Waves of Success
A passion for weather and water led New York City native Jeff Ragovin ’00 to the shores of Lake Ontario. After all, he grew up watching America’s favorite weatherman, Al Roker ’76, extol his alma mater during Today show broadcasts.
Instead of majoring in meteorology as he initially planned, Jeff opted for broadcasting and mass communication, practicing his weather forecasts and journalism skills at the college’s WTOP television station, WNYO radio station and The Oswegonian newspaper.
He was also involved in the Sheldon Leaders program and stood out to then program advisor Robin McAleese ’93 M’95 as someone who “came to college with a great deal of self-direction … and leadership traits right from the start.” Robin said Jeff knew even as a first-year student that he needed to get involved in clubs and organizations and to start making friends and building his network.
“I had such an amazing time, engaging in all of those experiences,” Jeff said. A semester abroad in London during spring semester of his junior year fueled Jeff’s desire to graduate and “get started in life.”
Little did he know then, that 12 years after graduation, Jeff would be part of one of the largest company acquisitions in New York tech scene history—selling the social media marketing platform, Buddy Media—a company he co-founded, to Salesforce for just under $800 million in 2012.
Catching the dot-com wave
Jeff’s first job out of college landed him back in New York City, not at a news station but at a technical consulting and recruiting company.
“If I wanted to do weather on TV, I knew I’d have to start in a small market and work my way up into a mid-market to eventually, if I was lucky, make my way back to New York,” he said. “I couldn’t wait that long to return to New York. It was the late 90s and the Internet was booming. All these dot-com companies were raising massive amounts of money with huge valuations—some of them going public. To me, I was like, ‘this is a wave I’ve gotta ride,’ you know?”
And he did—placing product managers, developers and database managers at companies with huge trajectories. Then the 9/11 attacks happened.
College friend Andy Niver ’00, who was roommates with Jeff during their semester in London, was working around the corner from the Twin Towers on 9/11, and after the attacks, he walked miles covered in soot to reach Jeff’s apartment door.
“I spent the rest of the day with him, because that was the place that I knew and the friend that I had,” Andy said. “Later that evening, the subways started running again and I went home. But we actually met the next day, went down to Union Square and reflected on what happened and took it all in like everybody else. We spent a fair bit of time together after that because we were close friends working through this horrible event. He’s been a great friend.”
From his workplace, Jeff saw the planes hit the towers; he saw the buildings burning the next day and still smoldering 30 days later. The event shook him to the core, and he realized quickly that he couldn’t do as his boss asked. He couldn’t call people who had lost so much and try to find replacements for their deceased coworkers only days after the incident.
For Jeff, that moment helped him bring into focus a value that has been defining for his career. “I did what I believed was morally correct, even though I knew I would lose my job as a young college grad with rent to pay,” he said. “But morally I feel like I stood up for what was right to me and that was the most important decision I could have ever made. It was a turning point.”
Riding the email marketing wave
Jeff didn’t have to wait long before he was in a new job, making twice his previous salary.
“I knew nothing about marketing, let alone email marketing,” he said. “For me, the job laid the foundation of what was going to be the next five years of my career.”
The company had been founded in the Silicon Valley and expanded into NYC, and Jeff learned a lot about web-based systems, corporate business and sales. He was recruited away by a competitor who offered him three times what he was making, and he would have more responsibilities and be stretched professionally.
He quickly realized it wasn’t the right move for him or his career, as the company didn’t seem ready for its planned expansion and he worried that the company would fail. But he did develop great sales experience and senior management skills.
“That was the winning ticket for me,” he said. “I realized sales was about creating great relationships—building rapport. You’re not just getting them to buy what you’re selling, but they get to buy into you.”
Combining his newly acquired knowledge of marketing and sales with his lifelong passion for weather, Jeff applied for a senior director position for weather.com. Around the same time, he launched a blog called Jeff’s Weather, which featured an avatar version of himself that delivered the weather report in outfits matched to the daily forecast.
After eight rounds of interviews for the weather.com job, he learned that the company opted for someone with 20 years of broadcast experience.
“I was devastated,” he said. “I was already planning my future—at the Weather Channel where I was going to be able to apply everything I learned post-college to my passion, and it didn’t happen. What was I going to do now?”
Surfing the search engine wave
Timing is everything.
Through a mutual friend, Jeff met the head of the search engine marketing firm, Acronym Media, at a social gathering. He interviewed and joined the company, which is located on the 55th floor of the Empire State Building and continues to be a leading search engine optimization and digital marketing firm.
At the time, search engine marketing involved optimizing websites by using keywords that would propel them to the top of a search return. He worked with big companies like Four Seasons hotels and Sirius XM Satellite Radio on improving their search engine marketing and online advertising.
“I said, ‘OK, now I’m going to ride this wave,’ and I had an amazing experience,” Jeff said. “I got to work with some really great clients, and I still maintain relationships with those folks today.”
After 3½ years or so, Facebook announced that it was going public. People would no longer need a dot-edu address to create an account, and Jeff realized the possibilities that opened up for marketers. He could get out ahead of this next wave, so he’d be in a great position to ride it.
“Search engine marketing is somewhat passive because people have to actually put in what they’re looking for,” he said. “But what if you’re on Facebook—this is what my brain was thinking—and you say on your Facebook page that you enjoy fishing or TV or sailing or reading books; what if now, an ad could be targeted to you without you searching for anything?”
Cresting the social media wave
It was May 2007, and Jeff was wracking his brain trying to figure out how to move into the social media marketing wave while the rest of the world was still focused on search engine marketing.
Then he met Mike Lazerow.
“We were looking for someone to join Buddy Media and to lead sales,” Mike said. “He’d been in search and email marketing and basically wanted to get into social marketing—which is what we were doing. And we met at a Starbucks on Park Avenue South. From the first time we got together, we just really hit it off. He’s a really great guy—high energy and really knowledgeable, and it was like an immediate connection.”
But Jeff had yet to meet Mike’s business partner and wife, Kass Lazerow. Their first meeting was memorable.
Kass was sitting on the floor next to a pram that held their newborn baby—their third child—and she was drilling parts to build desks for the expanding company in between nursing. As chief operating officer of Buddy Media, she had hired and fired many salespeople who didn’t deliver, so she said she didn’t hold salespeople in that high regard.
“I was definitely standoffish and told him I didn’t have time to do an interview,” she said. The conversation unfolded something like:
KASS: I honestly don’t have much time today for an interview as you can see. So, what makes you different from all other salespeople?
JEFF: I close deals and make clients want to work with me.
KASS: Yay, well I have heard it all before. And, have hired and fired thousands of salespeople.
JEFF: It’s the truth. So, why don’t you tell me something about yourself. One thing that you love.
KASS: The weather.
JEFF: Oh OK, interesting. Well, you should hire me, and I will prove you
wrong. I guarantee you that I’ll come in with a signed contract the first day of work.
KASS: Sure, buddy, great. There’s just no way, but whatever. Good luck.
Following the exchange, Jeff gave his two-week notice at Acronym and began sending daily updates from his weatherman avatar to Kass. She adored the weather reports but they didn’t cause her to change her mind about him, or other salespeople, for that matter, she said. But on his first day at Buddy Media, Jeff came in with a signed contract from a new client and dropped it on her desk.
“My thought was there was just no way that Jeff was going to work. We needed to get somebody very high up in sales,” she said. “What I didn’t know is that we were literally making a connection to one of the best salespeople ever. And from that moment on, the three of us have been best friends.”
Together, they grew the company into the world’s leading social media marketing platform that enabled big brands such as Ford, Hewlett Packard and L’Oréal to connect with more than a billion customers on Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube and other social platforms.
During its development, the company had to pivo
t several times but managed to maintain service to their clients, and five years after its founding, Buddy Media sold to Salesforce—the largest cloud computing company at the time—for just under $800 million.
“When we finally made that decision to exit, Salesforce was the best possible suitor,” Jeff said. After the acquisition they stayed with Salesforce for three years to help with the transition and to learn from being part of a large publicly traded company.
Positioning for the P2P marketing wave
Jeff left Salesforce to enjoy life after the acquisition. An avid angler, he spent three weeks or so fishing on his boat off the Hamptons on Long Island. He searched for a new idea to pursue—a bed and breakfast, a beverage company, a food company, a consulting agency—all ideas he considered.
He ended up launching Ragovin Ventures and began investing in and advising other entrepreneurs. One of those companies was Social Native, a marketplace of a quarter-million people across the globe who can receive a text at any moment asking them to create a photo or video for brands. With the shift of eyeballs from production quality
content to user generated (e.g. Facebook being the largest publisher in the world, that doesn’t make content), brands are now reimagining how they create branded content.
For example, Social Native might connect with their content creators (everyday people) and ask them to submit a photo for Coca-Cola that ties into National Taco Day. In turn, the brand earns a wide array of branded content that can then be used across various advertising channels—keeping their brand content fresh, relatable and, most importantly, authentic.
“In the early days of YouTube, it was crazy to think brands would place meaningful dollars behind a user-generated video, let alone create unique video content specific to the channel,” said David Shadpour, founder and chief executive officer of Social Native. “But over time, education and adoption, almost every TV commerc
ial today comes with a complementary YouTube takeover. Our business is very similar right now—If you walk into a big brand to meet with a senior-level executive and say, ‘kids with iPhones can create great quality content,’ you would almost seem silly.”
But Jeff was an early believer in the idea.
“It’s a super cool idea—a technology platform that connects the world of consumers with brands to create content,” he said. Jeff introduced his clients from his past roles to this new way of marketing, and helped Social Native acquire more business.
With each success for Social Native, Jeff introduced David to a new potential client. “Over time, Jeff and I started spending so much time together that I asked him to join the company full time, and the rest is history.”
Today, Jeff serves as chief growth officer and is an invest
or in Social Native.
“One of my big goals is trying to create a culture where people are excited and happy to come into work,” Jeff said.
While David acknowledges that his business couldn’t exist without the evolution of hardware technology like the iPhone that fits in a pocket and can create amazing photos and videos, he said that successful businesses are about the people.
“Anyone who has been an entrepreneur understands how truly terrible the grind is—living on an airplane, moving from city to city each week, constantly dealing with challenging situations,” David said. “And here’s Jeff who has already lived that. He built a massive business and had an exit. To know the pain and struggle and to come back to it, that’s really just an example of how awesome Jeff is. He’s the guy who loves what he does. He’s the guy who everyone loves—billionaires to interns.”
Sharing a Friendly Wave
Everyone who knows Jeff, knows Jeff. Friends describe him as genuine, kind, personable, warm, generous, dynamic, passionate. He has been known to take the junior-level employee
s of his company out for a day of fishing on the sea, and once he befriended everyone who served on grand jury duty with him—even inviting them back to his house for dinner.
Thankfully, his husband of seven years, Kurt Giehl, enjoys an active social life as well.
“Jeff has an incredible passion for life,” said Kurt, who attended SUNY Oswego for two years in 1985-86 before transferring to Drexel University in Philadelphia. “When Jeff is passionate about something, he is incredibly influential and can sell just about anything. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in his passion when he’s like that. When he’s working, he doesn’t see his work relationships as work relationships. He sees them simply as relationsh
ips. And relationships that will last forever.”
In fact, many business associates are close friends to Jeff and Kurt. Kass
and Mike Lazerow officiated at Jeff and Kurt’s wedding. Jeff is godfather to the Lazerow’s middle child, and the two couples consider each other like family.
“I’m not surprised at Jeff’s success,” said college friend Andy Niver. “He’s always been all-in on everything he does—weather, fishing, career, friendships. I’m glad to see that his great success has not changed him.” l —Margaret Spillett
Everything is about social selling. Everyone has the ability to influence purchase decisions, so the future of selling is through people. Imagine a world where brands are vying for consumers’ attention, and we as consumers can actually make money from the products we endorse. I’m not talking about the Kim Kardashian-kind of endorsements. I’m talking about a world of true, genuine transparency where you’re recommending products and services to your family because you trust those products. And you get paid.
We will have more market disruptors—products or services that change the way we currently do things. For example, subscription-based services—meals delivered to your door, toothbrushes or hair dye delivered monthly. Or what if you didn’t have to buy a washing machine anymore because Tide laundry detergent would buy it for you, but the machine would only run using that soap. You’d be a customer for life.