Bowen Dwelle wants everyone to know that monsters are sexy. Not the fearsome-jawed, finger-licking, taunting monsters. Rather, those behind the scenes in the online advertising world. Dwelle says they are sexy in the big, strong and smart way of those loveable behemoths in Where the Wild Things Are — wild rumpuses notwithstanding. So when came time to name the global community of ad operations and technology leaders he was building, he dubbed it AdMonsters.
"From a software engineer’s perspective, the problems we work on are like hairy beasts — so loud they wake us up in the middle of the night," Dwelle explains. To find solutions one must be a clever monster, he says, "Not aggressive, but in powerful pursuit of what you are doing."
For all their tech savvy, the online advertising operations folk are a relatively obscure group. Though part of the advertising industry, Dwelle admits there is none of the Mad Men cachet surrounding the work. He likens it to his tenure at HotWired where, "I was working in the epicenter of online media but as a software architect I was not part of that world of the neon colors and cool fonts."
Under the hood as an ad ops tech, Dwelle describes a fairly solitary endeavor. What's more, "There was no community except for pure techies and coders." With so much bureaucracy at trade organizations, not to mention the broad focus of most trade shows, Dwelle saw a real need to connect, "to people who were doing what I was doing." So he created AdMonsters in 1999.
These days, Dwelle doesn’t have to do much convincing to get people to join. AdMonsters ranks have swelled to about 8,000 — and counting — thanks in part to the success of its series of conferences, including Publisher Forum, Leadership Forum, Network Operations Forum, and OPS. However, growth and scale are not the major goals, Dwelle maintains. "The challenge is how to keep quality and continue to be the most focused repository of information for our industry."
That’s one reason the OPS conference this year revolved around showing the ad operations industry that yes indeed, it was sexy. "They know what they do is respected and important. Now they can articulate it for the rest of the world," he says.
The result? "We had people say, 'It was the highlight of my professional year,' and 'I love coming.' Those are pretty strong statements for any conference." For Dwelle, it simply proves his vision to offer the most value was spot on. "Smart people are smarter together we innovate much more frequently together than alone."
Dwelle admits that he didn't set out to start a business, but given his background, he's always walked the line between programmer (HotWired, WIRED Digital, Lycos) and entrepreneur. Here are the lessons Dwelle shared with Fast Company about his own development as an innovator:
Start young: "My dad was CIO at ESPRIT in the '80s and brought some early computers home, including the legendary TRS-80. I learned to program by watching over his shoulder, and was making $10/hr at age 10 doing freelance programming work after school. I wasn't interested in a career as a programmer, but I always had an affinity for it, and after college I ended up as a programmer, manager, and software architect at Compuware in the pre-Internet days."
Really young: "Before that, I delivered papers until my friend Zach and I started a company (business license and all) when we were both 9 years old to sell Dungeons & Dragons books and dice to our friends at school."
Pay your dues: "At 16 or so, I got my first real job working for someone else, at Sausalito Marineways, a small boat repair yard just across the bay from San Francisco. This was my first experience working with other guys, and where I learned what I meant to start a business and innovate your way from 'yes' to 'done.' We always said 'yes, we can do it' - and we did."
Make connections: "I studied geography in college (BA, UC Berkeley) and have most of a masters in Urban Planning, subjects which reflect my interests in what places are, how we make them, and how places and the landscape affect us. It might seem like a stretch, but it's all architecture, whether it's cities or code."
Don't reinvent the wheel: "When I was working for the CTO at WIRED, I learned that sometimes the best tech solution involves no technology. Innovation is not always about making something new, or creating a widget or piece of software. It is about solving a problem or filling a need. That can often be done by rearranging, or removing, or distilling something.
Pay attention to the future: "Back in the '90s I did understand from a tech point of view that everything was becoming digital and online systems would run everything. I could see it was all becoming interconnected even though I was head-down in the world of software internals. Now there isn't a company that can't consider itself a media company, whether it's Ford or Bonobos Pants."
Keep reaching: "A side project that I'm involved in as an advisor and artist is the Life is Art Foundation [which derives some of its funding from the sale of medical marijuana]. Talk about innovation."