Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Brett Owens and I am the Founder and Chief Matchmaker at Afluencer. We match Brands with the best Influencers to promote their products. And likewise, we help Influencers (from Nano to Micro to Mega), Creators, and Ambassadors find “Collabs”, which are paid gigs being offered by Brands.
Here’s an excerpt from our latest influencer newsletter where we talk about the latest pay-per-post opportunities being offered in our app:
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
When I took my first full-time job at age 21 with General Electric, I quickly realized I needed to start my own company to save my soul. Within a few years, I was able to do that thanks to a college friend who needed a software solution and a talented developer work friend who wanted to build his app.
In 2008 we started Chrometa, an automated timekeeping solution to help my attorney friend keep track of his billable hours by playing “Big Brother” on his work desktop. It was a unique solution for an old-school industry. We struggled to get traction, however, because we didn’t have relationships with existing legal industry software resellers.
To incentivize resellers we needed a referral program that would pay them to refer Chrometa. These guys were making a living referring and installing our competitors. We needed a way that they could make money by referring us.
Being stubborn software guys, we ended up spinning our new referral software (which we built instead of buying) off as its own company. The result was LeadDyno, which took on a life of its own as an affiliate marketing software. We found a niche with the booming e-commerce industry, especially Shopify. Here’s a shot of me and two of my colleagues on the stage at their annual conference:
One year after this photo was taken, in 2019, many prospective LeadDyno customers were clamoring for “influencers!” These were store owners who wanted social media influencers and creators to spread the word about their products.
I hadn’t yet worked on SaaS products for a “new” industry. When we did Chrometa, we had timekeeping competitors that were 30 years old. When we launched LeadDyno we had affiliate platforms that had been around for 15 years that we were trying to displace.
Influencer marketing was (and still is) a new industry that is being figured out as we go.
It’s fascinating because there are no entrenched competitors. We know that brands and merchants are looking for influencers to help them get traffic to their website, and to sell products. But the “rules of engagement” are still being defined, in terms of who does what, and who gets paid what.
So, I started Afluencer to help make connections between brands and influencers (who are also called creators these days).
Take us through getting the app built and off the ground.
In our first year of operation, we didn’t yet have an app. Initially, we had only a half-working website and an email newsletter! So we focused on getting the website working and relied on the emails as a way to stay relevant and engage our future users.
The Design of Our Very First Website (Yikes!)
So we operated as an agency, so to speak. We could have just done nothing and waited for the app to be done. But it was invaluable to try to operate a SaaS company minus the web app because we learned so much about the marketing processes we were striving to help.
I remember my daughters napping in my back seat (they were homeschooling remotely in 2020) and I’m on my phone trying to find an influencer in the Midwest with mom followers who do Jazzercise for a CBD brand.
For example, we learned how important specificity is when it comes to finding influencers. I was working with a CBD brand that wanted to reach fitness-oriented women in the Midwest, age 40 to 50. This business owner knew her market, and it was up to us to be able to find influencers that could reach her ideal buyer.
There’s nothing like being in the market for insight on product development.
In hindsight, it was crazy. I remember my daughters napping in my back seat (they were homeschooling remotely in 2020) and I’m on my phone trying to find an influencer in the Midwest with mom followers who do Jazzercise for a CBD brand. That process was never going to scale without an app, but the exercise was really helpful for us as it showed us what we eventually needed to build.
Describe the process of launching the business and building the two-sided marketplace.
We launched in phases. We have two parts to our network, influencers, and brands. For our first year, we focused on influencer recruitment only. We figured out that they love to be featured! So we’d reach out cold and ask someone if we could write them up on our blog. Many were interested and we didn’t ask for money - we only asked them to register a free influencer account with us.
Once we had a pool of influencers (thousands), we were ready for the brands. So year two, we added brand recruitment. Our same formula worked here. We offered to feature the brands on our website and in our newsletter, which is now mailed to thousands of influencers.
We now have 6,500+ active influencer users and 1,000+ active brand users. We’re always looking for more of course but two-plus years in we have a nice base of users to build around.
Re: financing, this is my third company and I’ve bootstrapped all three. The first one I loaded up the credit cards. Startup two we had three co-founders and we all worked for free for a few years. Startup three it’s just me, and working for free isn’t enough. :) So it is out-of-pocket cash from me to fund the operation.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
SEO has been big. We started creating content from day one and optimizing it for Google as we posted it. It took some time (months) for Google to start giving us organic impressions, but once that started it was no looking back.
Here’s a screenshot for the last three months from Google Search Console. We received 74,300 clicks and 2.42M impressions. And these are free clicks! Of course, we invested upfront, but this is the great thing about SEO, it is the gift that keeps on giving.
As an example, here’s our top-performing article, which teaches people how to recognize fake Instagram accounts. In October 2021, it netted nearly 3,000 organic clicks!
The piece itself features four tips for recognizing fake Instagram accounts. The secret to our SEO success here is two-fold:
- We found a topic with meaningful keyword volume (lots of searches).
- Then we wrote an authoritative piece on the subject.
Once we acquire users, via SEO or otherwise, we engage them with our email newsletters. For our first year, we didn’t have an app yet. We operated as an agency and our newsletter was the “hub” of our information.
Today we have an app (thankfully!) that makes everything we do that much better, that much more scalable. But the email newsletter, which we mail every two weeks, is more important for us today than ever before. Here’s a link to our most recent newsletter.
I’ve been told by partners that they enjoy our newsletters because there’s no fluff. It’s all useful information. We strive hard to make sure we have something meaningful to say.
Email newsletters can be very powerful marketing tools. And you already have the email addresses, plus you’re probably already paying for an email marketing tool… so make sure you write and send more newsletters!
Finally, we just added a big feature in our app itself that is boosting engagement. We added a direct messaging (DM) tool that allows brands and influencers to DM each other. They do it through our app which of course makes it more valuable as they can more easily communicate with others and coordinate their Collabs. And of course any time an app is more “sticky” from a user standpoint that is a good thing for us as SaaS people!
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
YoY growth across the board is starting to pick up as we expand on all fronts. We are growing our influencer users base by about 10% every month, which is awesome. At that rate, we’re doubling our user base every six or seven months.
You’ll naturally think about your startup day, night, and weekends. I would embrace this. It’s how we entrepreneurs figure things out.
Same with brands, growing that user base at about 10% per month. Since we have a network plus an app, our platform becomes more valuable to everyone as we bring on more users.
This is reflected in our revenue growth, which is increasing 100% YoY. Granted we are growing off a modest sales base but that’s always the case. The important thing is to stay ahead of the curve and pave the path for that growth to continue for years. As an early-stage SaaS company, you want to grow 100% YoY for many years and we are set up to do that, which is great.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
We’ve had to learn the mechanics of the influencer marketing market. It’s brand new as I mentioned so there wasn’t a playbook. We are looking to help write the playbook. This has been a challenge, a fun one, but a challenge nonetheless. My previous companies had examples in the industry that we could look to for examples, while here we are figuring things out on the fly.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use MailChimp for our email newsletters. I’ve used Mailchimp for many years, since 2013 or so. It’s a nice product and email newsletters can be a cornerstone marketing piece for your business. They certainly are for us.
And we use our platform, Afluencer, for our influencer Collabs! Over the past 45 days, we have done 25-30 influencer Collabs on Instagram promoting our business. Here are a few recent examples:
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Steve Blank’s The Four Steps to the Epiphany helped me with my first startup. It was an “ah-ha!” moment in product development.
Startup “good enough” product development is not intuitive. It’s the thing most first-timers have the most trouble grasping.
Guy Kawasaki’s The Art of the Start was also helpful for me early on. It’s more of a pep talk but early on, when you’re looking to leap, reading Guy can help get the blood flowing.
In terms of an actual playbook, I think you figure that out on your own as you go. Every startup is different, every product is unique.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
First, quit your day job. Startups are hard enough to pull off, they need to be your sole focus.
Then, you’ll naturally think about your startup day, night, and weekends. I would embrace this. It’s how we entrepreneurs figure things out.
If you bootstrap, don’t use that as an excuse to be cheap. That’s a common mistake I see amongst fellow bootstrappers. “We don’t have the money” is not something your customers or mine care about. Financing is our problem, not theirs.
Win the market, and the spoils will follow. Do what it takes to keep bringing on customers and making your product better and better. Strength to strength!
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Not actively but we always love to hear from talented startup people! Please do reach out.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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