The bittersweet serendipity that gave these two startup leaders a common mission in online privacy – GeekWire
Like many of us, Dan Frechtling noticed that he is being tracked online. Advertisements related to websites we have visited or topics we have researched follow us around the Internet, even on unrelated sites.
But in her case, the subject of her research was deeply personal. It was the cancer treatment his wife, Annie, was facing. Some of the resulting advertisements still persist, more than two years after his death in 2020 at age 47.
“There’s a social media platform I can go to today, and I’ll still see the cancer ads, they have such a profile on me,” Frechtling said.
This experience is part of what gives him a deep interest in his work as CEO of Boltive. The Seattle startup, formerly known as Ad Lightning, recently raised additional funds to expand into a promising new area: automated technology to help brands and publishers ensure websites and advertising platforms respect privacy laws and adhere to the choices of Internet users.
“It’s my own story and why, for me, it’s more than just a job,” Frechtling said.
But that’s only part of the extraordinary personal story behind Boltive’s new phase.
A unique degree of empathy
Longtime technology and business leader in Seattle Scott Moorethe former Microsoft, Yahoo and Cheezburger executive who co-founded Ad Lightning in 2016, made an unusual move in May 2021, moving to a new role as Boltive’s chief financial officer and handing over the reins as CEO to Frechtling.
The reason: Moore’s wife, Valerie, was undergoing her own treatment for terminal cancer at the time. Moore wanted to be able to focus on his wife and their family in what would turn out to be the last year of his life.
Coincidentally, she had the same type of cancer as Frechtling’s wife: a form of non-small cell lung cancer not associated with smoking.
Frechtling previously worked for Moore at Seattle-based marketing firm Hibu, and they had stayed in touch.
They also happen to be neighbors. Their wives connected and supported each other during their respective cancer treatments.
When Moore decided it was time to take a step back, Frechtling was ready to step down from his previous role and become a startup’s first CEO.
Frechtling also had experience in the field. He was previously president of G2 Web Services, and after its acquisition by Verisk in 2017, he expanded his cybersecurity solutions to include the ability to detect bad actors in e-commerce.
After much discussion, they came to the conclusion that appointing Frechtling and moving Moore to the position of CFO was the right move for both of them and for the company.
The result has been a unique degree of empathy and understanding between them, in their professional and personal lives.
As co-founder and former CEO of the company, Moore was able to mentor Frechtling as he takes on this role for the first time.
Frechtling, at the same time, was able to help Moore through the immense personal challenge of losing his wife in February of this year.
“When a person goes through what Dan and I went through, as primary caregivers of a terminally ill person, it’s a truly unique experience that’s almost impossible, in my experience, to pass on to someone. one who has not experienced it.” said Moore. “A lot of times it can be a little awkward because people feel really bad.”
Frechtling was “incredibly empathetic to me in the first weeks and months after Val died,” Moore said. “It’s just good to know you’re working with someone who understands when you’re talking about something like that.”
Moore didn’t experience the same kind of targeting as Frechtling for cancer treatment ads, but recalls his wife being targeted, further illustrating the problem the company is now tackling.
From Ad Lightning to Boltive
The company was founded in 2016 as Ad Lightning. It was one of the first startups incubated and spun off from Seattle’s Pioneer Square Labs. Sinclair Digital Ventures, a division of Sinclair Broadcast Group, led the initial funding for the venture. Other investors include Flying Fish Partners of Seattle.
Ad Lightning started by detecting and flagging disruptive ads, such as videos in display ad slots. It then expanded to fight malvertising, a capability that has attracted clients such as NBC Universal, Buzzfeed, Univision and TripleLift.
Later, the company added the ability to detect ads that specific publishers might consider objectionable, such as swimsuit ads on faith-based websites.
Now, as Bolitive, the company continues to offer these Ad Lighting products, but it is also expanding to solve the problem of surveillance ads, which put publishers at risk of violating digital privacy laws by collecting and by sharing personal information without the user’s consent.
The company compares its new solution, Privacy Guard, to a virtual “secret client”.
Working with brands and publishers, he creates synthetic characters that appear on websites as genuine users. The technology tests consent management platforms to see if they are properly configured and implemented to block the collection of personal data. It also looks to see if targeted ads are served to the synthetic persona elsewhere online.
Beyond online publishers, there is also a risk for brands, as evidenced by a recent $1.2 million settlement between beauty brand Sephora and California Attorney General Rob Bonta. Boltive estimates that brand risk increases the company’s total addressable market from $500 million to $5 billion in total.
“Brands are most at risk, more so than publishers, when consumer data is siphoned off and shared without consent,” Frechtling said.
He said the new technology stems from three trends:
- Customers: One of the attributes in the company’s dashboard for its core ad quality software is the number of third-party ad-connected trackers that sync user data. “This attribute has caught the attention of customers concerned about the flow of consumer data,” Frechtling said.
- Regulation: There has been a huge regulatory push to strengthen consumer privacy online, starting in Europe and California and expanding to other states and countries. Gartner estimates that 75% of the world’s population will be covered by modern privacy regulations by the end of 2024.
- Technology: Apple’s addition of app tracking transparency to iOS and Google’s move away from third-party cookies are both transforming the digital advertising market in a bid to address privacy concerns.
“So we have a confluence of three factors all pointing in the same direction – online brands are grappling with data privacy like never before and current technologies aren’t creating a path forward,” Frechtling said.
“A Smoke Test for Internet Pipes”
Bolive sees two main culprits in the continued misuse of consumers’ personal data.
- Data skimmers: Entities that appear to be legitimate participants in the ad auction process are actually positioning themselves to capture the data they use to create profiles and records of site visitors, which can be extremely lucrative when they are assembled en masse.
Boltive detects both. If his system reveals signs of trouble, then he provides a detailed investigation report, documenting the failure, which his customers must forward to their suppliers for investigation and resolution.
“It’s like a smoke test for internet pipes,” Frechtling said. “Where’s that crack in the pipes where the smoke is coming out of?”
But since the tests don’t use real consumer data, no one is harmed.
Boltive has signed up to several paying corporate clients for Privacy Guard. He also deploys his service to the consultants of one of the 5 largest firms in the world, to serve the firm’s clients.
The company uses a tiered software-as-a-service pricing model based on the number of ad campaigns monitored or domains protected.
Boltive has 25 employees. It recently raised a new round of funding, with $4 million so far River Capital SaaS and an additional $3 million expected from other investors, bringing the total funds raised by the company to date to $14 million. Wendy Jarchow of River SaaS Capital joins Boltive’s Board of Directors.
With privacy regulations still evolving, including new California regulations due to take effect next year, the main competition Boltive’s new technology faces is manual efforts to detect data leaks. .
“These are not scalable and are ripe for automation,” Frechtling said. “That’s why we’re fundraising now, to stay ahead of the competitors that will inevitably appear in 2023.”
Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that consumer data is not used against their will. As someone who’s felt the personal impact more than most, Frechtling says he’s confident this privacy issue can be solved by identifying how websites disclose data.