"Native Commerce" Platform Okanjo Raises $1.7 Million

A Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based startup called Okanjo, which offers publishers an alternative to native advertising with what it calls "native commerce," has raised $1.7 million in new funding in a follow-on round from local angel investors, bringing the company's total raise to date to $3.2 million. The additional funding will be used in part to launch Okanjo's product, an e-commerce-enabled ad solution that lets brands sell products or offers directly on a third-party website - like the website for a local newspaper, for example. Okanjo President Brendon Thomas described what this could look like from an end user perspective: "You could be reading an article about the Green Bay Packers, and you could see related Packers' merchandise embedded within that article, under the brand of that news site, which you could then purchase without leaving the site," he says. In another example, you could be watching a makeup tutorial video, and click on an annotation to buy the products being demonstrated on-screen. There are two primary ways Okanjo's product can be implemented, Thomas explains. Publishers can place its "native commerce" tech anywhere on the site where they're already running ads. For more complex rollouts, Okanjo also offers direct platform integration with open APIs and SDKs. The company declined to provide info on total customers or revenues, but Thomas describes the business as "healthy and growing." Customers for this product include publishers, agencies - especially advertising agencies, and e-commerce entities, he says. Though still in pilot testing, all the companies currently using the SaaS (software-as-a-service) platform are paying customers. Pricing varies, as it depends on the client and the type of installation, ranging from typical adtech spends up to enterprise deals that go from three to six digits per month. The platform will launch first with Capital Newspapers, which includes LEE Enterprises (46 daily newspapers and 300 specialty publications) and The Capital Times Company (27 publications and several websites in Wisconsin.)   Okanjo was formally founded in L.A. back in 2011 by  Jeff Rowe and Mike Drescher, whose backgrounds include time at the Tribune, AOL [disclosure: TechCrunch parent], NBC, and VH1. At the time, they believed that local commerce "wasn't really a nut that had been cracked yet," explains Thomas, who previously worked in e-commerce and originally joined Okanjo as a product consultant before becoming President last year. "There's Craigslist that has a good portion of the local market, and has kind of eaten newspapers' lunch for the past 10 years," he says. Plus, there are startups that are trying to take what Craigslist does and do it better, Thomas notes. "There's an opportunity in the trust and the traffic that [news media publications have]...but what they don't to a great job of monetizing that traffic, and more importantly, monetizing the relationships they have with their communities and really influencing commerce." The idea, then, was to offer these publishers a way to jump on the trend of native advertising, by offering them a way to drive revenue directly through content, he says. Okanjo's customers today are able to leverage their existing customer relationships and sales teams, plus bring new advertisers on board. And meanwhile, Okanjo itself is signing deals with even larger, well-known brands, to participate in this service. The company has largely been operating in stealth, but now, with the new funding, is bringing the product to market, and scaling to meet demand. Okanjo is now a team of 10 full-time in Milwaukee - where they posed for a team photo, above, in -1 degree temperatures yesterday! - which Thomas says is a competitive advantage. (Not the freezing weather, but the location, that is.) In Milwaukee, he says, there's a reduced cost of living, great talent, a supportive ecosystem, and a high density of large companies, but not a lot startups, allowing them to cherry-pick the best hires. "We are, as far as we know, the only e-commerce-enabled adtech vendor on the market to date," says Thomas.
Sarah Perez

Sarah Perez is a Writer at Gigabuzz, focused on covering early-stage startups, especially those with a technology focus and great perks.

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