Embrace the unknown. Building something big and truly meaningful is hard. When you embark on the journey, you have an idea about how the path will look, but most likely you are wrong. Especially if you are on a path that nobody has ever taken. You cannot possibly imagine what’s waiting ahead. Most likely, you’ll find obstacles you never thought could exist and you have to change the course of action more often than you could have imagined.
As a part of my series about social media stars who are using their platform to make a significant social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Outi Pietilanaho, CEO and Co-Founder of Vimma which is revolutionising the online advertisement industry. Vimma is a challenger ad-network that runs on people’s opinions. This ground-breaking new technology performs 11 times better than regular advertisement and gives the power to ordinary people to be the advertisers for products they use and love.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My name is Outi, I’m the CEO and Co-Founder of a marketing technology company called Vimma. I have worked for many years in the marketing industry. I have a very strange relation to my profession — I hate it and I love it!
Many people would agree with me if I said that the ads marketers so carefully prepare and distribute feels almost like a punishment to the people it is catered to. Frankly, nobody wants to see it. Think about the feeling you get when you are watching a video online and you get an ad that you can’t skip. Or when you are reading an article online and your entire screen is blocked with a full screen ad. It is really annoying and you don’t think very positively of a brand that does this to you.
On the other hand, ask any marketer if they actually want to cause you these negative emotions with their ads. Of course, they don’t! But almost every marketer still does this, and is willing to pay a lot of money for it. This is because the marketer really does not have a choice.
I think there should be a better way of doing marketing rather than pouring billions of dollars into ads that people really don’t want to see. We live in the era of highly developed technology and amazing ability to connect with each other online in meaningful ways. Why then are brands failing to use the technology in the same way we do so fluently in between people? I personally believe that there is a better way brands can connect to their target groups rather than bothering them with ads. This is why I started Vimma.
I think that the only way to make advertisement more meaningful, is to let the people themselves decide what ads they think are relevant. Even better, the people should be the ones creating the ads, telling us what they really like (or don’t like!) about the product. This way, there will be more ads that individuals can believe in, shared to their networks who find the ad relevant. And instead of pouring the marketing dollars into large corporations who massively capitalise on disturbing us, brands could give back to the people who actually use and love their products!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?
There has been so many interesting things that have happened since I began this career. I moved to London from Finland as that’s the place to be if you want to work in marketing and advertisement. I knew that I needed a CTO or a technical co-founder who could build the software and AI around the vision I had. Coincidentally, I found out that an old friend of mine, Mykhailo, was also living in London at the time and was exiting from his previous venture. We started working together and instantly it felt like we were onto something.
We got some great initial signs that this is a great concept, people were really excited about what we do, and we got a few small companies on board as customers as well. But it was really tough, we had to spend quite a bit of money to get the concept moving, and London is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live.
I was 32, renting a room in a shared flat for the first time in my life. The first few months we worked from my co-founder’s living room, trying to be as cost efficient as possible but I was still drying up my savings account on business expenses and just the basic necessities of living in London. I also lived far away from my family and my partner, in a new country which did not make things any easier.
If it was not for the excitement of people who wanted to see this concept live, I would never have continued. Every time we emailed people asking them to join the platform, we got about 60% positive response. That’s mind-blowing, when on average less than 1% of cold emails get answered. I’m happy we did not give up. Today we’re working with some of the most amazing brands in the world and have more and more people joining the movement every single day!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’ve made my fair share of mistakes since the beginning of my career. Sadly, I cannot remember any of these mistakes being very funny but I have learned a lot.
Ok super. Let’s now jump to the core focus of our interview. Can you describe to our readers how you are using your platform to make a significant social impact?
Vimma is a for-profit company. However, our vision is to harness the global $230 billion advertisement industry in order to benefit the regular consumer more. There are two aspects with Vimma that I think will benefit the society as a whole.
Firstly, the current marketing industry does not work well when it comes to product ethics. To put it bluntly, the advertiser that has most disposable budget will get the most visibility. The current ecosystem is blind to what people actually want or what products would actually be worth purchasing. I sincerely think the way advertising is done currently has come to the end of its road. We at Vimma propose instead that when people decide what they want to advertise, there will be an inevitable filter on what kind of products get the consumers attention. Instead of getting seen due to large marketing budgets, products are noticed when people genuinely like them. A bad product will not find enough people to advocate it. This works almost like democracy.
The second aspect is financial. Global online ad spend is over $230 billion every year. That is a massive amount of money. Did you know that for example L’Oreal used 8.14 billion euros in advertisement and promotion (online and offline) last year? Imagine, if some of that money would be distributed back to the people who actually use and love L’Oreal’s products? Even if we are not promising massive financial gains to people who are open to advocate their favourite brands, at least we can contribute to making the distribution more meaningful for both brands and consumers.
Wow! Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by this cause?
We talk with the people who use our platform every week. Even if we are growing and making campaigns with more and more brands and people, we want to keep the habit of picking up the phone and just listening to what people have to say to us. For me, it is encouraging to hear how excited people are about what we are doing. The most inspiring calls are the ones where I can hear people echoing our vision: people who say they want to share what products they’re using for the good of the community. Some feel very passionate about supporting only cruelty free cosmetics or sustainably produced goods, others want to support small business owners, and many just want others to know what products are worth purchasing and why. People get a small compensation from the brands, but it is often so much more than just the money — it is about collectively changing towards a more democratic commerce where people’s opinions actually matter.
To share a story of someone in particular who has been part of our journey, I will tell you about Penny. She has been part of our platform now for a few months and I remember having a call with her when she joined. She is a young professional, uses quite a bit of her time on beauty, fashion and hair care, and appreciates good quality indie brands that deliver their value proposition. We connected Penny to a brand she uses, and she made a small post on Instagram about it. She liked the concept, as making an ad was really simple, and she got the freedom to say what she really thought about the product. After that we’ve connected her to a few more brands. She’s happy to advocate products she likes every now and then, and she gets a compensation for doing this. As an individual case this might not sound like anything particularly impressive, but the power of the concept will manifest when more and more of advertisement is done with people like Penny — as authentic product recommendations.
On the other side of the coin, there are the marketing managers representing the brands. I can see they are fascinated when they see what people have to say about their brand. But what is equally interesting is the moment when we present to them the reasons why people refuse to advertise them. It is also rewarding to sit on the other side of the table and see the brand representatives read a report on how many consumers say they don’t want to affiliate with a brand that cannot prove their cruelty free production chain. Those are the situations where I feel we’re doing something really tangible and getting people’s voices heard.
Was there a tipping point the made you decide to focus on this particular area? Can you share a story about that?
Long story short, I started cooking this idea while I was building my own cosmetics brand some years back. I refused to use regular ads because I felt they were meaningless to my audience. I started engaging with people to talk about my products, and it also made sense on commercial perspective. I thought I would so much rather give my marketing dollars to people who use and love my product, instead of ad networks. Fast forward a few years, hundreds of conversations with other marketers later, and I figured out that I’m not alone with these thoughts. And that’s when we set to this path of building technology that enables regular consumers to advertise the products they use and love!
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
People are already receiving what we do really positively. Brands are also happy because the ads people are creating work a whole lot better than the regular display ads. One thing I would like to mention is that we hope to keep the conversation in the community very open to understand how people want the future of advertisement to look like! The fact is that companies do need to market their products, but we want to fight for a model where it is done beneficially for people and society, with better products winning on the market and people receiving a good cut of the advertisement dollars.
What specific strategies have you been using to promote and advance this cause? Can you recommend any good tips for people who want to follow your lead and use their social platform for a social good?
I’d like to encourage anyone to use their own personal influence for things that they feel are important. We all know that it is easier than ever to gain visibility to large groups of people these days through social media. However, my tip for anyone who wants to make a difference is to just simply share what you believe in and keep doing so consistently. You do not need to worry if you don’t have a large audience, and you do not need to be an influencer to get your voice heard.
Try to turn your focus off from the direct impact you are making as a person and think of the greater social canvas you are part of. Every time you speak about something online, whether it is a cause, or a brand, you are participating in a larger conversation. You do not necessarily see your individual impact but you should not be concerned about that. If you have a blog, and you get frustrated because you only have a handful of people reading it, do not stop. You are cultivating keywords and back links in the internet, and if there’s enough small people like you talking about a subject, it will be picked up as a trend. Even if your voice would not be heard directly, you contribute to the greater pool of data online. So, share what you believe in, and keep sharing, even if you think there’s not a lot of people who care!
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
When I look back, I’d say there are 2 things that I wish I didn’t have to learn the hard way. Firstly, embrace the unknown. Building something big and truly meaningful is hard. When you embark on the journey, you have an idea about how the path will look, but most likely you are wrong. Especially if you are on a path that nobody has ever taken. You cannot possibly imagine what’s waiting ahead. Most likely, you’ll find obstacles you never thought could exist and you have to change the course of action more often than you could have imagined.
We are taught to make plans and follow them. Set objectives, key milestones and work hard to reach them. This is how you succeed in a conventional career. Once you decide to do something no-one has ever done before, you will have to accept the path that does not have many signposts. I wish I would have understood this earlier. I was always the good student and good employee — until I started building ambitious ventures where there’s much more volatility and very few signposts to know if you are going to the right direction. Much more often you will have to play it by ear, trust your gut and make your own metrics.
I also wish I knew to ask for help. This might sound very obvious but we actually don’t do this enough. When was the last time you reached out to someone in your network asking for help with something? Or, when did you expand your network and try reaching out to a total stranger for help? We often have the tendency of wanting to look like we know what we’re doing and appear as the expert. It takes a whole lot of courage to say, “I don’t know how to do this, can you please help me?” The truth is, even if we have all the information of the world available for us online, one of the most efficient things you can do in any area of life is to find out someone who is more experienced than you are and ask for their personal opinion for your specific situation.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I suppose the only correct answer to bring the most amount of good for the most amount of people would be to reduce our carbon footprint and stop the climate change. But we all know that already!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts”. (Winston Churchill). Or, the same thing with a bit more rock’n’roll: “Buy the ticket, take the ride” (Hunter S. Thompson).
When you are on a journey trying to change the way a huge, powerful industry works, you’ll find these words accurate for almost everything you do. Life in a start-up is volatile. For the past year or so, I feel like almost every single day in business is a rollercoaster ride, where one huge success is followed by a massive disappointment, and I’ve learned to live with that. My team and I know already that many things we build today might be tossed to the bin tomorrow, and something that feels like a major success today, can be a stumbling block tomorrow. The only thing that matters is that we believe in the vision, and that we keep moving, keep learning and keep improving.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to meet Brian Chesky, a founder of AirBnB. I’m particularly fascinated with the way he founded the company and how today the company is enabling so many people to make extra cash with their homes whilst also giving people opportunity to travel with much more flexible options rather than just hotels.
I also see so many similarities between their early struggles and what we do at Vimma. I once read that Chesky was meeting a potential investor who asked in disbelief “are people really staying in other people’s homes? Why would they do that?” We often get similar questioning from investors; “Do people really post about products they use on social media? Why would they do that?” I’d love to hear more about the journey they took and how they grew to be a meaningful part of so many people’s holidays.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m happy to connect with anyone who’s interested to follow, share and discuss the topics around marketing, advertisement and the power people have as a community! Here’s my LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/outipietilanaho/
If you’re interested, you can also join the movement and sign up to our platform as a consumer: https://app.vimma.co/
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!