Dragos Ilinca is the CMO and cofounder of UberVU, a social media intelligence company with bases in London, Bucharest, and the USA. Dragos began our interview by describing the genesis of UberVU as it evolved out of a web-marketing consultancy into a social media posting platform, into a social media monitoring tool, into its current form as a social media dashboard with social media intelligence.
In your opinion, what is the most difficult part of getting a startup off the ground? Is it getting funding, working together as a team, is it actually developing the product, or something else? Or is it everything in combination?
I think it’s everything in combination. It all comes down to building a product that people want because I think everything falls into place from that. Of course in order to build that product, you need a team. We were lucky because we had known each other for a lot of years, we had started other businesses together, but I look around and a lot of people are looking for co-founders and I think that’s really, really hard, finding someone to start a business with. And once you do that, its about just building something that people want—even if it’s a minimal sort of version—because if you do that, raising money shouldn’t be difficult. If you manage to build that product, that kind of means you’ve got a team, and if you’ve got that team and product, raising money should come pretty easily. So in our case, I think it was definitely figuring out what product to build, but I see a lot of entrepreneurs who are starting with building a team, especially in places like London where developers have so many options to choose from. They could work for, you know, the finance industry, or an already-established startup, and if you’re just starting out it’s difficult to get talented people to join you.
Perhaps it’s too early to ask this question, but in terms of your experience working with social media, how do you adapt? How do you know when to stay your course with your vision for developing a product, and how do you know when to pivot? The social media world is constantly changing, so how do you adjust for that?
I don’t think there’s an easy answer to it, but it kind of comes down to traction. If nobody likes your product or buys it, you need to do something about it. If you have a few people who really, really love it, then you need to understand who those people are and why they love it, and if there’s an easy way to reach more of them, that’s your whole market. And if you’re happy with that that’s fine, but if you need a way larger market, you can potentially work with them and figure out what a dumbed-down version of that product is. I think the most difficult thing is actually making the decision. I think deep down you kind of know when things aren’t really going well, and you can stick around for three months, maybe another six months and see: make a plan, and just say we’ve got this deadline and if things don’t pick up we need to do something about it. But I think people deep down kind of know, but they’re just afraid to make a decision. You need to be able to say, “What we’ve done so far, yeah, it’s a lot of effort, but in the end, people aren’t really paying attention to us and aren’t buying the product, so tough luck. We need to start all over again.”
UberVU strikes me as a pretty advanced mechanism, integrating social media and media monitoring. Do you think the days of simplicity in application development are over? In other words, do you think the skill-level required to produce groundbreaking apps will only become higher as times goes on?
Probably. That’s probably true. Because we’re a business tool, so from that point of view, we need a lot of technology to do what we do. But look at something like Instagram, for example: there’s not a lot of technology in there. If you think of technology just in terms of code, you know, other people can build that kind of stuff in a weekend. If you think of technology as also the mechanism by which they’ve been able to build viral coefficients in it so that it spreads and that kind of stuff, then that’s very difficult to replicate by other people. So I think if you’re building consumer apps—if you know what you’re doing—you can still get away with not having a highly technical solution. But even so, if you look at Colour, they’ve got pretty hardcore technology in there, and it’s just a photo app, more or less. So even these things are becoming more and more complex, and I think the reason is that you can do so much more now with the technology and the stuff that would have been impossible to do in real time is now possible, so you can build a lot better experiences for the user; and the second thing is there are so many people looking at the tech space, that if you build something that can be replicated within a week, and you’ve got absolutely nothing else that can make you succeed, then it’s just not worth it, because other people will copy you ASAP. Just look at Groupon as an example. A lot of people think it’s the technology and they built that in a weekend and there are hundreds of clones; but actually the difficult part is the sales behind it, selling to small businesses and being able to scale and that kind of stuff. So if you think about that as sales, not really technology, but technique and strategy, then it’s very difficult to replicate it. In terms of actual code, some people can probably build that in a day. But it’s not that that makes it work.
Since you’re the CMO, I wanted to ask a marketing related question. Since uberVU and so many applications are so heavily grounded in the online world, how important is actual person-to-person interaction in marketing?
I think it’s still important to have the in-person interaction. Not all the time; we started selling online with credit card, so it wasn’t necessary to meet anyone at that point. You could, you know, make the product and the company look more human by having photos of the members of the team on the website, having a video where you present certain stuff, having a blog that’s very human, but now that we’re moving more into the enterprise space and we’re starting to get customers like NBC or the World Bank, for these sort of things it looks like it’s pretty important to meet face to face, and if you cannot do that, at least have a few phone calls. I think the higher price you charge for what you do, the more you need that sort of relationship. And it’s not just because of the person-to-person interaction; usually if you’re charging a lot of money, the solution that you’re selling, you need to really understand the customer’s use case and be able to show them how the product is really going to make an impact. And these solutions are usually pretty complex, so it’s not like a photo sharing app: you take a picture, you share it with your friends, pretty easy to understand. It can be pretty hard to articulate just from a website and understand exactly how that could be used in your organization, and understand how easy it is to use even though it’s got this breadth of features. It’s hard to make the jump from, ok I see this demo video, how could I use it for my specific use case? It’s very difficult to understand that. And people just don’t have the time and don’t want to take the effort, so instead of researching that tool for 30 minutes and not understanding, it’s sometimes more useful to say, ok let’s just have a 30 minute phone call, you’ll tell me about it and I can explain really easily how we can help or how we won’t be able to help and you’ll probably need some other tools.