My full Movie-like Founder Story — Director’s Cut

Placedise — Story of a failed Startup.

Jens Kuerschner
31 min readMar 24, 2022

In 2014, I founded my startup Placedise.
It failed as a business, but came with crazy adventures.

This is a quite long article, but provides you with the whole story. A slightly shorter version has been published before via “Entrepreneur’s Handbook”.

What to expect

  • Be prepared to learn a lot about doing the right things, but still not getting to good product-market-fit.
  • Experience the hard founders-without-rich-parents story.
    No sugar-coating, just the brutal truth — which can be irritating between all those shiny smooth success stories on the web.
  • A story, spiced up with Hollywood glamour, corruption, and too much proof, that almost all consumer-oriented companies lost control over their marketing measures.

If this intro caught your interest, save this page as a bookmark, buckle up your seatbelt, maybe get yourself a drink, open your mind, and get ready for entertainment in 3 … 2 … 1 …

Before I jump into the step-by-step story with all its fancy details (starting with chapter 3), I want to provide you with a short summary of what we offered and our major challenge.

👉 1/20 — What is Placedise?

Placedise offered a software that is able to simulate and optimize the advertising effects of branded content (e.g. product placement), TV commercials, as well as other advertising measures, based on scientific data.
Its intelligent algorithm automatically combined the results of over 600 scientific studies in order to evaluate and optimize marketing activities within minutes — to achieve the best possible advertising impact and success.

The software could act as an AI consumer behavior researcher, analyzing the success of existing measures; or (the other way around) generate the most promising setup up-front, based on the individual goals and target audience of the advertiser.

We used complex statistical modelling and optimization algorithms (nowadays labeled as Predictive Analytics, or AI and Machine Learning) to make the invisible nature of advertising actually visible, calculatable, and therefore measurable.

Sample screenshot: The detailed automated evaluation report

What makes it special, is the fact that it includes the full real effectiveness of advertising and this is NOT about reach and clicks. It is about what the ad triggers deep in our brains — even long-term.

The fact that advertising impact is mainly a wide mixture of subconscious processes, is known to all serious scientists, but brutally ignored by most people, who call themselves marketing experts.
You can read more about this in my article
“Advertising impact unequal attention unequal reach”.

If you want to see more sales stuff, feel free to scroll through the website or watch the video below.

☣️ 2/20 — The unsolved Challenge

… or why almost all Corporates lost their Marketing.

The problem we solved: It is almost impossible to determine the real (!) success of branded content without doing expensive and time-consuming scientific studies (where researchers observe consumer behavior after exposing them to the advertising stimulus).

At the same time, this is demanded by all marketing leaders as well as content providers (somehow a “no-brainer”). Placedise solves this with computing power — similar to how DeepMind’s Alpha Fold solves things with AI, where otherwise, researchers would do manual work over years.
But differently to Alpha Fold, Placedise operates in a market, which is commercial by nature.

Half the money I spend on advertising is waste, and the problem is I do not know which half.
(Henry Ford)

Placedise could have told Ford, which half of his budget was, and even better, will be wasted.
But at the same time, this was also our problem all the way.

While people demanded our solution and loved the idea, we were not able to sell it the big way.

To get closer to the root cause of this problem, you need to understand the special circumstances within the advertising market nowadays.

There are 3 big players:

  • ⭐ The advertising companies, aka brands (e.g. BMW, Apple, Hershey’s).
    They sell goods and need to advertise.
  • 📽️ The content producers (e.g. TV networks, movie producers, or even YouTube influencers).
    They produce content and include products to make money.
  • 🧑‍💼 The media agencies. They broker the content and connect brands with content producers — for money, of course.

Problem is, that some players (the big media agencies) took over all the power in the market. (There are really cool small players, but I need to keep it short here.)

What happened in the last 15–30 years, is nothing less than almost all consumer-oriented companies completely losing control over their marketing activities.

How it went (simplified):

  1. Media Agencies not only brokered advertising, but also started to offer complete marketing services.
  2. Brands started to down-scale their marketing departments.
  3. Marketing is also usually seen as cost center with no direct connection to revenue. More layoffs and outsourcing incoming.
  4. Content producers, on the other side, loved the easy way of having less points of contact, when speaking to media agencies only.
  5. Media Agencies (the big ones!) used this growing power to leverage their revenues. They negotiated special quotes with the content providers (and even questionable kick-backs on the back of their clients).
  6. Companies disliked this, but still got better deals than before.
    Hard to argue why to keep this expensive marketing department.
  7. The left few marketing employees, basically only steer the agencies. That’s all they do — without being able to evaluate their work due to a lack of time (and often also education).

Result: All power lies in the hands of those agencies, which make the more money the more advertising slots they sell.

You remember the quote from above?
If we uncover the half of the advertising budgets, which is wasted, agencies would lose money.
That’s a simple fact and there is hardly anything to do against it.

I have met many highly skilled CEOs, CMOs, and Directors of Research. They all see the problem, but also no way to get out of this easily. And then, there are usually more urgent problems on the agenda.

So, no chance to get into this market easily, even if you are providing an innovation for a real-world problem.
And yes, this is also a missed product-market-fit.

Anyway, you should know the whole story and that’s what comes next.
I promise, it will be more entertaining than this little rant here.

💡 3/20 — Where it all began

In 2011 (wow, that’s a long time ago), I spent the first semester of my Master studies at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).
I have been always a lot into movie production. Fortunately, I dropped the plan to become a professional producer, since there are clearly more talented people out there. Going to LA was a life-long dream and I have worked hard and saved every cent for this trip.

LA Skyline in 2011

Before even taking the flight, I had worked on another business idea within the movie production business. No need to tell more details here.
Bottom line: I needed some partners for that and also some validation on the idea.

Therefore, I started to call big production companies and the directors I personally admired. Some fact about myself: I can be really annoying and stubborn, if I want something.

In the end, I sat at Centropolis Entertainment (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, Moonfall), talking to and discussing with the awesome Kirstin Winkler (hi, there!). This ended with a clear “fail” for the initial idea, but threw me into the product placement business.

Over the next years, I read a lot about this marketing measure from all perspectives, while proceeding my marketing and consumer behavior studies.

In 2012 and 2013, this ended with my master thesis, where I did research on the subliminal effects of product placement.
This actually went quite big, with the production of a short movie, development of a web tool to observe user behavior, winning Lovefilm (now: Amazon Prime Video) as a sponsor, combining this with >100 other studies, and putting it into a >200 pages paper.
Check my article “Subliminal Product Placement in Movies Study” for more.

During this research, I was not only able to demonstrate subconscious effects of product placement, but also found another pattern.
Advertising effectiveness is extremely complex with tons of different parameters and dependencies. At the same time, there already are a lot of findings (mainly within Psychology) in basically all sub-areas.
But no complete model yet.
I felt that it should be possible to get to this model with some more complex, maybe self-optimizing algorithms.

At the same time, I stumbled upon a lot of press statements from different CEOs and marketing executives that the most critical thing, missing in the industry, is some tool to measure the advertising effectiveness of product placement.

And that was the time, when Placedise was unofficially born.

Real science done the old way back in 2013.

🧮 4/20 — Roadmap and Prototyping — somehow

It might be already clear that this is not about some simple business idea, one would have been able to directly test with potential clients. I did not even know if this would be possible at all. It only was some gut feeling.

A pure R&D challenge.

During the initial months, I tried to figure out, if I could build some model with a “Pen & Paper” approach. This worked partly. It got clear that it is not possible. But I also got more confident that it should be possible, when making use of intelligent algorithms.

At this point, I already set up a complex scientific model of parameters and more. But this did not make a lot of sense without some computing power.

🔬 A. Research and Development

I jumped into software development and tried to find a way to bring my “feeling of an idea” to life.
I had some developer background, but “only” within web development and never before with really complex statistical algorithms. At this time, popular analysis libraries (think of Python Pandas) were just about to evolve.

But I needed to build something. Otherwise, it would be impossible to convince anybody to jump on board.
And all of this without any money.

I ended up building some PHP solution, where tons of loops did in minutes, what better algorithms do in seconds. Anyway, this was about finding out if my concept works at all.

It did.

This was the very first version of the Placedise software.
Basically, a complex (and very inefficient) scientific model to combine a lot of scientific findings to evaluate a precisely given situation. The UX/UI also was a little bit clumpy. It did not make a lot of fun, but it worked.


I transferred this into a WordPress plugin, so I could make use of its ecosystem. This enabled me to build a complete user management system together with a subscription and payment system around it within a few days (thank you, WooCommerce).

Version 1, done.
I later learned that this was called “Minimum Viable Product” (MVP).

🪙 B. Finding a Job

One other problem, which I faced at this time, was the fact that I was completely broke (right out of University).

Therefore, besides working ~70h a week (yes, I tracked that) on the prototype, I also wrote around 50 applications and interviewed at multiple companies for a paying full-time job.
This was a big thing. It not only limited my time back then, but also meant that I will need to deliver on a full-time job, while keep on working on Placedise. Not desirable, but there is also no other way, when your dad does not own the VC.

In the end, I signed a contract and made myself a roadmap, which enabled me to combine both worlds.

The first issue on this roadmap was to find a Co-Founder, who would test the market, while I get tech support (paid by the money I will make in my “day-job”) and focus my time on guiding this person.

👋 5/20 — Finding a Co-Founder

Today, there are plenty of websites, which help you to find a co-founder.
It wasn’t that easy in 2013.
However, I already had someone in mind, who I expected to be a good fit.

Towards the end of 2013, I contacted Max (Maximilian Böhm). We knew each other from our time at the University of Bayreuth. I already knew, that he knows a lot about finance and accounting (from both, his studies and bank apprenticeship), while being an awesome salesman and networker (that’s his thing).
Since you should always aim for a founder team with the same mindset, but completely different, yet complementary skillsets, this would be awesome.

I remember the day, where I met him at his parents’ home (they own a small hotel and restaurant in Grafenwöhr, which later would become our official headquarter).
It was the day before Christmas Eve, 3pm.
He was not very into the idea and extremely skeptical. As I saw it, not because of the product, but because of its market potential. I had brought some numbers with me, but he wanted to do his own research (always a good sign — you do not want a finance guy, who blindly trusts random numbers).

Some days later, he was in and on January 5th (2014), we settled the conditions and defined the further roadmap.

📝 6/20 — Business Case and official Foundation

While starting my new full-time job, we prepared all the legal documents to actually found the company.
Fortunately, there was a new legal form in Germany, the “UG (haftungsbeschränkt)”, which enabled us to set up the company with only $2k ($1k of it for the notary). All other types require way more equity and if you have it, I strongly (!) recommend to use any other type (usually its “big brother”, the “GmbH”).

This all got officially finalized and put in the commercial register on April 24th, 2014.

The weeks in between, we worked a lot on the business case and already prepared all of the basic business infrastructure.
Since I was working full-time, this had to be done at night. After moving to a new city (Berlin), where I did not know anybody, it was either finding new friends or working on my “Side-Business”. No need to say that I did not find new friends (not counting the awesome people at my day-job back then).

Looking back at this, I am still amazed what we pulled off in terms of infrastructure. Our CRM (ZOHO) was more professional than anything I have seen so far (including huge corporate projects). Our CI material is still on the same level as the design agency’s work, I paid a lot of money for in a later project. And, thanks to Max, we were more or less the only startup, which was able to do its accounting completely on their own. It is almost funny how many self-called startup CFOs know nothing about accounting and taxation.

Since Max is also some kind of a wizard when it gets to saving money by talking people into giving us stuff for free (I really do not know how he does this), we had almost no costs while using awesome tools and services.

Linux Ubuntu simply still looks professional on such shots.

🤓 7/20 — Finding Deep-Tech-Support

Putting a big checkmark on the co-founder task, I still needed some support on the tech side.

We had a solution in place and I optimized this version for the rest of 2014 (including more payment providers, etc.).
But the core software was slow, not nicely designed, basically not maintainable, and had its flaws.
We had some test presentations with potential customers. They loved the idea, but did not really trust us that we could offer a stable software.
“Get your Letter-of-Intend first” sounds easy first; with almost no money on the bank, a shitty product (from a user perspective), and without those modern prototyping tools like Figma, UXPin, etc. (again, different time back then), it was hard to sell.

Now, where to get this person, who brings in coding super-powers, being a math genius, and is affordable to us?

I found Elance (Upwork nowadays), where I was promised to find IT experts from all around the world. Nice.

Still tricky to find a real hero for such a complex task.
I came up with the plan to search someone for a coding puzzle first. Like a paid hackathon, where the winner gets the main job.

A lot of developers applied (we did accept some) and almost all gave up on the challenge (which was closely connected to our software).
Even I expected that, it was an interesting key learning that there are a lot of developers, who might be very experienced with some usual standard apps and websites, but extremely few, who are really able to solve complicated challenges.

Luckily, I found Shyamasunder from India. One of the smartest people I have worked with so far. He had one of the highest hourly rates — but still cheap from the European perspective back then.
This way, we were not only able to hire him, but also to work together despite my paying regular job (due to different time zones).

🛠️ 8/20 — Prototyping — for real now

Getting the party started.
This was pure R&D fun. I still admire Shyam for the fact that he always stayed relaxed and professional, when I brought in more and more new details and challenges. But hey, this was about solving a problem, not about generating a specific output.

We went from very theoretical discussions to the selection of C++ for the core engine to different statistical models, which we tested against different cases and against time.

Just one out of many illustration to get to the final model.

I optimized the frontend, included more UX features, and updated my initial WordPress plugin to now only render the frontend, while the calculations were done by the engine. I also setup our own dedicated web server to be more flexible there. I did not know how to do this before, but got extremely deep into it along the way, including the super fancy stuff, like Facebooks HHVM (we basically used the same tech-stack as Facebook) and Nginx with the Google Pagespeed module.

At the core engine, we ended up with 3 different optimization models and decided for the Nelder-Mead method in favor of the Particle Swarm Optimization. The latter one achieved slightly sharper results, but at way higher performance costs. We built both with the NM as default.
Around this core process, we implemented other smaller algorithms to dynamically prepare data sets for optimization and more.

To put this into a timeline perspective, this process went from mid-2014 to mid-2015.
One year to get from my initial prototype to the first stable version is quite a long time — but mind my 2 jobs and a budget of $7k, while it was still unpredictable R&D.

Keep the timeline in mind, because the next two chapters happened in parallel in 2014.

💰 9/20 — Fundraising Part 1

Obviously, we were discussing how to get some funding right from the beginning. We had almost no budget, while this circumstance slowed us down — maybe not in 2014, because R&D needs its time anyway — but at least looking forward.

Mid-2014, we started our first fundraising round, looking for Angel Investors.

We talked to different family offices, had coffee with billionaires, spoke at different invite-only pitch events, and pulled every contact, we had in our network.
Usually, people were not yet convinced that we would make it to a (better) working software, while they were also missing the proof of market (paying customers). I need to admit that I understand them — looking at their individual risk profile.

Back then, there were generally no large investment rounds for deep tech R&D startups. All VC investments in Germany combined were around $1B, with ~90% going into eCommerce and Food Delivery.

We also spoke to multiple VC investors. This was already a win back in those times. They were all amazed by the strong product, but were missing either patents or paying customers.
We always argued against patents, because … well, under the hood, we simply had no money for the complex process around it.

Looking back, maybe we would have needed an Angel Investor to fund our patent to get some VC money. On the other side, I am barely 50% sure that this would have worked out.

We also talked with research companies, like the GfK or Nielsen to win them as strategic investors. They rather saw us as a competitor than as a potential partner or asset. Sad.

In the end, we had 2 potential Angel Investors, who wanted to invest $120k (combined) at a $200k valuation.
Thank you, but no. This would have killed the cap table right from the beginning. I still cannot believe that they really were serious about this.
Plus the Wayra Accelerator, were the management team had no clue about German law, taxation, and company structures (despite half of them were German) — pure chaos with many amateurs (they made a huge step with a new team years later and are quite nice now — too late for us).

We gave up at the beginning of 2015 and decided to work on the product first (mind that fundraising always takes at least half of your time).

🗨️ 10/20 — Selling the Idea

Besides looking for investors, of course we also tried to sell.
To make this work, we also pulled off a lot of PR and marketing tricks.
We had the usual startup press coverage (thanks to all the people listening to us!). We also included external workers for lead generation and Google Ads to support our sales efforts, giving our sales targets the feeling that we are quite big already.
We combined this with a strategy to automatically sell subscriptions right within our application.

We also spoke at roundtables and small conferences, like the PROPKO summit.
I had the slot before Verena Hubertz. She went quite crazy with her startup Kitchen Stories and is now part of the German parliament — congratulations.

All of this did not work out as hoped.

The major problem was the complexity of the product. Ewe positioned it as a market research instrument for researchers. This was the need we identified in the very beginning. Turned out that reality looked differently and it is a huge difference, whether people complain about something in interviews vs. the same people really looking for solutions and change.
This somehow was a stop/fail for our initial case.

But where one door closes, another one opens.

Especially via the conferences and corresponding networking, we found awesome like-minded people. We changed our overall sales strategy and focused on feedback meetings, where we presented the solution with the explicit goal to gather feedback (and maybe a Letter-Of-Intent).

This went quite successfully.
Big companies with really nice people spent a lot of time helping us getting to our major problems:

  • Brands do not really want to do honest market research.
  • Nobody wants to hear that his/her plan might not be a 100% fit.
  • Our product was still too complicated! We thought of it as a research product, but if nobody wants to do research, the users aren’t researchers and require more simple processes.

Bottom line: We saw a new need and therefore the way to provide up-front recommendations for sales agents, when they are matching the right measure to the right brand.

💪 11/20 — Going Full-Time

Since a lot of the organizational work in 2014 had been done full-time by Max (who ran on unemployment pay and social welfare during that time), it worked extremely well with my two jobs.

My schedule during the week looked like this:

  • 7 am: Wake up + Morning Routine (Shower, Emails, …).
  • 8 am: Drive to Day Job Office.
  • 9 am: Start Day Job.
  • 8 pm: End Day Job and Drive home.
  • 9 pm: Start Night Job.
  • 1–3 am: End Night Job.

Of course, I worked endless hours on weekends and used all my vacation for work too. But it felt fine. I loved both jobs. It was also very efficient, since I could bring in learnings from job 1 to job 2 and the other way around.
Plus: I was extremely motivated (and young).

Still, it is obvious that it could not work like this forever. We did not find any funding, but good market feedback and identified a new direction to follow. However, this would require more product and tech work and less sales for the next months. So, I quit and Max signed his day-job contract.

With still no money, I moved back to my parents’ house — wherever I found space.

Moving into the basement for the summer.
And into my old room — mind the old movie poster ;).

It was a tough time.

  • With no income, I fell into unemployment pay and later social welfare, spending most of this money on the business, only buying basic food.
  • Working so much, I literally had no social contacts outside of work for almost a year (except for my parents).
  • My only “vacation” and “leisure time” were the time on the road, driving to some sales meetings.

My schedule for the whole (!) week and for all (!) weeks of the year looked like this:

  • 8 am: Wake Up and Shower (sometimes).
  • 8:30 am: Start Working.
  • 1 pm: 30min Lunch break.
  • 7 pm: 30min Dinner break.
  • 3–4 am: Stop Working.

This added up (excluding time for coffee, toilet, etc.) to around 120h per week. The average (adjusted for holidays!) workload of a regular German full-time employee is somewhere between 28h and 36h per week.
So, I have worked around 3–4 jobs at the same time. This must be this luxurious startup life, I often read about.
Spoiler alert: It is not healthy that way.

But hell yeah — I got a lot of sh*t done!

🏎️ 12/20 — Version 2+ and the “Power-Year”

Enough complaining.
Let’s see what happened in this intensive year.

The maybe smallest step was the transition into the GmbH legal form.
This step was always intended and since we needed to bring in more equity anyway, it was a logical move.

Getting to the more interesting parts…

💻 A. Product

I was still working with Shyam on the core engine and algorithm, while now also pushing a lot into the surrounding application.

This brought us to the second version and also a lot of further iterations during the year.

If you are still curious about how Placedise works, check this video

We played the iteration-game quite hard, getting into regular meetings with potential customers to see them fail or succeed; optimizing it, and testing again.

The software developed from the WordPress plugin to its own clean web app on a scalable (Azure) cloud infrastructure. The 2015 version already was close to the later final one, which you will see further down.

And since we learned that we need to move away from the market research style, we put a lot of emphasis on tweaking it to become more of a supportive tool. This included a focus on auto-generating recommendations on how the ideal measure looks like.

Big success!
It made so much fun to work with the tool and making it better every day.

Sample screenshot: The sales dashboard with handy tools for media sales agents
Sample screenshot: The deailed evaluation report from the research module, highlighting all possibel details and recommendations

📇 B. Sales

During this time, we also had a lot more sales meetings.
We worked with major brands and got into many discussions with industry experts from all around the world (to be fair, mainly Germany, the UK, and the US).

We also did a lot of project work.
The biggest one for Mercedes Benz and its Turkish agency 3P. “Project work” basically means that we started to demonstrate the power of the tool, perating it on behalf of our client. This led to myself watching Turkish soap operas for days.

I also analyzed German “trash TV”, product placements of McDonalds, Sky, and even more Mercedes Benz.
Funny times, but not the sustainable business we needed.

In order to get closer to the media agency world, we also went to multiple trade shows, like the DMEXCO.

We were able to get some free tickets. Yes, still no money.
Fortunately, a friend of us lived in the city back then. We slept on the floor (I felt that I was getting old … my back) and therefore basically made the whole trip at no expenses.

Funny story: This friend, Jan, later moved to Mexico and became a national YouTube rockstar — keep that in mind, since it will get relevant later.

Back to the trade show. It was a success.

Many great contacts got us into the media agency world.
At that point in time, we had some evidence that Placedise would be a good fit for them to beat competition by offering more transparency to their clients.
As already described, this did not work out.

One case demonstrates the complete dilemma:

I got into multiple calls with the Managing Director (MD) of a major media agency. Soon, we sat at their office, presenting Placedise to basically the complete C-Level (+ research). The business side was amazed, while the Director of Research asked question after question. They all followed this scheme:

  • Client: “But how can you do X.”
  • We: “By doing it that way.”
  • Client: “Ok, makes sense. But how is this even possible?”
  • We: “Look, here and there:”
  • Client: “Ok. Wow. But I cannot believe this. This needs to be fake.”

We had some more calls. In the end, the MD told us that Research argued against our solution and he needs to trust this evaluation. The MD agreed that we have better arguments, but also stated that it does not make sense to take on this fight here — it is not that important to them in the end, since they are printing money anyway.
This happened in similar ways multiple times with different media agencies over the next months.

In the end, it was an intensive sales year. We went in and out of the project business, and still had no long-term contracts.
We also basically killed the idea that we could partner up with agencies.

However, there was some interest from the content producers left.

📢 C. Marketing

To support our sales efforts, I did a lot of content marketing during the year. Mostly blogging, but also pushing discussions in the industry. This was important, because we realized that our major problem was the unbelievable amount of misinformation and outdated workflows.

Some of those articles moved to my personal blog, like the evergreen “5 Things to consider when measuring Product Placement”in case you are interested.

Surprise: We did not change a lot.

I once sat together with researchers from brands, Universities, as well as market research companies. We all agreed that a solution like Placedise, especially the underlying values and concept, needs to become industry standard. At the same time, all agreed that it is almost impossible to explain that to their bosses and marketing peers. End of story.

💰 13/20 — Fundraising Part 2

Around autumn 2015, we wanted to use the now fancy product together with the positive market feedback to maybe get some funding now. We arranged calls with some old contacts. But with still no stable revenue, it was still not interesting to them.

“If you do not get a minimum of $15k recurring revenue per month from a stable user base, we should not talk. And below $50k I am not sure, if we can find a way.”

That’s $600k annual revenue! Based on our business case, this would have already included $300k EBITDA.

However, somehow fair from another perspective:
We still had no product-market-fit and VC money is for scaling, not finding this fit (even in many cases nowadays, it no longer makes a difference to them).

We also did not spend a lot of time on fundraising. Simply because we spent most time working on the product and trying to sell it. And towards the end of 2015, we ran out of time, money, and basically energy.

🪙 14/20 — Looking for a paying Job again

The described workload is nothing you should do for too long.
Living that life for almost a year clearly showed me my limits towards the end. I think it was more the social isolation than the workload itself, but it doesn’t matter.

On the other side, we still got no stable cashflow or investors on board.
We hit some kind of natural barrier. It was simply no longer possible to keep this speed and at the same time we needed to make some money.

We maybe would have needed to push stronger into our sales channels (we did not re-activate old leads, which could have been interested in the latest version) and/or should have tried more pivoting.
But again — do the math — not possible without “gas”.

So, I looked for a new paying job with the plan to spend the nights and weekends again for maybe finding some new way for Placedise.

End of 2015, I signed my contract with the big corporate world and started an awesome journey there.
And my parents where happy, because they already feared I would break down completely.

The end of Placedise? Not yet.

🌅 15/20 — Getting into the African Market

In the beginning of 2016 we had some more interesting, but fruitless discussions with more companies and potential partners (like MirriAd), followed by a quiet summer.

In autumn of 2016, however, our ongoing content marketing kicked in big.

We got contacted by Felix, founder of South African based “ReWare” and consultant to the SABC — the South African Broadcasting Corporation. He read one of my blog posts and assumed that Placedise was the missing piece for his puzzle.
To be honest, nothing special at that time. Despite the summer time, we had a constant flood of inquiries. They usually were far off what we offered and since we only had little time, we usually declined them.
It should not be the case here.

We had the usual talks, explaining the product, giving a demo, discussing options, …
He got excited.

📺 A. Working with the SABC

A few discussions later, he introduced us to the “Group Exec: Commercial Enterprises” and later his huge team. Even more talks later, we aligned on a rough scope and some initial projects. We pulled out our project gloves again and analyzed some SABC content.

This went very well and we moved into preparation for a long-term contract to boost the complete branded content sales branch, tweaking the software exclusively to the needs of the SABC.

“Exclusively” meant “in South Africa” and it somehow would bind all of our resources. However, this could have been easily extendable to other media corporations world-wide. Going big now!

We met with Felix in his home town Malaga (Spain) right before Christmas 2016, working on the final scope and offering.

This ended in a 7-digit package with the goal to provide us with a runway of 3 years — and behind the scenes the option for us to bring in investors to finally kick this off.

How could this year have ended any better?

The final discussion took place on January 2017.
We brought in the numbers and features. Some questions popped up, which we addressed over the upcoming months, where we also settled the last contractual details.

At the same time, we already got a little bit nervous about the South African market. We knew it works differently. We would have needed to found a local dependency. And then there was this thing called “Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment”, which might have forced us to give some shares to local natives.
A lot of complicated stuff.

Luckily, we found out that the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce has dependencies in most countries and supports companies like us. We called the South African office and got a lot of awesome support.
In the end, we had a stable plan, ready for execution.

Was this the silver bullet?

Somehow, the final contract took unusually long to get signed. We followed up multiple times to see it move to the next level, where it again seemed to be stuck. Usually, we would have assumed that they want to pull back, but why didn’t they simply say so?

This went for some more time, where we followed up constantly, but were not able to get any proper information.
In the end (end of 2017), we finally gave up on it.

As we found out later, the SABC was in serious financial problems, cutting down all budgets, not paying existing vendors (lucky us), to being “technically insolvent” in 2018.
Wasn’t there another way back in later? Not really. All our contacts and supporters were either layed off, resigned, or got fired and accused of corruption (source). Holy sh*t.

From the ground to the moon and back — without a parachute — right on the face.

Only “good” thing here:
All of this happened at night or during vacation, since I was working full-time in my corporate job, leading a product placement department. Meant 90h weeks again, but a safe harbour now.

🚀 B. Getting to the final big version

During this time, I spent many nights working on the product again, using the direct feedback from our partners and the potential African client to tailor the software to their specific needs.
This included specific modules per department (marketing vs. sales vs. research), but also the support of TV commercials — Placedise now could basically work with any audio-visual ad type.

The result of this work ended up in the somehow final version of the tool (since from that day on, to the very end, we only did very small optimizations).

You can see this (and more) in the official video tour!

Again, this got all built with (to that date) only around $28k — including all the underlying research, sales (incl. business trips), marketing (incl. SEA), and more. I still cannot believe this myself, since similar (in terms of scope) projects, I have seen at other companies, usually cost around $23,000k.

And even more crazy: Everything in all of those videos has been created by myself — except the voice over, the music, and 80% of the 1 microservice for the underlying optimization algorithm.
I sometimes said that we had 4 more employees, because people did not believe I built this on my own.

If you keep pushing and learning, you can achieve so much on a skill-level — it’s amazing!

😎 16/20 — Taking on Hollywood Connections and more

It is 2018. We basically stopped all of our efforts, but still received many inquiries.
One of them got interesting again. The awesome Angelica Ramirez, Product Placement expert from Mexico, wrote us to find out more about Placedise. She has a really strong and broad network all over Latin America. You need to know that Brazil would have been one of the biggest markets for us due to their soap opera love.

We got into discussions and demoing.
In the end, she invited us to talk at a small summit. In Mexico. Nice, but damn — a little bit too far away.

You might have realized that we are quite innovative whenever we face a problem?

You might also remember our friend Jan, who shared his room with us, when we had our trade fair trip?
He became a Mexican YouTube star in the meantime. What a coincidence.

That was when Jan became an official representative of Placedise in Mexico and joined the summit.
Funny thing: Angelica immediately recognized him, because her daughter was a huge fan. This world is so fuc*ing small!

We ended up with Angelica becoming an advisor to Placedise.

We jumped on the train again, finally answering the calls from all those Hollywood agents. They were all trying to make Product Placement deals and were quite interested in our solution to boost their sales through some trust mechanisms. We had a lot of talks with a lot of very interesting people.

We even started new small marketing campaigns to get more traction, including crazy attention-getting concepts, like this one:

In the end, we needed to stop all the negotiations and contracts, because this simply did not work for us as a business model.

It was nice and shiny to work with those people, but they would have needed our tool at such a low price, that it would not have made any sense to operate it.

🪅 17/20 — Getting into the Mexican Market

Getting back to the Latin American market — basically Mexico as a first step.

Angelica was about to start another company together with 2 other guys.
This brought is into more discussions, which were quite similar to the beginning of our South African adventure.

We also evaluated a lot of different ways to get this funded.

Maybe I should not even call this “fundraising”. It was more of a discussion between me and one of the involved guys, whether he would and could bring us investors.

I am keeping this short. It did not work out — for all of the involved people.

We are at the end of 2018 — and this is also how I put the end of Placedise in my CV.

🔀 18/20 — Partnership and API Models

But wait, there were some more activities!

I do not remember the exact time, but somewhere along the way in 2018, I developed a new concept, where we offer Placedise as an API solution for other companies.

At this time, we realized that the maybe only way out, would be to become our own media agency and to build some kind of a branded content marketplace (with our algorithms, we could automate the matching and even generate the ideal script for each placement — nice USP).
Since we did not have any power left to go this way, we thought of offering this USP to other small companies, which were on a similar path.

In 2019 and 2020, we got into discussions with multiple ones.
The problem: We would have needed to create a real joint venture, where we also invest at least our time and get some revenue share.
Unfortunately, this was no longer possible for us. It was either we got paid for the use of our algorithm or we could not do it. So, we did not do it.

Looking back, I still think this would have been the way to go — but without any funding, having invested so much over the years, we could simply not buy in that time.

I also had the idea to offer Placedise as a Salesforce extension (via there AppExchange) in order to use Salesforce as an automated sales channel. However, their extremely restrictive requirements (and fees) killed that plan in end. Still, we have a working Salesforce Plugin too. Wohoo.

We even tried to push the SABC model to other TV networks. This was a challenge on its own, facing things like “that’s still pen & paper here” or “does this mean everybody needs a computer?”. Wow.
There maybe would have been ways by solving those problems on top, but … you know: Time and money.

Not to mention even more meetings with old friends and big players (it is amazing, looking into my old calendar and documents), but somehow, Placedise had already died.

♻️ 19/20 — Final Fundraising somehow

In the very end, for the final time, we tried to make some money out of the technology.
We were looking for people to buy the whole company as an asset to their existing offering. Not successful, but to be fair, we did not push very hard.

Just before we wanted to pull the switch, we got one last call from a New York based investment manager, who wanted to add Placedise to some kind of a package, he wanted to sell to a client of him.

Didn’t work out. Good Bye.

🪦😵 20/20 — The very End

On January 20th, 2022, the Placedise GmbH got officially deleted from the commercial register. We did this, despite the extreme German bureaucratic obstacles, in the most elegant and smooth way — as always (even that’s a lunatic story on its own, but would be only relevant to Germans).

This ends an era of joy, hope, energy, depression, sadness, frustration, and all potential other emotions.
It has been an honor for me to meet and work with so many awesome people along the way. And I couldn’t be more grateful for that!

In case there is a motivated team out there, which wants to give this another try and build on our product, feel free to contact me in order to explore ways on how our previous work can support you — or even how you can revive our code base.

Because when talking about the code, I keep it with Richard Hendricks from the iconic TV show “Silicon Valley”:

Jump to 26:23, if it does not start there.

(except that I really still have a copy of the code — I am pretty sure — I think)




Jens Kuerschner

Tech Founder, Leader, End-to-End Product/Program Manager, Full-Stack Developer, Marketing and Digitalization expert. 🚀