Next up in my ongoing series of offbeat chats with local tech execs and investors is Jennifer Lum.
Lum is a leader in Boston’s mobile advertising sector, having co-founded or held a key position in three such startups—m-Qube (acquired by VeriSign), Quattro Wireless (bought by Apple), and Adelphic (recently purchased by Time subsidiary Viant). She has also invested in companies such as Crashlytics, Placester, and CarePort Health.
Lum left Adelphic earlier this year, shortly after its acquisition. I recently sat down with her to find out what’s next. She’s working on a new startup called Forge.AI, but she says she’s not ready to share details. (It has something to do with artificial intelligence, of course.)
Our conversation dove into the recent controversy over programmatic advertising, what’s next for adtech, and the social contract between consumers and advertisers. I also learned that she loves tennis and hates idle time—although she would try to enjoy herself a little if she ever got stranded on a tropical island.
Without further ado, here are the highlights of our chat:
Xconomy: I’m assuming you’ve had a little more free time since you left Adelphic. Have you done anything fun with it? Did you take a vacation?
Jennifer Lum: I haven’t had as much time to do as much as I would’ve liked. I’ve been able to spend some time with my family. My family is in Toronto. I’ve been able to spend time reconnecting with friends and colleagues, which is nice. I’ve also been able to spend some time just on general wellness, things that you don’t get to pay attention to when you’re heads down in a startup.
X: Like what?
JL: Exercising. [Laughs.] Focusing on being healthy in general. Eating healthier. The stuff that matters but often gets deprioritized when you need to focus on your company.
X: Is that the problem with the startup culture or startup mentality, or is there not much you can do about that?
JL: I do think that entrepreneurs in general naturally prioritize their company—which is their baby—first, and almost everything else in their life falls to the side. I do think it’s an issue that entrepreneurs and investors need to be mindful of to ensure that they can help their founders maintain some sort of balance. But on the other hand, I think you’d be hard-pressed to convince an entrepreneur to not give their all, to put everything into their company.
X: What’s your take on this recent controversy over programmatic advertising, and brands and advertisers wanting to avoid having their ads appear next to controversial or extremist content on Google, Facebook, and other sites?
JL: It certainly is an issue. Brands care a lot about, obviously, their image, but also the types of content and topics that their brands are associated with. For them to learn that their ads have appeared adjacent to content that they may not be interested in or look unfavorably upon, that is an issue.
So, how do you prevent that? How do you solve for that? The truth is it takes work. There are a few things. I think one is if you are an advertiser and you are knowingly placing ads on a platform or on a site that has a great deal of user-generated content, you should know that inherently there may be risks around the types of content that your ads will appear next to. And maybe you need to make a deliberate choice as to whether or not that is the right answer for your brand.
But I think something that is also within your control, in determining where to place ads—whether you decide to take it upon yourself, or you place that responsibility with your partners or your adtech vendors, who place ads on your behalf—there is a tried and true method, in digital at least, which is known as whitelisting or blacklisting. What that means is you have these manually defined lists where if it’s a whitelist, you are writing down the sites and apps that you feel comfortable having your ads placed [on].
And then on the other hand, on the blacklist are another list of sites and apps, which I absolutely do not want my ads placed on. And it takes work to both build and maintain those lists because content can change so frequently on longer-tail sites and apps. But I think it’s a really important component of building your marketing and advertising plans to have those in place and have those enforced.
X: Where do you see mobile advertising headed next? What are some of the big trends to watch over the next five or 10 years?
JL: I think mobile will continue to be a core element of marketing and advertising plans, for a few reasons. One, consumers’ mobile devices are the primary device for content consumption. It is a device that’s with them throughout the waking day, and therefore, it offers the best opportunity to learn about consumer behavior and preferences. The obvious thing is if the mobile device is the primary device in which a consumer is browsing through content all day long, it obviously means that that is the best possible channel to reach a consumer through advertising because that’s where their attention is.
But an additional benefit is that all of the data that’s being generated through those interactions paints a very interesting and comprehensive picture about consumers. What is the content they’re consuming? What are their location patterns, whether it be commuting or the retail stores that they frequent, time of day patterns, brand preferences, etc.? All of those learnings are also captured on mobile.
So, what I think will change over the next few years is that there will be new ways and new channels to capture consumer time and attention. If you look at [augmented reality] and [virtual reality] and some of these emerging technologies, where there will be increasing amounts of content created for these platforms; audio and voice services, which can also be facilitated off the phone, but also from things like [Amazon’s] Alexa in the home and Google Home, and in the car, they’re increasingly using voice-activated services.
These new forms of human interaction are coming into play, but I would say mobile will still sit at the core of it because mobile is what’s going to help inform those experiences. The mobile device is also the key that can activate some of those experiences. Your mobile device can sort of be the beacon to say, aha, La Colombe, Jeff is now here. And as a consequence, [that] may activate content and services, and some of them may be ad-supported. [Editor’s note: La Colombe is the Boston coffee shop where the interview with Lum took place.]
X: Do you think we’re going to see more pushback from consumers about how their data are tracked by companies?
JL: I do. I think that there is a rising level of awareness on behalf of consumers as to the data that they’re generating and how it’s being used. And I think that there’s also an increasing sense of responsibility and accountability that the advertising ecosystem is acknowledging in that they need to make consumers aware of how and when they are using their data.
X: Is the trust still there, or has that been lost?
JL: I think it depends on the company. I think ultimately, though, as long as advertising companies continue to provide transparency into how data is being used and they are also able to help consumers understand the value exchange and the utility of the services that that advertising is subsidizing for the consumer content or product or services, there should continue to be a very active marketplace and value exchange.
X: Where are you most productive?
JL: When I’m out of the office, I can be quite productive at home. And I can be quite productive on flights, on train rides, and anyplace where I’m either unable to get online or don’t have a reason to be talking or interacting with other people.
It’s amazing how productive I’ve been on flights, where there’s no connectivity, you’re stuck in your chair for hours, and just crank out a ton of work.
X: What’s your biggest pet peeve?
JL: Idle time. I hate being bored, and I hate not having things to do.
X: How many hours do you sleep every night?
JL: Probably seven hours on average.
X: That’s higher than I expected, actually.
JL: It’s improved a lot. I’m sure with the ramp-up of the new company that will trend downwards.
X: What fictional gadget or technology do you wish were real today?
JL: Time travel machine.
X: Where and when would you visit first?
JL: China before the invention of electricity. Being Chinese, but not born in Asia, I’m always trying to learn more about my heritage and my roots. I think that’d be a very interesting way to take a firsthand look at the cultural history in China. [Editor’s note: Lum was born and raised in Toronto, but her father was born in Hong Kong and her mother was born in China.]
X: What’s an interesting job you had before getting into tech?
JL: I had a really amazing job when I was a teenager. I played a lot of tennis when I was younger. And the big professional tennis tournament in Canada was the Canadian Open. And so I got all excited because I decided one year I was going to try out to be one of the ball people at the Canadian Open, you know, the people who stand on the court and they’re just throwing balls to each other so they can eventually hand them to the players while they’re playing a match. So, I got all geared up to go try out to be one of these ball people, and through the course of the tryouts, I got pulled aside and I got offered a different type of job.
For some reason, you had to be female to do this job. The job was not a ball person, it was called court supervisor. And what you needed to do for this job was while the players were playing, the job was to sit on the tennis court beside the umpire and essentially just watch, and then while the players were taking a break, the job was to go stand beside one of the two tennis players, and if they wanted a drink, to go get them a bottle of water.
It was the best job! I got to sit on the court to watch amazing tennis players play, and to stand beside them and bring them a bottle of water. That was a cool job.
X: Why did it apparently have to be a woman?
JL: I don’t know.
X: Did you take offense to that?
JL: I was not mad about it. [Laughs.] I gladly took the job. I mean, sitting on the court rather than running around nonstop for days at a time, I was pretty pleased.
X: Did you get to meet any famous tennis players?
JL: Yeah. This was back when [Andre] Agassi and [Steffi] Graf and [Monica] Seles and Michael Chang, [and] Jennifer Capriati were playing. It was awesome. Jim Courier.
X: You’re stranded on a desert island. Your iPhone battery just died. Now what?
JL: Probably [have] a mild panic attack. [Laughs.] Probably take a few minutes to try to compose myself. And then … Is this a tropical island?
JL: And then go for a swim and try to enjoy the island.
X: I like that. Get over the panic, and then enjoy yourself. You can start that big bonfire on the shore later.
JL: Right, start talking to a volleyball.