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NU’s Social Media (M)ad Man

Two years ago, Nikhil Sethi ’10 was an electrical engineering student in the McCormick School of Engineering, a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and part of Northwestern’s perennially successful Mock Trial team.

A lot has changed in two years.

Today, Sethi runs Adapt.ly, a start-up that facilitates online advertising across multiple social network platforms, streamlining the process so businesses can buy advertisements in one place and thus avoid the hassle of brokering deals with individual social networks. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that nearly 61 percent of U.S. adults online now use social networks to communicate. As a result, demand for advertising on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn has skyrocketed, which figures directly into Adapt.ly’s business scheme. For 2011, Sethi projects revenues of at least $10 million and an astounding quarter-by-quarter growth rate of 70 percent. Arby’s, News Corporation and PepsiCo are only a few companies on Adapt.ly’s growing list of large corporate clients.

“It’s been a great experience so far to be part of one of the fastest growing start-ups,” Sethi said. “At the same time, we are nowhere near the end of anything.”

An affirmation of Sethi’s hard work so far came in the August issue of Forbes magazine, where he was named a 2011 Forbes All-Start Student Entrepreneur (though he isn’t really a student anymore) and earned the opportunity to meet Michael Dell, founder, chairman and CEO of Dell Inc. at a roundtable discussion of like-minded, young founders at different start-ups.

Sethi credits Northwestern with many of the skills that helped him develop Adapt.ly into what it is today – and for good reason. Adapt.ly was founded in 2010 for McCormick’s NUvention: Web, a two-quarter capstone class drawing students from across Northwestern’s five schools to design, plan and implement web-based businesses.

“(The course) gave us the opportunity to not only come up with a business plan, but actually do something and execute it,” Sethi said. “I think it’s important for any budding student entrepreneur to move away from staying in the class and into the marketplace.”

Sethi also stressed the importance of his experience on the Mock Trial team, which he said taught him to “communicate well and react quickly,” adding a level of depth to his McCormick background.

Teaming up with business partner Garrett Ullom, a computer science major who dropped out of Northwestern prior to his senior year, Sethi was able to secure a $25,000 grant as well as mentoring, accounting and legal advice from DreamIt Ventures, a Philadelphia small business incubator in exchange for a 6% stake in Adapt.ly. In the months leading up to graduation, Sethi was traveling back and forth from Philadelphia, improving software and growing his young start-up.His big break came in August 2010 when, at the end of the DreamIt mentoring program, a demonstration day for angel investors and venture capitalists was held. Impressed by the Adapt.ly concept and business plan, First Round Capital led an investment of $700,000 into the start-up. That prompted Sethi and Ullom to relocate to New York City and begin the hiring process for engineers and employees. By December 2010, Sethi said he was receiving “six figure buys from Fortune 500 companies.”

One question that inevitably arises for Adapt.ly is the continued advent of new, innovative social media websites and technologies that could very well replace current ones. What happens when Facebook or Twitter becomes old news and new phenomena take hold? Sethi is not afraid of potential changes.

“We want more platforms,” Sethi said. “We’ll plug into anything with 20, 30, 40 million people and adapt to their data.”

So what is a typical day like in Adapt.ly’s New York office? Think “The Social Network” or any conventional description of start-up culture.

“There’s no concept of a day, it’s so continuous and fluid,” said Sethi. “People come in at 8 A.M., it’s all hands on deck by 11 A.M., there’s huge hustle bustle, things moving fast.”

Things are indeed moving fast at Adapt.ly, which begs the question of Sethi’s end goal. After asking him that question by phone in August, he replied with just four words: “A trillion dollar company.” He echoed a similar sentiment to Forbes explaining that “once you solve distribution, you can do anything with it (his startup).”

There are, of course, constant challenges, tough decisions and marketplace competitors – AdKnowledge is one such platform that offers similar services – but Sethi’s confidence and Adapt.ly’s current growth rate and success indicate that the sky is the limit.

By Matthew Wong

Photo Credit: DreamIt Ventures


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2 Responses

  1. Jackson Siegal

    This is article is great, but I am left wondering something… Why am I so much more impressed with companies who utilize television, billboard, and print advertisements? There is something more persuasive about seeing an ad in print or on t.v. than on my computer screen for me personally… Just sayin…

  2. Storytelling is a very important part of advertising. Traditional has had decades to figure it out, social and digital are getting there slowly. We are constrained by the medium, fortunately for digital, the medium is constantly being redefined.

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