Gama, a small town in Brazil’s central scrubland, was not the most obvious place for a budding computer scientist to grow up but Marco Gomes did not let that put him off.At the age of 11, he built a computer using discarded parts from old desktops and taught himself how to write code. By 12, he was selling his services as one of Gama’s few website developers, creating designs for everyone from the owner of the local hardware shop to a language school.
The son of an evangelical pastor and a wedding photographer, Mr Gomes has made it to the forefront of Brazil’s social media scene. His company, boo-box, displays 1bn advertisements for clients every month across 500,000 blogs and other social media sites, and claims to reach about six in 10 internet users in Brazil.
Mr Gomes no longer works from his bedroom but from a trendy office in one of São Paulo’s upmarket business districts, complete with Google-esque relaxation areas.
“Even though we’re still small – there are about 40 people here – we are able to compete on an equal footing with the likes of Facebook and Google,” says Mr Gomes, who has just turned 28.
He received an initial investment of $300,000 from Monashees Capital, the Brazilian venture capital fund, in 2007. Intel Capital bought an undisclosed stake in the company in 2010. In 2012, boo-box was ranked by Fast Company, the business and technology magazine, as the second-most innovative company in Brazil.
Over the past few years, the country has become a fertile ground for social media businesses.
A surge in smartphone ownership among the new middle classes has helped create one of the top markets in the world for Facebook and Twitter, according to those companies.
Mass protests last year – largely organised via Facebook – highlighted the importance of social media.
For Mr Gomes, however, it was one statistic in particular that caught his attention at the age of 20 and led him to create boo-box.
“It was 2006 and the internet was taking up an ever bigger part of people’s leisure time – about 60 per cent,” he says, reeling off statistics at a rapid pace.
“However, investment in online advertising was only 3.8 per cent [of total advertising] … and it was all in web portals, which weren’t as popular with our generation.
“Now, our generation had no money. We weren’t economically active, but it was only a matter of time. So you had 60 per cent of leisure time consumed by the internet, with only 3.8 per cent of total advertising, and this 3.8 per cent was in the wrong place.”
With an almost evangelical conviction in these numbers, Mr Gomes quit university in 2006 to set up the country’s first technology company to specialise in social media advertising.
Boo-box has more than 1,500 clients – ranging from the country’s biggest banks to pet shops – which rely on the company to help them reach potential customers across hundreds of the country’s most popular blogs.
The key to its success has been the technology it uses to target these customers: behavioural targeting. This tracks which of the company’s participating blogs and social media sites a user has visited. “We focus on the individual rather than the website,” says Mr Gomes.
For example, if a carmaker wants to advertise its seven-seater SUV, boo-box would not simply publish the advert on a blog for cars, but publish it for users whose browsing history indicates they might be looking for a larger car.
For Marcelo Nakagawa, professor of entrepreneurship at Insper, a São Paulo-based business school, this has been the key to boo-box’s success. “No one else in Brazil has anything similar to the technology it uses, nor the database of consumer behaviour it has gathered, so it really is a pioneer in this respect.”
While boo-box faces tough competition from large players such as Google and Facebook, it has carved out a niche in Brazil by focusing on smaller blogs, giving it access to richer data on consumer preferences, he says.
However, the next challenge for the company will be finding a way to compete in the fast-growing market for mobile phone and tablet apps, says Mr Nakagawa.
The company does not disclose its profits, but according to the most recent market estimates, it generated R$11m ($5m) in revenues in 2012.
Getting rich was never Mr Gomes’s intention, he insists. Instead, he sees his business as a way of providing Brazil’s bloggers with a sustainable funding model.
“From the very beginning, boo-box was created to develop and finance independent media in Brazil,” he says. As well as providing bloggers with a way of making money from their sites, boo-box offers training courses to help them write better.
Last year’s protests in Brazil proved the need for more independent journalism, he says, pointing out that it was often bloggers, rather than mainstream media, who captured what was really going on in the streets.