Online marketplaces have made it so much easier to book things. The one most people are familiar with would be AirBnB for booking homes and apartments. In the past, we have featured entrepreneurs who’ve created online marketplaces for renting designers (graphic designers, web designers, product designers) and for booking offline lessons (academic tutoring, piano lessons, swimming lessons).

AdEasy is a home-grown online marketplace for offline ads — for print, radio, television, cinema, billboards, etc. It’s a simple way for companies to book offline ad spaces. “Our goal is to provide a platform that makes advertising easy, accessible and transparent for businesses,” says founder Melissa Sim.

When Sim first put together a concept paper for this idea, she had had 12 years of work experience in the ad and media industry, so she knew very well the ins-and-outs of the sector as well as the challenges companies have in booking offline ads.

Sim talks to Savvy about her company, how she raised funding for it, why this new service is ideal for SMEs in this country and how start-up life has been treating her.

What’s the genesis of AdEasy?

I had many brainstorming sessions with my co-founder Therine Goh, who’s now the COO of the company, before we decided to take part in the Alliance Bank SME Innovation Challenge in 2013. At the time, all we had was a concept paper but it was good enough for us to be one of the 13 finalists out of 200 applicants. In the end, we didn’t win but it was a good experience.

You’ve just launched this year. Why has it taken four years to get ready?

It took a bit of time to figure out how to simplify and automate the offline ad booking process and since it’s our first time building an online marketplace platform, there was a lot of trial and error involved. The website that you see today (goadeasy.com) is actually the fourth version of our website. We didn’t want to launch it until we felt it was good enough. It was only earlier this year that we felt it was finally ready.

How did you develop the platform since neither of you is a programmer?

I had mentioned that our current website is the fourth version. The first three versions were outsourced to developers from overseas. We worked with people from India and Russia and it just didn’t work out well. They couldn’t really see the big picture. They couldn’t understand what we wanted to achieve in terms of the front end and the back end. Communication was also a challenge because of the time difference. In the end, instead of saving money, I think we ended up spending more money. Our fourth version was done with our own in-house tech guy. He used to work for an agency but now he’s with us.

What convinced you that there was a need for something like AdEasy?

Many people might not be aware of this but it’s actually not that easy to book offline ads. Price and information are not easily accessible and it’s quite troublesome to book offline ad space directly from media owners. It can take from days to weeks just to find the right ad space. We felt that offering an online marketplace for this would be good for the industry and good for advertisers, in particular the small and medium enterprises.

Why “in particular the small and medium enterprises”?

Therine and I have a lot of experience in the media buying-and-selling process. We both felt there was a huge market gap for underserved small advertisers. Most SMEs have small advertising budgets — sometimes as small as RM5,000 — and they’re under the impression that offline advertising is too expensive and troublesome for them to do. Through AdEasy, they’ll find that some kinds of offline advertising can actually be affordable and that booking is simple.

Are there really affordable offline ad options for SMEs with a small budget?

You’d be amazed at what you could do with a RM5,000 advertising budget. As a former small advertiser herself, Therine has had years of experience in this field, but many small advertisers are not aware of this. Through AdEasy, SMEs can really stretch their RM5,000 budget by looking at all the options available to them. It’s all very transparent.

You offer offline ads. Why not offer online ads as well?

Booking online ads is easy. Anyone can just go and book ads on Google or Facebook. And they can do it with a small budget. That’s why you do see lots of SMEs doing online advertising. The gap is with offline ads, which is what we’re trying to address.

How much were you inspired by platforms like AirBnB?

We were very much inspired by the online marketplace concept and wanted to make the process of booking offline ads as easy as booking accommodation via AirBnB. We wanted to remove barriers to adoption, and making it easy to use is crucial for that.

How did you finance the development of your business?

We utilised equity crowdfunding via pitchIN (pitchin.my) and managed to raise RM242,250, which was sufficient for our needs. This is kind of a new way to raise start-up funding. Someone recommended it to us, we tried it and it worked out well for us!

What’s your business model?

Media owners can list their ad spaces for free but we charge a small fee for every ad campaign booked. Advertisers don’t pay anything. And the prices they get are the same even if they were to go directly to the media owners to buy the ad. It’s just more hassle for them if they do it that way.

Has it been easy to convince media companies to take part?

So far it has been relatively easy because they understand what we’re trying to do. And they like it. After all it’s an additional channel for them to sell more ads and make more money. We’re letting them list for free so there is no cost to them for participating. We only charge a small fee if there’s a sale.

What’s the barrier to entry for someone else to start an online marketplace for offline ads?

I’m not sure there’s a barrier to entry as technology isn’t a factor. If someone can programme or hire a programmer, they can build an online platform like ours. Our competitive advantage is the industry knowledge we’ve amassed and the relationship with media partners that we’ve built up over the years. Our online platform may be new but we’ve been in this line for years.

What enhancements do you plan to roll out in the near future?

We want to offer features that help make the whole media buying process smarter. I’ve been reading a lot about machine learning and artificial intelligence. It’d be good to be able to automate things and determine which type of media is suitable for each client.

How has the start-up life been so far?

It’s been very exciting. We’re learning new things every day and meeting lots of people — really great people. Therine and I also work very well together. We have very different personalities but we complement each other.

Does the financial uncertainty of running a start-up worry you?

Not really. It forces you to be more creative. Having a fixed, steady monthly salary is nice but would I want to be working a 9-to-5 job 20 years from now? No. I’d rather be doing this.

What motivates you?

I want to build something that will solve a problem. I want to make a difference. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to do something different. So, this is it for me.

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