From an idea to being featured on Cult of Mac.

It is a toss up in the technology startup world between what is the most popular phrase. The prize either goes to:

“what is your mobile strategy?”


“We are (insert industry name here) meets Airbnb”

Mobile is big, duh.

I’m preaching to the choir. We are only where we are because our ancestors moved from place to place. Humans are nomadic. People are mobile, people want to use devices while they are mobile, mobile is big and has room for growth. Don’t believe me? Believe Mary Meeker:

There is a plenty of room for growth.

For the blind, the graph demonstrates the room for growth of the smartphone industry. I am not sure what percentage of this is in developing nations but I am sure much of the room for growth is stemming from that region.

Before you balk at the length of this post. I will give you a summary of what it covers to make sure I don’t waste your time. If I at any point I am wasting your time just click here. 

  1. Why we are a different ad company
  2. Why we had to build a photo/video app to support our ad company
  3. How the world being flat helped us
  4. Discussing the Sponsored Pageflip™
  5. More details if you want to get involved somehow with this revolution

If building a startup … mobile must be, if not a focus, a consideration.

Our company VIRURL does not sleep at night, we promote sponsored content all day and all night long. Our philosophy is very simple – Traditional Banner Ads suck. We hate them with a passion. We protest them. We throw darts at them. During our hiring process we do eyecam tests – if you look at the banners more than 5% of the time – you are not getting the job because you do not hate banners enough.

Our mission is replace these obtrusive traditional banners with a content experience. Firstly, we believe that we can swap traditional banner ads with content ad units that make you smart, make you cry, make you think. Secondly, we believe that ad units should be unobtrusive. They should not suddenly take over your page or auto-play. In our books, these obtrusive ads cannibalize users’ time – the complete opposite of what the internet was created for.

We bought the domain VIRURL in early 2009 (because was sold out) to begin this mission. Soft launched VIRURL in October of 2010 and today we have over 115,000 influencers and publishers distributing great sponsored content. Today we work with a range of content creators seeking to increase the size of their audience – the small mommy bloggers to the leading content creators (ex. VICE, Funny or Die, Sports Illustrated, etc.).

VIRURL connects advertisers, influencers and publishers to distribute sponsored content more efficiently.

Initially VIRURL launched with a web-enabled version of the platform. As we’ve grown in the last couple months, our advertisers have asked about mobile. We were hit with the repeating question “How does VIRURL work on mobile apps?”. In January, our response was “we’re thinking about it”. Fast forward to today and we finally have one small baby step in the right direction with VIRURL’s Sponsored Pageflip™ SDK.

Given that our mobile ad unit is non-traditional, we need lots of data in order to refine the experience and in turn the SDK. Creating a crappy mobile app to display our mobile ad unit was not an option. If we were going to build an ad unit in mobile, it had to be elegant, native and most importantly, be held within a great app.

We built a ridiculous app to seriously learn about mobile.

Artsy Head featured on Cult of Mac

Many would called me insane for assigning resources to build a mobile app that was seemingly irrelevant to our core business. After all, Artsy Head is a photo/video app. Cult of Mac describes it as:

“With Artsy Head, you take a photo or video, add sound over the top, and then choose a soundtrack. You can also add one of several styles of mustache right on top of the video as well. Once you take this masterpiece of video and sound, you can share it with your social networks, like Facebook or Twitter, or with the Artsy Head community.”

The excuse for building out Artsy Head was that it is a fresh way to create something different. We all have picture apps, video apps, sound apps but nothing seemed like a good option when wanting to mish mash the three together. I call it an excuse because in the end we probably could have found a developer with a soon to be released app for cheaper and faster. As we know this does not always mean better.

Pain can be good, sometimes.

I had never been heavily involved in designing and developing a mobile app. I did not know the pain points of time, effort, Apple approvals, Apple tracking, contracts, etc. etc. I knew the process because I had read about it but had not experienced it. Big difference.

I’m not claiming to be an expert but now when I speak to mobile developers, I know what it is like. I can somewhat relate. That is a huge part of being able to effectively do business. I have always thought that doing good business is hard for egomaniacs because they cannot seem to relate. Understanding the nuances of the ecosystem, the tools available is critical when entering a market.

Although it may have cost more to develop Artsy Head in-house – it was a road that had a destiny we could control (better). I knew that at some point an app would be on the Apple store market with VIRURL’s Sponsored Pageflip™ SDK. If I would have knocked on developers doors, I probably could have secured a few launch partners. The key is the world -probably. And I wouldn’t bet my startup on it.

By being maniacal and creating our own in-house iOS app not only was I able to nearly guarantee that an app would have VIRURL ad technology but I could also gain valuable lessons and pain points about an industry I knew very little about.

The world is flat and really connected.

Going into the whole thing. I knew my budget was razor tight and I had to execute near flawlessly. This project could not detract us from our bread, our live platform with live customers. It had to be a tiger project – one that would operate in a near vacuum from the core VIRURL engineering and management team.

Like most of you, I am a big proponent of social proof. In July 2012, I saw a positive recommendation from one of my LinkedIn contacts to a designer, Boban Pajić. If it were not the inefficiency of PayPal in Serbia we would have been up in minutes. I engaged Boban with an NDA, opened a Moneybookers and began working with Boban within a few hours.

I’m giving an unsolicited review for Boban’s skills. He is a sharp designer, can take words and turn them to art. Efficient, doesn’t disappear and always willing to redesign without complaining.

Even though, I am not a designer, I like to hash out prototypes quickly and have a better artist help me polish the look. Within a few hours, I had mocked up some horrendous designs and Boban clearly improved on them:

Boban is a designer, I am not.

It was not until we had all the designs that VIRURL began developing the designs into a native iOS app. Our iOS mobile engineer, plugs in from none other than beautiful Isreal, world-renowned for many things but amongst others – talented engineers. Now our team was truly operating on a global basis:

Santa Monica, Serbia, Isreal

Obvious to some but not all, the portion of the project that took the longest was optimizing and refining the app. Apparently building an app that lets you take a picture, then erase part of it, then film behind it, then select a song and stitch it together to a community that can support a million people is challenging. It surely is and we invested hundreds of hours refining this and crushing bugs. This apps mission is not done – I’m the first to admit – the app still sometimes crashes and everyone that uses it has a clever feature we should probably support. If you’re alright with that and the fact that it is currently free – you can download it here. Hate mail welcome to

I hope Artsy Head brings thousands (maybe millions) of people entertainment with a new format. After over six months of design, development and testing Artsy Head was accepted into the app market. But more importantly than the fun app, something special for us was packaged inside  – VIRURL’s Sponsored Pageflip™ technology.

The Sponsored Pageflip is our trojan horse. 

If you’re still following me, I congratulate you – I could have never made it this far. Anyway, now it makes sense to backtrack into why we touched mobile in the first place. We don’t like the way most of mobile advertising works. In general, it is a very jarring experience. Picture this – you are sitting down on a Sunday afternoon reading your favorite app, suddenly you see a mobile banner, you click on that, it takes you out of the app, now you’re downloading a new app and by the time the download is done – you’ve forgotten where you were in the first place. The experience is broken.

Artsy Head was released to showcase VIRURL’s Sponsored Pageflip™. We believe the Sponsored Pageflip™ is an elegant way of displaying recommended content and also an unobtrusive way to advertise if executed correctly. The vision is that – every time a page is flipped the user is happy that they just learnt or felt something, the mobile app developer is happy because they just got paid and the advertiser is happy because they just engaged the right audience in the right way.

Introducing VIRURL’s Sponsored Pageflip

By allowing users to stay in-app viewing recommended content via the Sponsored Pageflip™ we defeat two birds with one stone – we could eliminate the jarring experience of leaving the app and save more real estate on such a small screen.

We’re just getting started.

We will continue building our network of mobile developers and add more great content partners. I know that we didn’t invent the pageflip, I know we didn’t invent the idea of the content network. What keeps me up at night is not knowing that we did or did not invent these things. What keeps me up at night is knowing that our problem of recommending the right content to the right user is infinitely complex and will never completely be solved. Not by us and not by anyone. Therefore, to make the world a better place we must keep improving the way content is recommended – one story, one user, and now, one device at a time.

Francisco Diaz-Mitoma
Virurl Inc., Co-founder and CEO

If there are any developers out there who want to try it out. PM me

How a protest increased our sales by 500%

Are you attending a conference and don’t want to be lost in the crowd? Do you want to be recognized as a rebel with a cause in your industry? Are you trying to balloon your business? Then organizing a peaceful crowd might be in your cards.

guerilla marketing

VIRURL hired 100 actors as banner ad protesters

As a fellow Canadian the last thing I want to do is start a protest in the United States. After all, I have nothing to complain about living in such a great, startup-friendly country. That is what I thought until last week when the marketing geniuses at our startup VIRURL decided that a protest was the best way to get attention at ad:tech, the world’s largest advertising technology conference.

It feels good to say that effective guerilla marketing is not dead – in the last week Forbes, Adotas and Businessweek have featured us. We spent just under $2,000 to pull off the stunt and increased our sales by 500% compared to the previous week (mostly due) to the press we got.

Here is how we pulled it off:


The first step of the entire operation was to figure out how we could cleverly re-associate the protest back to our company. Obviously we had to be careful. We wanted it to be a theme that was relevant but not blatant enough to the point where it could instantly be identified as a company’s PR stunt.

First we thought about dressing everyone up as banner ads. Nope – too expensive. Then we thought about having the protesters storm Javit’s center during Mark Cuban’s keynote. Nope –too risky. We finally agreed that having 100 protesters meet outside the Javit’s center and walk down protesting as the keynotes occurred would be the most impactful.

Legal Mumbo Jumbo

We decided to hire 100 actors and actresses to meet outside of Javit’s center where the conference was occurring. All the actors were contractors and had signed releases so we could use their likeness in photos and videos.


We asked all the protesters to wear green. That didn’t really happen (and we were expecting that). Since the protesters were not going to be doing a flash mob dance we decided to build them banners. We took a $60 shopping spree at Staples the night before and bought:

  • 30 plain white cardboards ($40)
  • 12 permanent wide tip markers ($20)

We then bought a bottle of Macallan Aged 12 years single malt. That was an ‘nice to have during the protest preparations but certainly not a necessity (if you’re over the legal drinking age limit. I definitely recommend it).

We began writing and sketching a bunch of crazy signs. Here is what we came up with:

Finally, we had ordered a battery-powered bullhorn from Amazon. It was powerful enough for a coast guard but a few minutes before the banner protest occurred an officer informed us that battery powered bullhorn use in New York City requires a permit, otherwise you get a fine. Noted and bullhorn discarded.

Time to Protest!

We scheduled the hundred or so actors to meet us at the corner of the convention center. As the actors began congregating on the corner of the street so did the intense gaze from the conference’s security guards. In hindsight, we should have informed the security that VIRURL was A) an exhibitor at ad:tech B) going to be doing a light-hearted stunt peacefully. The looks of the security guards and the ad:tech employees was priceless. There was a general sense of confusion as to why 100 people would be protesting banner ads. It was such a ridiculous and inconceivable theme for protesters to actually get out of bed to complain about.

100 actors met at 8:30 am on Nov. 7th and walked over to the main entrance of the Javits center

Dozens of people fist in the air were calling “death to the banner ad!” and cars were slowing down and honking as we filled the air with protest. Things were beginning to escalate – even though they were trained actors you could feel the energy multiply. It was a first hand experience on how the mob mentality can really get out of control. Keep in mind, these were all trained actors and had the explicit instructions to stay peaceful and obey all laws. I would not recommend launching this kind of stunt with untrained random people. Security was beginning to become aggravated and mentioned that they would be calling the police. During the protest, the security guards at Javit’s center removed my co-founder’s exhibitor pass. At this point we swiftly approached them and said “guys, work at startup and are ad:tech exhibitors, no one is going to get hurt and we will be out of here in 10 minutes.” At this point, the tone completely changed. The ad:tech employee started smiling and overall welcoming of the attention grabbing stunt.

Actors dressed as banner ad protesters marched outside of ad:tech

The Press Aftermath

The press aftermath is the most valuable part of the entire stunt and the main reason for using such a great guerilla-marketing tactic. Prior to the event we messaged dozens of news outlets and reporters not knowing which one would care. Immediately following the protest, a Forbes writer tweeted out an image which was then retweeted by the official ad:tech conference twitter account – giving us exposure we would have never received otherwise.

Our tiny booth in the startup alley at ad:tech that week was flooded with both press and people asking us why we decided to do the protest. The clear answer was “because VIRURL wants to replace spammy banner ads and we thought a protest was the best way to garner attention”.

Here are some additional links covering the protest:

Here is another great shot of the protesters outside of ad:tech (jk)

Advice for those considering crowd marketing:

  1. Make sure you are not breaking any federal, local laws
  2. Get a lawyer to review all the releases and paperwork
  3. Make sure all your actors are aware that it is to remain peaceful
  4. Have an internal security guard that knows exactly what is going down
  5. Have a great photographer on hand to capture the protest
  6. Don’t forget to send the news to the press

Above all stay peaceful, sincerely,

About Francisco Diaz-Mitoma

Francisco Diaz-Mitoma is the CEO and Co-Founder of VIRURL. VIRURL is a content-only ad network that provides distribution for some of the top brands and bloggers on the internet, including Sports Illustrated, VICE and Funny or Die.

Don’t Make a Commercial; Make an Experience

There have been a slew of great video game commercials lately playing on the experiential quality of their product. The following is a list of our top 3 favorites:

The second of two, this video puts the viewer inside the game and highlights its interactive quality.

This trailer is EPIC. Forget the game, after watching this trailer, I’m ready to shell out $15 to see the full-length feature film!


Whatever my reservations about this video, the extent to which it ‘sucks you in’ is undeniable. It may be a little more disturbing than the average video game commercial, but the campaign was highly successful. So successful that many were disappointed in the actual game after the incredible realism of this trailer.


Are these commercials playing to the strengths of their product or do they go too far? What are your thoughts? Hit us up!

International Catastrophe = Opportunity to Boost Sales? ….. No. Not So Much.

Los Angeles based clothing company American Apparel has received some serious heat over the last few days after blasting shoppers in the Northeast with this email: 

That’s right  American Apparel, scientists predict the biggest storm in 400 years to hit the coast and the first thing you should do is make sure your sales don’t take a hit. Yes, it is true that many tweeted about the boredom of being stuck inside for the storm, but have enough sense to know that many people will suffer damage or loss to their homes and belongings.  Twitter gave a resounding response:

American Apparel CEO didn’t seem to think his marketing team had done anything wrong. A representative of the company  responded to the backlash with this:

“Of course we’d never mean to offend anyone and when we put the email out yesterday it came from a good place…”

If only he’d had enough sense to stop there. Alas, he did not. He went on to defend the sale, saying:

 … Retail stores are the lifeline of a brand like ours, so when they are closed, we need to come up with ways to make up for that lost revenue. People forget how expensive it is to run a Made in USA brand like American Apparel, and if we made a mistake here, it came from the good place of trying to keep the machine going—for the sake of our employees and stakeholders.”

Yes, you poor multi-million dollar company. Our hearts go out to you in this terrible time of hardship…..(Excuse me, I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.) While we appreciate American Apparel’s commitment to keeping its employees at work and the company operating, this sentiment is not one the public wants to hear as they and their loved ones are in danger.

Unfortunately, several other companies including The Gap and Urban Outfitters jumped on the Sandy Sale bandwagon. It did not go over well.

So, while we hoped this wouldn’t need to be said, it ever-so-apparently does:

Using a natural disaster to promote sales is definitely on the ‘NOT OK’ list. 

Supplying people in need with batteries and mobile device charging stations like Duracell? This is ok! Waving late payment fees for customers in the Northeast like JPMorgan Chase & Co? This is ok! Offering 30 free days of storage for evacuees trying to save their belongings like U-Haul? Definitely OK!!!

What these companies understand is this: Marketing is not about making a sale; it’s about creating trust and loyalty in life-long customers. They understand that though they may see a dip in revenue in the short-term, the return gained from this kind of do-gooder activity is immeasurable in the long-term.  Whether these companies are motivated by sheer kindness or are keen to these long-term payoffs, we’re not sure. But frankly, we don’t care either.