Annette Tonti: A Pioneer in Online and Mobile Advertising

Annette Shares Her Unique Views on Entrepreneurialism


I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Annette Tonti over the last four years. She is a pioneer in the online advertising and mobile markets with over 30 years of corporate and entrepreneurial experience. And, she’s an entrepreneurial warrior. As founder and CEO of two high tech startups, she has developed early stage businesses and raised over $30M from venture and angel investors. Early in her career she delivered digital strategies to Fortune 1000 businesses, ran a global program for the MIT Media Labs and headed up operations for a global telecommunications consultancy.

At the MIT Media Lab in 1998, Annette was Executive Producer for The Junior Summit, a special year-long program for the first “digital generation”. In 1999 she co-founded Bluestreak, one of the first “rich media” advertising firms. As CEO, she raised $27.5M in capital and led a successful acquisition. Bluestreak was acquired by Carat Worldwide (an ad agency) in 2007. In 2008 Annette co-founded and became CEO of MoFuse, a startup company designed to help local businesses have a mobile presence.  Annette raised $2M in angel funding and led MoFuse to a successful acquisition by The Search Agency in 2014.

Annette served on the board of the Harvard Business School’s Cyberposium for two years.  In 2000, Ms. Tonti received the Governor’s IT Achievement Award for Rhode Island. She was selected as a regional finalist for Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the year award for 2002. In 2011, she was named on the list of “Mobile Women to Watch” by Mobile Marketer. She attended the University of Cincinnati graduating with a B.S. degree in Biological Sciences as well as completing a graduate level program in Computer Science and Mathematics. Annette serves as a mentor at Brown University for the Center for Entrepreneurship. Check out Annette’s current work at The Start Exchange.

I recently caught up with Annette to talk about her extensive views on entrepreneurialism. Here is what she had to say…

You have been in the digital media/marketing industry almost since its inception. What would you say is the single biggest thing in the industry that has evolved the most in the past 15 years or so?

The single biggest change in the media/marketing industry over past 15 years has been the “center of power”. Years ago marketers and their agencies set the conversation including the tone and topics. Now “everyone is a media producer” which significantly changes how marketers need to approach their markets and moreover, their roles. This change has also affected the types of vendors that marketers need to work with including those who can continuously monitor their brand’s reputation and customer conversations.

How did the idea for Bluestreak, your first company, come about?

Years ago when the banner ad first appeared they were such a novelty that people clicked on them all the time. Hard to believe that the first ad had click through rates of 44%! However over time people no longer clicked because they didn’t want to leave their current website. I and three other founders of Bluestreak decided to change banner ads forever by making them stay on the page, expand and do pretty much anything the advertiser wanted to do. We introduced interactivity right in the banner which was quickly termed “rich media advertising”. It really meant anything other than static ads: animations, video, data capture. Our very first ad ran on Lycos and was an interactive survey to get people to vote on who they thought would win the Oscars that year.

Bluestreak was all about bringing new ad formats to the web at a time when there was really very little advertising online and a small but quickly growing Internet population. It was an exciting time.  

You’ve started and run two successful businesses in digital marketing. Other than deciding to work for yourself, what was the single most important decision you made that contributed to your success?

It’s always been about the people that I work with. It comes down to talent. At the early stage you need to be with people who have a range of capability. Also, there is an important personality type in an early stage company. [It takes] someone who is comfortable with risk and not having all of the answers in front of them. Early on in a business, having people who can be flexible and create the environment of client success are essential.

What were some of the biggest lessons that have impacted the way that you work? What was the lesson, and what was it like before and after?

As a founding CEO most important to me was to realize that a startup is not a democracy. By that I mean ultimately the CEO has to call the shots. He/she is the quarterback and has to determine the calls on the field as the play is unfolding. Prior to being in a startup I was a big corporation person. There is a very different way of working in large corporations. Most often you get “alignment” which basically means you take the time to listen to all stakeholders, then determine a best way forward keeping everyone’s opinion in mind. In a startup – that just doesn’t work! As CEO, you should be listening to the team, that is always important, however there is some point where you have to make the call swiftly and clearly.

What sacrifices have you had to make to be a successful entrepreneur?

Like many entrepreneurs I’ve sacrificed personal time with family. One very important aspect of being a successful entrepreneur is to have a supportive “family” team around you. I happened to marry a guy who is not only understanding, but truly is a cheerleader for my work. It is very important to have that balance at home.


What is the ONE takeaway piece of advice you would give an aspiring entrepreneur?

You can’t do it alone. The very DNA of an entrepreneur suggests that they can “do it all” but this just isn’t true. The most successful entrepreneurs are good because they know how to pick talent to surround themselves. Being able to connect to the best co-founders and early team is often the difference between success and failure. You can’t do it all, even though you might be very good at multi-tasking. In order to scale you have to have leverage. This comes with selecting the best co-founders and early team.

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