Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Bant Breen and I am the Founder of Qnary, an award-winning executive reputation management and talent branding solutions company.
Our flagship product is a tech-enabled solution that optimizes an executive’s online presence, generates thought-leadership content for that executive, and grows followers and engagement with that executive’s content and profiles.
I started the business in 2012 and we now have thousands of executive and enterprise clients that utilize the core solution with offices in New York, Barcelona and Sydney.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I was the CEO of an international paid search and social media agency that was part of a much larger advertising holding company. My agency had Fortune 500 clients and utilized the leading tech tools available in the market to optimize and manage their brands. I saw an opportunity in that pretty much all the tools being offered to optimize online presence was designed for brands. There really wasn’t anything out there to help individuals accomplish the same thing. So, I set out to build a platform focused specifically on assisting individual executives with online search and social media optimization.
I left my agency job and spent several months writing my initial business plan. During the drafting process, I sat with several friends that were experts in SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and PII (Personally Identifiable Information) to challenge my hypothesis and blueprint. The business plan editing was brutal and I will be forever grateful that my friends did not go easy on me. I came up with the name Qnary based on the bird. I saw the Company as providing a canary in the coal mine-type service where we would identify issues and help executives address them proactively.
With the fully fleshed out business plan and a detailed wireframe, I started to raise money. My initial fundraising, for our prototype, went very smoothly, but then I quickly realized that building the tech and creating a market was very challenging. So, I went very quickly from “This is easy” to “This is a challenge.”
Raising money or free usage of your solution is really just the starting line. Success is building a business that generates revenue and EBITDA.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I hired a group of offshore developers to help code the initial prototype based on a blueprint that I’d mapped out. The initial MVP (minimal viable product) was extremely rough and messy. I started with grandiose plans and the developers partially executed elements of all of them but did not deliver a cohesive whole. I don’t think the MVP ever fully worked when we went to raise an additional allotment of investment needed to build out the next phase of the platform. To get around the MVP’s shortcomings I only demoed one part of the solution related to generating a rules-based engine structured scan of someone’s LinkedIn profile.
The buggy MVP led several early-stage investors to pass on the project. However, when I curtailed the platform demo in the investor presentations and showed interactive screens of the desired functionality instead we finally raised the money needed for a 1.0 version of the platform.
I used the seed funding to hire a couple of the key members of the team Mark Pilatowski and Ray Carbonell and found another offshore development group to realize the vision. Qnary 1.0 was significantly better than the MVP. While the design was a bit messy and certainly not what we ideally hoped for the rules-based optimization steps worked.
We initially made the beta product available to students at NYU via the career center and then slowly opened it up publicly online. The initial freemium business model offered social media and search optimization recommendations at no cost. We had a lot of college kids that signed up and used the product to cleanse their social media accounts before job interviews. During this free stage, we had about 30K users. However, when we began to charge for access only a handful stayed and agreed to pay.
At this point, it was clear our hope of just opening the doors to the web was not going to lead us to success. Because I’d come from the world of digital advertising I still had several close friends in the industry. I shared our product with the digital media guru Bonin Bough when he was the Chief Digital Officer at Mondelez and he asked how much it would cost to set up his whole team on the platform?
I raced home and drafted a new business model targeted at delivering online executive optimization for a monthly subscription fee. While the product and features have evolved we still offer a monthly subscription-based B2B business model.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I don’t think we ever formally had a launch event for Qnary. That being said we did just about everything else one can imagine generating buzz for the solution. I spoke regularly at conferences, wrote articles and blogs, and spoke on television. We built a web and social media presence for the company. And we had monthly tutorial salons about the product and why people needed it at our office. We hustled ridiculously hard for new clients and attended client speed dating events, participated in newco pitch contests, and kept iterating on the product and solution.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The single most important change to our platform was the development of the Qnary mobile app in our third year. We created the app to make it easier for clients to approve content and react to key optimization notifications. Clients loved it and our pitch to close timing dropped considerably.
I was on a new business trip to Chicago with our head of sales and we demoed the mobile app for the first time with prospects. After closing our seventh large enterprise deal in one day we called back to the New York office to let them know that the mobile app was a game-changer. The Company has doubled in size and sales every year since the mobile apps’ introduction.
Always try to see things from the other person’s perspective. Having this type of empathy makes it easier to come up with solutions that work for everyone.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
2020 started out extremely well for Qnary. We doubled our sales month over month in January and February and then COVID-19 hit us. The uncertainty of the macro health and economic solution impacted our numbers in the second half of March and the first half of April. We saw about 20% of our clients “pause” their solutions.
That being said, from mid-April 2020 until today things have turned around dramatically. We developed a new product designed for job-seekers looking for their next opportunity and that has done well. Many of the clients that had paused are now back. We are almost tracking on-plan which would see us double our revenue for the third straight year and maintain profitability.
The other key metrics outside of sales that we monitor is client retention and engagement. Over 95% of our clients use the app or platform once a week. Retention of clients hovers around 90% on an annual basis. We believe the world has shifted even more online and executives' online presence matters more now than ever.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
At one point, we were on the verge of closing a round of funding. In our eyes, it was a done deal. But then the VC decided at the 11th hour to hold off. We found ourselves in an unexpected cash shortage. Fortunately, we were able to meet payroll. The lesson for us was to never again let ourselves be dependent on the whims of a single investor or VC.
Also, don’t equate raising money or free usage of your solution with success. That’s really just the starting line. Success is building a business that generates revenue and EBITDA.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We utilize a wide variety of tools for the business but the central ones are as follows. Zoho is a CRM platform and it plays a critical role in tethering business development activities with the successful management and growth and engagement teams.
On the business development side of things, we use a wide variety of systems and tools for targeting but one of the best to date is DiscoverOrg.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte, which was published in the mid-90s, opened my eyes to what digital tech would mean for the world and led me to my career.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The ultimate key, of course, is to generate results for clients, but the key to making everything happen is perseverance. Many startups just expect things to happen. For example, they land a project and expect that it will develop into a much bigger relationship. At Qnary, we developed a culture committed to performance. There are times when you need to assess the mission. Once a year, our entire team sits down and addresses the question of whether we are still on the right path.
I’ve learned a lot of lessons but another important one is to always try to see things from the other person’s perspective. Having this type of empathy makes it easier to come up with solutions that work for everyone.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always looking for amazing people to work with at Qnary. Take a look at our website to see some of the positions available at the moment.
Where can we go to learn more?
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