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How to Stop Malicious Code From Destroying Your Ad Performance (Episode 60)

The ecosystem of the Internet is powered by one thing – advertising. Websites are free to visit because advertisers can purchase space to display ads for viewers.

The two main characteristics of a healthy Internet is free access and consumer trust. To ensure the latter, Matt Gillis, founder and CEO of clean.io, has created a solution to a specific digital problem – malvertising or malicious code.

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What is ‘malvertising’?

Malvertising is the use of advertising to load malicious code onto third-party websites to essentially do bad things. Broadly, this can include things as innocuous as creating a poor user experience all the way to tracking and stealing customer data.

This is how digital advertising works today:

  1. A content creator has a website, xyz.com.
  2. This creator has worked hard to gain viewership, and now in order to generate revenue, they want to show ads.
  3. They create blocks on their site that will contain ads.
  4. Then, an ad service places ads inside those blocks.

But ads aren’t just images. You’ll notice when you click on an ad it typically redirects to another page. That is all powered by underlying code that is injected into xyz.com’s website. While the original creator controls the code they wrote, they don’t control the code for the ads. This creates an opportunity for unethical characters to inject malicious code without the creator’s knowledge.

You may recall an experience when you were scrolling on a site and the ads redirected you to a product, or took over the screen. That experience probably changed the way you viewed that website, and now you think twice about visiting it again. Content creators face this problem every day. A bad ad experience can turn viewers away forever, and that’s lost revenue you’ll never get back. Matt’s company protects about 8 million sites a month from this sort of behavior.

Combat malicious code with clean.io

The best way to solve the malicious code problem, according to clean.io, is to allow hackers to place ads on webpages. Then, clean.io adds a single line of JavaScript code in the header of a webpage and analyzes all the code on the page. It allows the image of the ad to render, because it is harmless, but disables the underlying malicious code.

This serves two purposes. First, it prevents malicious code from executing on the host site. Secondly, it creates a financial disincentive for the malicious code creators. They paid money to place their malicious ad on a webpage, but the code they wanted to execute was disabled. What usually happens is these bad actors block sites with clean.io technology, so their ads are no longer displayed where the malicious code is disabled.

Growing during a pandemic

The early days of a company are about growing relationships. 2020 was a difficult year for that because of the pandemic. With in-person meetings nearly impossible, Gillis had to rise to the challenge of building a network in more creative ways. Remote communication became his main tool.

Gillis needed to secure funding, and for that, he had to gain the trust of venture capitalists, all while the world was almost entirely shut down. Investors couldn’t come down to his headquarters in Baltimore to see the work the company was doing. Instead, he had to sell them on the potential of the product and build trust from the ground up. Even though he signed term sheets and gained financial backing, he still hasn’t met his lead venture capitalist in person.

He relied heavily on his reputation. Many people he would reach out to would actually look at his LinkedIn profile and go through every single mutual connection. His background helped people trust that he had experience and was going to deliver. His social footprint really mattered in forging connections with others during the pandemic.

Creating the best product

Matt wanted his product to be so good that it could sell itself. Cybersecurity companies face a unique challenge, because once their product is out there, people will immediately try to find ways to circumvent it.

The enemy that clean.io is fighting can be anywhere and everywhere. These malicious advertisers are nameless, faceless. They’re constantly evolving and innovating to get what they want. To make this a viable business, Matt knows he couldn’t just launch a product and let it be. The product has to grow and innovate as well.

A product-focused approach to growth worked for clean.io. Their product started going viral from word of mouth. Matt and his team didn’t hire a marketer until over two years into the venture. He focused all of his energy on building the best product that everyone would tell their friends about.

Building a strong business

Creating the best product is only half the battle. The other half is finding market share and getting consumers onboard and interested in the product. Luckily for clean.io, it had already built momentum from the publicity it got just through word-of-mouth. Six months ago, the team hired a professional marketer to take their marketing to the next level and start attracting more customers.

Looking to the future

Gillis envisions a future where the world’s largest eCommerce sites rely on his product to stop malicious code. They’ll prevent consumer-focused extensions from operating on their products. These extensions work by scraping the internet for coupon codes and applying them at checkout on these sites, costing them revenue.

But he recognizes that the process of building a scalable business is a marathon, not a sprint. He’s looking forward to each step in the journey, and recognizes there will be more challenges and opportunities ahead.

Lessons for budding entrepreneurs

Gillis chose to work at a company that started with just five people. Although the product seemed sound, it was still a huge risk. At that stage, it’s impossible to tell if an enterprise will succeed.

But he chose to think of it a different way. The worst thing that could happen was he’d get to try this out for a year, run out of money, and then he’d be job hunting again. But the experience would make him even more valuable as a future hire. This gave him the courage to leave his safety net and try this new opportunity.

If you have an idea for a side hustle or a new product – go for it. You can only gain experience. Learn more about building a successful business here.

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