SessionM's Lars Albright is the quintessential Boston founder -- which may not be a bad thing
One criticism you often hear about Boston startups is that they don’t have a clue how to self-promote. While there is a growing class of young companies that have no problem pumping their own tires -- companies like Alfred, transportation startup Bridj, and alcohol delivery company Drizly come to mind -- there is still a large number of entrepreneurs who have trouble talking about their success.
Two great examples of this staying-under-the-radar trend are fitness tracking app RunKeeper and furniture ecommerce startup Wayfair, which had earned close to $1 billion in revenue in 2013 and went public in 2014.
Within startup circles, the thinking is that the hesitation of Boston companies to actively seek publicity is part of a tradition that dates all the way back to the austere Puritans who founded and built the city. As the logic goes, that founding religion-based conservatism was built into institutions like Harvard and MIT, and eventually trickled down first to early Boston computer companies like Wang Laboratories and Digital Equipment, and then to the venture capital firms.
This heads-down, financially stringent approach is what many speculate led Boston-area VC firms to take a pass on Facebook when it was pitched by then-Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg more than a decade ago. As the story goes, Facebook escaped the death-cycle of Boston reserved-ness due to the influence of Sean Parker, a part of Internet startup-mythology that was given the HBO treatment on last night’s episode of Silicon Valley with the introduction of the Parker/Mark Cuban amalgamation Russ Hanneman.
While Boston-area billboards are starting to feature more local tech companies like Wayfair, one startup you probably won’t see marketing itself above the region’s highways anytime soon is SessionM, a loyalty rewards management program that helps brands engage with mobile users.
And that is because Lars Albright, SessionM’s co-founder and chief executive, doesn’t just exemplify the tradition of quietly building a company into a success and then hoping that people notice -- he is the quintessential Bostonian.
Not brash, not loud, and, from my experiences, somewhat uncomfortable being self-promotional, Albright’s own family history weaves through the history of New England.
Growing up in the shadow of Allandale Farm, the last working farm within city limits, Albright is literally one of the last of a line of Boston farm folk that goes all the way back to the city’s early days as a farming settlement.
For Albright, there is a correlation between running a startup and managing a modern farm. Doing everything from field work and helping run the farm stand, Albright explained during an interview in which he was loath to talk about himself, “The farm’s not an easy business...there is a lot of risk, there are lots of ups and downs. All that foundation helps when you are thinking about running any business.”
“The core of it is that I grew up in an environment where people were doing entrepreneurial things,” he said. Among those, he and a cousin started their own chicken business as kids, and his mother started and still plays a key role at the highly regarded Apple Orchard School preschool that abuts Allandale Farm. Part of his reluctance to talk about himself, Albright neglects to mention that his mother’s family played a role in founding the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts -- an important hub of the Industrial Revolution -- and that his father’s side of the family is deeply connected to the history of the renowned Mass General Hospital.
The practical character qualities that are often part of farm life helped Albright as he quickly climbed the corporate ladder to be Apple's iAd director of publisher partnerships and alliances as part of the company's mobile advertising business team. He ended up at Apple through the Cupertino company's acquisition of Quattro Wireless in 2009. Albright co-founded Quattro with Andy Miller who also worked at Apple and eventually moved on to Highland Capital, Leap Motion, and is currently working on a new project, ReMix Media. Prior to Quattro, Albright was vice president of business development at m-Qube, a mobile marketing platform that was acquired by VeriSign in 2006.
Miller, who was with Albright at Apple, Quattro, and m-Qube, said that he's a really interesting, down-to-earth guy who doesn't fit the expected rich kid role that his pedigree would indicate. "He's got such a way about him," said Miller, "there's no person or group that Lars has trouble communicating with, which is a valuable skill to have."
After his time at Apple, Albright returned to Boston and founded the fast growing SessionM with Scott Weller and Mark Herrmann. The trio wanted to figure out how to best monetize mobile advertising, and figured brands would be most interested if someone could find a way to get consumer spending more time and engaging with ads.
"When we started, there was very little interest in mobile advertising," Albright said, "no one really knew what it was, it was a new and emerging category." He said that since then, although mobile has become more prevalent, customer loyalty and engagement programs, and trying to get consumers to do more with content and advertising, is still a new, underutilized concept.
Currently, SessionM is working with brands like Viacom, Warner Brothers, Sony, AT&T, Ford, Unilever, and others on mobile customer rewards. The company, which has offices in San Francisco and Boston, has 75 million users engaging with its mobile programs on a monthly basis.
"People are really excited about the space and what we are doing," Albright said. "It's been really good for us that we have been able to expand our offerings to meet that demand."
One sign of how the company's approach to loyalty is being embraced by major players in the mobile space, is that David Kenny, chief executive of the Weather Channel, joined SessionM's board of directors after using the firm's products as a client. For Kenny, SessionM's mobile rewards products are "more of a delight than a detraction, which I think is good for our users."
"I think it's some smart insight, on Lars part, that advertising needed to be reinvented for the mobile phone," Kenny said.
In addition to running SessionM and his work with Allandale, Albright is also heavily involved in many local venture capital funds, including Data Point Capital, Atlas Venture and its Boston AngelList Syndicate, CRV, and others.
The embodiment of the quiet Boston tech founder, Albright is playing a central role in shaping Boston's future, running one of the companies that many hope will lead a tech resurgence.
Just don't expect to see him on a billboard anytime soon.