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CEO Mike Sands '96 has turned his online marketing company, Signal, into one of the country's fastest-growing businesses.

Mike Sands '96

Start Me Up: Mike Sands ’96

A change in company name — and direction — helped Mike Sands grow rapidly and win an EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award

By Andrew Zaleski

9/18/2015 - Editor's Note: In the Start Me Up series, the Kellogg School spotlights members of the Kellogg community who are bringing bold entrepreneurial visions to life.

When Mike Sands talks about how he has approached online marketing over the course of his career, he falls back on his experiences at Kellogg.

“At Kellogg, I learned that great companies innovate — they’re constantly restless and trying new things,” he says.

Sands applied that lesson last year, when his Chicago-based online marketing company, then called BrightTag, rebranded as Signal — a change that signified the company’s evolution from “tag management,” helping brands collect better web data, to helping them harness the full power of their cross-channel engagement data to reach today’s increasingly connected consumers.

The name change was just one of several transformations for the evolving business as it continues to grow. Signal Inc. has doubled in size consecutively the last four years and now ranks No. 51 on the Inc. 5000 list for 2015, not to mention No. 3 for fastest-growing private software companies in the United States.

And in June, Sands and co-founders Marc Kiven and Eric Lunt won the EY Entrepreneur of the Year award in the Technology category for the Midwest region — a welcome surprise for CEO Sands and his team.

“You don’t go into something as prestigious as EY Entrepreneur of the Year and expect to win, because the competition is astounding,” he says.

A changing business

The new name also reflects how the original business has changed since Sands, Kiven and Lunt cofounded BrightTag in 2010.

In the early days, the startup developed technology to help big-name retailers manage “tags,” software that helps retailers track customers on their websites. But Sands says marketing has drastically changed in the last decade or so, encompassing more than just customers visiting stores online in web browsers, and that’s where Signal comes in.

“We saw a future that wasn’t dominated by traditional desktop web sales,” says Sands. “Mobile devices, connected TV — all sorts of digital interactions were going to be the new way that brands needed to interact with their customers, and we realized that the technology that would be able to connect a lot of those interactions either didn’t exist or was based on principles from 15 years ago.”

In with the new

Signal went about creating their own software products to grab hold of the future Sands saw. First came Signal Tag in 2010, a data integration platform that Signal’s clients used to gather information about customers visiting their websites.

Then, in 2013, the company released Signal Fuse, which enabled clients to collect customer information from places where tags and cookies no longer work, like point-of-sale systems and mobile phones.

“We’re the technology platform that helps power people-based marketing,” adds Sands. “We’re able to help our brand clients know that it’s you across your mobile devices, web interactions, email and different advertising units.”

The evolution paid off. Signal raised more than $50 million in venture capital and reported revenues of $17 million in 2014. Companies like Gap, Kraft, Netflix, and Orbitz use Signal’s platform to market to their shoppers. Signal now has 150 full-time employees worldwide, with offices in Japan, Singapore, Australia, Brazil, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Celebrating the team

In November, Sands and Signal Inc.’s co-founders will compete in the national EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards in Palm Springs, California, thanks to a careful reading of the rules, Sands says. Typically, the contests are framed for individual achievement; had it not been for the opportunity to enter the Midwest regional as a founding team, Sands wouldn’t have even considered the competition.

For Sands, applying and winning as a group recalled the very first lesson he learned during his time at Kellogg.

“You’re better if you can work with a group of great people,” he says. “There’s nothing about Kellogg that celebrated an individual contributor; it was all about celebrating the team and being better and creating better work with your fellow students. And that’s carried through to this day.”

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