building a solid reputation as a company, first with Slidejoy, and then after being acquired, by Buzzvil. When we first launched Slidejoy, the question from users was “Is this real? It seems too good to be true.” We reward users to do something they already do, so they didn’t trust us. In addition, there were players in the industry who had broken the trust of users, so we had an uphill battle.
But we kept doing what we said we’d do and over time, trust was built. Our rating in Google Play (4.3) reflects that trust. At Buzzvil, we’re doing the same. There were a LOT of other players who tried to build a business around this lockscreen publisher model but weren’t successful. As a result, we’re in the process of building trust with publishers and advertisers to prove to them that our product resonates with users.
Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)
Late last year, we learned that Google would change their terms and policies around lockscreen advertising. If things had gone differently, we would essentially have gone out of business. Luckily, we were able to work with Google and find a way to follow their new guidelines.
We changed our product and had to convince all of our publishers (~50) to migrate to our new white label lockscreen product. Surprisingly, we ended up with more users than before, but the several months between the news and the result was intense. What I learned from this experience is that our leadership team has extremely strong communication skills and also that our team is really dedicated to what we’re doing.
We’ve provided users with tens of millions of dollars’ worth of value and that motivated our team, from business development to developers, to rally and make the transition as smoothly as possible.
Ideal experience for a customer/client?
This is another area of creating a win-win-win solution for advertisers, publishers and users. We allow advertisers to reach opted-in users who want to see their ads, give publishers increased monetization and retention and offer users relevant rewards.
How do you motivate others?
The best way to motivate others is to lead the charge. I believe that the spirit of an organization is led by the person at the top. If you’re not a motivated person, then nobody who’s in your charge will be more motivated than you for a sustained period of time. If you’re not leading with motivation from the top, the motivation of each layer beneath you will become diluted. After multiple layers of dilution, you’ll end up with high turnover and teammates who were just there to watch the clock.
It’s also important to empower everybody within the team to be a leader. Titles and job descriptions don’t determine who the leaders are. They can be found anywhere, but if you’re in charge, it’s your job to position that person to shine. If your team feels like you are placing them in a position to succeed, then they will do whatever they can to do so.
Everybody on our team has different roles and skillsets. However, the spirit with which they do their jobs and take on their responsibilities reflect mine. My job is to place people in a position to succeed. All I ask from my team is to do their jobs with the same intensity and enthusiasm as I do mine.
Career advice to those in your industry?
The best piece of advice I can give to anybody is to determine whether society’s expectations of you match your realistic expectations of you and how you view you.
When I joined the Marines, I was 18 years old and weighed 120 pounds. I didn’t fit the normal description of a Marine. Even to this day, when people meet me, tell me they’d never expect me to be a Marine. But I graduated in the top 5% among 250 Marines in combat training and survived a combat tour with a light armored reconnaissance battalion in Iraq. My expectation of myself was that I could do all these things and I worked really hard to prove it.
After the Marines, I finished my degree at the University of Maryland. It’s a good school, but not a great school given where I wanted to work after graduating, investment banking. Traditionally, there’s only a small handful of target schools the banks I wanted to work at recruited from. UMD was not on the list. However, my expectation was that I’d do as good as or better than those who were being recruited. So I crashed recruiting events at Georgetown to get in front of and meet the recruiters. I eventually ended up at UBS and then on the buyside at Goldman Sachs, but if I’d listened to society’s expectations of where someone from UMD should end up, I never would have worked at the best firms on Wall Street.
My last example is about my admission into Wharton’s MBA program. All of my classmates were high performers and had high GPAs for their undergrad. I think the average is a 3.6. My cumulative GPA at UMD was a 2.6. If I had followed society’s expectations of where I should be applying to school, I never would have received a Wharton MBA.
Take some time to think about where you want to end up and what you want to do. Don’t let societal norms determine it for you during this step. Come up with a plan on how to get there and then work multiple times harder than everybody else. MULTIPLE TIMES HARDER. Have patience and trust the process. And above all, trust yourself.
What do I do best?
I can make anyone believe that they are capable of accomplish their goals, and show them how to do it.
What makes me the best version of myself?
The right cause makes me the best version of myself. And the cause has to be related to others. When I was younger, I wasn’t particularly motivated. I never took the things that I had to do seriously. I hardly studied, I practiced learning to play musical instruments, but as little as possible. I generally didn’t apply myself. This changed when I joined the Marines. I found that I was fully dedicated to the cause and my fellow Marines.
However, my dedication was narrowly focused to my service and not to other parts of my life. It was only after one of the guys in my company, Greg MacDonald, died while responding to an ambush, that I started to think about how I should live my life more fully. I felt that if I didn’t live my life to my full potential, then I would be letting him and his legacy down. I wasn’t going to let that happen.
I’ve tried to understand how his death turned around my approach to life and I think it’s because I was trying to motivate myself to do things for myself. But that wasn’t meaningful. Meaning is about others. I found meaning in living my life in honor of his life.
If you’re just about making a living to have a nice place to live, have fun and go on trips around the world, then you’re going to be unhappy. Not to say those are bad things, but if you don’t find room to develop positive relationships and live to a certain extent for others, then you’re not being the best version of yourself.
What are my aspirations?
I strive to be a positive role model in whatever it is that I do. In business, my goal is to ensure that when leading a large company, I am creating a workplace where my employees love to work and grow. In the long-term, I’d like to get back into public service through politics, not necessarily because I want to push the views of any particular political party, but because I think that there’s a lack of leadership in our country. I don’t have a set position in mind, but I will go as far as I’m needed.
My Biggest Success?
While building and exiting my first company, Slidejoy, was a tremendous success, my greatest accomplishment to date is serving honorably in the United States Marine Corps and earning the respect of those that I served with.
My Most Challenging Moment?
I’ve had many challenging decisions along the way, but the most pivotal was after I was rejected from what was then my dream job.
I was an intern in the back office at Goldman Sachs one summer and through an inter-departmental program, made it to the final round for the investment banking division. I felt like it was the only shot I had to land a job in the front office of any bank, let alone Goldman, because I didn’t attend a target school, where most investment banks selectively recruit from. But I completely bombed the interview.
After a day or two of moping around, I promised myself that I was going to get a job in investment banking and that nothing would stop me. I had no clue how I would make it happen. I got creative and visited recruiting events at other college campuses in addition to my own. At the time, I was focusing on my schoolwork, driving over to Georgetown to meet the bankers, preparing for interviews and working 20 hours a week to pay for school. On most days for a few months, I only ate one meal. But like I said, nothing was going to stop me.
That decision I made that day to rebound from the rejection and somehow come up with a plan, set my career on a completely different trajectory. If I had stayed and accepted my fate to work in Goldman’s back office (not a bad job by any means), I know I would have had many regrets and left huge opportunities on the table. It was vindication of my hard work and belief in myself when I was later hired by Goldman to invest from their proprietary balance sheet.
Keep fighting the good fight.
It doesn’t matter what your fight is. As long as you’re fighting for someone or something, then keep going.
My Favorite People/Role Models?
My parents. They immigrated from Korea in 1975 and for decades ran a convenience store in the Washington DC area. My mother had been accepted to one of the most prestigious medical schools in Korea and declined because I had been born a few months before. My father worked every day of his life in America. In fact, the first time he went back to Korea was 38 years after he’d left.
When my mother was in her 50s, she went back to school, first to study English, and then to get her Master’s degree in acupuncture to finally pursue her dream of a career in medicine. They taught me how hard you have to work, to never let go of your dreams and to make sacrifices for those you love.
My Favorite Places/Destinations?
I lived in Medellin, Colombia to train for the Ironman Triathlon at altitude and I fell in love with the country. I found the people to value others for who they are, rather than what they do/how much they earn. In addition to the beauty of the country, it was a welcome respite to live there after working on Wall Street for a few years.
My Favorite Products/Objects?
For me it’s just about people. If you have the right people around you, then you can be happy doing pretty much anything!
My Current Passions?
Currently, I’m taking a lot of notes to share things that I’ve learned along the way. Writing and speaking about these experiences is something I’d like to do more in the future.