Bradley Silver, co-founder and chief executive officer of Toronto-based Atomic Reach, a content marketing platform linking brands and bloggers, believed that he had a winning idea before starting his business in 2010. The problem was that he had to make others think so, too.
“We were literally in white space. We were inventing in a space that itself was being invented in real time.”
The difficulty with very new concepts is that people don’t know how to think about them. They’re not familiar, there are no comparables or benchmarks against which to assess them, and it’s hard to imagine how they will work in practice.
Mr. Silver knew that his business would only be viable if he could get people to engage with his ideas, but how could he do that when they were so new?
Atomic Reach is Mr. Silver’s third startup. After working in the information technology and marketing industries, he started BrandProtect in 2001, which protected brands by detecting how they were fraudulently represented on the Internet. By 2003, he realized that similar Web-based techniques could be used to monitor references to brands in social media, which led to the founding of his second company, BrandIntel. Its focus on social media was unusual – in fact, the company pre-dated Facebook, Twitter and Youtube.
“We were mostly monitoring engineers in discussion forums,” he laughs But it gave him an understanding of both social media and the challenges facing brands in the online world. By 2010, Mr. Silver had moved out of operations at BrandIntel, where he remains a shareholder, and was ready for a new challenge. He tarted to think about the key concept underlying Atomic Reach: connecting bloggers and brands.
“It was the summer of big trades in basketball,” Mr, Silver recalls, “and I was interested because I knew that it would forever alter the nature of the NBA. I tried to learn about what was happening, and found that it was easy to get facts but much harder to get the context that let me interpret them. So, I went to the blogosphere and was completely overwhelmed. I spent weeks wading through the volume of posts and came across an informal community of bloggers, who shared content and had links to each others’ blogs. I loved it. For me this was more valuable than journalists’ accounts, because they didn’t have to be objective. They could express their thoughts and emotions on what was going on.”
As Mr. Silver thought more about how valuable he found these blogs, he started to think about the potential for linking bloggers and brands together. His vision was to create a platform where bloggers would provide content that would drive users to brand sites, and brand sites would deliver traffic to bloggers.
But, as he puts it, “content curation wasn’t on anybody’s radar.” It was a very new idea and he knew that needed an organized, systematic way to gather information at the same time as he was selling the concept.
Mr. Silver put together a slide deck describing his concept, and drew up a list of 30 players – brand managers, ad agencies, and digital publishers – with whom to talk. “Some were customers of BrandIntel, but others didn’t know me at all. I wanted to engage many different voices early in the process, before writing a single line of code.”
The goal for each meeting was to explore and to validate his ideas. “I wanted to convince people that I had a solution for a problem they recognized. But I knew that they were unlikely to say unconditionally that they’d sign up for it, and so I wanted to get them to specify the conditions under which they would be interested. Asking questions of a variety of people allowed me to see what was consistent in their answers, and provided direction for what we would need to build in terms of a platform.”
As Mr. Silver gathered more responses, he was able to cycle back to people and describe for them what he was planning to build, thereby getting their reactions to an even more concrete proposal.
“There was also an educational aspect to these meetings. “People were very uncertain about social media. They’d say that they needed online product reviews, but they were afraid about what people would say. They’d say that they wanted to use Facebook, but they didn’t know what to post.
“I was able to illustrate how our platform would bypass that. They select which blogs they want to link to. The content isn’t about them, it’s content that entertains or informs their customers, so their customers have a reason to visit their site.”
He gives the example of Genwealth Ventures LP, a venture capital company, which links with bloggers who have content about business startups that is valuable to entrepreneurs.
By engaging potential customers early in the venture-development process, Mr. Silver could learn about what potential customers would value in his product while, at the same time, convince them that it would be an effective tool for their business. This dual focus has given the company strong roots, he believes.
One of the companies he talked with early on, a digital publisher, liked the idea so much that it invested in his business. In just one year, he built a platform, beta tested it, and then launched an operational version.
Over that year, the number of bloggers on the platform has tripled, the client count has doubled and the size of Atomic Reach has doubled to 15 employees.
Mr. Silver has also attracted recognized industry leaders to his board, and has recently received $1.25-million in outside capital to grow the business. One of the investors is that happy customer, Genwealth Ventures.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Becky Reuber is a professor of strategic management in the Rotman School of Management of the University of Toronto.
This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Small Business website.
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