SimplySocial’s Global Launch
Entrepreneurs harness social media for business
Photo courtesy of SimplySocial
Alaska-based software start-up SimplySocial’s founders, from left, Tyler Arnold, Jeroen Erne and Valentin Bora in Union Square, Timisoara, Romania.
The ubiquitous nature of social media has made it a juggernaut in the realm of business promotion. With a reported 750 million unique monthly visitors on Facebook, 250 million on Twitter, and 110 million on LinkedIn, what was once touted as an easy way to keep in touch with far-flung relatives and college pals has become the proverbial “low-hanging fruit” for businesses both big and small who wish to reach a large audience.
But as many a social media user can attest, the pervasiveness of social media makes it a double-edged sword: If used properly, sites like Facebook and Twitter can help a business or an individual build social authority, establishing them as experts in their fields. Used carelessly, however, an off-the-cuff tweet blurted in a moment of frustration can amount to political suicide, a humorous photo can destroy jobs and cyber-friendships and the over-posting of useless or personal information on a Facebook business page can cause a fan to “unlike” your page, stunting your potential to reach many customers through that one connection.
Despite the inherent risks of using social media, today’s businesspeople cannot deny its merit—but many business professionals are just too busy with deliverables, or they specialize in aspects of business outside of communication, or as many will freely admit, frankly “don’t get” how to maximize their presence through social media. After all, one can be the best interior designer in town (for example), and can compromise their professional reputation by using the wrong homophone (writing “witch” when they meant to write “which”). One doesn’t need to be a linguist in order to decorate a room, but mistakes like these can compromise credibility in the eyes of potential clients. Furthermore, what is an interior designer going to say? “I got another contract today.” “I went to Taco King for lunch.” Is that really going to maximize exposure, or will it bore an audience to death? And who can help with this? Who specializes in social media?
Enter the founding team of SimplySocial (gosimplysocial.com): Tyler Arnold, chief executive officer, from Anchorage; Jerone Erne, chief operating officer, from Zeewolde, Netherlands; and Valentin Bora, chief technology officer, from Timisoara, Romania. Their apparent talents and innovation have attracted the attention—and the investment—of 10 investors, including Nerland Agency CEO Rick Nerland, Swalling & Associates founder Chris Swalling, Wedbush Securities regional manager Allan Johnston and MicroCredit Enterprises guarantor and board member Eric McCallum.
It’s easy to see why these young entrepreneurs have been well-received by the business community: All three men are mature, enthusiastic, articulate, knowledgeable and admit that many of their business decisions have been intuitive in nature, prompting them to take the kinds of risks that would seem daunting to those who have gambled and lost. They have each chartered successful businesses on their own, and have garnered a wealth of collective experience from doing business in their various countries, each with its own set of economic climates and circumstances— and as many a businessperson will attest, their youth is a key asset within their field of expertise.
So what is it that the men of SimplySocial have created that has these savvy investors all abuzz? In plain terms, these men are software developers and marketers who created an efficient and economical way to capture friends, fans—and ultimately—clients, customers or constituents with their unique system.
SimplySocial is “software as a service that provides an easy, step by step strategy on how to be successful with social media,” according to Bora’s blog entry on their website. “Our product is based on a series of simple questions that first asks you some details about your organization, and then helps in creating content (and scheduling it at the right time). Its purpose is to be helpful and provide tips and instructions along the way.”
Who can benefit from using this software? The home page of SimplySocial identifies ways that the software can be of assistance to businesses and enterprises (“A complete social media presence in about 15 minutes a day”), politicians and public figures (“We help politicians and public figures to grow identifiable constituencies”), and advertising agencies (“Our product makes social media profitable”).
A quick tour of the website further clarifies the specifics of what the software will do for a business or agency: “Sharing content, creating coupons, and running promotions through social media has never been this easy. We’ll ask you for specific pieces of content—think fill-in-the-blank simplicity—and format it correctly for each social network. We’ll even analyze the best time to upload posts and post them accordingly.”
The software acknowledges the diversity of settings in which a client can find themselves throughout the day: “Login with any Internet connection or utilize our mobile app to update SimplySocial while out in the field.”
There are even built-in controls for those who fear themselves or their employees falling into the productivity vacuum that can result from spending too much time in social media: “Our application takes you through a linear social media process each day and kicks you out as soon as you’re done. Easy to delegate, hard to mess up.” Upon perusing the site, it becomes apparent that the aptly-named software is simple indeed—simple, and even fun.
When asked about their roles in the founding of the business, their refreshing response is redolent of how a youth might describe action figures: “Bora is the technical guy,” Arnold says, “I am very much the sales and marketing guy, and Erne is like the everything in-between guy.”
And how many “guys” are working for these big three? Their website features short, catchy bios of six employees as well as clever and relevant descriptions of what they do: “Part-time copywriter Matt Akins strives to inform a consistent experience through writing—whether by editing software copy or drafting a design document. His obsessive minimalism ensures strong impact with few words. Favorite Typeface: Calibri.”
In addition to their personable and competent staff, SimplySocial also features information about their ten investors, and Tim Pearson and Terri Adkisson, their two advisers. An appealing blend of business and pleasure, the “About Us” page on the website seems to clearly say, “We may be fun, but we know what we’re doing and we’re not going to waste your time or money.”
How it All Started
Arnold’s interest in technology and business started when he was in high school. Anchorage School District technology teacher and family friend Andy Holleman recommended a book called “The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Friedman.
“He gave me this book and said you’ve got to read it,” Arnold says. “This outsourcing globalization thing is a big deal—if you don’t stay competitive, some Indian is going to be eating your lunch.”
Like many Alaskans, Arnold’s initial sentiment was that he didn’t want anybody else encroaching on opportunities that were his American birthright. “… but by page 50,” he says, “I began to have a positive outlook towards working globally, and understanding that people overseas just want to be able to make a good enough living to get clean water and food, and that this is good for everybody. By page 100, I began to see opportunity.”
For his 16th birthday, Arnold asked his parents for $400 of seed money to start his first technology business doing web development for advertising agencies, outsourcing much of the work to a team in Romania that Arnold had found on an online message board.
Meanwhile, Jerone Erne, a partner in an agency called Joy Group in the Netherlands, had clicked on one of Arnold’s banner ads, resulting in his becoming one of Arnold’s first clients.
“We had started outsourcing things, and I started to look around for someone who could do specific things for my agency,” Erne says. “I clicked on his banner…He built us a new home page, and we gave him lots of business after that.”
After working with Erne, visiting Europe, and traveling with Erne to Romania to meet Bora (touted as the “star technical guru,” of Erne’s past business ventures), the idea for SimplySocial was born.
“I was fed up with the previous kind of business I was doing with consultancy,” Bora says, “and I wanted to give all our focus to something we could get feedback on and then grow over a longer period of time.” It just so happens that Arnold and Erne wanted the same.
After acknowledging their complimentary skill sets and joking about starting a business together, the three agreed to stay alert and to seize the right opportunity to work together, should their chance arise.
The inspiration for the product that these men were to collaborate on was almost as serendipitous as their meeting. “Through our consultancy work, we saw a lot of websites that would say ‘we want a twitter box or a Facebook integration,’ and it would sit there stagnant, not being used,” Erne says.
For Arnold, the need for social media assistance became evermore clear while doing consultant work for Jim’s Equipment Repair in Anchorage. He noticed that the company’s videos of bulldozers and heavy machinery posted to YouTube were getting a very good response. “Apparently there’s a machinist community that is looking in and wants to watch this dozer crawl around,” he says, which is definitely good for business. Yet the process of figuring how to get the heavy equipment videos loaded to YouTube with outdated cameras, computers and difficult software was taking time and energy away from what the employees at Jim’s Equipment Repair did best: heavy equipment repair.
“Here’s someone who goes through the hard work of creating content,” Arnold says. “They’ve got a cool story to share, and they’re losing out on it just because of bad software design. You should be rewarded for creating great content, not punished for not knowing what to do with it.”
True, a company could hire an employee to manage their social media for them, but in order for them to affectively do so, it would require specialized skills and tons of research, which would amount to an investment of about four hours a week—a huge chunk of time—which in Erne’s words would be “ridiculously expensive.”
The three entrepreneurs agreed—businesspeople needed help effectively using social media—so they put their heads together to design a product that would maximize the effectiveness of social media while putting businesspeople in control of content that was of interest to their market.
The Target Market
According to Erne, the market for their product falls into two main categories: Those who are not skilled in social media and those who simply don’t have the time to invest. SimplySocial’s product “makes (social media) more efficient, saves time and gives detailed analytics” to its clients, according to Erne. “The software is of value to each of these groups, but for different reasons,” he says.
And Arnold, an American who lives just about as far from Romania as an American resident can get, delights in the reach of his venture: “It’s not every day that you get to talk to an oilfield services company and you get to look at hiring somebody in Romania within an hour of each other. It’s cool.”
If you can see the value of using this product for your own business, you may have to wait a while. Although a business can go through a proposal and planning stage at any time, the next contracts are set to execute in January 2013—that is, if there are any openings available. SimplySocial started with 50 licenses, but decided to downscale to 25 in order to pay close attention to their mostly high-end clients, some of whom have specific needs. “Maybe marketing writes all the content and someone in PR responds to all the comments,” Arnold says. “We build the social media infrastructure required for an enterprise (or city/state government) to be successful both internally and online. Some companies want newsletters as well as social media maintenance—we can accommodate that.”
Will they add more licenses in January? They are not yet certain, as their priority lies with providing the highest quality product and service.
A Bump in the Road
Though every story has high points and lows, it is SimplySocial’s very enthusiasm for globalization that may be ultimately preventing Bora, an integral partner in the business, from being in Alaska. Though supported by many American investors, Bora has been denied a visa three times.
“One of the issues we heard from a prominent immigration attorney and one of the big reasons behind our denial is that we supported the Start-Up Visa Act, a piece of legislation in consideration in D.C., which would help people like Bora get a green card if he helped create a business that is creating jobs in the United States,” Erne says. “We’ve been told, since we supported this legislation, that they knew about us and saw it is an attempt to immigrate.”
Arnold and Erne are visibly disappointed while describing the circumstances that that prevent a key member of their venture from joining them in the country and state that has supported their burgeoning enterprise.
However, Bora, who is participating in the interview from Romania via Skype, remains hopeful about one day coming to Alaska, and seems somewhat amused at his founding a business in a country that won’t even let him in. “You should see the look on the consulate officers’ faces when I say Alaska: ‘Why do you want to go there?’ Something like that, you know. (And I say) why not? I want to meet these nice people and do business there. I’m sold. But for the time being, I’m just going to be here.”
Arnold remains ever humble about his status as an American citizen, and grateful for the perspective he has gained through his business and travels. “What I loved most about Friedman’s book is a quote: ‘If you don’t go, you don’t know.’ Had I not gone to the Netherlands, and had I not gone with Erne to Romania, then we wouldn’t be here. Sometimes you just have to take those adventures that at the time might not make the most sense, and you can’t quite see the outcome—but it’s something you do, and it feels good.”
Mari Gallion is associate editor at Alaska Business Monthly.