In 1999, Jessica Rovello helped invent viral content as promoter of “The Blair Witch Project.” Now a successful female tech entrepreneur, her firm Arkadium is helping large online publishers engage the internet masses.
While most everything about the internet has changed since the late 1990s, one thing remains the same: people love to click on what intrigues them. And Jessica Rovello knows how to keep them coming back for more.
Rovello, the cofounder and CEO of Arkadium, got her start in the tech world by producing the website for “The Blair Witch Project.” The success of the 1999 horror film is widely credited for what some call the first-ever viral online ad campaign. Its success planted a seed for her: “If I’m able to create really good, compelling, engaging content, there would be a long life for it.”
But while Rovello made internet history, she says she didn’t see much financial return for her innovation — an educational experience in and of itself that in 2001 led her to start her own company.
Today, her New York City firm is boosting clicks for the likes of CNN, Microsoft, the Washington Post and about 450 other publishers worldwide. The interactive games, quizzes and more that Arkadium creates for publisher clients — it has a library of over 300 such products — reached hundreds of millions of users last year, and kept them engaged for 15 minutes longer than users on similar sites, she says. It employs 100 people in the U.S. and Russia, and pulled in $12 million in revenue last year.
In a media landscape where sites are hungry for clicks and eyeballs mean necessary ad dollars, Arkadium is offering digital products that keep users interested and clients happy, she says. It hasn’t always been easy, especially as a female founder in an industry where women are the minority. But she says starting her own company “turned out to be a blessing.”
Feeding a Hunger for Engaging Content
After graduating from Wellesley College in 1996, Rovello got her first job at Artisan Entertainment, the studio that produced “The Blair Witch Project.” She recalls that she “was desperate to work in the movie industry,” and got her chance when she was hired to create a website and promote the film online.
Rovello, who was in her early 20s at the time, envisioned and executed a campaign that generated fake police reports and documentary-style interviews that played to the “found footage” style of the movie, all of which she released in installments. “No matter how much content I created, there was an appetite in people to continuously consume it.”
She took the lessons she learned about how to satiate internet users’ hunger for engaging content and launched Arkadium with Kenny Rosenblatt, her then-boyfriend and future husband, in 2001.
It wasn’t just about making money; Rovello also wanted to make change for women in tech. “I didn’t see companies were I felt like I could be satisfied in my desire to be a really strong and present mother, and I knew that was something that was going to be coming down the road for me,” she says. “To maintain my executive status, I felt like I had to make my own company.”
But the duo struggled at first — the dot-com bubble had just burst, and they couldn’t find any investors. “No one wanted anything to do with it. They didn’t even bother to look” at proposals, she says.
Initially, the couple bootstrapped the company, and collaborated with offshore teams to develop direct-to-consumer online poker games. To make ends meet, they didn’t pay themselves. “We were living on ramen noodles and working out of our apartment,” Rovello says.
A couple years went by and little improved, with the couple’s dreams of marriage and family on hold. So they gave themselves an ultimatum in their third year of business: “We got married in May, and if things hadn’t taken off by December, one of us was going to find a job so that we can support the dream of building a family together.”
Mere days before that new year arrived, while the couple was vacationing, they received a fateful call that led to a $250,000 deal to make a poker game for another website. “That one phone call put us into business — and changed our trajectory.” Creating games for corporate clients gave Arkadium new life.
The business grew, and Rovello collected accolades for her work, including the 2009 American Business Award for Executive of the Year, the 2008 Stevie Award for Entrepreneur of Year, and a Crain’s New York “40 Under 40” win in 2010.
Negating the Tech World’s ‘Bro’ Culture
Although Rovello got into the tech industry before the emergence of what she calls “CE-Bro tech culture” — in a play on “CEO” — she hasn’t escaped discrimination. “I’m definitely a rare breed, as are all women in positions like mine,” she says. Indeed, only about 5 percent of tech companies have female owners — “and I feel it.”
At conferences, she says, “often I’ll be mistaken for an administrative assistant” — and then congratulated for “leaning in” when she corrects the record. For years, she was treated as a nonentity in meetings while her husband was addressed respectfully. “I’m a full 50 percent — if not more — of growing the business, but I was not only persona non grata, [I was] a ghost who didn’t exist,” she says.
To change that, she and her husband traded titles, and she became CEO. “The title does matter. It makes a difference, at least to help be part of changing the ratio. We’re both running it together anyway, but no one outside would recognize that.”
Arkadium’s executive staff is more than 50 percent women, and it was named one of the best workplaces in 2015 by Inc. Magazine — fulfilling Rovello’s goal of creating the sort of company she wanted to work for so many years ago. Her dreams of a family have come true, too; she and Rosenblatt now have three sons.
Going forward, Arkadium is rolling out new technology designed to keep it on the cutting edge of interactive content. Its new InHabit software generates interactive elements in real time that complement a client’s content. For example, for an article about a film director, InHabit creates a quiz that asks readers to vote on the director’s best films. “It’s using real-time data from sources to inject content on the fly,” she says. “Stories can come alive.”
Rovello is excited by the possibilities for the future and, looking back, is impressed at how her business has grown. As she puts it, “content is still king.”
Posted: June 7, 2017