In 2001, when Jessica Rovello and her husband and co-founder, Kenny Rosenblatt, founded Arkadium, she was one of a small group of women who were leading technology start-up companies. Seventeen years later, the statistics haven’t changed much with only 3% of women running venture backed firms. She has set out to change that by creating an inspiring work environment (along with some innovative technology) to create a lasting legacy and a place where other women can operate on a plane above the glass ceiling.
“Our company culture is very different than many other technology companies–ours is a modern technical business in that we really do believe strongly in the journey, in balance in our lives, and having employees that are passionate about things outside of the business. We encourage employees that love working in the business but also love being a great parent and great friend and great child. We’ve got a very unique environment and culture which is important to us and which we want to sustain. But we’re also very driven,” says Rovello
Her ultimate goal is to reinvent content. The New York City-based Arkadium offers technology that creates visual interactive content for over 500 of the world’s leading publishers, like CNN, The Washington Post, L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune that serves to help them increase brand loyalty, time onsite, and engagement. At its origins, the company built a platform that made it easy for content websites to insert gaming functionality that increased site interaction or stickiness. More recently, they’ve created a new product called InHabit which is a dynamic editorial product that within a few milliseconds allows any article on any content site to add an interactive infographic related to the contents of that article so that readers can get more involved in the story themselves and have something to engage them visually.
“It’s disruptive to journalism, but in a good way. I come from a family of journalists. My mother is an active columnist for The New York Daily News. It’s just meant to support the written word with exciting new tools and ways to engage,” says Rovello
Publications like the The Washington Post and The New York Times are at the forefront of acknowledging that their stories need to be more visual and interactive. This modern approach to journalism is dealing with the hurdle of getting your newsroom to become more technical and not have it be siloed where you have traditional print journalists and you have technical people, but rather have them working together.
“Our approach is using machine learning, artificial intelligence and data to help journalists do their jobs better, because there will never be a replacement for in-depth, investigative journalism. There shouldn’t be. But if you need to know the batting average of a certain player over the last 300 games and how the team compares to when they’re on the injury list versus actually being active in a game, that’s something that we can pull up in a millisecond. It is such a wonderful enhancement to stories being written that a journalist simply couldn’t have the time to research and create (especially in an interactive way) and get it done and out the door in a day when they’re writing a piece.”
Besides Jessica’s interactive and exciting technology she focuses a lot of her time on making sure that she is forging a path for women in the industry.
“For the first 13 years we were in business, my husband was the CEO and I was the president of the company. We were 100% equal partners, but we would go into these meetings with potential backers and because I was always the only female in the room, all the questions would be directed at my husband. After everything collapsed in our business in the end of 2014, we decided that if everything else was changing in our business, we should make changes all around. We both believe very strongly that even though I was a full 50% of the business, for whatever reason by nature of the title that I had or because we were married, I didn’t get the same opportunities. We decided to change roles and change titles. We wanted to walk the walk. We believe in pay equity and more women being represented in the technology industry at C-level positions.”
Growing up in Manhattan, Jessica learned a lot from having strong female role-models in her life. “I grew up with a strong mom and a strong grandma and then I went to an all-women’s college. I was lucky in that because and I have been at this for a long time, way before there were the measly 3% of female CEOs running venture-backed firms that there are now, and I am thankful for their guidance and strength.”
After college, she worked for an independent film studio and created/produced the website for The Blair Witch Project which went on to be the most successful independent film of all time. The website and the viral campaign around the movie that she created propelled the film to unprecedented heights of success. The whole company got a bonus, but because she was a 24-year old making $30,000.00 a year her bonus was $300. Despite that fact that the film cost $60,000 to create and it pulled in $100 million in revenue, they had only $300 to share. “This was a pivotal moment for me, because it became clear that this entrepreneur thing could really work. I couldn’t fathom working at an organization that did not give equal pay for equal contribution,” says Rovello.
Before going out on he own, she decided to work for the tech company On2 Technologies, where she met her husband in 1999. “It was a fun, but crazy time during the first tech boom to bubble. I was 25 and I was facing the reality that at some point my now husband and I were going to get married and have children because that was something we both wanted. I didn’t see the opportunity for me to join a company where I could have both the life I wanted as an engaged and present mother and still be an amazing, kick-ass professional.”
Together they created Arkadium partly because they wanted to see if they could do a better job of creating a better work environment. They bootstraped the business for the first 13 years and grew profitably and steadily over time. “We grew at different levels, over different years, and we lived through two different recessions. We had some flat years and then we had years like last year where we grew 28%.”
Yet few CEOs are forced to rethink their business model due to geopolitics as Rovello did.
Early on the company couldn’t afford to hire developers in the United States. So they found a company that was being run by an American who was based in Ukraine and eventually bought the company in 2006. “We had 100 people in southern Ukraine. Then in 2014, the President of the country was deposed and Putin marched in and annexed the region for Russia. The entire staff had to change their status as citizens of the country. American Government sanctioned any businesses in the region, making it instantly illegal for Arkadium to conduct business there with no warning.
Faced with this existential crisis, Rovello and her husband had to act quickly and adapt. “We ended up moving 55 employees and their families to southern Russia with all of their belongings and established a new office there. Not all decided to move as many had aging parents or small children who were still in school so they needed to stay close to their hometowns in what was the former Ukraine, now Russia. We asked our staff what their preference was and the majority of them chose to move to southern Russia to a city called Krasnodar, which is by no means a tech center of Russia, but we made it work,“says Rovello.
The business recovered after the disruption, so much so that 2016 was their best year with over $12.5 million in revenue. “It was a really nice comeback and win for the organization.”
Future plans for Arkadium?
“We want to grow to a multi-hundred-million-dollar business over the course of the next five years. At the same time, Kenny and I have three children and we love spending time with them and we wouldn’t sacrifice that for the world. So, if it’s a little bit slower than the typical kind of unicorn technical company, we’re okay with that.”