Ad Tech Startup Rocket Fuel’s Revenues Take Off

Display-LUMAscape

Illustration: Luma Partners

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

There’s a gazillion little ad tech companies out there, as you can see in the well-traveled chart called the Display Lumascape on the right. Conventional (and probably correct) wisdom is that eventually many of them will get snapped up by bigger fish, whether that’s giants like Google, Oracle, and Facebook or rivals that just did a better job.

Since that process has happened a little more slowly than many people expected, though, a few of those fish are getting pretty big. One of them is Rocket Fuel, a Redwood City (Calif.)-based startup that despite its name has flown under the radar of the general public. While it started out as an ad network, it might be better seen today as a so-called demand-side platform, or DSP. It buys ad space for marketers and uses its rocket-science technology to target ads precisely in real time to the most receptive prospects, a process that goes by the industry shorthand “programmatic buying.”

Today, Rocket Fuel is announcing with unusual candor for a startup that its gross revenues rose 238% last year to $107 million. Notice I said gross revenues; a good chunk of that goes back to publishers from which it bought ad inventory. The company won’t reveal net revenues.

But the growth is real. And that includes growth in customers, nearly a doubling of new advertisers. On their behalf, Rocket Fuel’s system deals with more than 26 billion ad impressions a day. Not least, the company has more than doubled its staff, to 289 employees, including a new chief marketing officer and a couple of VPs.

CEO George John says the company isn’t profitable yet, though he says it’s close. “The playbook is to invest,” he says, so plans are not for near-term profits.

You might wonder, as I did, whether revealing revenues is an indication that the company aims to go public soon. Actually, it has been just as forthcoming previously, and John won’t say what his plans are.

But given that it had made noises back in 2011 about an IPO in 2012, instead raising a huge $50 million round last June, it’s not out of the realm of possibility this year, market gods willing. Or, to mix a metaphor, it might continue to swim around the Lumascape and try to figure out whether to eat or be eaten.

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