"The truth is, my story is not a traditional one." That’s how serial entrepreneur and reformed drug addict Marco Broccardo sums up his unconventional background.

Broccardo is the 38-year-old CEO and founder of Colony Live, a data analytics platform for radio stations that he started in SA and recently took to the US — a nation with 16,000 radio stations.

The company’s platform lets stations aggregate text messages, e-mails, and social media interactions from listeners onto a single messaging dashboard, while at the same time tracking and analysing this data to provide useful insights.

With early backing from Johannesburg-based Tritech Media, the company started off in 2015 with a fairly rudimentary offering in SA: it provided stations and brands with a platform that facilitated basic SMS communication.

"Over time we realised that there was value in the data and the conversations that we’d been collecting on behalf of our clients and that no-one else was providing this service," says Broccardo, who has no formal tertiary training.

After making his mark in SA, Broccardo moved to Austin, Texas, where he opened the company’s first US office in early 2018. The southern state is home to the most radio stations in the US, he says, while living costs in Austin are relatively low even though the city is becoming a major technology hub. Philadelphia’s More FM and Seattle’s Star FM are the first US stations to have signed with Colony Live.

Nine more will go live towards the end of July.

With no radio analytics platforms at the time, the US radio industry was ripe for a shake-up, he says. Technology companies abandoned it long ago on the premise that "radio was doomed to fail".

"So no innovation happened, but now that we see that traditional media is not dying the way everyone predicted, that puts us in prime position."

The son of Italian immigrants who met each other in SA, Broccardo is frank about his turbulent past.

His parents provided "a secure environment for me and my two older sisters to grow up in", though his father, a restaurateur, worked demanding hours.

And as his sisters were much older, "I spent the majority of my early childhood in my own head" — something which seeded his imagination and, ultimately, his entrepreneurial drive.

But Broccardo, a mountaineer and author, says his "extremely vivid imagination" steered him into some dark times as a teenager and into substance abuse.

"The truth is, my story made me into what I am today. The years that I spent addicted to substances like crack cocaine and heroin, and the pain and suffering that it caused, is inextricably linked to my story as an entrepreneur. To avoid it would be a denial of self."

He attributes his success in business to his desire to be able to help people in the grip of addiction. He does this through a nonprofit organisation he founded, Mountain Heights.

Colony Live generated turnover of R35m in its most recent financial year, and Broccardo sees a long road ahead. His company wants to build its presence in the US before taking that model to other markets.

Colony Live is a finalist in the 2018 FNB Business Innovation Awards.