Like Kanye West but hate Chipotle? Start-up Ranker helps brands tailor ads for you

If Fox Searchlight Pictures wants to increase attendance at its new film “Jackie,” it might consider pitching fans of "True Detective,” “The Hunger Games” and Keira Knightley.

So says Ranker, a Los Angeles start-up that gets more than 10 million votes on its website each month about what's cool in Hollywood, sports, music, gaming and politics. Ranker’s tracking shows that people who rank “Jackie” star Natalie Portman as a great actress tend to also hold in high regard the popular HBO show, the teenage film franchise and English actress Knightley.

The company is just starting to make data about such correlations available to the public, leaving uncertainty about whether customers will use the service the way it envisions. But Ranker is trying to land lucrative contracts to sell the data to entertainment companies, talent agencies and advertisers. The hope is that seeing how pop culture fandoms intersect will help Hollywood studios and other firms cast, develop and market productions. Less extensive Ranker data is free.

The information business would become a second major source of revenue for Ranker. The 7-year-old company said it attracted a record 36 million readers in November. Typically arriving from Facebook or Google, readers can scan through more 100,000 lists such as Best Actresses Working Today and Best TV Shows of the Last 20 Years. Ranker’s editorial team offers an initial ranking but anyone can vote anytime without having to log in, making the lists a sort of living document.

Ranker sells ads on its website, bringing in annual revenue in the low eight figures and multimillion-dollar profits before taxes and other expenses. It declined to provide exact figures on the record.

The fast-growing ad business has prompted companies to express interest in acquiring Ranker. But Chief Executive Clark Benson said he won’t decide whether to sell or raise additional venture capital at least until he gets an early sense of the new data initiative’s performance. He also wants to launch a mobile app and test voting formats beside a list.

“Next year would be the time to nail down the big-picture strategy,” Benson said.

He started working on Ranker about a year after selling ECrush, a social media dating service, to Hearst in late 2006. Benson had enjoyed rankings since his early childhood in the 1970s, saying he’d read books of lists “10 times cover to cover.”

But in the Internet age, he questioned why lists still were just one person or one publication’s opinion.

“Our bread and butter is crowd-sourced rankings,” Benson said. “We can poll everything Gallup is never going to poll.”

Ranker doesn’t have personal details like the names or email addresses for all of its users — a demerit on the score sheet of potential partners. But it can use cookies and other Web-tracking tools to monitor how someone who ranks Kanye West highly on one list gives Chipotle a low ranking on another. Ranker could sell its tracking information to advertisers, allowing them to market online to narrow groups (West supporters, for example).

The links between celebrities, movies, brands and other elements of the world are what Ranker’s Chief Data Scientist Ravi Iyer expects will be valuable. Social media apps including Facebook and Twitter offer similar data. But Iyer says they can’t match Ranker’s precision.

Someone might like 10 actors’ pages on Facebook. Ranker gets more detail by parsing out people’s thoughts on personality, talent, looks and hundreds more categories. Since people can move entries down the rankings, Ranker also gathers negative sentiments in a way that few services do.

If the data venture doesn’t work out, Ranker has other options to diversify revenue. Undisclosed companies have commissioned Ranker to make lists tied to their products, and some have shown interest in Ranker data informing content recommendations in their software, Benson said. But those aren’t yet areas of focus.

Investors have given Ranker $7.5 million, including Benson’s initial stake. Other investors are Draper Associates, TenOneTen Ventures, Rincon Venture Partners and Lowercase Capital.

Pepperdine seeks student entrepreneurs for new program

Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management plans to launch a program designed to help students open and grow their own companies while pursuing a master’s degree in entrepreneurship.

The Peate Institute expects to provide student entrepreneurs with space, mentorship, networking opportunities and potentially direct financing from the school. Starting in fall 2018, 15 students annually would get full scholarships for the one-year program.

The initiative at the Malibu university is funded by a multimillion-dollar, multiyear donation from Dan and Coco Peate. 

Dan Peate has been making venture capital investments for several years. His portfolio includes health company Cardiac Direct  and mobile game maker Seismic Games. In 2013, Peate co-founded Agoura Hills health insurance start-up Hixme. 

Peate and Pepperdine will begin working on setting up the curriculum immediately. A Pepperdine spokesperson said Peate picked the university as a partner for several reasons, including its Christian mission and his prior friendship with Associate Dean John Paglia.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies picks up $32 million

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is taking an unusual approach in its attempt to develop a high-speed transportation system.

The Los Angeles company has few full-time employees, instead relying on a network of partners and volunteers — some paid through stock grants — to piece together the technology. But HTT’s approach isn’t entirely untraditional. The company announced last week that it had raised nearly $32 million in venture capital investments to fund its efforts.

The financing is led by EdgeWater Investements, a year-old firm with funds in U.S. and Chinese currency whose website says it has stakes in data analysis tools maker Palantir and other tech and health companies.

HTT says more than 600 people have assisted its efforts.

Elsewhere on the Web

The Guardian looks at how the rise of the tech community has affected Venice’s black population.

Snap investors aren’t selling any shares ahead of the company’s expected initial public offering, which probably will boost demand when the shares start trading publicly, according to the Information.

In case you missed it

GoPro is getting out of the entertainment business.

Coming up

Soylent Chief Executive Rob Rhinehart is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday on charges of unpermitted construction and other violations tied to a shipping container he hoped to use as a home.

Rhinehart, who faces up to two years in jail for placing the giant metal structure on Montecito Heights land he owns, is likely to receive a lesser penalty for pleading guilty. The arraignment was postponed in September to allow city inspectors time to verify that Rhinehart had fully complied with removal orders. Rhinehart’s Los Angeles company sells meal replacement beverages, but has run into trouble recently with consumers sickened by some ingredients.

paresh.dave@latimes.com

Twitter: @peard33

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