We’re joined for our latest Building Successful Businesses podcast episode by Rupert Hodson, CEO and Co-Founder of Dianomi, one of the nominees for the ECI-sponsored Tech Growth Business of the Year award at the UK Tech Awards. In this episode, Rupert discusses his entrepreneurial journey – from starting his own car washing company, ‘Partners in Grime’, as a teen, to building a successful business operating across three continents.
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Fiona: Welcome to ECI’s podcast, Building Successful Businesses, where we speak to CEOs about the building blocks of their success and the lessons they’ve learned on the way. I’m Fiona Moore, and today, I’m delighted to welcome by Rupert Hodson, CEO and co-founder of Dianomi, the native advertising platform for business and finance, and a recent nominee in the ECI-sponsored Tech Growth Business of the Year award at the UK Tech Awards. So, Rupert, welcome.
Rupert: Thank you very much for having me, Fiona.
Fiona: So, you founded Dianomi almost 20 years ago, what was the background to why you decided to start your own business, and why Dianomi?
Rupert: Well, I guess I’d always been a bit of an entrepreneur at heart, and aged 18, I set up a car washing business with a friend of mine called Partners in Grime, which wasn’t very successful, but it kept some of the money coming in at that age. I guess, really, it was after university, that I went and worked with a chap called Peter Hambro at a gold mining business. Peter was quite an entrepreneur himself and had investments in various businesses, and I was occasionally sent off to go and explore and understand where they were at. One of which was an annual reporting company called Intermedia, they provided CD ROMs with annual reports for companies that could be sent on to analysts to download all the data.
And actually, it was from there that I set up a business with him, saying, “Look, actually, the internet’s just starting and actually, CD ROMs are on the way out, and I think we should consider launching an investor relations website for FTSE 100 companies.” We did that and he supported me, so I set up a business called Share IT, supported by Peter, and through that, I was approaching investment sites like Interactive Investor, where I ended up and met my co-founders. Rather than partner with Share IT, they said, “Actually, will you come over and come and set it up with us?” So, I joined Interactive Investor at the start of the dot-com boom. Just loved the ingenuity and innovativeness of businesses, and I think that goes hand-in-hand with why you see so many entrepreneurs on the internet because it’s very much a creative business.
And it was there that I met with my two co-founders, Raphael Queisser and Cabell de Marcellus. We worked together for three or four years there and went through a float on the London Stock Exchange. It was a fascinating time, and it was really there that we saw an opportunity to set up an advertising platform that really focused on financial services. The core would be creating this marketplace where we partner with premium financial publishers and create essentially a scalable, transparent environment for advertisers to serve and reach and engage a financially fluent and affluent audience. That’s where it all kicked off and that’s when we decided to jump ship and start Dianomi.
Fiona: You mentioned that you sort of, I guess, moved into the advertising industry at the start of kind of the internet, the dot-com boom. But the advertising industry has changed hugely over sort of that last 20 years. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the industry now?
Rupert: It has changed hugely and it’s now incredibly complex. I mean, the biggest challenge is really within the industry, all about really targeting consumers’ personal data and that’s still hitting the headlines. And quite rightly so, privacy is absolutely first and central to ensuring a safe environment. We’ve got Google announcing that in 2023, they’re gonna deprecate the third-party cookie across the browsers, and third-party cookies are essentially the fuel that provides all these ad targeting engines and how they can go around and reach and engage and target people.
So, with that going, it’s causing huge amounts of change. One thing that it’s gonna do is reduce a lot of the scale the ad businesses can provide now, and it’s pushing a much bigger focus back to contextual targeting, where you look to target ads based on the relevance of the content rather than the specific individual. Fortunately, Dianomi, we’ve always been focused on contextual targeting. It’s at our core, just by the nature of being a financial business and finance-focused platform.
Fiona: And Dianomi listed on AIM in 2021. How has life changed since you became a listed company?
Rupert: I mean, firstly, it was a hugely exciting process to go through, slightly weird in that it was all done online through video. We listed in May. We were hugely fortunate to take on board a CFO, a lady called Charlotte Stranner, and she has been fundamental to ensuring that it hasn’t impacted us and our co-founders in our other areas of focus within the business. So, things have got a bit more structured, which has been a good thing, and we added a new non-exec, a lady called Laura Shesgreen, who has been excellent. So, we’ve had more advice for us as a business. It’s really helped raise our profile with a lot of the publishers we work with, particularly actually in the U.S. market as well. Still early days, but it’s been a very good experience so far.
Fiona: Does it change anything as CEO, because I suppose you’re in a position now where, at any point any day, you know exactly the value of your company, which isn’t always the case when you’re private. Does that change your role, do you think, at all?
Rupert: No. I mean, the big change for me, obviously, you need to speak to your investors. I guess we’ve only done a half-year report, so I’m still learning, just put it that way. But no, it’s good and it’s great talking to this, telling the story to people, getting feedback, and understanding ways we can improve and do things better.
Fiona: You work with some of the biggest brands in financial services and investing. It feels like there are lots of newer disruptors in the space, particularly around things like cryptocurrency and a shift at the moment in the access and interest in investing from a consumer perspective. How do you foresee the investment industry changing in the face of those newer technologies and broader consumer access?
Rupert: It’s a big question. It’s fascinating understanding it, particularly with FinTech, crypto and GameStop, with many people trading stocks and high volumes of trades going through in the last year. We see a lot of that happening just through the nature of the fact that we work with all these publishers with fixed positions on their sites, so we see the increase in traffic coming through to the site and the specific topics that are trending across these publishers, and what stocks they’re researching, etc. I think the FinTech crypto market certainly helped fuel a lot of that and the free trading through the Robinhood app, etc.
So, I think there are many more people who now see themselves as investors. I think there are a lot of people there who are essentially gambling. Even my eldest daughter’s boyfriend sits on his phone trading crypto at times and I do slightly wonder if he really knows what’s going on, and crypto is a topic where there are some things I understand about it, and others I don’t. So, it’s a much more competitive environment, certainly in the investment world when you’re looking to engage with end audiences, consumers, etc. And what we’re seeing is more and more brands putting more time and effort into creating content and building out content to engage these audiences and create a relationship.
That’s one of the outcomes that we’re seeing, and it’s super important because these brands have got to have that relationship. It’s very easy to switch now to another broker, to another provider. Things aren’t as sticky as they used to be. So, building that trust, particularly after 2008 and the financial crash has been a key factor, and continuing that conversation is important. We’re fortunate in our business that brands can use us as a platform to have this always-on content engagement with existing clients and prospects.
I think what’s been actually really interesting seeing abrdn, the way they’ve rebranded. Yes, they don’t have any vowels in their name, but also if you’ve seen their latest TV ad and what they’ve been doing on a strategic basis, they bought Finimize, which is a financial news platform, they bought Interactive Investor as a retail brokerage. And certainly, the TV ad, if you’ve seen it, they say, “When you invest in this,” and it’s a video over a construction site, “you invest in this,” and then it’s a lot of happy people at a football match. So, you know, it’s all about having that direct relationship, and I think that should be very interesting to see, and I think it’s the right way to go.
Fiona: Yeah, I think it’s interesting from a branding perspective, definitely, and asset management always used to be focused, quite conservatively, very much around trust and heritage. I think you can see that’s shifting, and that probably is driven by newer generations of investors coming up.
Rupert: Yeah, absolutely. And that more social media-esque way of engaging with these new generations.
Fiona: Dianomi currently operates from three different continents, how did you build up to become an international business, and what’s key to that success?
Rupert: The U.S. is our biggest market, and what led us there was actually our existing client base in the UK. And the same goes for where we have offices in APAC, Australia, and Sydney, but we’re also running campaigns in Germany, Italy, France, and Spain. And it’s largely led by our client base. So, you know, we’re working with asset managers which saw the success in what we’re delivering from the UK and said, can we help them do something similar in the U.S.? So, it’s a very fortunate position to be in.
And at the same time, we were working with publishers in the UK like Reuters, for example, who have a very significant U.S. audience. So, we had parts of the puzzle there and what we were missing was the right people. Fundamentally, it’s about finding the right people to be your lead out there. We’re very fortunate in both the U.S. and Australia to have excellent teams. So, you know, it’s about the right people on the ground, having the right attitude, but you’ve got to have that core client base, having that behind you means you’re not starting from scratch.
Fiona: ECI has a New York office, and one of the problems we’re often trying to help our portfolio solve is that question around finding the right people in, you know, where you’re not necessarily based, and especially during the pandemic when you haven’t been able to fly to the places you might want to operate from. When you said sort of one of the challenges was finding the right people, how did you go about that? What led to that being successful?
Rupert: We worked with this consultant, where we were fortunate in that he knew the financial services and digital financial services industry well. Through his contacts, we were then able to establish who might be the right sort of people to come and help set up the offices and the business out there. Having that network is super important. And actually, we ended up taking on a chap called Ken Johnston, who was our first employee in the U.S., and who was absolutely fantastic, and we still speak to him quite a bit, and now he’s heading up financial services at Facebook. But that was the starting point, that first employee, that first recruit is absolutely key.
Fiona: What’s been the most valuable advice you’ve been given during your career?
Rupert: That’s a really difficult one. I mean, obviously, planning, really trying to establish exactly what you’re looking to go and achieve. And by that, I mean, really keeping very focused. It’s very easy to try and tackle every opportunity that you see in front of you, and we’ve certainly suffered from that in our earlier days when we saw opportunities in different verticals, etc. And actually, in retrospect, it would’ve been much more efficient to really just focus on that core that you’re looking to deliver because it’s a competitive world out there, you need to be the best at what you do. So, focus is absolutely key.
And working with people that, you know, not only are good at what they do but really who you can get along well with. We have a, I don’t want to bang on about them, but we have a very strong team in the business, and a lot of people have been with us for a very long time. We don’t want to be an environment where people come for a couple of years and then move on. We want people here for the longevity. And, you know, I’m pleased to say that we have quite a high proportion of people who have been with the business for over 10 years. So, maybe that’s a bit old school these days, but, I think that’s super important to that culture and how it grows. So, yeah, I think it’s focus and people.
Fiona: Is there anything that business success has taught you about yourself as an individual?
Rupert: I think anything is achievable if you’re working with the right people and you’re getting everyone around the table and trying to work out how you can deliver on a plan. To me, it’s all about the team and not so much the individual. It’s getting that right team together to work out the right way forward. There’s always a right way forward, it might not be a straight line, but there are always ways of trying to get to the end game. I guess I was fortunate to meet my two co-founders and we very much operated really as a triumvirate over the years, and continue to do so. So, I think that’s been a part of the culture of the business and how it moved forward.
Fiona: Were there any moments where you felt like you had to have a transformation within the business?
Rupert: I mean, certainly, you know, it hasn’t been plain sailing. And, you know, we’ve had times in the business where it’s been stressful. In the 2007s and ’08s, we were evolving the business from a lead generation-based platform generating leads for asset managers, through to more of what we nowadays call cost-per-click. Then along came the financial crisis as well and you saw asset manager budgets being slashed. We were fortunate in that we weren’t hit too hard because asset managers were using us as a platform to tell consumers what to do in times of recession, etc. So, that certainly helped us some of the way. But, you know, it was not easy.
I think it’s important to note that, as a business, we’ve grown organically in 20 years. We’ve only raised a total of 1 million pounds in new money into the business prior to the IPO. So, we were conservative by nature, and you’re competing against brands that have raised very significant amounts of money and are splashing it about. So, you have to play the long game, but playing the long game, you go from fairly stressful times in the shorter term when you’ve got brands who are coming in, or competitors I should say, and putting money in the face of your clients to get them to move over. So, it’s not always easy, but perseverance and planning, I think, are key.
Fiona: And it sounds like, out of that time, which maybe is more difficult when you’re transforming the business, you are also facing the global financial crisis, actually, you end up creating the building blocks for your future success. Is there anything that you’re looking forward to, particularly in the future of Dianomi?
Rupert: Well, post-pandemic, I can’t wait to get back into the office on a more regular basis and see the whole team, rather than bits and bobs. So that’d be great, and you know, I used to spend quite a lot of the time out in New York, certainly every month I was out there, and I haven’t been there for two years. So, I’m looking forward to a bit more travel and seeing our core client base, but more importantly, our employees.
For us, we have a fairly clear strategy of what we need to execute on, certainly, for the next 12 to 24 months. What goes beyond that is difficult to tell in digital because it’s pretty fast-moving. But, for us, it’s about building that team and delivering on our plan, and that’s exciting. And, being listed now, we have a currency, we can look at potential acquisitions, and it’s really been a platform for the next stage of growth for our business. So, that is exciting.
Fiona: And lastly, is there any other advice you’d give to business owners at the start of the journey? You mentioned focus and teamwork, but is there anything else, particularly around the role of the leader?
Rupert: For me, it’s always about being able to have a conversation with someone and listening. I think that’s super important. But that’s how you really understand the core workings of the company and what people are happy with and what they aren’t, and then just try to focus on those and work them out. It’s always very easy to pitch, you know, “We have this wonderful business, and everyone’s happy, and it’s all going well.” But, you know, there are always issues and ways of improving. So, it’s making sure you don’t forget about that, and just keep focused on the team, because that’s what the company is.
Fiona: Great. Well, thanks, Rupert. Thanks so much for your time. It’s great to hear about how you’ve gone from car washing with Partners in Grime, to AIM-listed now with Dianomi. And I think those important conversations, which gives you lots of room for improvement, is a great way to think about the future.
Rupert: Thank you very much for having me on the podcast.