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Startup scours Facebook and Twitter to generate sales leads

Tech startup needls measures purchase intent based on social media impressions and delivers those real-time leads to their small business clients. The proverbial needle in the Twitter haystack.

Facebook users know the drill. You're looking for a good contractor to fix up the bathroom or a new family doctor in the area where you're moving, so you open your newsfeed and plug in your request details. Within minutes, your friends have chimed in with at least half a dozen suggestions.

Whether you go with their suggestions or not, trust plays a significant role in how likely you are to close the deal: HubSpot notes that people are 71 per cent more inclined to make a purchase based on social media referrals.

Corporations already know this. That's why big businesses pay up to $100,000 per month to monitor social media for sentiment analysis, qualitative information that measures how the public feels about a product or brand based on social media impressions and keywords.

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As usual, it's the mom-and-pop shops without the hefty marketing budget that get shut out of the playing field.

With so much uncharted potential for connecting small and medium enterprises with social media users, Justin Hartzman and his long-time business partners, Michael Koral, and Jeremy Poriah, decided to stake their flag in the ground.

The trio, who made their mark in the web development brokerage business – the selling of online companies to investors and fortune companies – was on the lookout for a business to purchase. When they failed to find one after two years of searching, they decided to create one for themselves.

"Our biggest problem in our development firm was where do we get our next leads from? Traditional sources just weren't working for us anymore. They weren't as measurable as we wanted them to be and we found the competition too high in the space where we really wanted to get at [clients]," Mr. Hartzman says from his Toronto office.

The result is needls, a tech startup that measures purchase intent based on social media impressions and delivers those real-time leads to their small business clients. The proverbial needle in the Twitter haystack.

"Our whole goal is do what you do best: sell yourself, sell your product, service your clients and let us fill your pipeline with more leads to do what you're good at," Mr. Hartzman says, noting there are more than 25 million entrepreneurs and small businesses in North America looking to grow their market.

Like many startup light-bulb moments, the idea came from Mr. Hartzman's own trusted source: his wife.

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"She said to me one day, 'Hey Justin, did you see your friend from high school wants to build an iPhone app?' No, I didn't. I'm busy at work. But I reached out to him and there was an instant comfort – kind of like when you go on a date and there's a little more comfort if the date is a friend of a friend – so the close was easy."

Mr. Hartzman took his idea to Mr. Poriah and Mr. Koral, who originally met as six-year-olds at Camp Kadima in Halifax, and they spent the next year in an intense development period funded by the sale of their previous company.

They created a two-tiered payment model: For $69.95 per month clients receive unlimited leads. For $89.95 the leads come with a few additional features, like the ability to service multiple cities instead of one home location.

In late 2014, the team tested the waters with a few soft launches.

"In our first 72 hours, we had over 300 paying customers. We went, 'Oh my goodness, how do we support these people and how do we keep them?' We shut down and only opened up for small pockets of time. It was four of us that went to a team of 15 almost overnight because we needed the support staff to keep up with it," Mr. Hartzman recalls.

By mid-March they went live. Fifteen hundred clients in less than two months and the team feels they're onto something.

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In fact, 50 per cent of their clientele already comes from the U.S., a traditionally tough nut to crack for any emerging Canadian startup.

A big part of that success comes from cultural accessibility. Americans are big online sharers and like a good bargain. For needls, it's the ideal setup: Their proprietary technology works by mining public social media pages – anything from Facebook and Twitter to Instagram and LinkedIn – for words that may be relevant to their clients' businesses.

Some queries are straightforward. If someone is looking for a plumber and asks, "Does anyone know a plumber in the north Calgary area?" it's easy for needls to bring that information to their plumber clients in north Calgary.

But the way people interact online doesn't always read so clearly, and that's where the partners have tried to shake up existing strategies from the back end.

"Purchase intent is easy when someone says 'I need a… I want a … Can you recommend a…' but people are asking a lot more than that. They're saying 'My pipes just froze, what the heck do I do?' We're learning that language and we're building an entire library of algorithms around it," Mr. Hartzman says, adding the Canadian government has given them an $85,000 contribution toward their IP in order to build jobs.

They're also learning how to deliver business leads to their clients without stepping over boundary issues. Needls can only access public profiles, which limits their Facebook numbers, but finds a comfortable home among the Twitterati.

Social media fans who don't want to make their profiles public can install an app that allows needls to mine their feeds for relevant keywords.

"We get what they've allowed us to get based on client privacy settings," he says, "so we don't have to play with that or worry about it because they've dictated that to us."

Like all self-regulated systems, however, Mr. Hartzman's clients receive a set of rules about proper etiquette. If a lead comes from Facebook, for example, initial communication must take place through that channel.

"You have a significantly higher chance of closing that lead by contacting the customer on the medium in which they posted it. Think about it. You post something looking for a dentist on Facebook and, it can be as quickly as a second later, someone calls you on your phone and says, 'Hey, I'm a dentist!' It's a little creepy. We take the full creep factor away from that."

While the idea of a small business reading your online thoughts may feel a little too 'Minority Report' for some, those who are comfortable living in a semi-public way are gladly shifting toward the convenience a service like needls can afford.

Perhaps a more pressing issue, at least for these next generation customers, will be fending off the excess pile of small-business suitors that show up at the door with a bouquet of flowers and a limited time offer.

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