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November 24, 2023 2023 INNOVATORS ISSUE

2023 Innovator: After nine-figure sale of ad tech company, Swanston eyes next big thing as philanthropist, angel investor and serial entrepreneur

PHOTOS | STEVE LASCHEVER André Swanston successfully sold his ad tech company for nine figures. Now he’s planning to invest some of that money in new ventures, including a proposed professional soccer stadium and team in Bridgeport.
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“I had probably as diverse an upbringing as I think anybody could possibly have in America, period,” said André Swanston.

He’s describing his neighborhood in the Bronx, during the 1980s.

“I grew up with a lot of West Indian, Caribbean families. Puerto Rican, Dominican Republic, Colombian, Mexican. I had a lot of friends that were Albanian, Yugoslavian, people that came over from Vietnam, Laos.”

His own parents had emigrated from St. Kitts and Nevis in the West Indies, “the smallest country in the Western Hemisphere,” he said.

One thing his parents always stressed: “Academics was everything,” Swanston said.

Swanston excelled at track and would go on to be a Division I athlete at UConn. “My parents were supportive of sports, but it was not important at all,” he recalls. “Education was mandatory.”

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The other value he remembers being non-negotiable, a concept he now calls “evolution of the family.”

“My dad talked about — we weren’t rich, but he had infinitely more, and was able to provide infinitely more opportunity for me than his dad, who passed when he was 13. So, this mindset of opportunity stuck with me,” Swanston said. “It’s almost like your only real responsibility in life is the evolution of your family.”

If Swanston’s parents provided a kind of “first down” for their kids, moving from poverty to a middle class life in New York, Swanston and his wife Michelle have reached the goal line.

In 2020, the ad tech company they launched and nurtured, Tru Optik, was acquired by TransUnion for more than $100 million.

That’s set the Swanstons up for their new chapter as philanthropists, angel investors and entrepreneurs on an even larger scale.

André Swanston recently made headlines when he unveiled a billion-dollar plan to develop a mixed-use stadium complex in Bridgeport, which he hopes will eventually serve as home base for a Major League Soccer and/or National Women’s Soccer League team.

Thinking ahead

Swanston describes himself as a “power user” of his note-taking app. “I’ve written hundreds of business ideas — like hundreds. And not in one sentence, I mean pages,” he said. ”Anything that I do or see, I think about the business of it.”

And that always-switched-on brain is also very goal-oriented.

“Whether it’s financial, whether it’s professional, personal, everything for me is laser-focused on where I want to be five to ten years from now,” he said.

Initially, Swanston’s path from his modest Bronx neighborhood led, via an accelerated educational program for gifted kids, to a private school on the Upper East Side, and from there to Hotchkiss, the exclusive boarding school in Lakeville, Connecticut.

“The rapport and trust and camaraderie that you build with all these people from different backgrounds is amazing,” he recalls. “A lot of this has shaped my outlook and my ability to fit into multiple different ecosystems and feel comfortable.”

Then came UConn, that Division I spot, a degree in economics, and a very important meeting: with his future wife Michelle — also a track athlete.

Swanston pledged Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest Black intercollegiate fraternity in America. It provided fun, service and community — and a start to his entrepreneurial journey.

“I was the person that coordinated all the fundraiser parties and events for the fraternity,” he said, “booking the DJs and venues and security and insurance. And I was good at it.”

Still at UConn, he started an entertainment company. He opened his first nightclub when he was 23, then in partnership with Michelle, a restaurant in Storrs — Fanatic Sports Bar and Grill.

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As he turned 25, the two got married.

“And then my mom said, ‘you have to get a real job. Right? Restaurant, nightclub? It’s not a real job,’” he recalled.

Taking the leap

Settling down — and listening to his mom — meant a pivot to a much more conventional career in finance. He joined Ameriprise Financial in East Hartford to learn the ropes of wealth management, and after a few years got recruited into JPMorgan Chase.

By this time, the Swanstons had a two-year-old daughter and a newborn son, a situation in which most people would have been delighted to be holding down a good salary at a blue-chip financial firm.

But the entrepreneurial itch — and Swanston’s long-term plan — was still there.

He had been brainstorming with an old buddy from Hotchkiss, Alex Geis, watching the changing technology around TV in the very earliest days of streaming video — way before our now-universal, internet-connected sets.

“I’m seeing everybody streaming on their laptops and their computers, doing more and more media discovery,” Swanston said. “And now you’re saying that the biggest screen in the house may have those types of capabilities in the coming years? I said to myself, ‘whoever can control the data and the insight on how this stuff is distributed is gonna be a billionaire.’”

He told his wife he was quitting JPMorgan Chase and founding a startup, Tru Optik.

Geis, who had studied computer science, became the chief technology officer, while Swanston took on business strategy. As the company grew, it became evident they needed an operations manager, and Michelle Swanston signed up too.

The next few years were, he said, “brutally hard. Mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually. It was way harder than I thought it was going to be.”

“My wife and I had no social life in our thirties. We missed weddings, birthday parties, funerals, baby showers. We were locked in,” he said. “It was this or nothing for us.”

By the time they had 10 employees, they moved the business into a coworking space in Stamford.

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“We were really good at stretching money,” he said. “Neither my co-founder and I paid ourselves. We had employees that probably were getting paid 20, 25 percent of what they could have made elsewhere, but took stock.”

Audience intelligence

In the early days of streaming, everyone in the ecosystem was trying to figure out audience demographics, and therefore the value of their content.

“My co-founder said, ‘the biggest source of streaming data is not Netflix or any of this other stuff. It’s BitTorrent,’” said Swanston, referring to the peer-to-peer, file-sharing technology. “It’s people pirating illegal TV shows and movies all over the world.”

Geis built a system that could connect with and harvest data from computers that were pirating shows.

“And all of a sudden we had the biggest source of data in the world for streaming,” said Swanston. “We literally had audience intelligence on hundreds of millions of people back to what type of device at what IP address.”

They licensed that data to the big media companies for them to play moneyball with their content licensing plans.

Next, they wanted to be taken seriously by the ad companies, so they started to make strategic hires to help them package and market their data.

“Then we had the ad agencies reach out,” he said. “And they said, ‘wait a minute. You’re telling me if somebody likes ‘Suits’ in Milwaukee you can tell us what other TV shows they watch, what movies, what music they listen to, what video games they play?’”


They used their increased credibility and relationships to begin building data collection technology for legitimate streaming apps, and eventually they had the resources to build the final product, which had been planned all along.

It was a marketplace to buy and sell third-party data from more than 80 million homes across the U.S.

“We were there at the beginning of the ecosystem,” Swanston said. “I can honestly say I think we had a significant impact on the growth of streaming in America.”

Chasing capital

Throughout this period, Swanston describes being turned down by — or not even being able to get a meeting with — almost every venture capital firm in Connecticut.

A breakthrough came from Connecticut Innovations, the state’s quasi-public venture arm, and also a couple of angel investors, including Kristi Matus, then an executive at Aetna, and Alex Blum, a Connecticut-based early stage venture capitalist.

Blum said personal relationships are key for him in choosing who to invest with.

“With Andre, I just sensed a wild talent, and someone who was able to be an extremely fast learner,” he said. “His ability to grasp the nuance and detail and essence of the issue relative to what we were trying to do was pretty extraordinary.”

Blum ultimately became executive chairman of Tru Optik.

Matt McCooe, who became CEO at Connecticut Innovations after the investment in Tru Optik, was similarly impressed — and has also nurtured a long-term relationship, including putting Swanston on CI’s board.

“I was excited about him and his energy and his vision for what he was trying to build, and the team that he was assembling,” he said. “I liked him right away.”

The early rejections from the big VCs confirmed for Swanston what the figures suggest. Venture capital is not an even playing field.

In 2022, Black founders raised just 1% of the available VC funding. Startups with diverse teams of any kind raised less than 2%.

Swanston calls that data, “almost so mathematically impossible that it’s crazy.”

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It was a reflection he would tuck away in that notes app for his long-planned next venture.

But first, he and his team had a decision to make with the now wildly successful Tru Optik. Several companies were circling, they had a deal on the table from TransUnion — and then the pandemic hit.

So, would they roll the dice on staying independent, or would they exit?

“I think if we had a war chest, if we had tens of millions of dollars in the bank, we would have taken the shot,” Swanston said.

But he had accomplished what he set out to achieve — a nine-figure exit. And not coming from a legacy of wealth, it was hard to turn down. They sold to TransUnion.

The payoff has allowed the Swanstons both the time and resources to dream.

“This time around, the goal is a lot bigger,” he said.

Diversifying success

In the living room of the Swanston’s Ridgefield home, a painting by Tennessee artist Emery Franklin depicts the heyday of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, one of the most prosperous African-American communities in the early part of the 20th century.

The wealth created there would be destroyed in the Tulsa Massacre of 1921.

The original achievement of that community is an inspiration for what Michelle and André want to create with their new venture, the Swanston Organization.

Its pillars are philanthropy, venture investing and a continuation of their own business ideas.

“I always wanted to be able to have a holding company that could do multiple different things,” he said.

Swanston Family Ventures, the investing arm, is about giving opportunity to others where he sees the biggest gaps.

“I knew that the ability to invest in underrepresented founders was critical. I learned the hard way,” he said.

Meanwhile, Swanston Labs will nurture his own team’s ideas about the future of media and entertainment.

He’s also co-investing with one of his original backers, Connecticut Innovations, where McCooe said the TransUnion sale had more than a few champagne corks popping.

“At that point, it was one of the largest returns CI had ever had from a portfolio company,” he said. “So, we named one of our conference rooms the Swanston Room, as a reminder to everybody who walks in and out, we’re here to serve the founders.”

As you might imagine for a man with a 10-year plan, Swanston is already hard at work on the next big thing. He has a launch announcement imminent around video gaming.

He also sees innovation opportunities in the world of e-commerce, and — going back to his roots in nightclubs and restaurants — in the live entertainment space.

That sparked the professional soccer stadium proposal in Bridgeport.

“People perceive doing something that hasn’t been done before as innovation. But most innovation is improving things that people already do,” he said. “That’s the innovation that really drives the world.”

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