Metro, Business, Top Story

A Different Kind Of Office Space: What A Day Looks Like At Jebbit

The new Jebbit office in Faneuil Hall is quiet on a Tuesday morning. COO Jonathan Lacoste, 21, is one of the first to arrive. He walks in at about 7:30 a.m., immediately picks up the phone, and starts to dial clients from across the country, including big brands like Warner Brothers, Allstate, and AT&T. Today is a rare occasion that Lacoste is present in the office. He is set to travel to Miami on Wednesday and New York on Thursday and Friday—meeting with potential clients face-to-face to pitch Jebbit’s platform. At about 9 a.m., the rest of the 13 full-time employees—all of whom are under 30 years old and nearly half of whom are Boston College graduates—arrive at work and catch up on emails from the night before, as well as meticulously prepare various presentations and proposals.

The office typically remains quiet throughout the rest of the morning, but all of a sudden someone plays “Bounce It” by Juicy J on the speaker system. All of the employees at the office immediately jump out of their chairs and proceed to dance and high-five one another. The three-and-a-half-year-old company does a lot of business in one day, and anytime a new deal closes, the hit rap song blasts over the speakers. The song plays up to five times per day when big brands like Boston-based New Balance or Reebok visit the office.

“You have to celebrate the victories, so this is something we do that is always fun and brings everyone together,” Lacoste said.

The young team at Jebbit values a sense of community and teamwork that manifests itself in a number of ways inside and outside of the office. Later on Tuesday evenings, the startup hosts an informal “Town Hall” meeting, where employees order dinner after-hours at 5 p.m. and one or two members present something new to the group—often teaching a new tidbit of information about other major marketing technologies, while the rest of the team discusses the presentation over a few beers in the office. The conversations continue on Friday mornings, when everyone involved in the company gets together or dials in for a weekly update. Twenty three-year-old CEO Tom Coburn and Lacoste give a “State of the Company” update to the team, and the other members discuss their “small victories,” as well as their “Highs and Lows” of the week.

“These conversations get people to open up and talk about how things are going outside of work, so you can better understand how to interact with them at work,” Lacoste said.

In many ways, the Jebbit team never leaves each other even after work hours, as many employees live together. In 2011, Coburn and Lacoste took a leave of absence from BC and began to work on Jebbit full-time. They moved into a house in Cleveland Circle, along with 12-13 new BC graduates who were brought on as full-time members. Each day, the group commuted to work in Cambridge before returning home together in the evening. All 15 members of the new startup were living, working, and hanging out together with the same group of young guys at all hours of the day—for three straight months.

Four years later, that same culture and sense of community outside of the office is still present at Jebbit. Although the notorious “Jebbit House” is no longer in existence, five of Jebbit’s top employees still live together in Brookline. The group also hosts a number of “team excursions,” where the company travels together after a successful quarter or great performance. In February, the entire company rented out a 15-bedroom ski lodge in Maine for employees, friends, and families. The group also hosts its annual Fourth of July trip to Cape Cod, and owns a coveted spot on Shea Field for tailgating before BC football games.

“These ideas build a really special culture that is present in our daily lives,” Lacoste said. “Now most of us are each other’s best friends outside after work.”

Jebbit traces its roots back to the Shaw House in 2010, when Coburn and his roommate, Jeb Thomas, BC ’13, decided to collaborate on an idea for the BC Venture Competition (BCVC), which could earn students $10,000 at the time (now it has been bumped up to $20,000) for a successful project.

Coburn came up with the idea of the startup as he sat at Logan airport in 2011, waiting to board a plane to a BC club golf tournament. While watching videos on Hulu and YouTube, 30-second pre-roll ads—commercials preceding the content—continually appeared on his laptop screen. This was before ads had the option of a skip button, so Coburn realized that people kept opening new windows and visited sites like Facebook to avoid the advertisements.

“If there had been a skip button on those videos, I don’t think Jebbit would have been created,” Lacoste said.

Coburn quickly realized that he couldn’t recall the last time he purposefully clicked on an ad or started to interact with a brand. He thought these brands were wasting a lot of money on advertising, and there had to be a better way to change that experience for potential customers.

In an idea initially dubbed “Add It Up,” the team created an online platform that guaranteed to brands that people engaged with their ad content and understood the company’s message. The idea was sound enough to earn the group a first-place tie in the University’s BCVC competition.

Coburn and Thomas then collected a circle of 25 interns the following semester, and Lacoste was the first person they brought on to join the team. Lacoste had participated in his own version of BCVC in his hometown of Cleveland, and teamed up with Coburn and Thomas during the first week of his freshman year. But to make the idea become a reality, the group needed to make become an attractive site for college students.

They worked to draw consumers to their website that would take them through several pages of a given brand’s campaign, and a quiz layer would appear across the top of the site, asking questions about a company’s message. The website was incentivized toward students, and small, local brands like Bluestone Bistro paid students to learn more about them in different ways, while offering cash rewards.

Coburn and the rest of the team planned to launch a beta-version of their site at 10:11 p.m. on Oct. 11, 2011, and the first 150 users to log on to could earn $20 for answering questions correctly about the brands. Since they didn’t have a way to pay users online, Lacoste and number of other interns physically handed out $20 bills that evening. They had hoped by midnight they would receive 150 sign-ups on their website, but after just 23 seconds the site crashed. The team quickly worked to get back up within the next two hours, and spent the evening running through campus handing out payments to the full complement of 150 students.

“We thought this was our Facebook moment where we were going to be huge,” Lacoste said. “It got everyone very excited, and we knew that Jebbit was really happening.”

Balancing school, social life, and managing the rapid growth of Jebbit while staying active proved to be too much for Coburn and Lacoste. In just his third semester at BC, Lacoste took a leave of absence from the University to finish his degree at a later time. Coburn, as a second-semester senior, did the same. A few weeks after they left college, they learned that they had been accepted to TechStars, a prestigious startup accelerator in Boston that would provide them with $100,000 in additional financing. They were the youngest team ever to be awarded a coveted place in the international competition for a TechStars spot.

The TechStars program was a crash course that resembled the full curriculum of business school, teaching Jebbit what it needed to be successful in the startup scene. The team spent three months collaborating every day with investors and advisors. As part of the “Mentor Mashup,” the group met with two to three leaders in a given industry each day, and each CEO offered a different opinion as to how Jebbit’s business would grow over the next few years.

Since the conclusion of the program in 2013, Jebbit has raised nearly $2 million, and the startup has found partners in big brands such as Coca-Cola, Spotify, Bose, and Ralph Lauren, and has been named to The Boston Globe’s “25 Under 25” hot list. Coburn and Lacoste were also recently named the youngest individuals selected to the 2015 Forbes “30 under 30” list in Marketing & Advertising.

Over the past four years, the company has significantly changed its business platform. Originally offering service to a large number of small brands, Jebbit has rapidly grown to work with a smaller number of large brand companies looking for advertising. Today, Jebbit is a platform that works with some of these bigger brands to create “post-click experiences.” After a user clicks on an ad or social post online, these campaigns are designed to make the experience more engaging and rewarding for the brands and customers.

“Say Reebok buys an ad on Facebook, and if you’re drawn to click on that ad you might go right to Reebok’s website,” Lacoste said. “Our experience could power that and the steps along the way.”

One of the challenges the young company has faced is that a number of clients Jebbit is looking to partner with are based in areas outside of Boston—including big brands in New York, entertainment media companies in L.A., and tech companies in Silicon Valley. With a significant amount of business elsewhere, Jebbit is slowly starting to expand out of Boston. The startup is currently working on doubling the size of its team by the end of the year, as well as planning to open full-time offices in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco over the next 18 months.

“I think Boston is great to start, but the challenge is getting outside of it at certain stage, or otherwise it will limit your growth,” Lacoste said.

Over the next two years, Jebbit will be assessing its position as an emerging company in the wave of digital marketing. The future of the company is currently up in the air. In many cases, large tech companies purchase small startups before they have the opportunity to go public. Jebbit plans to assess its position after each investment round before jumping to any major decisions that could ultimately affect the future of the company.

“You see companies like this get bought by a Yahoo or Google all the time,” Lacoste said. “But at the same time, what we’re trying to do has the potential to be so big that you don’t have to be a billion dollar company to IPO. We are definitely keeping our options open.”

For now, Lacoste is trying to act like a regular kid and make the most of his time living with Coburn and three other Jebbit employees. For him, that includes finding more time to play FIFA with the guys, watch March Madness on TV, and continue his marathon running streak—he most recently completed the L.A. Marathon on March 15.

After three years of ordering iced tea at bars and restaurants, he is thrilled to finally be able to drink a beer when he is out with clients and invite them back to the Jebbit offices in Faneuil Hall for a Friday night theme party.

“Even though we have crazy work-days, we are just like any 21-year-olds,” Lacoste said. “We have a special culture here, and that carries with us even after we leave the office each night.”

Featured Images by Arthur Bailin / Heights Editor

March 26, 2015