From a Passion for Podcasting to a Tech Startup – The Story of uCast with Founder Rand Abou Ras
It’s only appropriate to kickstart our podcast series with the bright young talent @randras_ spearheading uCast – A marketplace for podcasters & advertisers to find each other.
Rand graduated from Ryerson University where she majored in Entrepreneurship & Strategy. Soon after her graduation in 2020, Rand took the brave step forward to venture forth on building her startup. She rejected several offers she had on the table and entered a competition organised by her university to win $25,000 to build a startup which kicked off her founding journey.
Don’t care about what people say or think. Everyone gives advice, doesn’t mean everyone’s advice should be taken.
Rand is excited to share her journey from being a 16-year-old social entrepreneur to having a first taste of a podcast appearance on CBC Fresh Air. She tells her story of falling in love with the freedom of speech that podcasting offered her and how this decentralized form of content inspired her to create her own. By becoming a podcaster herself, Rand’s discovery of the problems that creators faced came from first-hand experience. This is what led to the discovery of her startup idea for uCast
Listen to the full podcast and hear what she has to say about bringing her dream into a reality.
Rand’s Book Recommendations:
48 Laws of Power – Robert Greene
Thinking Fast & Slow – Daniel Kahneman
The Drama of the Gifted Child – Alice Miller
Where to Find Rand:
Follow Rand on Twitter: randras_
Find Rand on LinkedIn: rand-rash
In today’s episode, we have Rand. The woman behind uCast. Rand welcome to the show.
Thank you. Hi everyone. How are you doing?
Alive and breathing. Thanks. So I wanted to ask you, can you briefly tell us who you are and what did you built?
Yes. So hi everyone. My name is Rand. I’m the co-founder of uCast. uCast is a marketplace and an ad management platform for podcasters and advertisers or brands to find each other and launch host-read ad campaigns.
So we do primarily CPM campaigns, but we also do CPA campaigns where we create affiliate programs. For brands who wanna explore podcast advertising, but still are not really sure about spending that very big budget on a large ad campaign.
Awesome. And we also understand you do some podcasting on the side of all of this.
Tell us the story. How did you get into podcasting?
Yeah, so it’s quite a story. In 2016 when I was 16, I moved to Canada from the middle east. And when I came here, I was very involved in social entrepreneurship. I was leading a student group of 70 students. We raised $300,000 and we started building projects all across Canada, in Nunavut in here, locally in Peru, India, and Egypt.
It was all about social entrepreneurship – building for communities with communities. So very quickly news outlets like Globe mail and CBC and other Toronto local news got sniff of the story and they started featuring me. But then the title was always Syrian refugee does this or Syrian refugee does that.
And even though like, that was my status in Canada legally. They were still painting this tragic story of a runaway from the civil war. They were selling it and I hated that. And so I tried to get it either edited it or removed or something, but they didn’t agree.
I was 18 at the time. If a news outlet wants to feature me, let them feature me. It was kind of a big deal. But then I started getting a lot of these comments online where, you know, people would be like, “oh my God, she’s so brave”, “Oh my God, what a story?”
And I don’t know it just did not sit right with me. There was like just something weird about it. So I ended up going on CBC, fresh air, where it was my first time on a podcast. And it was my first time telling my real side of the story and what actually happened and why we seek asylum.
Yeah, I just I fell in love with the freedom of speech – aspect of it. I fell in love with the movement of this is a decentralised form of content. I’ve always been such a big advocate of decentralisation as well. So I loved podcasting. I started podcasting as a hobby and very quickly, and you start understanding the problems when you’re a podcaster yourself. You start looking at all of these problems that exist. Coming from a product design background, that’s when I really started doing product mockups. Where I would post some on Reddit groups, discord channels and talk to different podcasters and audio channels. Yeah. That’s how it all got started.
Fascinating. Really fascinating. A question I will be asking. So where did the idea of uCast come from and what’s its backstory?
Yeah. It was literally me just like creating those product mockups on Figma and sharing them with other podcasters. People would be like: “Oh, I like this”. “Oh, I don’t think, you know, we’d use this”. “we’d pay for this”. “We wouldn’t pay for this”. Just getting people’s insights and very quickly the idea of monetization was very, very appealing to a lot of podcasts.
Especially the podcasts that are in the long tail – that are suffering. So those are like the multi-medium podcasters who are either semi-professionals or they want to make this into a professional hobby. It’s just, unfortunately, because of the lack of virality, the lack of algorithms and exposure, it’s very hard for them to monetize, but they have such high engaging audiences.
So everyone was like we hate all the existing solutions, but we have this audience. We don’t know what to do with the audience. We wanna monetize. We wanna bring value. That’s how it all got started. It was the idea of how can we bring advertising to audio, in a way that is not invasive to the audience. And that truly brings value.
There’s a lot of backlash on advertising, especially programmatic advertising because instead of adding value to the user, it is really taking away from the experience. And I believe that advertising could be good if there’s this cohesive experience that both the brand and the audience, fit together.
And that was the entire mission and goal. How can we bring value advertising rather than disruptive advertising to audio. Since it’s still like this untapped market. We saw Spotify move towards programmatic ads and the backlash of the podcasting community.
Because Spotify was monetizing, not giving back to podcasters, introducing this new marketplace, this new programmatic advertising and all the podcasters are like, what the fuck? You know? So yeah, that’s how it all got started.
Okay. I actually fully agree with you. When I started hearing about podcasting, I was like, how is podcasting suddenly becoming so popular? It’s like YouTube, when it first started everyone to be YouTuber now, something, everyone to be podcasting. On that note, I know you’re still kind of early and started end of last year, but what was the original product of uCast did you have like an initial idea, but then it came out of something completely different? And also in that question, how you get the funding, the people and the resources to make uCast today. As it is today.
Yeah, another interesting story. I graduated in 2020 – it was like late 2020s.
like, right, right at the pandemic.
So it was interesting where, you know, it was at that time where I was really perplexed. Do I go for a full time job? I had a couple of offers on the table. Do something of my own, do I pursue this idea of podcasting?
Then there was this competition that the university was hosting and it was to win $25,000 to build a startup or start your venture. So I ended up rejecting all the offers I had on the table at that time. And I applied we won $25,000, which was like what we consider our angel funding.
Um, it was non-dilutive funding, which is great. And then we ended up winning another $7,000. So in total, I think we won 32,500 in grants. My co-founder and I actually worked together on a couple of different projects before. We were on this trip to Turkey for two weeks to build a product on the ground for local farmers.
We trusted each other. We worked together before. We’ve had such a positive experience. So he was like: “Yeah, let’s do it full time”. So we immediately went full time. And then got a team of now we’re a team of six. We got an AI scientist, a front end dev, another product designer and someone who manages social media.
That was the story of really how we got funded and how we get started.
Well, this question going to jump ahead. Do you have any competitors or who are your main competitors and what makes you stand out from the rest? As I said, if there’s any.
Yes. so I would say a lot of our current indirect competitors in the space come from different forms.
They are either distribution companies who distribute your audio to different streaming platforms, like the most knows or Buzzsprout, Libsyn, Transistor. They have an ad or monetization arm that they allow certain podcasters to go through. But then those have a lot of limits. In terms of what podcasts are able to hop on the brand budget, how much you’re able to spend targeting all of that.
It’s a little bit more problematic than hosted ads. Then you’ve got your marketplaces, like the AdvertiseCast, which is actually now owned by Libsyn. Then you see the user experiences is very outdated. It’s very difficult to distribute advertising across 10 different podcasts.
It’s very different to just go through the platform as a brand or a podcaster. Then you have your agencies that created this podcast network. And then they said, okay, let’s create some kind of like a small marketplace for a podcast where we can invite brands. So the biggest one is Gumball that we found. Those are not tech startups. They operate more from an agency arm rather than a scalable tech startup.
Then the closest one that what we’re doing is called Podcorn which got bought out in 2019 by an entertainment company. But Podcorn is also very different from us.
Podcorn is a space where brands are able to put in contracts or proposals of what they’re looking for. And then you can apply to them and send what we call a request for that proposal and have the brand either accept or reject it. And then you move forward with an advertisement but the way we deal with things or the user experience is very different.
What we offer podcasters is a lot higher. So their average CPM, I think is $10. Our average CPM has been at least $50 for episode. Our brands are also majorly tech startups. The way we connect to brands and podcasters is also very different where we don’t want just any random brand to come on a podcast and advertise.
It has to be you relevant to the audience. It has to bring value. So for example, one of the most successful ads that we’ve done was through a start tech startup in the sports industry. Um, and we advertised on a podcast called Rapture’s Digest. It just fit in perfectly that it did 2.5 times better than Google and Facebook ads combined.
All the users that downloaded the app through the advertisement were high engaged users, which made is they were constantly using the app. They were constantly engaging with the communities and overall it was like, It was, it was a lot higher returns and conversions, not just through the downloads, but through the engagement of the, of the audience.
So this is what we do best is how can we truly engage audiences in unique ways and build trusted ad campaigns rather than disruptive, you know, ad campaigns.
So how are doing the matchmaking? Is it automated right now or you’re doing it manually? How is that happening right now?
Bit of both. So we do an automation first and then we do a manual check to make sure everything is up to par. Because our team is limited, our funding is limited, our technology is limited, so we do have that double authentic of automation and manual.
Going back to the beginning, even though was so long ago, how did you get your first users?
How did you get our first users? It was through a podcast newsletter is was called Podmovement
One of the biggest newsletters that I know of. So we were on there for a couple of weeks. Through Twitter, we engaged a lot on Twitter. Did a lot of spaces, posted a lot of communities that brought our very big batch of the first users as well. Then brands, it was very organic to be honest with you. We’d a wait list going for brands. And we would go through the wait list we’d call ’em up and be like, Hey, are you ready for your podcast advertising?
It was through a lot of just talking on podcasts, speaking at events where people would find out about or brands would find out about us and they would reach out.
What do you think is hardest for you? Is getting brands on board or podcast on board? What do you think is more challenging right now?
I think what’s most challenging is getting the same type of podcast and brands together on the platform because that’s how the platform works. Right? If you are a sports tech company, you wanna advertise more sports podcast, right? If you’re a couponing company, you wanna advertise more couponing podcast or a DIY or a savings podcast.
And so having the same type of podcast and advertisement campaigns. That’s I would say what’s been most difficult, but we also found a way around it to make it a lot easier for us.
Taking it back now. So here’s an interesting question to throw at you. If you can go back to younger self, what piece of advice would you give yourself?
Don’t care about what people say or think. What I learned is everyone gives advice. Doesn’t mean everyone’s advice should be taken. Where especially as a young female who just got into the workforce in a startup. It is very intimidating when you have all of these old there are successful males telling you what to do, and every single one’s telling you to do something different. You’re like, I wanna do everything.
Like I wanna take all of your advice. Right. But at the same time, understanding what actually works for you, what’s actually relevant to you and which advice you should take, which advice you should throw away or just like put on the back burner. That is the advice I would, you know, give myself just don’t listen, everyone, focus on really focus on your mission. Focus on what you started. In the end, no one knows the industry better than me and my team. No one has experienced it the way me and my team have. We know it’s better than most investors and we know what more better than most advertisers. So just understanding that we know our shit and we’re confident our shit and just showcasing that confidence I think that’s been a very, very difficult lesson to learn.
Just a quick question, right from there. Right. you being a female founder, did you see any obstacles at all? Maybe when raising funding or maybe getting clients at any point, you see that as a drawback or holding you back? In some way?
There’s a couple of things that come to mind. Um, the first one is not so bad, but, and everyone is so nice to you.
Everyone’s so scared to tell you the truth. Right. yeah. Everyone’s like, you know, looking at me, it’s like, oh, you’re this, you know, 22 year old. I don’t want everyone your, your perspective of the world. And everyone’s just so, so nice. Like genuinely nice. Right. And that ends up hurting. Right me a lot more than it benefits me because no one just tells me the like the real feedback.
Until this advisor came on board and just like would tell it to me the way it is. Listen, this is what’s going on. Everyone else like has been too nice. And I think one of the biggest advice I heard from another founder, he was, he was with me or he was another company.
He was doing something amazing in marketing and I was just telling him, I was like, I’ve been receiving all this amazing feedback. And he was like, listen, my wife and I have been doing this for a while. Whenever my wife goes on a call, everyone’s so nice to her. Whenever I go on the same call, everyone’s just very like straight up with me.
And I just want you to be careful that sometimes the feedback that you get is not necessarily what people are thinking. That could be because you’re a female and a young and people don’t wanna hurt your feelings. And so, like, that was the first thing I would say that caught me off guard.
Then the second thing is the, not the victim mentality, but when you hear investors say, no, sometimes you start thinking to yourself, if everyone is telling me they like love what I’m doing, but they’re still saying no. Is it because I’m, I’m, I’m an like, is there like some kind of bias over there? Cause I’m a woman of like a different background. Do they not trust me? And I hated that victim mentality so much. Cause I knew it had nothing to do about like me personally.
And it had nothing to do with the fact that I’m a woman, but it just like when you hear all that stats that only to present a woman get funded, it just, it, it fucks up with your brain, you know? It’s like, is it, am I stat, is that like, you know yeah. That’s really the two things that stood out the most.
Okay. Just based off that, what about imposter syndrome, you ever felt that? Do you think it’s a thing for you?
Not necessarily imposter syndrome. More so…Maybe it is imposter syndrome, but like sometimes I feel like a fraud. Taking people’s money where I know I’m providing value. But we’re also still learning as a startup, right? Which means nothing is guaranteed, which means anything can happen. Taking people’s money and saying, I know what I’m doing, and I know what’s happening, which every startup does. It sometimes make me feel like a fraud, right? It’s like, what is the difference between me and someone who’s giving empty promises.
I’m not saying my promises are empty, but I’m, again, I’m saying like a startup could be built today and a startup could die tomorrow. And there’s nothing anyone can do about it. And so just like dealing with the fact that we’re a startup and dealing with the fact that nothing is guaranteed and dealing with the fact that, you know, our team is trying our best.
We’re all very authentic. We’re all very genuine. We never lie. We never cheat. I had to like, deal with that. We’re not taking people’s money, we’re not stealing people’s money. And I actually had such a hard time charging people. At points I wanted to subsidise the advertisement cause I’m like, I cannot guarantee your results.
Let me subsidise ad campaign. And then my team was like, what the fuck are you doing? You know? So yeah, that was a little difficult to deal with at the beginning.
Mm-hmm right. Cool. And what about right now, your revenue, how is that in terms of revenue right now as a company?
As a company, so we launched our beta in October as a closed beta. We are currently doing around 3.5 in GMV, monthly and around 500 in MRR monthly. We re-launching our product as a public beta. And so we just learned a lot from our current users and the way they were using or not using the platform. Now we’re just relaunching with all the new product features and what we’ve learned.
The most important thing when you’re building a product is understanding that people are not going to use it the way you intended to design it, right. Or the way you intended people to use it or go through it.
So just seeing the organic movement of users on our platform that’s has taught us a lot.
Now it’s gonna be the next step. It’s the public launch, trying to get to that 10 to 15K, monthly, in GMV at least. And introducing, we actually have two new revenue streams coming up. So introducing those as well, which are going bring up our MRR a lot higher than it currently is.
The last question will throw you what’s three books. Have you read that has changed your way of thinking?
Yeah. Well, the two basic ones are ’48 laws of power’ and ‘Thinking fast and slow’. Those were really great books. I think everybody can.
And then the last one is called ‘The drama of the gifted child’. That not many people know about. But it’s actually a deep psychology book. It’s about essentially your childhood traumas. Why is your personality the way it is? Why are you assertive? Why are you confident? Why are you a people pleaser? Why are you, you know, aggressive, whatever it is. And so just like it really it comes, from a psychologist who believes that everything, or all the trauma or all of our personalities just comes from the first couple of years of childhood.
And how your parents were during your childhood times. And so it just, it’s a, it’s a big reflection book on your personality, on who you are. What’s your, you know, what’s your leadership type. It doesn’t talk really about leadership, but that’s how I relate it to it. As, a founder, it taught me a lot about. Why I do the things I do. Why I try to please some people. Why I don’t try to please some people and how I should be treating my team, how I should be treating myself, how I should be treating my members. So it was just a lot of good, healthy reflection, you know, that I needed it as a founder.
There’s self-love in as well.
So Rand thank you for being here and sharing with us your journey. And that’s a wrap for us.
Awesome. It’s been a pleasure folks.